This scene is dedicated to San Francisco's Booksmith, ensconced in the storied Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, just a few doors down from the Ben and Jerry's at the exact corner of Haight and Ashbury. The Booksmith folks really know how to run an author event -- when I lived in San Francisco, I used to go down all the time to hear incredible writers speak (William Gibson was unforgettable). They also produce little baseball-card-style trading cards for each author -- I have two from my own appearances there.
Yasmin didn't see Mala anymore. If you weren't in the gang, "General Robotwallah" didn't want to talk to you.
And Yasmin didn't want to be in the gang.
She, too, had had a visit from Big Sister Nor. The woman had made sense. They did all the work, they made almost none of the money. Not just in games, either -- her parents had spent their whole lives toiling for others, and those others had gotten wealthier and wealthier, and they'd stayed in Dharavi.
Mr Banerjee had paid Mala's army more than any other slum-child could earn, it was true, and they were getting paid for playing their game, which had felt like a miracle -- at first. But the more Yasmin thought about it, the less miraculous it became. Big Sister Nor showed her pictures, in-game, of the workers whose jobs they'd been disrupting. Some had been in Indonesia, some had been in Thailand, some had been in Malaysia, some had been in China. And lots of them had been in India, in Sri Lanka, in Pakistan, and in Bangladesh, where her parents had come from. They looked like her. They looked like her friends.
And they were just trying to earn money, too. They were just trying to help their families, the way Mala's army had. "You don't have to hurt other workers to survive," Big Sister Nor told her. "We can all thrive together."
Day after day, Yasmin had snuck into Mrs Dibyendu's Internet cafe before the Army met -- not at Mrs Dibyendu's, but at a new Internet shop a little further down the road, near the women's papadam collective -- and chatted with Big Sister Nor and listened to her stories of how it could be.
She'd never talked about it with anyone else in the army. As far as they knew, she was Mala's loyal lieutenant, sturdy and dependable. She had to enforce discipline in the ranks, which meant keeping the boys from fighting too much and keeping the girls from ganging up on one another with hissing, whispered rumors. To them, she was a stern, formidable fighter, someone to obey unconditionally in battle. She couldn't approach them to say, "Have you ever thought about fighting for workers instead of fighting against them?"
No matter how much Big Sister Nor wanted her to.
"Yasmin, they listen to you, la, they love you and look up to you. You say it yourself." Her Hindi was strangely accented and peppered with English and Chinese words. But there were lots of funny accents in Dharavi, dialects and languages from across Mother India.
Finally, she agreed to do it. Not to talk to the soldiers, but to talk to Mala, who had been her friend since Yasmin had found her carrying a huge sack of rice home from Mr Bhatt's shop with her little brother, looking lost and scared in the alleys of Dharavi. She and Mala had been inseparable since then, and Yasmin had always been able to tell her anything.
"Good morning, General," she said, falling into step beside Mala as she trekked to the community tap with a water-can in each hand. She took one can from Mala and took her now free hand and gave it a sisterly squeeze.
Mala grinned at her and squeezed back, and the smile was like the old Mala, the Mala from before General Robotwallah had come into being. "Good morning, Lieutenant." Mala was pretty when she smiled, her serious eyes filled with mischief, her square small teeth all on display. When she smiled like this, Yasmin felt like she had a sister.
They talked in low voices as they waited for the tap, passing gupshup about their families. Mala's mother had met a man at Mr Bhatt's factory, a man whose parents had come to Mumbai a generation before, but from the same village. He'd grown up on stories about life in the village, and he could listen to Mala's mamaji tell stories of that promised land all day long. He was gentle and had a big laugh, and Mala approved. Yasmin's Nani, her grandmother, had been in touch with a matchmaker in London, and she was threatening to find Yasmin a husband there, though her parents were having none of it.
Once they had the water, Yasmin helped Mala carry it back to her building, but stopped her before they got there, in the lee of an overhanging chute that workers used to dump bundled cardboard from a second-story factory down to carriers on the ground. The factory hadn't started up yet, so it was quiet now.
"Big Sister Nor asked me to talk to you, Mala."
Mala stiffened and her smile faded. They weren't talking as sisters anymore. The hard look, the General Robotwallah look, was in her eyes. "What did she say to you?"
"The same she said to you, I imagine. That the people we fight against are also workers, like us. Children, like us. That we can live without hurting others. That we can work with them, with workers everywhere --"
Mala held up her hand, the General's command for silence in the war-room. "I've heard it, I've heard it. And what, you think she's right? You want to give it all up and go back to how we were before? Back to school, back to work, back to no money and no food and being afraid all the time?"
Yasmin didn't remember being afraid all the time, and school hadn't been that bad, had it? "Mala," she said, placatingly. "I just wanted to talk about this with you. You've saved us, all of us in the Army, brought us out of misery and into riches and work. But we work and work for Mr Banerjee, for his bosses, and our parents work for bosses, and the children we fight in the game work for bosses, and I just think --" She drew in a breath. "I think I have more in common with the workers than I do with the bosses. That maybe, if we all come together, we can demand a better deal from all of them --"
Mala's eyes blazed. "You want to lead the Army, is that it? You want to take us on this mission of yours to make friends with everyone, to join with them to fight Mr Banerjee and the bosses, Mr Bhatt who owns the factory and the people who own the game? And how will you fight, little Yasmin? Are you going to upset the entire world so that it's finally fair and kind to everyone?"
Yasmin shrank back, but she took a deep breath and looked into the General's terrible eyes. "What's so wrong with kindness, Mala? What's so terrible about surviving without harming other people?"
Mala's lip curled up in a snarl of pure disgust. "Don't you know by now, Yasmin? Haven't you figured it out yet? Look around us!" She waved her water can wildly, nearly clubbing an old woman who was inching past, bearing her own water cans. "Look around! You know that there are people all over the world who have fine cars and fine meals, servants and maids? There are people all over the world who have toilets, Yasmin, and running water, and who get to each have their own bedroom with a fine bed to sleep in! Do you think those people are going to give up their fine beds and their fine houses and cars for you? And if they don't give it up, where will it come from? How many beds and cars are there? Are there enough for all of us? In this world, Yasmin, there just isn't enough. That means that there are going to be losers and winners, just like in any game, and you get to decide if you want to be a winner or a loser."
Yasmin mumbled something under her breath.
"What?" Mala shouted at her. "What are you saying, girl? Speak up so I can hear you!"
"I don't think it's like that. I think we can be kind to other people and that they will be kind to us. I think that we can stick together, like a team, like the army, and we can all work together to make the world a better place."
Mala laughed, but it sounded forced, and Yasmin thought she saw tears starting in her friend's eyes. "You know what happens when you act like that, Yasmin? They find a way to destroy you. To force you to become an animal. Because they're animals. They want to win, and if you offer them your hand, they'll slice off your fingers. You have to be an animal to survive."
Yasmin shook her head, negating everything. "It's not true, Mala! Our neighbors here, they're not animals. They're people. They're good people. We have nothing and yet we all cooperate. We help each other --"
"Oh fine, maybe you can make a little group of friends here, people who would have to look you in the eye if they did you a dirty trick. But it's a big world. Do you think that Big Sister Nor's friends in Singapore, in China, in America, in Russia -- do you think they'll think twice before they destroy you? In Africa, in --" She waved her arm, taking in all the countries she didn't know the names of, filled with teeming masses of predatory workers, ready to take their jobs from them. "Listen: do you really care so much for Chinese and Russians and all those other people? Will you take bread out of your mouth to give it to them? For a bunch of foreigners who wouldn't spit on you if you were on fire?"
Yasmin thought she knew her friend, but this was like nothing she'd ever heard from Mala before. Where had all this Indian patriotism come from? "Mala, it's foreigners who own all the games we're playing. Who cares if they're foreigners? Isn't the fact that they're people enough? Didn't you used to rage about the stupid caste system and say that everyone deserved equality?"
"Deserved!" Mala spat the word out like a curse. "Who cares what you deserve, if you don't get it. Fill your belly with deserve. Sleep on a bed of deserve. See what you get from deserve!"
"So your army is about taking whatever they can get, even if it hurts someone else?"
Mala stood up very straight. "That's right, it's my army, Yasmin. My army! And you're not a part of it anymore. Don't bother coming around again, because, because --"
"Because I'm not your friend or your lieutenant anymore," Yasmin said. "I understand, General Mala Robotwallah. But your army won't last forever and our sisterhood might have, if you'd only valued it more. I'm sorry you are making this decision, General Robotwallah, but it's yours to make. Your karma." She set down the water-can and turned on her heel and started away, back stiff, waiting for Mala to jump on her back and wrestle her into the mud, waiting for her to run up and hug her and beg her for forgiveness. She got to the next corner, a narrow laneway between more plastic recycling factories, and contrived to look back over her shoulder as she turned, pretending to be dodging to avoid a pair of goats being led by an old Tamil man.
Mala was standing tall as a soldier, eyes burning into her, and they transfixed her for a moment, froze her in her tracks, so that she really did have to dodge around the goats. When she looked back again, the General had departed, her skinny arms straining with her water-cans.
Big Sister Nor told her to be understanding.
"She's still your friend," the woman said, her voice emanating from the gigantic robot that stood guard over a group of Webbly gold-farmers who were methodically raiding an old armory, clearing out the zombies and picking up the cash and weapon-drops that appeared every time they ran the dungeon. "She may not know it, but she's on the side of workers. The other side -- the boss's side -- they'll use her services, but they'll never let her into their camp. The best she can hope for is to be a cherished pet, a valuable bit of hired muscle. I don't think she'll stay put for that, do you?"
But it wasn't much comfort. In one morning, Yasmin had lost her best friend and her occupation. She started going to school again, but she'd fallen behind in the work in the six months she'd been away and now the master wanted her to stay back a year and sit with the grade four students, which was embarrassing. She'd always been a good student and it galled her to sit with the younger kids -- and to make things worse, she was tall for her age and towered over them. Gradually, she stopped attending the school.
Her parents were outraged, of course. But they'd been outraged when Yasmin had joined the army, too, and her father had beaten her for ten days running, while she refused to cry, refused to have her will broken. In the end, they'd been won over by her stubbornness. And, of course, by the money she brought home.
Yasmin could handle her parents.
Mrs Dibyendu's Internet Cafe was a sad place now that the Army had moved on. Mala had forced that on Mr Banerjee, and had counted it as a great show of her strength when she prevailed. But Yasmin thought she never would have won the argument if Mrs Dibyendu hadn't been so eager to get rid of the Army.
Yasmin doubted that Mrs Dibyendu had anticipated the effect that the Army's departure would have on her little shop, though. Once the Army had gone, every kid in Dharavi had moved with them -- no one under the age of 30 would set foot in the cafe. No one except Yasmin, who now sat there all day long, fighting for the workers.
"You are very good at this," Justbob told her. She was Big Sister Nor's lieutenant, and her Hindi was terrible, so they got by in a broken English that each could barely understand. Nevertheless, Justbob's play was aggressive and just this side of reckless, utterly fearless, and she screamed out fearsome battle-cries in Tamil and Chinese when she played, which made Yasmin laugh even as the hairs on her arms stood up. Justbob liked to put Yasmin in charge of strategy while she led the armies of defenders from around the world who played on their side, defending workers from people like Mala.
"Thank you," Yasmin said, and dispatched a squadron to feint at the left flank of a twenty-cruiser unit of rusting battle-cars that bristled with bolted-on machine-guns and grenade launchers. She mostly played Mad Max: Autoduel and Civilization these days, avoiding Zombie Mecha and the other games that Mala and her Army ruled in. Autoduel was huge now, linked to a reality TV show in which crazy white people fought each other in the deserts in Australia with killer cars just like the ones in the game.
The opposing army bought the feint, turning in a wide arc to present their forward guns to her zippy little motorcycle scouts who must have looked like easy pickings -- the fast dirt-bikes couldn't support any real arms or armor, so each driver was limited to hand-weapons, mostly Uzis on full auto, spraying steel-jacketed rounds toward the heavily armored snouts of the enemy, who returned withering fire with tripod-mounted machine-guns and grenades.
But as they turned, they rolled into a double-row of mines Yasmin had laid by stealth at the start of the battle, and then, as the cars rocked and slammed into each other and spun out of control, Justbob's dragoons swept in from the left, and their splendid battle-wagon came in from the right -- a lumbering two-storey RV plated with triple-thick armor, pierced with gun-slits for a battery of flame-throwers and automatic ballistic weapons, mostly firing depleted uranium rounds that cut through the enemy cars like butter. It wasn't hard to outrun the battle-wagon, but there was nowhere for the enemy to go, and a few minutes later, all that was left of the enemy were oily petrol fires and horribly mutilated bodies.
Yasmin zoomed out and booted her command-trike around a dune to where the work-party continued to labor, doing their job, excavating a buried city full of feral mutants and harvesting its rich ammo-dumps and art-treasures for the tenth time that day. Yasmin couldn't really talk to them -- they were from somewhere in China called Fujian, and besides, they were busy. They'd left their boss and formed a worker's co-op that split the earnings evenly, but they'd had to go heavily into debt to buy the computers to do it, and from what Yasmin understood, their families could be hurt or even killed if they missed a payment, since they'd had to borrow the money from gangsters.
It would have been nice if they'd had access to a better source of money, but it certainly wouldn't be Yasmin. Her Army money had run out a few weeks after she'd left Mala, and though the IWWWW paid her a little money to guard union shops, it didn't come to much, especially compared to the money Mr Banerjee had to throw around.
At least she wasn't hurting other poor people to survive. The goons she'd just wiped out would get paid even though they'd lost. And she had to admit it: this was fun. There was a real thrill in playing the game, playing it well, getting this army of people to follow her lead to cooperate and become an unstoppable weapon.
Then, Justbob was gone. Not even a hastily typed "gtg," she just wasn't on the end of her mic. And there were crashing sounds, shouts in a language Yasmin didn't speak. Distant screaming.
Yasmin flipped over to Minerva, the social networking site that the Webblies favored, as she did a thousand times a day. Minerva had been developed for gamers, and it had all kinds of nice dashboards that showed you what worlds all your friends were in, what kind of battles they were fighting and so on. It was easy to get lost in Minerva, falling into a clicktrance of screencaps of famous battles, trash-talking between guilds, furious arguments about the best way to run a level -- and the endless rounds of gold-farmer bashing. One thing she loved about Minerva was the auto-translate feature, whose database included all kinds of international gamer shorthands and slangs, knowing that Kekekekeke was Korean for LOL and a million other bits of vital dialects. This made Minerva especially useful for the Webblies' global network of guilds, worker co-ops, locals and clans.
Her dashboard was going crazy. Webblies from all over the world were tweeting about something happening in China, a big strike from a group of gold-farmers who'd walked out on their boss, and were now picketing outside of their factories. Players from all over the world were rushing to a site in Mushroom Kingdom to blockade some sploit that they'd been mining before they walked out. Yasmin hadn't ever played Mushroom Kingdom and she wouldn't be any use there -- you had to know a lot about a world's weapons and physics and player-types before you could do any damage. But judging from the status ticker zipping past, there were plenty of Webblies available on every shard to fill the gap.
She followed the messages as they went by, watched the rallies and the retreats, the victories and defeats, and waited on tenterhooks for the battle to end when the GMs discovered what they were up to and banned everyones' accounts. That was the secret weapon in all these battles: anyone who snitched to the employees of the companies that ran the worlds could destroy both teams, wiping out their accounts and loot in an instant. No one could afford that -- and no one could afford to fight in battles that were so massive that they caught the eye of the GMs, either.
And yet, here were the Webblies, hundreds of them, all risking their accounts and their livelihoods to beat back goons who were trying to break a strike. Yasmin's blood sang -- this was it, this was what Big Sister Nor was always talking about: Solidarity! An injury to one is an injury to all! We're all on the same team -- and we stay together.
There were videos and pictures streaming from the strike, too -- skinny Chinese boys blinking owlishly in the daylight, on busy streets in a distant land, standing with arms linked in front of glass doorways, chanting slogans in Chinese. Passers-by goggled at them, or pointed, or laughed. Mostly they were girls, older than Yasmin, in their late teens and early twenties, very well-dressed, with fashionable haircuts and short skirts and ironed blouses and shining hair. They stared and some of them talked with the boys, who basked in the attention. Yasmin knew about boys and girls and the way they made each other act -- hadn't she seen and used that knowledge when she was Mala's lieutenant?
And now more and more of the girls were joining the boys -- not exactly joining, but crowding around them, standing in clumps, talking amongst themselves. And there were police coming in too, lots of pictures of the police filling in and Yasmin's heart sank. She could see, with her strategist's eye, how the police positions would work in planning a rush at the strikers, shutting off their escape routes, boxing them in and trapping them when the police swept in.
Now the photos slowed, now the videos stopped. Gloved hands reached up and snatched away cameras, covering lenses. The last audiofeed was shouts, angry, scared, hurt --
And now the ticker at the bottom of her screen was going even crazier, messages from the pickets in China about the police rush, and there was a moment of unreality as Yasmin felt that she was reading about an in-game battle again, set in some gameworld modelled on industrial China, a place that seemed as foreign to her as Zombie Mecha or Mad Max. But these were real people, skirmishing with real police, being clubbed with real truncheons. Yasmin's imagination supplied images of people screaming, writhing, trampling each other with all the vividness of one of her games. It was a familiar scene, but instead of zombies, it was young, pale Chinese boys and beautiful, fashionable Chinese girls caught in the crush, falling beneath the truncheons.
And then the messages died away, as everyone on the scene fell silent. The ticker still crawled with other Webblies around the world, someone saying that the Chinese police could shut down all the mobile devices in a city or a local area if they wanted. So maybe the people were still there, still recording and writing it down. Maybe they hadn't all been arrested and taken away.
Yasmin buried her face in her hands and breathed heavily. Mrs Dibyendu shouted something at her, maybe concerned. It was impossible to tell over the song of the blood in her ears and the hammer of the blood in her chest.
Out there, Webblies all over the world were fighting for a better deal for poor people, and what did it matter? How could her solidarity help those people in China? How could they help her when she needed it? Where were Big Sister Nor and Justbob and The Mighty Krang now that she needed them?
She stumbled out into the light, blinking, thinking of those skinny Chinese boys and the police in their strategic positions around them. Suddenly, the familiar alleys and lanes of Dharavi felt sinister and claustrophobic, as though people were watching her from every angle, getting ready to attack her. And after all, she was just a girl, a little girl, and not a mighty warrior or a general.
Her treacherous feet had led her down the road, around a corner, behind the yard where the women's baking co-op set out their papadams in the sun, and past the new cafe where Mala and her army fought. They were in there now, the sound of their boisterous play floating out on the air like smoke, like the mouthwatering temptation smells of cooking food.
What were they shouting about? Some battle they'd fought -- a battle in Mushroom Kingdom. A battle against the Webblies. Of course. They were the best. Who else would you hire to fight the armies of the Webblies? She felt a sick lurch in her gut, a feeling of the earth dropping away from beneath her feet. She was alone now, truly alone, the enemy of her former friends. There was no one on her side except for some distant people in a distant land whom she'd never met -- whom she'd probably never meet.
Dispirited, she turned away and headed for home. Her father was away for a few days, travelling to Pune to install a floor for work. He worked in an adhesive tile plant where they printed out fake stone designs on adhesive-backed squares of durable vinyl that could be easily laid in the office towers of Pune's industrial parks. There were always tiles around their home, and Yasmin had never paid them much attention until she started to game with Mala, and then she'd noticed with a shock one day that the strange, angular blurring around the edges of the fine "marble" veins in the tiles were the same compression smears you got when the game's graphics started to choke, "JPEG artifacts," they called them in the message boards. It was as though the little imperfections that make the games slightly unreal were creeping into the real world.
That feeling was with her now as she ghosted away from the cafe, but she was brought back to reality by a tap on her shoulder. She whirled around, startled, feeling, for some reason, like she was about to be punched.
But it was Sushant, the tallest boy in Mala's army, who had never blustered and fought like the other boys, but had stared intently at his screen as though he wished he could escape into it. Yasmin found herself staring straight down his eyes, and he waggled his chin apologetically and smiled shyly at her.
"I thought I saw you passing by," he said. "And I thought --" He dropped his eyes.
"You thought what?" she said. It came out harshly, an anger she hadn't known she'd been feeling.
"I thought I'd come out and..." He trailed off.
"What? What did you think, Sushant?" Her own chin was wagging from side to side now, and she leaned her face down toward his, noses just barely apart. She could smell his lunch of spinach bahji on his breath.
He shrank back, winced. Yasmin realized that he was terrified. Realized that he had probably risked quite a lot just by coming out to talk to her. Discipline was everything in Mala's army. Hadn't Yasmin been in charge of enforcing discipline?
"I'm sorry," she said, backing away. "It's nice to see you again, Sushant. Have you eaten?" It was a formality, because she knew he had, but it was what one friend said to another in Dharavi, in Mumbai -- maybe in all of India, for all Yasmin knew.
He smiled again, a faltering little shy smile. It was heartbreaking to see. Yasmin realized that she'd never said much to him when she was Mala's lieutenant. He'd never needed cajoling or harsh words to get down to work, so she'd practically ignored him. "I thought I'd come out and say hello because we've all missed you. I hoped that maybe you and Mala could --" Again he faltered, and Yasmin felt her own chin jutting out involuntarily in a stubborn, angry way.
"Mala and I have chosen different roads," she said, making a conscious effort to sound calm. "That's final. Does it go well for her and you?"
He nodded. "We win every battle."
"But now -- lately -- I've been thinking --"
She waited for him to say more. The moment stretched. Grownups bumped past them and she realized that they probably thought they were courting, being a boy and a girl together. If news of that got back to her father --
But it didn't matter to her anymore. Her father was off installing JPEG artifacts in an IT park in Pune. She was out of the army and out of friends and out of school. What could anything matter.
"I talk to your friends," he said at last.
"My friends?" She didn't know she had any.
"The Webblies. Your new army. They come to me while I fight, send me private messages. At first I ignored them, but lately I've been on drogue, and I have a lot of time to think. And they sent me pictures -- the people I was hurting. Kids like you and me, all over the world. And it made me think." He paused, licked his lips. "About karma. About hurting people to live. About all the things that they say. I don't think I want to do this forever. Or that I can do it forever."
Yasmin was at a loss for words. Were there really other people, right here in Dharavi, right here in Mala's army, who felt as she did? She'd never imagined such a thing, somehow. But here he was.
"You know that Mala's army pays ten times what you can get with the Webblies, right?"
"For now," he said. "That's the point, right? Chee! If we fight now, we can raise the wages of everyone who works for a living instead of owning things for a living, right?"
"I never thought of the division that way. Owning things for a living, I mean."
His shyness receded. He was clearly enjoying having someone to talk to about this. "It all comes down to owning versus working. Someone has to do the organizing, I guess -- there wouldn't be a Zombie Mecha if someone didn't get a lot of people together, working to make all that code. Someone has to pay the game-masters and do all of that. I understand that part. It makes sense to me. My mother works in Mrs Dotta's fabric-dyeing shop. Someone has to buy the dyes, get the cloth, buy the vats and the tools, arrange to sell it once it's done, otherwise, my mother wouldn't have a job. I always stopped there, thinking, all right, if Mrs Dotta does all that work, and makes a job for my mother, why shouldn't she get paid for it?
"But now I think that there's no reason that Mrs Dotta's job is more important than my mother's job. Mamaji wouldn't have a job without Mrs Dotta's factory, but Mrs Dotta wouldn't have a factory without mamaji's work, right?" He waggled his chin defiantly.
"That's right," Yasmin said. She was nervous about being in public with this boy, but she had to admit that it was exciting to hear this all from him.
"So why should Mrs Dotta have the right to fire my mother, but my mother not have the right to fire Mrs Dotta? If they depend on each other, why should one of them always have the power to demand and the other one always have to ask for favors?"
Yasmin felt his excitement, but she knew that there had to be more to it than this. "Isn't Mrs Dotta taking all the risk? Doesn't she have to find the money to start the factory, and doesn't she lose it if the factory closes?"
"Doesn't mamaji risk losing her job? Doesn't Mamaji risk growing sick from the fumes and the chemicals in the dyes? There's nothing eternal or perfect or natural about it! It's just something we all agreed to -- bosses get to be in charge, instead of just being another kind of worker who contributes a different kind of work!"
"And that's what you think you'll get from the Webblies? An end to bosses?"
He looked down, blushing. "No," he said. "No, I don't think so. I think that it's too much to ask for. But maybe the workers can get a better deal. That's what Big Sister Nor talks about, isn't it? Good pay, good places to work, fairness? Not being fired just because you disagree with the boss?"
Or the general, Yasmin thought. Aloud, she said, "So you'll leave the army? You want to be a Webbly?"
Now he looked down further. "Yes," he said, at last. "Eventually. It all keeps going around and around in my mind. I don't know if I'm ready yet." He risked a look up at her. "I don't know if I'm as brave as you."
Anger surged through her, hot and irrational. How dare he talk about her "bravery"? He was just using that as an excuse to go on getting rich in Mala's army. He understood so well what was wrong and what needed to be done. Understood it better than Yasmin! But he didn't want to give up his comfort and friendships. That wasn't cowardice, it was greed. He was too greedy to give it up.
He must have seen this in her face, because he took a step back and held up his hands. "It's not that I won't do it someday -- but I don't know what good it would do for me to do this today, on my own. What would change if I stopped fighting for Mala's army? She's just one general with one army among hundreds all over the world, and I'm just one fighter in the army. I --" He faltered. "What's the sense in giving up so much if it won't make a difference?"
Yasmin's anger boiled in her, ate at her like acid, but she bit her tongue, because that little voice inside her was saying, "You're mostly angry because you thought you had a comrade, someone who'd keep you company, and it turned out that all he wanted to do was confess to you and have you forgive him. And it was true. She was far more upset by her loneliness than by his cowardice, or greed, or whatever it was.
"I. Need. To. Go. Now," she said, biting on the words, keeping the anger out of her voice by sheer force of will.
She didn't wait for him to raise his eyes, just turned on her heel and walked and walked and walked, through the familiar alleys of Dharavi, not going anywhere but trying to escape anyway, like a chained animal pacing off its patch. She was chained -- chained by birth and by circumstance. Her family might have been rich. They might have been high-caste. She might be in another country -- in America, in China, in Singapore, all the distant lands. But she was here, and she had no control over that. There was a whole world out there and this was where fate had put her.
She wouldn't be changing the world. She wouldn't be going to any of those places. She hadn't even left Dharavi, except once with her mother, when she took Yasmin and her brothers on a train to see a beach where it had been hot and sandy and the water had been too dangerous to swim in, so they'd stood on the shore and then walked down a road of smart shops where they couldn't afford to shop, and then they'd waited for the bus again and gone home. Yasmin had seen the multiverses of the games, but she hadn't even seen Mumbai.
Now where? She was tired and hungry, angry and exhausted. Home? It was still afternoon, so her mother and brothers were all out working or in school. That emptiness... It scared her. She wasn't used to being alone. It wasn't a natural state in Dharavi. She was very thirsty, the wind was blowing plastic smoke into her eyes and face, making her nostrils and sinuses and throat raw. Mrs Dibyendu's cafe would have chai, and Mrs Dibyendu would give her a cup of it and some computer time on credit, because Mrs Dibyendu was desperate to save her cafe from bankruptcy now that the army had abandoned it.
Mrs Dibyendu's idiot nephew doled her out a cup of chai grudgingly. He hadn't learned a thing from the savage beating that Mala had laid on him. He still stood too close, still went out Eve teasing with his gang of badmashes. Yasmin knew that he would have loved to take revenge on Mala, and that Mala never went out after dark without three or four of the biggest boys from the army. It made her furious. No matter how much Mala had hurt her, she had the right to go around her home without fearing this idiot. His upper lip was curled in a permanent sneer, thanks to the scar Mala's feet had left behind.
She sat down to a computer, logged in. She was sure that the idiot nephew used all kinds of badware to spy on what they did on the computers, but she'd bought a login fob from one of the shops at the edge of Dharavi, and it did magic, logging her in with a different password every time she sat down, so that her PayPal and game accounts were all safe.
Mindlessly, she plunged back into her usual routine. Login to Minerva, check for Webbly protection missions in the worlds she played. But there were no missions waiting. The Webbly feeds were all afire with chatter about the strike in Shenzhen, rumors of the numbers arrested, rumors of shootings. She watched it tick past helplessly, wondering where all these rumors came from. Everyone seemed to know something that she didn't know. How did they know?
A direct message popped up on her screen. It was from a stranger, but it was someone in the inner Webbly affinity group, which meant that Big Sister Nor, The Mighty Krang, or Justbob had manually approved her. Anyone could join the outer Webblies, but there were very few inner Webblies.
> Hello, can you read this?
It was a full sentence, with punctuation, and the question was as daft as you could imagine. It was the kind of message her father might send. She knew immediately that she was communicating with an adult, and one who didn't game.
> Our mutual friend B.S.N. has asked me to contact you. You are in Mumbai, correct?
She had a moment's hesitation. This was a very grownup, very non-gamer way to type. Maybe this was someone working for the other side? But Mumbai was as huge as the world. "In Mumbai" was only slightly more specific than "In India" or "On Earth."
> Where are you? Can I come and get you? I must talk with you.
> talking now lol
> What? Oh, I see. No, I must TALK with you. This is official business. B.S.N. specifically said I must make contact with you.
She swallowed a couple times, drained the dregs of her chai.
> Splendid. Where shall I come and get you from?
She swallowed again. When they'd gone to the beach, her mother had been very clear on this: Don't tell anyone you are from Dharavi. For Mumbaikars, Dharavi is like Hell, the place of eternal torment, and those who dwell here are monsters. This grown up sounded very proper indeed. Perhaps he would think that Dharavi was Hell and would leave her be.
> dharavi girl
> One moment.
There was a long pause. She wondered if he was trying to get in touch with Big Sister Nor, to tell her that her warrior was a slum-child, to find someone better to help.
> You know this place?
It was a picture of the Dharavi Mosque, tall and imposing, looming over the whole Muslim quarter.
> I'll be there in about an hour. This is me.
Another picture. It wasn't the middle-aged man in a suit she'd been expecting, but a young man, barely older than a teenager, short gelled hair and a leather jacket, stylish blue-jeans and black motorcycle boots.
> Can you give me your phone number? I will call you when I'm close.
> I'm sorry?
> dharavi girl -- no phone for me
She'd had a phone, when she was in Mala's army. They all had phones. But it was the first thing to go when she quit the army. She still had it in a drawer, couldn't bear to sell it, but it didn't work as a phone anymore, though she sometimes used it as a calculator (all the games had turned themselves off right after the service was disconnected, to her disappointment).
> Sorry, sorry. Of course. Meet you there in about an hour then.
Her heart thudded in her chest. Meeting a strange man, going on a secret errand -- it was the sort of thing that always ended in terrible tragedy, defilement and murder, in the stories. And an hour from now would be --
> cant meet at the mosque
It would be right in the middle of 'Asr, afternoon prayers, and the Mosque would be mobbed by her father's friends. All it would take would be for one of them to see her with a strange man, with gelled hair, a Hindu judging from the rakhi on his wrist, poking free of the leather jacket. Her father would go insane.
> meet me at mahim junction station instead by the crash barriers
It would take her an hour to walk there, but it would be safe.
There was a pause. Then another picture: two boys straddling one of the huge cement barriers in front of the station. It was where she and her brothers had waited while their mother queued up for the tickets.
> OK then. I'll be on a Tata 620 scooter.
Another picture of a lovingly polished little bike, a proud purple gas-tank on its skeletal chromed frame. There were thousands of these in Dharavi, driven by would-be badmashes who'd saved up a little money for a pair of wheels.
> ill be there
She handed her cup to idiot nephew, not even seeing the grimace on his face as she dashed past him, out into the roadway, back home to change and put some few things in a bag before her mother or brothers came home. She didn't know where she was going or how long she'd be away, and the last thing she wanted was to have to explain this to her mother. She would leave a note, one of her brothers would read it to her mother. She'd just say, "Away on union business. Back soon. Love you." And that would have to be enough -- because, after all, it was all she knew.
On the long walk to Mahim Junction station, she alternated between nervous excitement and nervous dread. This was foolish, to be sure, but it was also all she had left. If Big Sister Nor vouched for this man -- chee! she didn't even know his name! -- then who was Yasmin to doubt him?
As she got closer to the edge of Dharavi, the laneways widened to streets, wide enough for skinny, shoeless boys to play ditch-cricket in. They shouted things at her, "offending decency," as the schoolteacher, Mr Hossain, had always said when the badmashes gathered outside the school to call things to the girls as they left the classroom. But she knew how to ignore them, and besides, she had picked up her brother Abdur's lathi, using it as a walking stick, having tied a spare hijab underscarf to the top to make it seem more innocuous. They'd played gymnastics games in the schoolyard with sticks like lathis, but without the iron binding on the tip. Still, she felt sure she could swing it fearsomely enough to scare off any badmash who got in her way on this fateful day. It was only at the station that she realized she had no idea how they would carry it on the little scooter.
She'd brought her phone along, just to tell the time with, and now an hour had gone by and there was no sign of the man with the short gelled hair. Another twenty minutes ticked past. She was used to this: nothing in Dharavi ran on precise time except for the calls to prayer from the mosque, the rooster crows in the morning, and the calls to muster in Mala's army, which were always precisely timed, with fierce discipline for stragglers who showed up late for battle.
Trains came in and trains came out. She saw some men she recognized: friends of her father who worked in Mumbai proper, who would have recognized her if she hadn't been wearing her hijab pulled up to her nose and pinned there. She was acutely aware of the Hindu boys' stare. Hindus and Muslims didn't get along, officially. Unofficially, of course, she knew as many Hindus as Muslims in Dharavi, in the army, in school. But on the impersonal, grand scale, she was always other. They were "Mumbaikars" -- "real" people from Mumbai. Her parents insisted on calling the city "Bombay," the old name of the city from before the fierce Hindu nationalists had changed it, proclaiming that India was for Hindus and Hindus alone. She and her people could go back to Bangladesh, to Pakistan, to one of the Muslim strongholds where they were in the majority, and leave India to the real Indians.
Mostly, it didn't touch her, because mostly, she only met people who knew her and whom she knew -- or people who were entirely virtual and who cared more about whether she was an Orc or a Fire Elf than if she was a Muslim. But here, on the edge of the known world, she was a girl in a hijab, an eye-slit and a long, modest dress and a stout stick, and they were all staring at her.
She kept herself amused by thinking about how she would attack or defend the station using a variety of games' weapons-systems. If they were all zombies, she'd array the mechas here, here and here, using the railway bed as a channel to lure combatants into flamethrower range. If they were fighting on motorcycles, she'd circle that way with her cars, this way with her motorcycles, and pull the death-lorry in there. It brought a smile to her face, safely hidden behind the hijab.
And here was the man, pulling into the lot on his green motorcycle, wiping the road dust off his glasses with his shirt-tail before tucking it back into his jacket. He looked around nervously at the people outside the station -- working people streaming back and forth, badmashes and beggars loitering and sauntering and getting in everyone's way. Several beggars were headed toward him now, children with their hands outstretched, some of them carrying smaller children on their hips. Even over the crowd noises, Yasmin could hear their sad, practiced cries.
She reached under her chin and checked the pin holding her hijab in place, then approached the rider, moving through the beggars as though they weren't there. They shied away from her lathi like flies dodging a raised hand. He was so disconcerted by the beggars that it took him a minute to notice the veiled young girl standing in front of him, clutching a meter-and-a-half long stick bound in iron.
"Yasmin?" His Hindi was like a fillum star's. Up close, he was very handsome, with straight teeth and a neatly trimmed little mustache and a strong nose and chin.
He looked at her lathi. "I have some bungee cables," he said. "I think we can attach that to the side of the bike. And I brought you a helmet."
She nodded again. She didn't know what to say. He moved to the locked carrier-box on the back of his bike, pushing away a little beggar-boy who'd been fingering the lock, and pushed his thumb into the locking mechanism's print-reader. It sprang open and he fished inside, coming up with a helmet that looked like something out of a manga cartoon, streamlined, with intricate designs etched into its surface in hot yellow and pink. On the front of the helmet was a sticker depicting Sai Baba, the saint that both Muslims and Hindus agreed upon. Yasmin thought this was a good omen -- even if he was a Hindu boy, he'd brought her a helmet that she could wear without defiling Islam.
She took the manga Sai Baba helmet from him, noting that the sticker was holographic and that Sai Baba turned to look her straight in the eye as she hefted it. It was heavier than it looked, with thick padding inside. No one in Dharavi wore crash-helmets on motorcycles -- and the boy wasn't wearing one, either. But as she contemplated the narrow saddle, she thought about falling off at 70 kilometers per hour on some Mumbai road and decided that she was glad he'd brought it. So she nodded a third time and lifted it over her head. It went on slowly, her head pushing its way in like a hand caught in a tangled sleeve, pushing to displace the fabric, which slowly gave way. Then she was inside it, and the sounds around her were dead and distant, the sights all tinted yellow through the one-way mirrored eye-visor. She felt tentatively at her head -- which felt like it would loll forward under the helmet's weight if she turned her face too quickly -- and found the visor's catch and lifted it up. The sound got a little brighter and sharper.
Meanwhile, the boy had been affixing the lathi along the bike's length, to the amusement of the beggar children, who offered laughing advice and mockery. He had a handful of bungee cords that he'd extracted from the bike's box, and he wrapped them again and again around the pole, finding places on the bike's skeletal chrome to fix the hooks, testing the handlebars to ensure that he could still steer. At last he grunted, stood, dusted his hands off on his jeans and turned to her.
She drew in a deep breath, spoke at last. "Where are we going?"
"Andheri," he said. "Near the film studios."
She nodded as though she knew where that was. In a way, of course, she did: there were plenty of movies about, well, the golden age of making movies, when Andheri had been the place to be, glamorous and bustling. But most of those movies had been about how Andheri's sun had set, with all the big filmi production places moving away. What would it be like today?
"And when will we come back?"
He waggled his chin, thinking. "Tonight, certainly. I'll make sure of that. And some union people can come back with us and make sure you get to your door safely. I've thought of everything."
"And what is your name?"
He stared at her for a moment, his jaw hanging open in surprise. "OK, I didn't think of everything! I'm Ashok. Do you know how to ride a scooter?"
She shook her head. She'd seen plenty of people riding on motorcycles and scooters, in twos and even in threes and fours -- sometimes a whole family, with children on mothers' laps on the back -- but she'd never gotten on one. Standing next to it now, it seemed insubstantial and well, slippery, the kind of thing that was easier to fall off of than to stay on.
"OK," he said, waggling his chin, considering her clothing. "It's harder with the dress," he said. "You'll have to sit side-saddle." He climbed up on the bike's saddle and demonstrated, keeping his knees together and pressed against the bike's side, twisting his body around. "You'll have to hold onto me very tight." He grinned his movie-star grin.
Yasmin realized what a mistake this had all been. This strange man. His motorcycle. Going off to Mumbai, away from Dharavi, to a strange place, for a strange reason. And he had her lathi, which wasn't even hers, and if she turned on her heel and went back into Dharavi, she'd still have to explain the missing lathi to her brother, and the note to her mother. And now she was going to get killed in Mumbai traffic with a total stranger on the way to Bollywood's favorite ghost-town.
But as hopeless as it was, it wasn't as hopeless as being alone, not in the army, not in school, not in the Webblies. Not as hopeless as being poor Yasmin, the Dharavi girl, born in Dharavi, bred in Dharavi.
She levered herself sidesaddle onto the bike and Ashok climbed over the saddle and sat down, his leather jacket pressed up against her side. She tried to square her hips to face forward, and found herself in such a precarious position that she nearly tipped over backwards.
"You have to hold on," Ashok said, and the beggar children jeered and made rude gestures. Shutting her eyes, she put her arms around his waist, feeling how skinny he was under that fancy jacket, and interlaced her fingers around his stomach. It was less precarious now, but she still felt as though she would fall at any second -- and they weren't even moving yet!
Ashok kicked back the bike's stand and revved the engine. A cloud of biodiesel exhaust escaped from the tailpipe, smelling like old cooking oil -- it probably started out as old cooking oil, of course -- spicy and stale. Yasmin's stomach gurgled and she blushed beneath her hijab, sure he could feel the churning of her empty stomach. But he just turned his head and said, "Ready?"
"Yes," she said, but her voice came out in a squeak.
They barely made it fifty meters before she shouted "Stop! Stop!" in his ear. She had never been more afraid in all her life. She forced her fingers to unlace themselves and drew her trembling hands back into her lap.
"I don't want to die!" she shouted. "I don't want to die on your maniac bike in this maniac traffic!"
He waggled his chin. "It's the dress," he said. "If you could only straddle the seat."
Yasmin patted her thighs miserably, then she hiked up her dress, revealing the salwar -- loose trousers -- she wore beneath it. Ashok nodded. "That'll do," he said. "But you need to tie up the legs, so they don't get caught in the wheel. He flipped open his cargo box again and passed her two plastic zip-strips which she used to tie up each ankle.
"Right, off we go," he said, and she straddled the bike, putting her arms around his waist again. He smelled of his hair gel and of leather, and of sweat from the road. She felt like she'd gone to another planet now, even though she could still see Mahim Junction behind her. She squeezed his waist for dear life as he revved the engine and maneuvered the bike back into traffic.
She realized that he'd been taking it easy for her sake before, driving relatively slowly and evenly in deference to her precarious position. Now that she was more secure, he drove like the baddest badmash she'd ever seen in any action film. He gunned the little bike up the edge of the ditch, beside the jerky, slow traffic, always on the brink of tipping into the stinking ditch, being killed by a swerving driver or a door opening suddenly so the driver could spit out a stream of betel; or running over one of the beggars who lined the road's edge, tapping on the windows and making sad faces at the trapped motorists.
She'd piloted a million virtual vehicles in her career as a gamer, at high speeds, through dangerous terrain. It wasn't remotely the same, even with the helmet's reality-filtering padding and visor. She could hear her own whimpering in her head. Every nerve in her body was screaming Get off this thing while you can! But her rational mind kept on insisting that this boy clearly rode his bike through Mumbai every day and managed to survive.
And besides, there was so much Mumbai to see as they sped down the road, and that was much more interesting than worrying about imminent death. As they sped down the causeway, they neared a huge suspension bridge, eight lanes wide, all white concrete and steel cables, proudly proclaimed to be the Bandra-Worli Sea Link by an intricate sign in Hindi and English. They sped up the ramp to it, riding close to the steel girders that lined the bridge's edge, and beneath them, the sea sparkled blue and seemed so close that she could reach down and skim her fingertips in the waves. The air smelled of salt and the sea, the choking traffic fumes whipped away by a wind that ruffled her dress and trousers, pasting them to her body. Her fear ebbed away as they crossed the bridge, and did not come back as they rolled off of it, back into Mumbai, back into the streets all choked with traffic and people. They swerved around saddhus, naked holy men covered in paint. They swerved around dabbahwallahs, men who delivered home-cooked lunches from wives to husbands all over the city, in tiffin pails arranged in huge wooden frames, balanced upon their heads.
She knew they were almost at Andheri when they passed the gigantic Infinity Mall, and then turned alongside a high, ancient brick wall that ran for hundreds of meters, fencing in a huge estate that had to be one of the film studios. Outside the wall, along the drainage ditch, was a bustling market of hawkers, open-air restaurants, beggars, craftsmen, and, among them, film-makers in smart suits with dark glasses, clutching mobile phones as they picked their way along. The bike swerved through all this, avoiding a long line of expensive, spotless dark cars that ran the length of the wall in an endless queue to pass through the security checkpoint at the gatehouse.
She took all this in as they sped down the length of the wall, cornering sharply at the end, following it along to a much narrower gate. Two guards with rifles attached to their belts by chains stood before it, and they hefted their guns as Ashok drew nearer. Then he drew closer still and the guards recognized him and stepped away, revealing the narrow gap in the wall that was barely wide enough for the bike to pass through, though Ashok took it at speed, and Yasmin gasped when her billowing sleeves rasped against the ancient, pitted brick.
Passing through the gate was like passing into another world. Before them, the studios spread forever, the farthest edge lost in the pollution haze. Roads and pathways mazed the grounds, detouring around the biggest buildings Yasmin had ever seen, huge buildings that looked like train stations or airplane hangars from war films. The grounds were all manicured grass, orderly fruit trees, and workmen going back and forth on mysterious errands with toolbelts jangling around their waists, carrying huge bundles of pipe and lumber and cloth.
Ashok drove them past the hangars -- those must be the sound-stages where they shot the movies, there was a good studio-map in Zombie Mecha where you could fight zombies through a series of wood-backed film scenery -- and toward a series of low-slung trailers that hugged the wall to their left. Each one had a miniature fence in front of it, and a small flower-garden, so neat and tidy that at first she thought the flowers must be fake.
Finally, Ashok slowed the bike and then coasted to a stop, killing the engine. The engine noise still hummed in her ears, though, and she continued to feel the thrum of the bike in her legs and bum. She unlocked her hands from around Ashok's waist, prying her fingers apart, and stepped off the bike, catching her toe on the lathi and falling to the grass. Blushing, she got to her feet, unsteady but upright.
Ashok grinned at her. "You all right there, sister?"
She wanted to say something sharp and cutting in response, but nothing came. The words had been beaten out of her by the ride. Suddenly, she felt as though she could hardly breathe, and the fabric of her hijab seemed filled with road dust that it released into her nose and mouth with every inhalation. She carefully undid the pin and moved her hijab so that it no longer covered her face.
Ashok stared at her in horror. "You -- you're just a little girl!"
She bridled and the words came to her again. "I am 14 -- there were girls my age with husbands and babies in Dharavi! I'm a skilled fighter and commander. I'm no little girl!"
He blushed a purple color and clasped his hands at his chest apologetically. "Forgive me," he said. "But -- Well, I assumed you were 18 or 19. You're tall. I've brought you all this way and you're, well, you're a child! Your parents will be mad with worry!"
She gave him her best steely glare, the one she used to make the boys in the Army behave when they were getting too, well, boyish. "I left them a note. And I'll be back tonight. And I'm old enough to worry about this sort of thing on my own account, thank you very much. Now, you've dragged me halfway across India for some mysterious purpose, and I'm sure that it wasn't just to have me stand around here talking about my family life."
He recovered himself and grinned again. "Sorry, sorry. Right, we're here for a meeting. It's important. The Webblies have never had much contact with real unions, but now that Nor is in trouble, she's asked me to take up her cause with the unions here. There's meetings like this happening all over the world today -- in China and Indonesia, in Pakistan and Mexico and Guatemala. The people waiting for us inside -- they're labor leaders, representatives of the garment-workers' union, the steelworkers' union, even the Transport and Dock Workers' union -- the biggest unions in Mumbai. With their support, the Webblies can have access to money, warm bodies for picket lines, influence and power. But they don't know anything about what you do -- they've never played a game. They think that the Internet is for email and pornography. So you're here -- we're here -- to explain this to them."
She swallowed a few times. There was so much in all that she didn't understand -- and what she did understand, she wasn't very happy about. For example, this real union business -- the Webblies were a real union! But there was more pressing business than her irritation, for example: "What do you mean we're here to explain? Are you a gamer?"
He shook his head ruefully. "Haven't got the patience for it. I'm an economist. Labor economist. I've spent a lot of time with BSN, working out strategy with her."
She wasn't exactly certain what an economist was, but she also felt that admitting this might further undermine her credibility with this man who had called her a child. "I need my lathi," she said.
"You don't need a lathi in this meeting," he said. "No one will attack us."
"Someone will steal it," she said.
"This isn't Dharavi," he said. "No one will steal it."
That did it. She could talk about the problems in Dharavi. She was a Dharavi girl. But this stranger had no business saying bad things about her home. "I need my lathi in case I have to beat your brains out with it for rubbishing my home," she said, between gritted teeth.
"Sorry, sorry." He squatted down beside the bike and began to unravel the bungee cords from around the lathi. She also went down on one knee and began to worry at the zipstraps that tied up her trouser legs at the ankles, but they only went in one direction, and once they'd locked tight, they wouldn't loosen. Ashok looked up from the bungee cords.
"You need to cut them off," he said. "Here, one moment." He fished in his trouser-pocket and came up with a wicked flick-knife that he snapped open. He took gentle hold of the strap on her right ankle and slid the blade between it and her leg. She held her breath as he sliced through the strap, then flicked the knife closed, turned to her other leg, and, grasping her ankle, cut away the other strap. He looked up at her. Their eyes met, then she looked away.
"Be careful," she said, though he'd finished. He handed her the lathi. She gripped it with numb fingers, nearly dropped it, gripped it.
"OK," he said. "OK." He shook his head. "The people in there don't know anything about you or what you do. They are a little, you know, old fashioned." He smiled and seemed to be remembering something. "Very old fashioned, in some cases. And they're not very good with children. Young people, I mean." He held up his hands as she raised her lathi. "I only mean to warn you." He considered her. "Maybe you could cover your face again?"
Yasmin considered this for a moment. Of course, she didn't want to cover her face. She wanted to just go in as herself. Why shouldn't she be able to? But wearing the hijab had some advantages, and one was that no one would ask you why you were covering your face. Ashok had clearly believed she was much older until she'd undraped it.
Wordlessly, she unpinned the fabric, brought it across her face, and repinned it. He gave her a happy thumbs up and said, "All right! They're good people, you know. Very good people. They want to be on our side." He swallowed, thought some, rocked his chin from side to side. "But perhaps they don't know that yet."
He marched to the door, which was made of heavy metal screen over glass, and opened it, then gestured inside with a grand sweep of his arm. Trying to look as dignified as possible, she stepped into the gloom of the trailer, where it was cool and smelled of betel and chai and bleach, and where a lazy ceiling fan beat the air, trailing long snot-trails of dust.
This was what she noticed first, and not the people sitting around the room on sofas and easy-chairs. Those people were sunk deep into their chairs and sitting silently, their eyes lost in shadow. But after a moment, they began to shift minutely, staring at her. Ashok entered behind her and said, "Hello! Hello! I'm glad you could all make it!"
And then they stood, and they were all much older than her, much older than Ashok. The youngest was her mother's age, and he was fat and sleek and had great jowls and short hair in a fringe around his ears. There were three others, another man in kurta pyjamas with a Muslim skull cap and two very old women in sarees that showed the wrinkled skin on their bellies.
Ashok introduced them around, Mr Phadkar of the steelworkers' union, Mr Honnenahalli of the transport and dock workers' union, and Mrs Rukmini and Mrs Muthappa, both from the garment workers' union. "These good people are interested in Big Sister Nor's work and so she asked me to bring you round to talk to them. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Yasmin, a trusted activist within the IWWWW organization. She is here to answer your questions."
They all greeted her politely, but their smiles never reached their eyes. Ashok busied himself in a corner where there was a chai pot and cups, pouring out masala chai for everyone and bringing it around on a tray. "I will be your chaiwallah," he said. "You just all talk."
Yasmin's throat was terribly dry, but she was veiled, and so she passed on the chai, but quickly regretted it as the talk began.
"I understand that your 'work' is just playing games, is that right?" said Mr Honnenahalli, the fat man who worked with the Transport and Dock Workers' union.
"We work in the games, yes," Yasmin said.
"And so you organize people who play games. How are they workers? They sound like players to me. In the transport trade, we work."
Yasmin rocked her chin from side to side and was glad of her veil. She remembered her talk with Sushant. "We work the way anyone works, I suppose. We have a boss who asks us to do work, and he gets rich from our work."
That made the two old aunties smile, and though it was dark in the room, she thought it was a genuine one.
"Sister," said Mr Phadkar, he in the skullcap, "tell us about these games. How are they played?"
So she told them, starting with Zombie Mecha, aided by the fact that Mr Phadkar had actually seen one of the many films based on the game. But as she delved into character classes, leveling up, unlocking achievements, and so on, she saw that she was losing them.
"It all sounds very complicated," Mr Honnenahalli said, after she had spoken for a good thirty minutes, and her throat was so dry it felt like she had eaten a mouthful of sand and salt. "Who plays these games? Who has time?"
This was something she often heard from her father, and so she told Mr Honnenahalli what she always told him. "Millions of people, rich and poor, men and women, boys and girls, all over the world. They spend crores and crores of rupees, and thousands of hours. It's a game, yes, but it's also as complicated as life in some ways."
Mr Honnenahalli twisted his face up into a sour lemon expression. "People in life make things that matter. They don't just --" He flapped a hand, miming some kind of pointless labor. "They don't just press buttons and play make believe."
She felt her cheeks coloring and was glad again of the veil. Ashok held up a hand. "If a humble chai-wallah may intervene here." Mr Honnenahalli gave him a hostile look, but he nodded. "'Pressing buttons and playing make believe' describes several important sectors of the economy, not least the entire financial industry. What is banking, if not pressing buttons and asking everyone to make believe that the outcomes have value?"
The old aunties smiled and Mr Honnenahalli grunted. "You're a clever bugger, Ashok. You can always be clever, but clever doesn't feed people or get them a fair deal from their employers."
Ashok nodded as though this point had never occurred to him, though Yasmin was pretty certain from his smile that he'd expected this, too. "Mr Honnenahalli, there are over 9,000,000 people working in this industry, and it turns over 500 crore rupees every year. It's averaging six percent quarterly growth. And eight of the 20 largest economies in the world are not countries, they're games, issuing their own currency, running their own fiscal policies, and setting their own labor laws."
Mr Honnenahalli scowled, making his jowls wobble, and raised his eyebrows. "They have labor policies in these games?"
"Oh yes," Ashok said. "Their policy is that no one may work in their worlds without their permission, that they have absolute power to set wages, hire and fire, that they can exile you if they don't like you or for any other reason, and that anyone caught violating the rules can be stripped of all virtual property and expelled without access to a trial, a judge, or elected officials."
That got their attention. Yasmin filed away that description. She'd heard Big Sister Nor say similar things, but this was better put than any previous rendition. And there was no denying its effect on the room -- they jolted as if they'd been shocked and all opened their mouths to say something, then closed them.
Finally, one of the aunties said, "Tell me, you say that nine million people work in these places: where? Bangalore? Pune? Kolkata?" These were the old IT cities, where the phone banks and the technology companies were.
Ashok nodded, "Some of them there. Some right here in Mumbai." He looked at Yasmin, clearly waiting for her to say something.
"I work in Dharavi," she said. And did she imagine it, or did their noses all wrinkle up a little, did they all subtly shift their weight away from her, as though to escape the shit-smell of a Dharavi girl?
"She works in Dharavi," Ashok said. "But only a million or two work here in India. The majority are in China, or Indonesia, or Vietnam. Some are in South America, some are in the United States. Wherever there is IT, there are people who work in the games."
Now the auntie sat back. "I see," she said. "Well, that's very interesting, Ashok, but what do we have to do with China? We're not in China."
Yasmin shook her head. "The game isn't in China," she said, as though explaining something to a child. "The game is everywhere. The players are all in the same place."
Mr Phadkar said, "You don't understand, sister. Workers in these places compete with our workers. The big companies go wherever the work is cheapest and most unorganized. Our members lose jobs to these people, because they don't have the self-respect to stand up for a fair wage. We can't compete with the Chinese or the Indonesians or the Vietnamese -- even the beggars here expect better wages than they command!"
Mr Honnenahalli patted his belly and nodded. "We are Indian workers. We represent them. These workers, what happens to them -- it's none of our affair."
Ashok nodded. "Well, that's fine for your unions and your members. But the union that Yasmin works for --"
Mr Honnenahalli snorted, and his jowls shook. "It's not a union," he said. "It's a gang of kids playing games!"
"It's tens of thousands of organized workers in solidarity with one another," Ashok said, mildly, as though he was a teacher correcting a student. "In 14 countries. Look, these players, they're already organized in guilds. That's practically unions already. You worry that union jobs in India might become non-union jobs in Vietnam -- well, here's how you can organize the workers in Vietnam, too! The companies are multinational -- why should labor still stick to borders? What does a border mean, anyway?"
"Plenty, if the border is with Pakistan. People die for borders, sonny. You can sit there, with your college education, and talk about how borders don't matter, but all that means is that you're totally out of touch with the average Indian worker. Indian workers want Indian jobs, not jobs for Chinese or what-have-you. Let the Chinese organize the Chinese."
"They are," Yasmin broke in. "They're striking in China right now! A whole factory walked out, and the police beat them down. And I helped them with their picket line!"
Mr Honnenahalli prepared to bluster some more, but one of the old aunties laid a frail hand on his forearm. "How did you help with a picket-line in China from Dharavi, daughter?"
And so Yasmin told them the story of the battle of Mushroom Kingdom, and the story of the battle of Shenzhen, and what she'd seen and heard.
"Wildcat strikes," Mr Honnenahalli said. "Craziness. No strategy, no organization. Doomed. Those workers may never see the light of day again."
"Not unless their comrades rally to them," Ashok said. "Comrades like Yasmin and her group. You want to see something workers are prepared to fight for? You need to get to an internet cafe and see. See who is out of touch with workers. You can talk all you want about 'Indian workers,' but until you find solidarity with all workers, you'll never be able to protect your precious Indian workers." He was losing his temper now, losing that schoolmasterish cool. "Those workers got bad treatment from their employer so they went out. Their jobs can just be moved -- to Vietnam, to Cambodia, to Dharavi -- and their strike broken. Can't you see it? We finally have the same tools as the bosses! For a factory owner, all places are the same, and it's no difference whether the shirts are sewn here or there, so long as they can be loaded onto a shipping container when it's done. But now, for us, all places are the same too! We can go anywhere just by sitting down at a computer. For forty years, things have gotten harder and harder for workers -- now it's time to change that."
Yasmin felt herself grinning beneath the veil. That's it, Ashok, give it to him! But then she saw the faces of the old people in the room: stony and heartless.
"Those are nice words," one of the aunties said. "Honestly. It's a beautiful vision. But my workers don't have computers. They don't go to Internet cafes. They dye clothing all day. When their jobs go abroad, they can't chase them with your computers."
"They can be part of the Webblies too!" Yasmin said. "That's the beauty of it. The ones who work in games, we can go anywhere, organize anywhere, and wherever your workers are, we are too! We can go anywhere, no one can keep us out. We can organize dyers anywhere, through the gamers."
Mr Honnenahalli nodded. "I thought so. And when this is all done, the Webblies organize all the workers in the world, and our unions, what happens to them? They melt away? Or they're absorbed by you? Oh yes, I understand very well. A very neat deal all around. You certainly do play games over there at the Webblies."
Ashok and Yasmin both started to speak at once, then both stopped, then exchanged glances. "It's not like that," Yasmin said. "We're offering to help. We don't want to take over."
Mr Honnenahalli said, "Perhaps you don't, but perhaps someone else does. Can you speak for everyone? You say you've never met this Big Sister Nor of yours, nor her lieutenants, the Mighty Whatever and Justbob."
"I've met them dozens of times," Yasmin said quietly.
"Oh, certainly. In the game. What is the old joke from America? On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Perhaps these friends of yours are old men or little children. Perhaps they're in the next Internet cafe in Dharavi. The Internet is full of lies and tricks and filth, little sister --" Her back stiffened. It was one thing to be called 'sister,' but 'little sister' wasn't friendly. It was a dismissal. "And who's to say you haven't fallen for one of these tricks?"
Ashok held up a hand. "Perhaps this is all a dream, then. Perhaps you are all figments of my imagination. Why should we believe in anything, if this is the standard all must rise to? I've spoken to Big Sister Nor many times, and to many other members of the IWWWW around the world. You represent two million construction workers -- how many of them have you met? How are we to know that they are real?"
"This is getting us all nowhere," one of the aunties said. "You were very kind to come and visit with us, Ashok, and you, too, Yasmin. It was very courteous for you to tell us what you were up to. Thank you."
"Wait," Ashok said. "That can't be all! We came here to ask you for help -- for solidarity. We've just had our first strike, and our executive cell is offline and missing --" Yasmin turned her head at this. What did that mean? "And we need help: a strike fund, administrative support, legal assistance --"
"Out of the question," Mr Honnenahalli said.
"I'm afraid so," said Mr Phadkar. "I'm sorry, brother. Our charter doesn't allow us to intervene with other unions -- especially not the sort of organization you represent."
"It's impossible," said one of the aunties, her mouth tight and sorry. "This just isn't the sort of thing we do."
Ashok went to the kettle and set about making more chai. "Well, I'm sorry to have wasted your time," he said. "I'm sure we'll figure something out."
They all stared at one another, then Mr Honnenahalli stood with a wheeze, picking up an overstuffed briefcase at his feet and leaving the little building. Mr Phadkar followed, smiling softly at the aunties and waving tentatively at Yasmin. She didn't meet his eye. One of the aunties got up and tried to say something to Ashok, but he shrugged her off. She went back to her partner and helped her to her old, uncertain feet. The pair of them squeezed Yasmin's shoulders before departing.
Once the door had banged shut behind them, Ashok turned and hissed bainchoad at the room. Yasmin had heard worse words than this every day in the alleys of Dharavi and in the game-room when the army was fighting, and hearing it from this soft boy almost made her giggle. But she heard the choke in his voice, like he was holding back tears, and she didn't want to smile anymore. She reached up and unhooked her hijab, repinning it around her neck, freeing her face to cool in the sultry air the fan whipped around them. She crossed to Ashok and took a cup of tea from him and sipped it as quickly as she could, relishing the warm wet against her dry, scratchy throat. Now that her face was clear of hijab, she could smell the strong reek of old betel spit, and saw that the baseboards of the scuffed walls were stained pink with old spittle.
"Ashok," she said, using the voice she'd used to enforce discipline in the army. "Ashok, look at me. What was that -- that meeting about? Why was I here?"
He sat down in the chair that Mr Phadkar had just vacated and sipped at his chai.
"Oh, I've made a bloody mess of it all, I have," he said.
"Ashok," she said, that stern note in her voice. "Complain later. Talk now. What did you just drag me halfway across Mumbai for?"
"I've been working on this meeting for months, ever since Big Sister Nor asked me to. I told her that I thought the trade unions here would embrace the Webblies, would see the power of a global labor movement that could organize everywhere all at once. She loved the idea, and ever since then, I've been sweet-talking the union execs here, trying to get them to see the potential. With their members helping us -- and with our members helping them -- we could change the world. Change it like that!" He snapped his fingers. "But then the strike broke out, and Big Sister Nor told me she needed help right now, otherwise those comrades would end up in jail forever, or worse. She said she thought you'd be able to help, and we were all going to talk about it before we came down, but then, when I was riding to get you --" He broke off, drank chai, stared out the grimy, screened in windows at the manicured grounds of the film studio. "I got a call from The Mighty Krang. They were beaten. Badly. All three of them, though Krang managed to escape. Big Sister Nor is in hospital, unconscious. The Mighty Krang said he thought it was one of the Chinese factory owners -- they've been getting meaner, sending in threats. And they've got lots of contacts in Singapore."
Yasmin finished her chai. Her hair itched with dust and sweat, and she slid a finger up underneath it and scratched at a bead of sweat that was trickling down her head. "All right," she said. "What had you hoped for from those old people?"
"Money," he said. "Support. They have the ear of the press. If their members demanded justice for the workers in Shenzhen, rallied at the Chinese consulates all around India..." He waved his hands. "I'm not sure, to be honest. It was supposed to happen weeks from now, after I'd done a lot more whispering in their ears, finding out what they wanted, what they could give, what we could give them. It wasn't supposed to happen in the middle of a strike." He stared miserably at the floor.
Yasmin thought about Sushant, about his fear of leaving Mala's army. As long as soldiers like him fought for the other side, the Webblies wouldn't be able to blockade the strikes in-game. So. So she'd have to stop Mala's army. Stop all the armies. The soldiers who fought for the bosses were on the wrong side. They'd see that.
"What if we helped ourselves?" she said. "What if we got so big that the unions had to join us?"
"Yes, what if, what if. It's so easy to play what if. But I can't see how this will happen."
"I think I can get more fighters in the games. We can protect any strike."
"Well, that's fine for the games, but it doesn't help the players. Big Sister Nor is still in hospital. The Webblies in Shenzhen are still in jail."
"All I can do is what I can do," Yasmin said. "What can you do? What do economists do?"
He looked rueful. "We go to university and learn a lot of maths. We use the maths to try to predict what large numbers of people will do with their money and labor. Then we try to come up with recommendations for influencing it."
"And this is what you do with your life?"
"Yes, I suppose it all sounds bloody pointless, doesn't it? Maybe that's why I'm willing to take the games so seriously -- they're no less imaginary than anything else I do. But I became an economist because nothing made sense without it. Why were my parents poor? Why were our cousins in America so rich? Why would America send its garbage to India? Why would India send its wood to America? Why does anyone care about gold?
"That was the really strange one. Gold is such a useless thing, you know? It's heavy, it's not much good for making things out of -- too soft for really long-wearing jewelry. Stainless steel is much better for rings." He tapped an intricate ring on his right hand on the arm of the chair. "There's not much of it, of course. All the gold we've ever dug out of the ground would form a cube with sides the length of a tennis court." Yasmin had seen pictures of tennis courts, but she wasn't clear how big this actually was. Not very large, she supposed. "We dig it out of one hole in the ground and then put it in another hole in the ground, some vault somewhere, and call it money. It seemed ridiculous.
"But everyone knows gold is valuable. How did they all agree on this? That's where I started to get really fascinated. Because gold and money are really closely related. It used to be that money was just an easy way of carrying around gold. The government would fill a hole in the ground with gold, and then print notes saying, 'This note is worth so many grams of gold.' So rather than carrying heavy gold around to buy things, we could carry around easy paper money.
"It's funny, isn't it? We dig gold out of holes in the ground, weigh it, and then put it in another hole in the ground! What good is gold? Well, it puts a limit on how much money a government can make. If they want to make more money, they have to get more gold from somewhere. "
"Why does it matter how much money a country prints?"
"Well, imagine that the government decided to print a crore of rupees for every person in India. We'd all be rich, right?"
Yasmin thought for a moment. "No, of course not. Everything would get more expensive, right?"
He waggled his chin. He was sounding like a schoolteacher again. "Very good," he said. "That's inflation: more money makes everything more expensive. If inflation happened evenly, it wouldn't be so bad. Say your pay doubled overnight, and so did all the prices -- you'd be all right, because you could just buy as much as you could the day before, though it 'cost' twice as much. But there's a problem with this. Do you know what it is?"
Yasmin thought. "I don't know." She thought some more. Ashok was nodding at her, and she felt like it was something obvious, almost visible. "I just don't know."
"A hint," he said. "Savings."
She thought about this some more. "Savings. If you had money saved, it wouldn't double along with wages, right?" She shook her head. "I don't see why that's such a problem, though. We've got some money saved, but it's just a few thousand rupees. If wages doubled, we'd get that back quickly from the new money coming in."
He looked surprised, then laughed. "I'm sorry," he said. "Of course. But there are some people and companies and governments that have a lot of savings. Rich people might save crores of rupees -- those savings would be cut in half overnight. Or a hospital might have many crores saved for a new wing. Or the government or a union might have crores in savings for pensions. What if you work all your life for a pension of two thousand rupees a month, and then, a year before you're supposed to start collecting it, it gets cut in half?"
Yasmin didn't know anyone who had a pension, though she'd heard of them. "I don't know," she said. "You'd work, I suppose."
"You're not making this easy," Ashok said. "Let me put it this way: there are a lot of powerful, rich people who would be very upset if inflation wiped out their savings. But governments are very tempted by inflation. Say you're fighting an expensive war, and you need to buy tanks and pay the soldiers and put airplanes in the sky and keep the missiles rolling out of the factories. That's expensive stuff. You have to pay for it somehow. You could borrow the money --"
"Governments borrow money?"
"Oh yes, they're shocking beggars! They borrow it from other governments, from companies -- even from their own people. But if you're not likely to win the war -- or if victory will wipe you out -- then it's unlikely anyone will voluntarily lend you the money to fight it. But governments don't have to rely on voluntary payments, do they?"
Yasmin could see where this was going. "They can just tax people."
"Correct," he said. "If you weren't such a clearly sensible girl, I'd suggest you try a career as an economist, Yasmin! OK, so governments can just raise taxes. But people who have to pay too much tax are unlikely to vote for you the next time around. And if you're a dictator, nothing gets the revolutionaries out in the street faster than runaway taxation. So taxes are only of limited use in paying for a war."
"Which is why governments like inflation, right?"
"Correct again! First, governments can print a lot of money that they can use to buy missiles and tanks and so on, all the while borrowing even more, as fast as they can. Then, when prices and wages all go up and up -- say, a hundred times -- then suddenly it's very easy to repay all that money they borrowed. Maybe it took a thousand workers' tax to add up to a crore of rupees before inflation, and now it just takes one. Of course, the person who loaned you the money is in trouble, but by that time, you've won the war, gotten reelected, and all without crippling your country with debt. Bravo."
Yasmin turned this over. She found it surprisingly easy to follow -- all she had to do was think of what happened to the price of goods in the different games she played, going up and down, and she could easily see how inflation would work to some players' benefit and not others. "But governments don't have to use inflation just to win wars, do they?" She thought of the politicians who came through Dharavi, grubbing for the votes the people there might deliver. She thought of their promises. "You could use inflation to build schools, hospitals, that sort of thing. Then, when the debt caught up with you, you could just use inflation to wipe it out. You'd get a lot of votes that way, I'm quite sure."
"Oh yes, that's the other side of the equation. Governments are always trying to get re-elected with guns or butter -- or both. You can certainly get a lot of votes by buying a lot of inflationary hospitals and schools, but inflation is like fatty food -- you always pay the price for it eventually. Once hyperinflation sets in, no one can pay the teachers or nurses or doctors, so the next election is likely to end your career.
"But the temptation is powerful, very powerful. And that's where gold comes in. Can you think of how?"
Yasmin thought some more. Gold, inflation; inflation, gold. They danced in her head. Then she had it. "You can't make more money unless you have more gold, right?"
He beamed at her. "Gold star!" he said. "That's it exactly. That's what rich people like about gold. It is a disciplinarian, a policeman in the treasury, and it stops government from being tempted into funding their folly with fake money. If you have a lot of savings, you want to discipline the government's money-printing habits, because every rupee they print devalues your own wealth. But no government has enough gold to cover the money they've printed. Some governments fill their vaults with other valuable things, like other dollars or euros."
"So dollars and euros are based on gold, then?"
"Not at all!" No, they're backed by other currencies, and by little bits of metal, and by dreams and boasts. So at the end of the day, it's all based on nothing!"
"Just like game-gold!" she said.
"Another gold star! Even gold isn't based on gold! Most of the time, if you buy gold in the real world, you just buy a certificate saying that you own some bar of gold in some vault somewhere in the world. The postman doesn't deliver a gold-brick through your mail-slot. And here's the dirty secret about gold: there is more gold available through certificates of deposit than has ever been dug out of the ground."
"How is that possible?"
"How do you think it's possible?"
"Someone's printing certificates without having the gold to back them up?"
"That's a good theory. Here's what I think happens. Say you have a vault full of gold in Hong Kong. Call it a thousand bars. You sell the thousand bars' worth of gold through the certificate market, and lock the door. Now, some time later, someone -- a security guard, an executive at the bank -- walks into the vault and walks out again with ten gold bars from the middle of the pile. These ten bars of gold are sold at a metals market, and they end up in a vault in Switzerland, which prints certificates for its gold holdings and sells them on. Then, one day, an executive at the Swiss bank helps himself to ten bars from that vault and they get sold on the metals market. Before you know it, your ten bars of gold have been sold to a hundred different people."
He clapped. "Top pupil! Correct. There's a saying from physics, 'It's turtles all the way down.' Do you know it? It comes from a story about a British physicist, Bertrand Russell, who gave a lecture about the universe, how the Earth goes around the Sun and so on. And a little old granny in the audience says, 'It's all rubbish! The world is flat and rests on the back of a turtle!' And Russell says, 'If that's so, what does the turtle stand on?' And the granny says, 'You can't fool me, sonny, it's turtles all the way down!'" In other words, what lives under the illusion is yet another illusion, and under that one is another illusion again. Supposedly good currency is backed by gold, but the gold itself doesn't exist. Bad currency isn't backed by gold, it's backed by other currencies, and they don't exist. At the end of the day, all that any of this is based on is, what, can you tell me?"
"Belief," Yasmin said. "Or fear, yes? Fear that if you stop believing in the money, you won't be able to buy anything. It is just like game-gold! I remember one time when Zombie Mecha started charging for buffs that used to be free and overnight, all the players left. The people who were left behind were so desperate, walking around, trying to hawk their gold and weapons, offering prices that were tiny compared to just a few days before. It was like everyone had stopped believing in Zombie Mecha and then it stopped existing! And then the game dropped its prices and people came back and the prices shot back up again."
"We call it 'confidence'," Ashok said. "If you have 'confidence' in the economy, you can use its money. If you don't have confidence in the economy, you want to get away from it and get it away from you. And it's turtles all the way down. There's almost nothing that's worth anything, except for confidence. Go to a steel foundry here in Mumbai and you'll find men risking their lives, working in the fires of hell in their bare feet without helmets or gloves, casting steel to make huge round metal plates to cover the sewer entrances in America. Why do they do it? Because they are given rupees -- which are worth nothing unless you have confidence in them. And why are they given rupees? Because someone -- the boss -- thinks that he'll get dollars for his steel discs. What are dollars worth?"
"Nothing! Unless you believe in them. And what about the discs -- what good are they? They're the wrong size for the sewer openings in Mumbai. You could melt them down and do something else with them, but apart from that, they're just bloody heavy biscuits that serve no useful purpose. So why does any of this happen?"
Yasmin said, "Oh, that's simple. You really don't know?"
"It's easy? Please, tell me. It's not easy for me and I've been studying it all my life."
"It all happens because it's a game!"
He looked offended. "Maybe it's a game for the rich and powerful -- but it's not any fun for the poor and the workers and the savers who get the wrong end of it."
"Games don't need to be fun, they only have to be, I don't know, interesting? No, captivating! There are so many times when I find myself playing and playing and playing, and I can't stop even though it's all gotten very boring and repetitive. 'One more quest,' I tell myself. 'One more kill.' And then again, 'One more, one more, one more.' The important thing about a game isn't how fun it is, it's how easy it is to start playing and how hard it is to stop."
"Aha. OK, that makes sense. What, specifically, makes it hard to stop?"
"Oh, many little things. For example, in Zombie Mecha, if you stop playing without going to a mecha-base, you get 'fatigued.' So when you come back to the game, you play worse and earn fewer points for making the same kills and running the same dungeons. So you think, 'OK, I'm done for today, time to go back to a base.' And you run for a base, which is never very close to the quests, and on the way, you get a new quest, a short one that has a lot of good rewards. You do the quest. Now you head for the base again, but again, you find yourself on a quest, but this one is a little longer than it seemed, and now even more time has gone by. Finally, you reach the base, but you've played so much that you've almost levelled up, and it would be a pity to stop playing now when just a few random kills would get you to the next level and then you can buy some very good new weapons and training at the base, so you hunt down some of the biters around the base-entrance, and now you level up, and you get some good new weapons, and you've also just unlocked many new quests. These quests are given to you when you reach the base, and some of them look very interesting, and now some of your friends have joined you, so you can group with them and run the quests together, which will be much quicker and a lot more fun. And by the time you stop, it's been three, sometimes four hours more play than you thought you'd do."
"This happens a lot?"
"Oh yes. Many times a week for me. And I don't even play for points -- I play to help the union! The more play you do, the more sense it makes to keep on playing. All this business with gold and rupees and dollars and steel plates -- we play that game all the time, don't we? So of course it works. Everyone plays it because everyone has played it all their lives."
"I can see why Big Sister Nor told me I must talk with you," he said. "You're a very clever girl."
She looked down.
"What do we do about Big Sister Nor?"
"She thinks we need to find money and support for the strikers. I think she needs money and support for herself. She says she's fine, but she's in hospital and it sounds like she was badly beaten."
"How do we get her support from here? They're so far away." Thinking: Mumbai's opposite corner is far away for me -- China might as well be the moon or the Mushroom Kingdom. "And how do we know that Big Sister Nor will be safe where she is?"
"Both good questions," he said. "It's frustrating. They're so close when we're all online, but so far when we need to do something that involves the physical world." He began to pace. "This is Big Sister Nor's department. She sees a way to tie up the virtual world and the real world, to move work and ideas and money from one to the other."
"Maybe we should just concentrate on the games, then? They're the part we know how to use."
"But these people are in trouble in the real world," Ashok said, balling his hands into fists.
And Yasmin found herself giggling, and then laughing, really laughing. It was so obvious!
"Oh, Ashok," she said, "oh, yes, they certainly are."
And she knew just what to do about it.