Read on below for chapter one of Paolo Bacigalupi‘s spectacular novel The Windup Girl, now available in eBook format. The B Format PB is available from 2 December (UK).
‘Bacigalupi is a worthy successor to William Gibson: this is cyberpunk without computers’ – TIME Magazine
‘Not since William Gibson’s pioneering cyberpunk classic, NEUROMANCER (1984), has a first novel excited science fiction readers as much’ – The Washington Post
‘Heart-thudding action sequences, sordid sex, and enough technical speculation for two lesser novels’ – Cory Doctorow
‘One of the finest SF novels of the year’- Publishers Weekly
‘It’s ridiculous how good this book is’ – Techland
‘No! I don’t want the mangosteen.’ Anderson Lake leans forward, pointing. ‘I want that one, there. Kaw pollamai nee khap. The one with the red skin and the green hairs.’
The peasant woman smiles, showing teeth blackened from chewing betel nut, and points to a pyramid of fruits stacked beside her. ‘Un nee chai mai kha?’
‘Right. Those. Khap.’ Anderson nods and makes himself smile. ‘What are they called?’
‘Ngaw.’ She pronounces the word carefully for his foreign ear, and hands across a sample.
Anderson takes the fruit, frowning. ‘It’s new?’
‘Kha.’ She nods an affirmative.
Anderson turns the fruit in his hand, studying it. It’s more like a gaudy sea anemone or a furry puffer fish than a fruit. Coarse green tendrils protrude from all sides, tickling his palm. The skin has the rust-red tinge of blister rust, but when he sniffs he doesn’t get anystink of decay. It seems perfectly healthy, despite its appearance.
‘Ngaw,’ the peasant woman says again, and then, as if reading his mind. ‘New. No blister rust.’
Anderson nods absently. Around him, the market soi bustles with Bangkok’s morning shoppers. Mounds of durians fill the alley in reeking piles and water tubs splash with snakehead fish and redfin plaa. Overhead, palm-oil polymer tarps sag under the blast furnaceheat of the tropic sun, shading the market with hand-painted images of clipper ship trading companies and the face of the revered Child Queen. A man jostles past, holding vermilioncombed chickens high as they flap and squawk outrage on their way to slaughter, and women in brightly colored pha sin bargain and smile with the vendors, driving down the price of pirated UTex rice and new-variant tomatoes.
None of it touches Anderson.
‘Ngaw,’ the woman says again, seeking connection. The fruit’s long hairs tickle his palm, challenging him to recognize its origin. Another Thai genehacking success, just like the tomatoes and eggplants and chiles that abound in the neighboring stalls. It’s as if the Grahamite Bible’s prophecies are coming to pass. As if Saint Francis himself stirs in his grave, restless, preparing to stride forth onto the land, bearing with him the bounty of history’s lost calories.
‘And he shall come with trumpets, and Eden shall return . . .’
Anderson turns the strange hairy fruit in his hand. It carries no stink of cibiscosis. No scab of blister rust. No graffiti of genehack weevil engraves its skin. The world’s flowers and vegetables and trees and fruits make up the geography of Anderson Lake’s mind, and yet nowhere does he find a helpful signpost that leads him to identification.
Ngaw. A mystery.
He mimes that he would like to taste and the peasant woman takes back the fruit. Her brown thumb easily tears away the hairy rind, revealing a pale core. Translucent and veinous, it resembles nothing so much as the pickled onions served in martinis at research clubs in Des Moines.
She hands back the fruit. Anderson sniffs tentatively. Inhales floral syrup. Ngaw. It shouldn’t exist. Yesterday, it didn’t. Yesterday, not a single stall in Bangkok sold these fruits, and yet now they sit in pyramids, piled all around this grimy woman where she squats on the ground under the partial shading of her tarp. From around her neck, a gold glinting amulet of the martyr Phra Seub winks at him, a talisman of protection against the agricultural plagues of the calorie companies.
Anderson wishes he could observe the fruit in its natural habitat, hanging from a tree or lurking under the leaves of some bush. With more information, he might guess genus and family, might divine some whisper of the genetic past that the Thai Kingdom is trying to excavate, but there are no more clues. He slips the ngaw’s slick translucent ball into his mouth.
A fist of flavor, ripe with sugar and fecundity. The sticky flower bomb coats his tongue. It’s as though he’s back in the HiGro fields of Iowa, offered his first tiny block of hard candy by a Midwest Compact agronomist when he was nothing but a farmer’s boy, barefoot amid the corn stalks. The shell-shocked moment of flavor – real flavor – after a lifetime devoid of it. Sun pours down. Shoppers jostle and bargain, but nothing touches him. He rolls the ngaw around in his mouth, eyes closed, tasting the past, savoring the time when this fruit must once have flourished, before cibiscosis and Nippon genehack weevil and blister rust and scabis mold razed the landscape.
Under the hammer heat of tropic sun, surrounded by the groan of water buffalo and the cry of dying chickens, he is one with paradise. If he were a Grahamite, he would fall to his knees and give ecstatic thanks for the flavor of Eden’s return.
Anderson spits the black pit into his hand, smiling. He has read travelogues of history’s botanists and explorers, the men and women who pierced the deepest jungle wildernesses of the earth in search of new species – and yet their discoveries cannot compare to this single fruit.
Those people all sought discoveries. He has found a resurrection.
The peasant woman beams, sure of a sale. ‘Ao gee kilo kha?’ How much?
‘Are they safe?’ he asks.
She points at the Environment Ministry certificates laid on the cobbles beside her, underlining the dates of inspection with a finger. ‘Latest variation,’ she says. ‘Top grade.’
Anderson studies the glinting seals. Most likely, she bribed the white shirts for stamps rather than going through the full inspection process that would have guaranteed immunity to eighth-generation blister rust along with resistance to cibiscosis 111.mt7 and mt8. The cynical part of him supposes that it hardly matters. The intricate stamps that glitter in the sun are more talismanic than functional, something to make people feel secure in a dangerous world. In truth, if cibiscosis breaks out again, these certificates will do nothing. It will be a new variation, and all the old tests will be useless, and then people will pray to their Phra Seub amulets and King Rama XII images and make offerings at the City Pillar Shrine, and they will all cough up the meat of their lungs no matter how many Environment Ministry stamps adorn their produce.
Anderson pockets the ngaw’s pit. ‘I’ll take a kilo. No. Two. Song.’
He hands over a hemp sack without bothering to bargain. Whatever she asks, it will be too little. Miracles are worth the world. A unique gene that resists a calorie plague or utilizes nitrogen more efficiently sends profits sky-rocketing. If he looks around the market right now, that truth is everywhere displayed. The alley bustles with Thais purchasing everything from generipped versions of U-Tex rice to vermilion-variant poultry. But all of those things are old advances, based on previous genehack work done by AgriGen and PurCal and Total Nutrient Holdings. The fruits of old science, manufactured in the bowels of the Midwest Compact’s research labs.
The ngaw is different. The ngaw doesn’t come from the Midwest. The Thai Kingdom is clever where others are not. It thrives while countries like India and Burma and Vietnam all fall like dominoes, starving and begging for the scientific advances of the calorie monopolies.
A few people stop to examine Anderson’s purchase, but even if Anderson thinks the price is low, they apparently find it too expensive and pass on.
The woman hands across the ngaw, and Anderson almost laughs with pleasure. Not a single one of these furry fruits should exist; he might as well be hefting a sack of trilobites. If his guess about the ngaw’s origin is correct, it represents a return from extinction as shocking as if a Tyrannosaurus were stalking down Thanon Sukhumvit. But then, the same is true of the potatoes and tomatoes and chiles that fill the market, all piled in such splendid abundance, an array of fecund nightshades that no one has seen in generations. In this drowning city, all things seem possible. Fruits and vegetables return from the grave, extinct flowers blossom on the avenues, and behind it all, the Environment Ministry works magic with the genetic material of generations lost.
Carrying his sacked fruit, Anderson squeezes back down the soi to the avenue beyond. A seethe of traffic greets him, morning commuters clogging Thanon Rama IX like the Mekong in flood. Bicycles and cycle rickshaws, blue-black water buffaloes and great shambling megodonts.
At Anderson’s arrival, Lao Gu emerges from the shade of a crumbling office tower, carefully pinching off the burning tip of a cigarette. Nightshades again. They’re everywhere. Nowhere else in the world, but here they riot in abundance. Lao Gu tucks the remainder of the tobacco into a ragged shirt pocket as he trots ahead of Anderson to their cycle rickshaw.
The old Chinese man is nothing but a scarecrow, dressed in rags, but still, he is lucky. Alive, when most of his people are dead. Employed, while his fellow Malayan refugees are packed like slaughter chickens into sweltering Expansion towers. Lao Gu has stringy muscle on his bones and enough money to indulge in Singha cigarettes. To the rest of the yellow card refugees he is as lucky as a king.
Lao Gu straddles the cycle’s saddle and waits patiently as Anderson clambers into the passenger seat behind. ‘Office,’ Anderson says. ‘Bai khap.’ Then switches to Chinese. ‘Zou ba.’ The old man stands on his pedals and they merge into traffic. Around them, bicycle bells ring like cibiscosis chimes, irritated at their obstruction. Lao Gu ignores them and weaves deeper into the traffic flow.
Anderson reaches for another ngaw, then restrains himself. He should save them. They’re too valuable to gobble like a greedy child. The Thais have found some new way to disinter the past, and all he wants to do is feast on the evidence. He drums his fingers on the bagged fruit, fighting for self-control.
To distract himself, he fishes for his pack of cigarettes and lights one. He draws on the tobacco, savoring the burn, remembering his surprise when he first discovered how successful the Thai Kingdom had become, how widely spread the nightshades. And as he smokes, he thinks of Yates. Remembers the man’s disappointmentas they sat across from one another with resurrected history smoldering between them.
Yates’ match flared in the dimness of SpringLife’s offices, illuminating florid features as he touched flame to a cigarette and drew hard. Rice paper crackled. The tip glowed and Yates exhaled, sending a stream of smoke ceilingward to where crank fans panted against the sauna swelter.
‘Eggplants. Tomatoes. Chiles. Potatoes. Jasmine. Nicotiana.’ He held up his cigarette and quirked an eyebrow. ‘Tobacco.’
He drew again, squinting in the cigarette’s flare. All around, the shadowed desks and treadle computers of the company sat silent. In the evening, with the factory closed, it was just possible to mistake the empty desks for something other than the topography of failure. The workers might have only gone home, resting in anticipation of another hard day at their labors. Dust-mantled chairs and treadle computers put the lie to it – but in the dimness, with shadows draped across furniture and moonlight easing through mahogany shutters, it was possible to imagine what might have been.
Overhead, the crank fans continued their slow turns, Laotian rubber motorbands creaking rhythmically as they chained across the ceiling, drawing a steady trickle of kinetic power from the factory’s central kink-springs.
‘The Thais have been lucky in their laboratories,’ Yates said, ‘and now here you are. If I were superstitions, I’d think they conjured you along with their tomatoes. Every organism needs a predator, I understand.’
‘You should have reported how much progress they were making,’ Anderson said. ‘This factory wasn’t your only responsibility.’
Yates grimaced. His face was a study in tropic collapse. Broken blood vessels mapped rosy tributaries over his cheeks and punctuated the bulb of his nose. Watery blue eyes blinked back at Anderson, as hazy as the city’s dung-choked air. ‘I should have known you’d cut my niche.’
‘It’s not personal.’
‘Just my life’s work.’ He laughed, a dry rattling reminiscent of early onset cibiscosis. The sound would have had Anderson backing out of the room if he didn’t know that Yates, like all of AgriGen’s personnel, had been inoculated against the new strains.
‘I’ve spent years building this,’ Yates said, ‘and you tell me it’s not personal.’ He waved toward the office’s observation windows where they overlooked the manufacturing floor. ‘I’ve got kinksprings the size of my fist that hold a gigajoule of power. Quadruple the capacity-weight ratio of any other spring on the market. I’m sitting on a revolution in energy storage, and you’re throwing it away.’ He leaned forward. ‘We haven’t had power this portable since gasoline.’
‘Only if you can produce it.’
‘We’re close,’ Yates insisted. ‘Just the algae baths. They’re the only sticking point.’
Anderson said nothing. Yates seemed to take this as encouragement. ‘The fundamental concept is sound. Once the baths are producing in sufficient quantities—’
‘You should have informed us when you first saw the nightshades in the markets. The Thais have been successfully growing potatoes for at least five seasons. They’re obviously sitting on top of a seedbank, and yet we heard nothing from you.’
‘Not my department. I do energy storage. Not production.’
Anderson snorted. ‘Where are you going to get the calories to wind your fancy kink-springs if a crop fails? Blister rust is mutating every three seasons now. Recreational generippers are hacking into our designs for TotalNutrient Wheat and SoyPRO. Our last strain of HiGro Corn only beat weevil predation by sixty percent, and now we suddenly hear you’re sitting on top of a genetic gold mine. People are starving—’
Yates laughed. ‘Don’t talk to me about saving lives. I saw what happened with the seedbank in Finland.’
‘We weren’t the ones who blew the vaults. No one knew the Finns were such fanatics.’
‘Any fool on the street could have anticipated. Calorie companies do have a certain reputation. ‘
‘It wasn’t my operation.’
Yates laughed again. ‘That’s always our excuse, isn’t it? The company goes in somewhere and we all stand back and wash our hands. Pretend like we weren’t the ones responsible. The company pulls SoyPRO from the Burmese market, and we all stand aside, saying intellectual property disputes aren’t our department. But people starve just the same.’ He sucked on his cigarette, blew smoke. ‘I honestly don’t know how someone like you sleeps at night.’
‘It’s easy. I say a little prayer to Noah and Saint Francis, and thank God we’re still one step ahead of blister rust.’
‘That’s it then? You’ll shut the factory down?’
‘No. Of course not. The kink-spring manufacturing will continue.’
‘Oh?’ Yates leaned forward, hopeful.
Anderson shrugged. ‘It’s a useful cover.’
The cigarette’s burning tip reaches Anderson’s fingers. He lets it fall into traffic. Rubs his singed thumb and index finger as Lao Gu pedals on through the clogged streets. Bangkok, City of Divine Beings, slides past.
Saffron-robed monks stroll along the sidewalks under the shade of black umbrellas. Children run in clusters, shoving and swarming, laughing and calling out to one another on their way to monastery schools. Street vendors extend arms draped with garlands of marigolds for temple offerings and hold up glinting amulets of revered monks to protect against everything from infertility to scabis mold. Food carts smoke and hiss with the scents of frying oil and fermented fish while around the ankles of their customers, the flicker-shimmer shapes of cheshires twine, yowling and hoping for scraps.
Overhead, the towers of Bangkok’s old Expansion loom, robed in vines and mold, windows long ago blown out, great bones picked clean. Without air conditioning or elevators to make them habitable, they stand and blister in the sun. The black smoke of illegal dung fires wafts from their pores, marking where Malayan refugees hurriedly scald chapatis and boil kopi before the white shirts can storm the sweltering heights and beat them for their infringements.
In the center of the traffic lanes, northern refugees from the coal war prostrate themselves with hands upstretched, exquisitely polite in postures of need. Cycles and rickshaws and megodont wagons flow past them, parting like a river around boulders. The cauliflower growths of fa’ gan fringe scar the beggars’ noses and mouths. Betel nut stains blacken their teeth. Anderson reaches into his pocket and tosses cash at their feet, nodding slightly at their wais of thanks as he glides past.
A short while later, the whitewashed walls and alleys of the farang manufacturing district come into view. Warehouses and factories all packed together along with the scent of salt and rotting fish. Vendors scab along the alley lengths with bits of tarping and blankets spread above to protect them from the hammer blast of the sun. Just beyond, the dike and lock system of King Rama XII’s seawall looms, holding back the weight of the blue ocean.
It’s difficult not to always be aware of those high walls and the pressure of the water beyond. Difficult to think of the City of Divine Beings as anything other than a disaster waiting to happen. But the Thais are stubborn and have fought to keep their revered city of Krung Thep from drowning. With coal-burning pumps and leveed labor and a deep faith in the visionary leadership of their Chakri Dynasty, they have so far kept at bay that thing which has swallowed New York and Rangoon, Mumbai and New Orleans.
Lao Gu forges down an alley, ringing his bell impatiently at the coolie laborers who clot the artery. WeatherAll crates rock on brown backs. Logos for Chaozhou Chinese kink-springs, Matsushita anti-bacterial handlegrips, and Bo Lok ceramic water filters sway back and forth, hypnotic with shambling rhythm. Images of the Buddha’s teachings and the revered Child Queen splash along the factory walls, jostling with hand-painted pictures of muay thai matches past.
The SpringLife factory rises over the traffic press, a high-walled fortress punctuated by huge fans turning slowly in its upper story vents. Across the soi a Chaozhou bicycle factory mirrors it, and between them, the barnacle accretion of jumbled street carts that always clog around the entrances of factories, selling snacks and lunches to the workers inside.
Lao Gu brakes inside the SpringLife courtyard and deposits Anderson before the factory’s main doors. Anderson climbs down from the rickshaw, grabs his sack of ngaw, and stands for a moment, staring up at the eight-meter wide doors that facilitate megodont access. The factory ought to be renamed Yates’ Folly. The man was a terrible optimist. Anderson can still hear him arguing the wonders of genehacked algae, digging through desk drawers for graphs and scrawled notes as he protested.
‘You can’t pre-judge my work just because the Ocean Bounty project was a failure. Properly cured, the algae provides exponential improvements in torque absorption. Forget its calorie potential. Focus on the industrial applications. I can deliver the entire energy storage market to you, if you’ll just give me a little more time. Try one of my demo springs at least, before you make a decision . . .’
The roar of manufacturing envelops Anderson as he enters the factory, drowning out the last despairing howl of Yates’ optimism.
Megodonts groan against spindle cranks, their enormous heads hanging low, prehensile trunks scraping the ground as they tread slow circles around power spindles. The genehacked animals comprise the living heart of the factory’s drive system, providing energy for conveyor lines and venting fans and manufacturing machinery. Their harnesses clank rhythmically as they strain forward. Union handlers in red and gold walk beside their charges, calling out to the beasts, switching them occasionally, encouraging the elephant-derived animals to greater labor.
On the opposite side of the factory, the production line excretes newly packaged kink-springs, sending them past Quality Assurance and on to Packaging where the springs are palletized in preparation for some theoretical time when they will be ready for export. At Anderson’s arrival on the floor, workers pause in their labors and wai, pressing their palms together and raising them to their foreheads in a wave of respect that cascades down the line.
Banyat, his head of QA, hurries over smiling. He wais.
Anderson gives a perfunctory wai in return. ‘How’s quality?’
Banyat smiles. ‘Dee khap. Good. Better. Come, look.’ He signals up the line and Num, the day foreman, rings the warning bell that announces full line stop. Banyat motions Anderson to follow. ‘Something interesting. You will be pleased.’
Anderson smiles tightly, doubting that anything Banyat says will be truly pleasing. He pulls a ngaw out of the bag and offers it to the QA man. ‘Progress? Really?’
Banyat nods as he takes the fruit. He gives it a cursory glance and peels it. Pops the semi-translucent heart into his mouth. He shows no surprise. No special reaction. Just eats the damn thing without a second thought. Anderson grimaces. Farang are always the last to know about changes in the country, a fact that Hock Seng likes to point out when his paranoid mind begins to suspect that Anderson intends to fire him. Hock Seng probably already knows about this fruit as well, or will pretend when he asks.
Banyat tosses the fruit’s pit into a bin of feed for the megodonts and leads Anderson down the line. ‘We fixed a problem with the cutting press,’ he says.
Num rings his warning bell again and workers step back from their stations. On the third sounding of the bell, the union mahout tap their charges with bamboo switches and the megodonts shamble to a halt. The production line slows. At the far end of the factory, industrial kink-spring drums tick and squeal as the factory’s
flywheels shed power into them, the juice that will restart the line when Anderson is done inspecting.
Banyat leads Anderson down the now silent line, past more waiing workers in their green and white livery, and pushes aside the palm oil polymer curtains that mark the entrance to the fining room. Here, Yates’ industrial discovery is sprayed with glorious abandon, coating the kink-springs with the residue of genetic serendipity. Women and children wearing triple-filter masks look up and tear away their breathing protection to wai deeply to the man who feeds them. Their faces are streaked with sweat and pale powder. Only the skin around their mouths and noses remains dark where the filters have protected them.
He and Banyat pass through the far side and into the swelter of the cutting rooms. Temper lamps blaze with energy and the tide pool reek of breeding algae clogs the air. Overhead, tiered racks of drying screens reach the ceiling, smeared with streamers of generipped algae, dripping and withering and blackening into paste in the heat. The sweating line techs are stripped to nearly nothing – just shorts and tanks and protective head gear. It is a furnace, despite the rush of crank fans and generous venting systems. Sweat rolls down Anderson’s neck. His shirt is instantly soaked.
Banyat points. ‘Here. See.’ He runs his finger along a disassembled cutting bar that lies beside the main line. Anderson kneels to inspect the surface. ‘Rust,’ Banyat murmurs.
‘I thought we inspected for that.’
‘Saltwater.’ Banyat smiles uncomfortably. ‘The ocean is close.’
Anderson grimaces at the dripping algae racks overhead. ‘The algae tanks and drying racks don’t help. Whoever thought we could just use waste heat to cure the stuff was a fool. Energy efficient my ass.’
Banyat gives another embarrassed smile, but says nothing.
‘So you’ve replaced the cutting tools?’
‘Twenty-five percent reliability now.’
‘That much better?’ Anderson nods perfunctorily. He signals to the tool leader and the man shouts out through the fining room to Num. The warning bell rings again and the heat presses and temper lamps begin to glow as electricity pours into the system. Anderson shies from the sudden increase in heat. The burning lamps and presses represent a carbon tax of fifteen thousand baht every time they begin to glow, a portion of the Kingdom’s own global carbon budget that SpringLife pays handsomely to siphon off. Yates’ manipulation of the system was ingenious, allowing the factory to use the country’s carbon allocation, but the expense of the necessary bribes is still extraordinary.
The main flywheels spin up and the factory shivers as gears beneath the floor engage. The floorboards vibrate. Kinetic power sparks through the system like adrenaline, a tingling anticipation of the energy about to pour into the manufacturing line. A megodont screams protest and is lashed into silence. The whine of the flywheels rises to a howl, and then cuts off as joules gush into the drive system.
The line boss’ bell rings again. Workers step forward to align the cutting tools. They’re producing two-gigajoule kink-springs, andthe smaller size requires extra care with the machinery. Further down the line, the spooling process begins and the cutting press with its newly repaired precision blades rises into the air on hydraulic jacks, hissing.
‘Khun, please.’ Banyat motions Anderson behind a protection cage.
Num’s bell rings a final time. The line grinds into gear. Anderson feels a brief thrill as the system engages. Workers crouch behind their shields. Kink-spring filament hisses out from alignment flanges and threads through a series of heated rollers. A spray of stinking reactant showers the rust-colored filament, greasing it in the slick film that will accept Yates’ algae powder in an even coat.
The press slams down. Anderson’s teeth ache with the crush of weight. The kink-spring wire snaps cleanly and then the severed filament is streaming through the curtains and into the fining room. Thirty seconds later it reemerges, pale gray and dusty with the algae-derived powder. It threads into a new series of heated rollers before being tortured into its final structure, winding in on itself, torquing into a tighter and tighter curl, working against everything in its molecular structure as the spring is tightened down. A deafening shriek of tortured metal rises. Lubricants and algae residue shower from the sheathing as the spring is squeezed down, spattering workers and equipment, and then the compressedkink-spring is being whisked away to be installed in its case and sent on to QA.
A yellow LED flashes all-clear. Workers dash out from their cages to reset the press as a new stream of rust-colored metal hisses out of the bowels of the tempering rooms. Rollers chatter, running empty. Stoppered lubricant nozzles cast a fine mist into the air as they self-cleanse before the next application. The workers finish aligning the presses then duck again behind their barriers. If the system breaks, the kink-spring filament will become a high energy blade, whipping uncontrollably through the production room. Anderson has seen heads carved open like soft mangoes, the shorn parts of people and the Pollack-spatter of blood that comes from industrial system failures –
The press slams down, clipping another kink-spring among the forty per hour that now, apparently, will have only a seventy-five percent chance of ending up in a supervised disposal fill at the Environment Ministry. They’re spending millions to produce trash that will cost millions more to destroy – a double-edged sword that just keeps cutting. Yates screwed something up, whether by accident or by spiteful sabotage, and it’s taken more than a year to
realize the depths of the problem, to examine the algae baths that breed the kink-springs’ revolutionary coatings, to rework the corn resins that enclose the springs’ gear interfaces, to change the QA practices, to understand what a humidity level that hovers near 100% year-round does to a manufacturing process conceptualized in drier climes.
A burst of pale filtering dust kicks into the room as a worker stumbles through the curtains from the fining chamber. His dark face is a sweat-streaked combination of grit and palm-oil spray. The swinging curtains reveal a glimpse of his colleagues encased in pale dust clouds, shadows in a snowstorm as the kink-spring filament is encased in the powder that keeps the springs from locking under intense compression. All that sweat, all those calories, all that carbon allotment – all to present a believable cover for Anderson as he unravels the mystery of nightshades and ngaw. A rational company would shut down the factory. Even Anderson, with his limited understanding of the processes involved in this next-generation kink-spring manufacture would do so. But if his workers and the unions and the white shirts and the many listening ears of the Kingdom are to believe that he is an aspiring entrepreneur, the factory must run, and run hard.
Anderson shakes Banyat’s hand and congratulates him on his good work.
It’s a pity, really. The potential for success is there. When Anderson sees one of Yates’ springs actually work, his breath catches. Yates was a madman, but he wasn’t stupid. Anderson has watched joules pour out of tiny kink-spring cases, ticking along contentedly for hours when other springs wouldn’t have held a quarter of the energy at twice the weight, or would simply have constricted into a single molecularly bound mass under the enormous pressure of the joules being dumped into them. Sometimes, Anderson is almost seduced by the man’s dream.
Anderson takes a deep breath and ducks back through the fining room. He comes out on the other side in a cloud of algae powder and smoke. He sucks air redolent with trampled megodont dung and heads up the stairs to his offices. Behind him one of the megodonts shrieks again, the sound of a mistreated animal. Anderson turns, gazing down on the factory floor, and makes a note of the mahout. Number Four spindle. Another problem in the long list that SpringLife presents. He opens the door to the administrative offices.
Inside, the rooms are much as they were when he first encountered them. Still dim, still cavernously empty with desks and treadle computers sitting silent in shadows. Thin blades of sunlight ease between teak window shutters, illuminating smoky offerings to whatever gods failed to save Tan Hock Seng’s Chinese clan in Malaya. Sandalwood incense chokes the room, and more silken streamers rise from a shrine in the corner where smiling golden figures squat over dishes of U-Tex rice and sticky fly-covered mangoes.
Hock Seng is already sitting at his computer. His bony leg ratchets steadily at the treadle, powering the microprocessors and the glow of the 12cm screen. In its gray light, Anderson catches the flicker of Hock Seng’s eyes, the twitch of a man fearing bloody slaughter every time a door opens. The old man’s flinch is as hallucinogenic as a cheshire’s fade – one moment there, the next gone and doubted – but Anderson is familiar enough with yellowcard refugees to recognize the suppressed terror. He shuts the door, muting the manufacturing roar, and the old man settles.
Anderson coughs and waves at the swirling incense smoke. ‘I thought I told you to quit burning this stuff.’
Hock Seng shrugs, but doesn’t stop treadling or typing. ‘Shall I open the windows?’ His whisper is like bamboo scraping over sand.
‘Christ, no.’ Anderson grimaces at the tropic blaze beyond the shutters. ‘Just burn it at home. I don’t want it here. Not any more.’
‘Yes. Of course.’
‘I mean it.’
Hock Seng’s eyes flick up for a moment before returning to his screen. The jut of his cheek bones and the hollows of his eyes show in sharp relief under the glow of the monitor. His spider fingers continue tapping at the keys. ‘It’s for luck,’ he murmurs. A low wheezing chuckle follows. ‘Even foreign devils need luck. With all the factory troubles, I think maybe you would appreciate the help of Budai.’
‘Not here.’ Anderson dumps his newly acquired ngaw on his desk and sprawls in his chair. Wipes his brow. ‘Burn it at home.’
Hock Seng inclines his head slightly in acknowledgment. Overhead, the rows of crank fans rotate lazily, bamboo blades panting against the office’s swelter. The two of them sit marooned, surrounded by the map of Yates’ grand design. Ranks of empty desks and workstations sit silent, the floor plan that should have held sales staff, shipping logistics clerks, HR people, and secretaries.
Anderson sorts through the ngaw. Holds up one of his greenhaired discoveries for Hock Seng. ‘Have you ever seen one of these before?’
Hock Seng glances up. ‘The Thai call them ngaw.’ He returns to his work, treadling through spreadsheets that will never add and red ink that will never be reported.
‘I know what the Thai call them.’ Anderson gets up and crosses to the old man’s desk. Hock Seng flinches as Anderson sets the ngaw beside his computer, eyeing the fruit as if it is a scorpion. Anderson says, ‘The farmers in the market could tell me the Thai name. Did you have them down in Malaya, too?’
‘I—’ Hock Seng starts to speak, then stops. He visibly fights for self-control, his face working through a flicker-flash of emotions. ‘I—’ Again, he breaks off.
Anderson watches fear mold and re-mold Hock Seng’s features. Less than one percent of the Malayan Chinese escaped the Incident. By any measure, Hock Seng is a lucky man, but Anderson pities him. A simple question, a piece of fruit, and the old man looks as if he’s about to flee the factory.
Hock Seng stares at the ngaw, breath rasping. Finally he murmurs, ‘None in Malaya. Only Thais are clever with such things.’ And then he is working again, eyes fixed on his little computer screen, memories locked away.
Anderson waits to see if Hock Seng will reveal anything more but the old man doesn’t raise his eyes again. The puzzle of the ngaw will have to wait.
Anderson returns to his own desk and starts sifting through the mail. Receipts and tax papers that Hock Seng has prepared sit at one corner of his desk, demanding attention. He begins working through the stack, adding his signature to Megodont Union paychecks and the SpringLife chop to waste disposal approvals. He tugs at his shirt, fanning himself against the increasing heat and humidity.
Eventually Hock Seng looks up. ‘Banyat was looking for you.’
Anderson nods, distracted by the forms. ‘They found rust on the cutting press. The replacement improved reliability by five percent.’
‘Twenty-five percent, then?’
Anderson shrugs, flips more pages, adds his chop to an Environment Ministry carbon assessment. ‘That’s what he says.’ He folds the document back into its envelope.
‘Still not a profitable statistic. Your springs are all wind and no release. They keep joules the way the Somdet Chaopraya keeps the Child Queen.’
Anderson makes a face of irritation but doesn’t bother defending the erratic quality.
‘Did Banyat also tell you about the nutrient tanks?’ Hock Seng asks. ‘For the algae?’
‘No. Just the rust. Why?’
‘They have been contaminated. Some of the algae is not producing the . . .’ Hock Seng hesitates. ‘The skim. It is not productive.’
‘He didn’t mention it to me.’
Another slight hesitation. Then, ‘I’m sure he tried.’
‘Did he say how bad it was?’
Hock Seng shrugs. ‘Just that the skim does not meet specifications.’ Anderson scowls. ‘I’m firing him. I don’t need a QA man who can’t actually tell me the bad news.’
‘Perhaps you were not paying close attention.’
Anderson has a number of words for people who try to raise a subject and then somehow fail, but he’s interrupted by a scream from the megodont downstairs. The noise is loud enough to make the windows shake. Anderson pauses, listening for a follow-up cry.
‘That’s the Number Four power spindle,’ he says. ‘The mahout is incompetent.’
Hock Seng doesn’t look up from his typing. ‘They are Thai. They are all incompetent.’
Anderson stifles a laugh at the yellow card’s assessment. ‘Well, that one is worse.’ He goes back to his mail. ‘I want him replaced. Number Four spindle. Remember that.’
Hock Seng’s treadle loses its rhythm. ‘This is a difficult thing, I think. Even the Dung Lord must bow before the Megodont Union. Without the labor of the megodonts, one must resort to the joules of men. Not a powerful bargaining position.’
‘I don’t care. I want that one out. We can’t afford a stampede. Find some polite way to get rid of him.’ Anderson pulls over another stack of paychecks waiting for his signature.
Hock Seng tries again. ‘Khun, negotiating with the union is a complicated thing.’
‘That’s why I have you. It’s called delegating.’ Anderson continues flipping the papers.
‘Yes, of course.’ Hock Seng regards him drily. ‘Thank you for your management instruction.’
‘You keep telling me I don’t understand the culture here,’ Anderson says. ‘So take care of it. Get rid of that one. I don’t care if you’re polite or if everyone loses face, but find a way to axe him. It’s dangerous to have someone like that in the power train.’
Hock Seng’s lips purse, but he doesn’t protest any more. Anderson decides to assume that he will be obeyed. He flips through the pages of another permit letter from the Environment Ministry, grimacing. Only Thais would spend so much time making a bribe look like a service agreement. They’re polite, even when they’re shaking you down. Or when there’s a problem with the algae tanks. Banyat . . .
Anderson shuffles through the forms on his desk. ‘Hock Seng?’
The old man doesn’t look up. ‘I will take care of your mahout,’ he says as he keeps typing. ‘It will be done, even if it costs you when they come to bargain again for bonuses.’
‘Nice to know, but that’s not my question.’ Anderson taps his desk. ‘You said Banyat was complaining about the algae skim. Is he having problems with the new tanks? Or the old ones?’
‘I . . . He was unclear.’
‘Didn’t you tell me we had replacement equipment coming off the anchor pads last week? New tanks, new nutrient cultures?’
Hock Seng’s typing falters for a moment. Anderson pretends puzzlement as he shuffles through his papers again, already knowing that the receipts and quarantine forms aren’t present. ‘I should have a list here somewhere. I’m sure you told me it was arriving.’ He looks up. ‘The more I think about it, the more I think I shouldn’t be hearing about any contamination problems. Not if our new equipment actually cleared Customs and got installed.’
Hock Seng doesn’t answer. Presses on with his typing as thoughhe hasn’t heard.
‘Hock Seng? Is there something you forgot to tell me?’
Hock Seng’s eyes remain fixed on the gray glow of his monitor. Anderson waits. The rhythmic creak of the crank fans and the ratchet of Hock Seng’s treadle fills the silence.
‘There is no manifest,’ the old man says, finally. ‘The shipment is still in Customs.’
‘It was supposed to clear last week.’
‘There are delays.’
‘You told me there wouldn’t be any problem,’ Anderson says. ‘You were certain. You told me you were expediting the Customs personally. I gave you extra cash to be sure of it.’
‘The Thai keep time in their own method. Perhaps it will be this afternoon. Perhaps tomorrow.’ Hock Seng makes a face that resembles a grin. ‘They are not like we Chinese. They are lazy.’
‘Did you actually pay the bribes? The Trade Ministry was supposed to get a cut, to pass on to their pet white shirt inspector.’
‘I paid them.’
Hock Seng looks up, eyes narrowed. ‘I paid.’
‘You didn’t pay half and keep half for yourself?’
Hock Seng laughs nervously. ‘Of course I paid everything.’
Anderson studies the yellow card a moment longer, trying to determine his honesty, then gives up and tosses down the papers. He isn’t even sure why he cares, but it galls him that the old man thinks he can be fooled so easily. He glances again at the sack of ngaw. Perhaps Hock Seng senses just how secondary the factory is . . . He forces the thought away and presses the old man again. ‘Tomorrow then?’
Hock Seng inclines his head. ‘I think this is most likely.’
‘I’ll look forward to it.’
Hock Seng doesn’t respond to the sarcasm. Anderson wonders if it even translates. The man speaks English with an extraordinary facility, but every so often they reach an impasse of language that seems more rooted in culture than vocabulary.
Anderson returns to the paperwork. Tax forms here. Paychecks there. The workers cost twice as much as they should. Another problem of dealing with the Kingdom. Thai workers for Thai jobs. Yellow card refugees from Malaya are starving in the street, and he can’t hire them. By rights, Hock Seng should be out in the job lines starving with all the other survivors of the Incident. Without his specialized skills in language and accountancy and Yates’ indulgence, he would be starving.
Anderson pauses on a new envelope. It’s posted to him, personally, but true to form the seal is broken. Hock Seng has a hard time respecting the sanctity of other people’s mail. They’ve discussed the problem repeatedly, but still the old man makes ‘mistakes.’
Inside the envelope, Anderson finds a small invitation card. Raleigh, proposing a meeting.
Anderson taps the invitation card against his desk, thoughtful. Raleigh. Flotsam of the old Expansion. An ancient piece of driftwood left at high tide, from the time when petroleum was cheap and men and women crossed the globe in hours instead of weeks.
When the last of the jumbo jets rumbled off the flooded runways of Suvarnabhumi, Raleigh stood knee-deep in rising seawater and watched them flee. He squatted with his girlfriends and then outlived them and then claimed new ones, forging a life of lemongrass and baht and fine opium. If his stories are to be believed, he has survived coups and counter-coups, calorie plagues and starvation. These days, the old man squats like a liver-spotted toad in his Ploenchit ‘club,’ smiling in self-satisfaction as he instructs newly arrived foreigners in the lost arts of pre-Contraction debauch.
Anderson tosses the card on the desk. Whatever the old man’s intentions, the invitation is innocuous enough. Raleigh hasn’t lived this long in the Kingdom without developing a certain paranoia of his own. Anderson smiles slightly, glancing up at Hock Seng. The two would make a fine pair: two uprooted souls, two men far from their homelands, each of them surviving by their wits and paranoia . . .
‘If you are doing nothing other than watching me work,’ Hock Seng says, ‘the Megodont Union is requesting a renegotiation of their rates.’
Anderson regards the expenses piled on his desk. ‘I doubt they’re so polite.’
Hock Seng’s pen pauses. ‘The Thai are always polite. Even when they threaten.’
The megodont on the floor below screams again.
Anderson gives Hock Seng a significant look. ‘I guess that gives you a bargaining chip when it comes to getting rid of the Number Four mahout. Hell, maybe I just won’t pay them anything at all until they get rid of that bastard.’
‘The union is powerful.’
Another scream shakes the factory, making Anderson flinch. ‘And stupid!’ He glances toward the observation windows. ‘What the hell are they doing to that animal?’ He motions at Hock Seng. ‘Go check on them.’
Hock Seng looks as if he will argue, but Anderson fixes him with a glare. The old man gets to his feet.
A resounding trumpet of protest interrupts whatever complaint the old man is about to voice. The observation windows rattle violently.
Another trumpeted wail shakes the building, followed by a mechanical shriek: the power train, seizing. Anderson lurches out of his chair and runs for the window but Hock Seng reaches it ahead of him. The old man stares through the glass, mouth agape.
Yellow eyes the size of dinner plates rise level with the observation window. The megodont is up on its hind legs, swaying. The beast’s four tusks have been sawn off for safety, but it is still a monster, fifteen feet at the shoulder, ten tons of muscle and rage, balanced on its hind legs. It pulls against the chains that bind it to the winding spindle. Its trunk lifts, exposing a cavernous maw. Anderson jams his hands over his ears.
The megodont’s scream hammers through the glass. Anderson collapses to his knees, stunned. ‘Christ!’ His ears are ringing. ‘Where’s that mahout?’
Hock Seng shakes his head. Anderson isn’t even sure the man has heard. Sounds in his own ears are muffled and distant. He staggers to the door and yanks it open just as the megodont crashes down on Spindle Four. The power spindle shatters. Teak shards spray in all directions. Anderson flinches as splinters fly past and his skin burns with needle slashes.
Down below, the mahouts are frantically unchaining their beasts and dragging them away from the maddened animal, shouting encouragement, forcing their will on the elephantine creatures. The megodonts shake their heads and groan protest, tugging against their training, overwhelmed by the instinctual urge to aid their cousin. The rest of the Thai workers are fleeing for the safety of the street.
The maddened megodont launches another attack on its winding spindle. Spokes shatter. The mahout who should have controlled the beast is a mash of blood and bone on the floor. Anderson ducks back into his office. He dodges around empty desks and jumps another, sliding over its surface to land before the company’s safes.
His fingers slip as he spins combination dials. Sweat drips in his eyes. 23-right. 106-left . . . His hand moves to the next dial as he prays that he won’t screw up the pattern and have to start again. More wood shatters out on the factory floor, accompanied by the screams of someone who got too close.
Hock Seng appears at his elbow, crowding.
Anderson waves the old man away. ‘Tell the people to get out of here! Clear everyone out! I want everyone out!’
Hock Seng nods but lingers as Anderson continues to struggle with the combinations.
Anderson glares at him. ‘Go!’
Hock Seng ducks acquiescence and runs for the door, calling out, his voice lost in the screams of fleeing workers and shattering hardwoods. Anderson spins the last of the dials and yanks the safe open: papers, stacks of colorful money, eyes-only records, a compression rifle . . . a spring pistol.
He grimaces. The old bastard seems to be everywhere today, as if his phii is riding on Anderson’s shoulder. Anderson pumps the handgun’s spring and stuffs it in his belt. He pulls out the compression rifle. Checks its load as another scream echoes behind. At least Yates prepared for this. The bastard was naïve, but he wasn’t stupid. Anderson pumps the rifle and strides for the door.
Down on the manufacturing floor, blood splashes the drive systems and QA lines. It’s difficult to see who has died. More than just the one mahout. The sweet stink of human offal permeates the air. Gut streamers decorate the megodont’s circuit around its spindle. The animal rises again, a mountain of genetically engineeredmuscle, fighting against the last of its bonds.
Anderson levels his rifle. At the edge of his vision, another megodont rises onto its hind legs, trumpeting sympathy. The mahouts are losing control. He forces himself to ignore the expanding mayhem and puts his eye to the scope.
His rifle’s crosshairs sweep across a rusty wall of wrinkled flesh. Magnified with the scope, the beast is so vast he can’t miss. He switches the rifle to full automatic, exhales, and lets the gas chamber unleash.
A haze of darts leaps from the rifle. Blaze orange dots pepper the megodont’s skin, marking hits. Toxins concentrated from AgriGen research on wasp venom pump through the animal’s body, gunning for its central nervous system.
Anderson lowers the rifle. Without the scope’s magnification, he can barely make out the scattered darts on the beast’s skin. In another few moments it will be dead.
The megodont wheels and fixes its attention on Anderson, eyes flickering with Pleistocene rage. Despite himself, Anderson is impressed by the animal’s intelligence. It’s almost as if the animal knows what he has done.
The megodont gathers itself and heaves against its chains. Iron links crack and whistle through the air, smashing into conveyor lines. A fleeing worker collapses. Anderson drops his useless rifle and yanks out the spring gun. It’s a toy against ten tons of enraged animal, but it’s all he has left. The megodont charges and Anderson fires, pulling the trigger as quickly as his finger can convulse. Useless bladed disks spatter against the avalanche.
The megodont slaps him off his feet with its trunk. The prehensile appendage coils around his legs like a python. Anderson scrabbles for a grip on the door jam, trying to kick free. The trunk squeezes. Blood rushes into his head. He wonders if the monster simply plans to pop him like some blood-bloated mosquito, but then the beast is dragging him off the balcony. Anderson scrabbles for a last handhold as the railing slides past and then he’s airborne. Flying free.
The megodont’s exultant trumpeting echoes as Anderson sails through the air. The factory floor rushes up. He slams into concrete. Blackness swallows him. Lie down and die. Anderson fights unconsciousness. Just die. He tries to get up, to roll away, to do anything at all, but he can’t move.
Colorful shapes fill his vision, trying to coalesce. The megodont is close. He can smell its breath.
Color blotches converge. The megodont looms, rusty skin and ancient rage. It raises a foot to pulp him. Anderson rolls onto his side but can’t get his legs to work. He can’t even crawl. His hands scrabble against the concrete like spiders on ice. He can’t move quickly enough. Oh Christ, I don’t want to die like this. Not here. Not like this . . . He’s like a lizard with its tail caught. He can’t get up, he can’t get away, he’s going to die, jelly under the foot of an oversized elephant.
The megodont groans. Anderson looks over his shoulder. The beast has lowered its foot. It sways, drunken. It snuffles about with its trunk and then abruptly its hindquarters give out. The monster settles back on its haunches, looking ridiculously like a dog. Its expression is almost puzzled, a drugged surprise that its body no longer obeys.
Slowly its forelegs sprawl before it and it sinks, groaning, into straw and dung. The megodont’s eyes sink to Anderson’s level. They stare into his own, nearly human, blinking confusion. Its trunk stretches out for him again, slapping clumsily, a python of muscle and instinct, all uncoordinated now. Its maw hangs open, panting. Sweet furnace heat gusts over him. The trunk prods at him. Rocks him. Can’t get a grip.
Anderson slowly drags himself out of reach. He gets to his knees, then forces himself upright. He sways, dizzy, then manages to plant his feet and stand tall. One of the megodont’s yellow eyes tracks his movement. The rage is gone. Long-lashed eyelids blink. Anderson wonders what the animal is thinking. If the neural havoc tearing through its system is something it can feel. If it knows its end is imminent. Or if it just feels tired.
Standing over it, Anderson can almost feel pity. The four ragged ovals where its tusks once stood are grimy foot-diameter ivory patches, savagely sawed away. Sores glisten on its knees and scabis growths speckle its mouth. Close up and dying, with its muscles paralyzed and its ribs heaving in and out, it is just an ill-used creature.The monster was never destined for fighting.
The megodont lets out a final gust of breath. Its body sags.
People are swarming all around Anderson, shouting, tugging at him, trying to help their wounded and find their dead. People are everywhere. Red and gold union colors, green SpringLife livery, the mahouts clambering over the giant corpse.
For a second, Anderson imagines Yates standing beside him, smoking a nightshade and gloating at all the trouble. ‘And you said you’d be gone in a month.’ And then Hock Seng is beside him, whisper voice and black almond eyes and a bony hand that reaches up to touch his neck and comes away drenched red.
‘You’re bleeding,’ he murmurs.