The air stunk of mildew of cigarettes. At least in the front foyer. Farther inside, the aroma of cooking smells and latrines began to intensify and take precedence. The interior floor space looked gutted, nothing but concrete floors and beams with barely any demarcation between one section and the next. In a central beam that lay several dozen meters inside, a large monitor had been mounted that was tuned to the local news.
The reporter recapped the game-winning goal by Villanueva, then quickly moved on to cover the displacement camps in Darwin clashing with police. After a few introductory words Shen could not hear, they moved to aerial footage of people with tan-complexions rioting, overturned cars and fires, and light-skinned police retaliating with shields and batons.
They passed many improvised rooms as they walked through the building proper. Tall stacks of crates or sheets of plywood, drywall or corrugated plastic that denoted the boundaries of different rooms. And inside, those who were at home sat huddled before monitors or gas stoves, cooking their afternoon meals or engaged in some online gaming. In one, a young lady as busy pleasuring and older man. Both parties looked up to acknowledge them as they passed a bead curtain that acted as the doorway, and then went right back to their carnal activity.
“This way,” said Shen, as they neared the stairwell at the end. The smell of mildew followed them, and on every stoop, a new waft of cooking smells. By the time they reached the fourth floor, the density decreased and it looked as if the entire space was dominated by one living area.
Not far from the doorway, two young toughs sat on some stacked plastic crates and exchanged words. The taller one wore a faux leather vest, what appeared to be tā moko ink on his arm. The smaller one wore a white tank and jeans, and his eyes glowed with a band of copper that indicated he had displays. Both jumped to their feet as soon as Shen and Ping walked in.
The tall one snapped his fingers, alerting three more youths in the room to approach them. Shen noticed the ink on his arm beginning to change shape, the intricate system of lines morphing to form something entirely different.
When the tall one spoke, he did so in Tagalog. “Ano ang gusto mo, tao?”
A small field of green characters formed in the lower right lens of Shen’s glasses.
What do you want, man?
“Is Wáng around?” he replied in Mandarin. He directed it to the smaller one, who immediately accessed a translation app and relayed it to the tall one. He stuck to Tagalog, and replied just as curtly.
“Siya ay hindi dito!”
He is not here!
Shen looked to Ping and reached into his pocket. Everyone reacted at once, pulling out assorted handguns and pointing them at him. Ping moved too, producing the impact gun he had inside his jacket. The weapon clacked loudly as he whipped it out, it’s targeting laser focused on the forehead of the shorter man.
“Stop!” Shen yelled.
The tall one’s ink had changed again. The line segments now converged to form the face of an angry tiger, mouth agape, fangs fully bared. Its purpose was clear to him now.
Dynamo ink, adrenal-activated, he thought. A way of letting people know exactly how pissed he was. He imaged there were many kids in Tondo that had them, perhaps it was a local gang’s calling card. Understandable that Wang had taken to hiring a few for security.
“Everyone just relax,” he said, raising his free hand defensively while the other slowly withdrew something from his jacket pocket. The tall one moved quickly to fetch what he’d removed as soon as it was clear.
A small folding leather case which he opened and examined. The display card inside read off a designation for a unit that no longer existed, and an army that went by a new name. But the identification and the picture were clear enough. A look confusion was the tall one’s reaction, which he directed at Shen. Shen nodded to him, motioning to the far end of the floor space, where he imaged Wáng would be.
“Go on. He’ll know what it means.”
The tall one said something to the others in Tagalog, and then ventured to the back, disappearing behind a large partition wall. All the weapons remained trained on them while they waited. Shen stood perfectly still and never stopped smiling. Ping, meanwhile, kept his weapon trained on the short one, his finger gently resting against the gun’s trigger. He, in turn, was now aiming his Glock squarely back at Ping.
Shen knew that if things went south, Ping would be the first to get a shot off. The make and model of the pistols the boys had indicated that they were old-world relics, double actions pistols with casings. No digital architecture in their design. In the time it took them to squeeze their triggers and ignite a single round, Ping’s weapon would have accelerated a full burst of caseless slugs into the short one’s forehead.
Of course, he also knew that that would be the only shot Ping could get off. Regardless of how fast the boy was, they had three more weapons aimed at them. And Shen knew he could only disarm one before the remaining three got a shot or two off at him.
Shooting first didn’t count much when you were horribly outgunned. Luckily, the tall one emerged again from behind the partition and yelled to his friends.
“Sabi niya ang mga ito ay okay!”
He says they are okay!
Shen smiled. He nodded to the men around him, who looked slightly dejected as they lowered their weapons. Ping lowered his as well and began to follow, when the tall one made an addendum.
“Siya ay nag-iiwan sa kanyang baril dito!”
He leaves his gun here!
Shen sighed and looked to Ping, nodding to his weapon. Ping didn’t argue, and flipped it around to pass it off to the nearest of Wáng’s henchmen. While reluctant, he didn’t appear particularly worried. He knew that the second any one of them tried to turn it on him, they’d receive a 2000 volt surprise.
Without further delay, they made it past the partition wall, and into the far end of the fourth floor. Shen immediately became aware of a long counter positioned next to the partition, and a large workstation pushed back against the far wall. Another thug-like man with dynamos was standing behind the counter, while at the workstation, a single Chinese national sat amidst a pile of scattered components and tools.
From the looks of things, he had been working on a wrist-mounted portable before they had arrived. Now, his eyes were fixed on Shen’s little “gift”. A monocle sat over one eye, but he wasn’t using it at the moment. As he gazed at the old credentials, no augments, apps or mediation were needed to make sense of it. Everything about it was known to him, as was the message it carried.
“Comrade Shen,” he said in Mandarin, his voice tired and harsh.
“Comrade Wáng,” he replied. “It’s been a long time.”
“Not long enough.” He kept his eyes fixed downward. “I can only imagine you coming here means that you are in some kind of trouble.”
Shen chuckled and advanced towards Wáng several paces. The man at the counter kept eying him carefully, his right hand clenching at something underneath. He paid him no mind, leaving that for Shen to do as he followed behind.
“Strictly speaking, I am no trouble. Nothing new, at least, old friend. But there have been some developments. Things which I need to speak to you about.”
Wáng looked at him momentarily, a look of bitter mistrust in his one eye. He looked back to the credentials quickly, and removed the monocle. His eyes took on a faraway look then, an expression that seemed to contain equal measures of nostalgia and sadness.
“Do you remember the day when we you first became a member of the unit?” he asked.
Shen took that as an invitation to come closer. “Yes, I do.”
“You should,” said Wáng, a trace of bitterness returning to his face. “For you, it was not as long ago. When I joined, the unit was still in its infancy. The concept of warfare not fought with tanks, bombs and assault rifles was still alien to most in the army. But those higher up had wisdom enough to know that information was the new measure of a nation’s wealth. It only served to reason that it would become the basis of warfare as well.”
Shen advanced the last few steps that stood between them.
“Methods that are not characterized by the use of the force of arms, nor by the use of military power, nor even by the presence of casualties and bloodshed, are just as likely to facilitate the successful realization of the war’s goals, if not more so,” Shen said, reciting the famous quote.
“You remember?” Wáng’s face momentarily brightened.
“Of course I do.” Shen replied, keeping his tone as even as he could. “And it’s what brings me here.”
Wáng removed the monocle and began to look at him ominously. He gave a quick glance at the man behind the counter, who stirred ever so slightly. Ping stood tensely by, poised to strike at the man with whatever weapons he still had at his disposal. At the moment, that was just his hands and feet. Perhaps it was time to get the point.
“I need to find Li.”
“Oh?” said Wáng. “I assume you mean our mutual acquaintance, from the old days?” Shen nodded. “I haven’t seen him in years.”
Shen removed his glasses and rubbed his tired eyes. It had been a long day, and there were limits to his patience as well. “I know you make regular trips to the mainland, old friend. And I know that you’ve met with members of the unit on your trips before.”
Wáng cocked an eyebrow. “You’ve been spying on me?”
“Not necessary, or possible given my current circumstances. But I do hear things. And I know that you facilitate entry to the mainland for people looking to get back into Zǔguó. I am one such person.”
Wáng nodded. “I also hear things, Comrade. And I find it hard to understand why you would want to return a place that does not welcome you. If anyone at Interior knew you were setting foot on native soil, they would surely have you shot on sight.”
“I know,” said Shen. “But I know that you can help with that.”
“What is it that you think I can do?”
“I will need biometric IDs for myself and the young one here, ones which I know you can provide. And I need you to facilitate a meeting with Li. I will take care of the rest, and see to it that you come away all the richer for it.”
“What do you want from Li?” he asked finally.
Shen inhaled deeply and looked him in the eye as he said it. “Boaying.”
Wáng went silent for a moment and looked caught between disbelief and amusement. Eventually, he opted for the latter and began laughing.
“Boaying does not exist, old friend. It was lost with the ‘restructuring’, like so much else. I’m sorry you wasted your time –”
Shen raised his hand to interject. “I know that is not true. I know that certain copies were made and that Li had access. If you could just –“
“What you are asking for is not possible!” Wáng said, cutting off all talk. “And even if it were, I would be hard pressed to think of anything that would justify the risk for me.”
“Oh?” said Shen, genuinely surprised. “I can think of much and more in that regard. I would imagine you would leave this hovel behind in a heartbeat if you could afford to do so. And I know that Comrade Li would be most grateful to you once he hears what I have to offer. He has accrued great wealth and power back home.”
“Quite,” said Wáng, rather bitterly. “Such are the rewards for those who ingratiated themselves with the new government.”
“Yes, but his power currently has limits. What I am proposing to him could potentially benefit him more than anything the Tuánjié zhèngfǔ has given to him. And knowing that you helped facilitate would put him in your debt for life.”
Wáng once again looked caught, this time between disbelief and anger. Mentioning his current surroundings, and raising the issue of Li’s own status back home was sure to do that. For a moment, neither man said anything. The silence only broke when Wáng looked in Ping’s direction and frowned.
“This one I do not recognize. He is new, yes?”
“He is that, yes.” Shen replied.
Wáng shook his head, drew in a deep breath and spat it out like it was bile. “He’s not even old enough to remember, is he? In fact, he looks barely old enough to know anything of what you are talking about.”
“Do not speak about me like I’m not even here!” Ping stepped forward with his hands curled into fists. The man behind the counter removed the submachinegun he had been concealing until now and aimed it at squarely at Ping. A small laser sight beamed in the dusty air, painting a small, steady dot on his right temple.
Shen looked at him angrily. Wáng could only respond with laughter.
“You see? He exhibits the petulance of the new generation. No deference at all.”
Ping face turned red and he was prepared to say something obscene, but thought the better of it. At this point, he had another gun aimed at him and was too far away to do anything about it. Shen was thankful at least that cooler heads were prevailing and the latest in Wáng’s group of thugs hadn’t lost control yet.
“One generation plants the trees, and another gets the shade,” Shen said, hoping to get them back on track. “Perhaps the fault lies in the world we left for them. It has corrupted them with excess and makes them forget.”
“Perhaps.” Wáng turned his attention back to the materials on his desk and began to tinker with them quietly. “But it too late to help that now. The world has moved on without us. My advice to you, Comrade, is to accept that.”
Shen waited momentarily. He was sure his old colleague would have more to say. When nothing came, he stepped back from the table and turned to Ping.
“I shall be in the city for a few more days. Please let me know if you reconsider.”
Wáng kept his eyes on his work and didn’t bother to reply. Shen turned to leave, but paused to say one last thing.
“Life certainly has not worked out the way any of us planned, old friend. Despite what you might think of the path I have chosen, I know that we share the same sense of loss. All that I ask is that you consider helping me right that wrong, and leave something better for those who follow in our footsteps.”
Wáng still would not acknowledge him. But Shen knew he had absorbed everything he had just said and that it made an impression. He came about again and walked by Ping, who seemed surprised and a bit beleaguered to see that they were leaving. Following Shen out, they returned to the thugs that guarded the stairwell where he retrieved his weapon. Stern glances were exchanged between them as they walked out, but Ping ignored them. His only concern at the moment was keeping up with Shen, and asking him the obvious once they were well out of earshot.
“Is that it? We’re just leaving?”
Shen slid his glasses back on and powered them back up. He had a number of new messages, all encrypted. No doubt, they were from his contacts back east. “He will come around. Just give him some time to think it over.”
“And what if he doesn’t?”
Shen smiled. “You do not know him as I do. He will not pass up an opportunity to place Li in his debt. And he is not as satisfied with his current predicament as he would pretend. He just does not want to admit as much openly. Give him time.”
Ping sighed, checking his weapon to make sure Wáng’s men hadn’t stripped it of its magazine. He was pleased to see that all the slugs were still there. “In the meantime, what do we do?”
They had come to the ground floor, where Shen stopped and turned to look at him. “Same as always,” he said. “We stay with those who would harbor us, and hope that no one in Beijing realizes we are here. Otherwise, we can expect to be returning to Zǔguó ahead of schedule.”