Monday, December 1, 2008

Starship: Rebel by Mike Resnick


Wilson Cole sat alone at his table in the small, cramped mess hall of the Theodore Roosevelt, sipping a cup of coffee, when he received the transmission from the bridge.

“We’re all in position, sir,” said Christine Mboya, the slender black woman whose image suddenly appeared before him.

“Has Mr. Briggs analyzed their capabilities yet?” asked Cole.

“Level 2 pulse cannons, Level 3 lasers.”

“Okay, nothing to worry about. Let me speak to the Valkyrie.”

An instant later the face of his Third Officer, an exceptionally tall redheaded woman, appeared above Cole’s table.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Pass the word, Val. I want all of our ships except this one to stay out of firing range.”

“Why?” she demanded. “Are we here to engage the enemy or aren’t we?”

“They can’t do the Teddy R any damage, but they can pierce most of the smaller ships’ defenses.”

“Not if we destroy them first.”

“Just do what I tell you to do,” said Cole. “With a little luck we won’t have to destroy anyone.”

“Some war!” she snorted, and broke the transmission.



“Is Four Eyes down in the Gunnery section?”

“Commander Forrice is on his way there,” she answered. “One moment, sir.” Pause. “He’s arrived.”

“Let me speak to him.”

The image of a burly member of the tripodal Molarian race appeared, surrounded by computerized controls for the ship’s ­armaments.

“Everything’s ready,” said Forrice. “Just say the word.”

“How big a crew have you got down there?”

“Four, counting myself.”

“That’ll be enough if we need it,” said Cole. “No one fires except on my express order.”

“Even if we’re under fire ourselves?”

“Even so. They don’t have anything that can damage us.”

“You’re the Captain,” said Forrice.

“Thanks for remembering,” said Cole dryly, ending the ­transmission.

He finished his coffee, considered going to the bridge, decided there was nothing he could do there that he couldn’t do where he was, and contacted Christine Mboya again.

“Sir?” she said.

“Have we pinpointed Machtel’s headquarters yet?”

“No, sir. They’re maintaining radio and video silence.”

“Can’t say that I blame them,” said Cole. “If it was me, I wouldn’t want to let a superior force know where I was holed up either.” He shrugged. “Okay, negotiating in private would have been easier, but it’s time to get this show on the road. Put me on audio and video, broadest possible bandwidth.”

“Done,” she announced. “Start whenever you’re ready.”

He chose one of the cameras that monitored the mess hall and stared into it. “This is Wilson Cole, Captain of the Theodore Roosevelt. This message is for Machtel, or, if he is no longer in charge, whoever is running his organization. My fleet has been commissioned by the government of the Pirelli Cluster to rid it of the warlords who have taken it over. I’m sure you are aware that we have already deposed the Cluster’s two other warlords—the human Chester Braithwaite and the Canphorite Grabius. You are all that remains.”

He paused for almost half a minute, long enough for them to start getting nervous wondering if he was going to speak again or if he’d said his piece and was about to start firing on them.

“You have nine ships on the ground and three more docked in orbit. I’m sure you have analyzed our strength, but just in case you haven’t, let me inform you that you are facing a fleet of forty-three ships, many of them with greater firepower than any of your own.”

He broke the connection and poured himself another cup of coffee.

“That’s it?” demanded Val, whose image popped into view again. “That’s all you’re going to say?”

“Of course not,” replied Cole. “But let them worry about it for a few minutes.”

“Right now they’re probably getting us in the sights of every weapon they own.”

“Right now they’re counting our ships and analyzing our de­fenses,” answered Cole calmly. “In another minute they’ll realize I wasn’t lying, and then we’ll continue the conversation.”

“It’s been a pretty one-sided conversation so far,” noted Val.

“I haven’t asked them to say anything so far.”

Suddenly Malcolm Briggs’s voice came over the ship’s intercom, though not his image. “Incoming! Pulse and laser fire!”

“Solely at us?” asked Cole.

“No, sir. They’re also targeting Mr. Sokolov and Mr. Perez.”

“I trust they’re out of range?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay. Tell Christine to wait thirty seconds and then put me on again.”

“I’ve pinpointed the source of the pulse fire,” announced Forrice from his post in the Gunnery section. “You want me to take it out?”

“I want you to do nothing without an express order from me,” said Cole.

“That’s what I was requesting—an express order.”


“You’re on in five seconds, sir,” said Christine.

Cole cleared his throat, counted to five, and began speaking.

“This is Wilson Cole again. I trust you’ve convinced yourself that you’re not about to inflict any damage on us. The corollary is that we can annihilate you in less than a minute.”

A brief pause.

“However, we have no desire to cause you any damage or loss of life. We are not conquerors, we are not warlords, and we are not criminals. We are a mercenary force, hired by the authorities of the Pirelli Cluster to put an end to your aggressive and illegal domination of the local star systems. And I should note that in this instance we are an overwhelming mercenary force.

“We have now reached the point where decisions must be made,” he continued. “We are confiscating the three docked ships. Any of you on the planet can surrender and pledge your allegiance to my fleet. If you do so, you will not be harmed—but you will not be left in control of your ship. Two of my men will be installed as Captain and First Officer until such time as you have proven your trustworthiness, and any disloyalty will be punishable by death. Those of you who choose this option should take off immediately and put your ships in orbit around the fifth planet in the system. If you do not wish to meet us in combat or join us as an ally, fly your equivalent of the white flag and leave the cluster immediately, via the Landrigan Wormhole, and you will not be fired upon . . . but you will never be allowed to return. Your third and final alternative is to remain where you are and meet us in combat. You have ten Standard minutes to make your decisions, after which combat will commence.”

He broke the transmission, considered having yet another cup of coffee, decided not to, and took an airlift up to the bridge, where Christine Mboya, Malcolm Briggs, Val, and the alien Domak were manning their stations.

“Any response yet?” he asked as he arrived.

“Five ships have signaled that they want to join us,” answered Christine, “and are heading to the fifth planet.”

“Tell Jacovic to monitor them, and take out any ship that heads that way and doesn’t go into orbit.”

“Two white flags, sir,” announced Briggs.

“Tell Sokolov to take a couple of ships, follow them to the wormhole, and make sure they enter it,” said Cole. “What’s left?”

“Two ships, sir,” said Domak, a warrior-caste Polonoi, her muscular body covered with natural armor. “I’ve identified one as belonging to Machtel.”

“Got him in my sights,” said Forrice’s voice.

“Forget it,” said Cole. “He’s not going to stand his ground.”

“He hasn’t moved yet,” said Forrice.

“He’s just proving how tough he is. He’s got a couple of minutes left.”

“The other ship is heading to the fifth planet, sir,” said Briggs. “That leaves just Machtel.”

“He’s probably not the type to take orders,” said Cole. “I’ll give plenty of ten-to-one that he heads for the wormhole rather than the fifth planet.”

“He’s not heading anywhere,” said Forrice.

“He will,” said Cole. “This isn’t his planet. Every other ship has already left. He won’t prove anything by dying. We’re just doing to him what he did to whoever was here before him, and we’re doing it a lot more humanely.”

“A humane war!” snorted the Molarian.

“Whose life do you want me to trade for Machtel’s?” asked Cole. “Yours? Val’s? Mine?”

“You don’t have to trade anyone’s life,” said Forrice. “We can kill him. He can’t harm us.”

“Whether we kill him or let him escape, we accomplish our mission,” replied Cole. “And by doing it this way, word will spread to future opponents that they don’t have to fight to the last man, that we’re not in the punishment or retribution business, that we’re just as happy to achieve a bloodless victory.”

“Sir?” said Briggs.


“Machtel just took off. He’s heading for the wormhole.”

“Good. Tell Jacovic to take eighteen ships out to the fifth planet, put our new members in a tight formation, englobe them, and escort them back to base. That ought to discourage any foolhardy heroes among our new recruits.”

Val looked up from her control panel. “You really want to give this asshole a free pass?”

“Machtel? I promised him one.”

“He’s just going to be more trouble in the future,” she said. “The other ships have already entered the wormhole. We could take him out and no one would be any the wiser.”

“And when he didn’t show up at the other end, you think the others won’t know what happened?”

“So what if they do?” she persisted.

“Then before long far more powerful forces than his would know they could never trust our word again.”

She shrugged. “All right—but if you change your mind, we’ve got thirty seconds before he reaches the wormhole.”

“How the hell did I manage to assemble such a bloodthirsty crew?” Cole said wryly. “I feel a need to speak to someone who’s glad that we didn’t blow nine ships to hell and gone.” He walked over to a bulkhead and tapped his fingers against it. “Come on out, David.”

The bulkhead slid open, and an odd-looking creature of vaguely human proportions, but dressed like a Victorian dandy, stepped out onto the bridge. His eyes were set at the sides of his elongated head, his large triangular ears were capable of independent movement, his mouth was absolutely circular and had no lips at all, and his neck was long and incredibly flexible. His torso was broad and half again as long as a man’s, and his short, stubby legs had an extra joint in them. His skin may have possessed a greenish tint, but his bearing and manner were properly upper-class British at all times.

“Is it over?” he asked.

“It was a nonevent,” said Cole.

“The bigger our fleet becomes, the more nonevents we can expect to have,” said the alien approvingly.

“We just added eight more ships,” Cole informed him. “Five from the planet, three that were docked in orbit.”

“So we’re up to fifty-one?”

Cole nodded. “If they all work.”

“You’re going to make it harder and harder for me to solicit contracts that will cover all our expenses.”

“The burdens of success,” replied Cole. “I suppose we could attack a Republic convoy. That ought to put a huge dent in our expenses by the time we escaped.”

“It’s unkind of you to make fun of me, Steerforth,” said the alien.

“I’m open to suggestions,” replied Cole. “Who would you like me to make fun of?”

“Why are you being like this?” asked the alien.

“I apologize, David,” said Cole. “It’s just that we should all be celebrating a victory where we didn’t have to fire a shot—but I get the distinct impression that most of my senior officers would rather engage in armed conflict.”

“Well, you are a military ship and crew,” noted the alien. “War is what most of you have trained for all your adult lives.”

“No sane man wants to go to war,” said Cole. “These aren’t expendable chess pieces under my command. They’re living beings, and it’s my job to keep them alive.”

“I agree,” said the dapper alien. “You have to be quite insane to face the possibility of losing a battle.”

“Which is why you sit them out hiding inside a bulkhead,” noted Cole.

“Resting, not hiding,” shot back the alien. “I’m the Teddy R’s business agent, not one of its lieutenants—and as a rational and foresightful business agent let me predict that there will be no more pitched battles in our future. Our fleet is growing larger and more powerful almost by the week.”

“Yeah,” agreed Cole sardonically. “Eight or ten million more ships and we can meet the Republic on even terms.”

“Make fun of me if you wish,” said the alien, “but I’m telling you that you will not see another armed conflict or my name isn’t David Copperfield.”

“I hate to point it out,” said Cole, “but your name isn’t David Copperfield.”

“How can you say such a thing, Steerforth?” demanded David.

“Possibly because my name isn’t Steerforth.”

“Details, details,” said Copperfield. “People take the names they want on the Inner Frontier. I took David.”

“I didn’t take Steerforth,” said Cole.

“It is my gift to you, courtesy of the immortal Charles.”

“You and Mr. Dickens can have it back,” said Cole. “I just hope you’re more accurate about your military predictions than your name.”

Cole had the uneasy feeling that some nameless god of the spaceways grinned sardonically and silently mouthed the words: Well, you can hope.


It wasn’t home—that was the Teddy R—but it was headquarters.

It was Singapore Station, perhaps the most remarkable structure on the Inner Frontier. Its genesis went back some eleven centuries, to the 883rd year of the Galactic Era, when two small space stations, built midway between the Genoa and the Kalatina systems, were splitting the business in a sector that could support only one station. In desperation their owners decided to form not just an economic partnership, but a physical one as well. The two stations were moved to a midpoint between the systems by space tugs. Workmen and robots labored for three Standard months, joining them physically—and when they reopened they found that business was booming.

Others saw and learned and copied, and by the fourteenth century G.E. there were dozens of such super-stations across the Frontier. They found that the bigger they were, the more services they could provide—and the more services they could provide, the more clientele they could attract, so they kept combining and growing.

By the time Cole and his crew first docked at it, almost two hundred such stations had combined into one super-station—Singapore Station—that was as heavily populated as any colony world, and measured some seven miles in diameter. It consisted of nine levels, with docking facilities that could handle almost ten thousand ships, from huge military and passenger vessels to the little one- and two-man jobs that were commonplace on the Frontier.

Singapore Station was well named and well located. An interstellar gathering place reminiscent of the fabled international city back on old Earth, it was halfway between the Republic and the huge black hole at the galactic core. Warring parties—and there were always wars going on in the galaxy—needed a Switzerland, a neutral territory where all sides could meet in safety and secrecy, where currencies could be exchanged, where men and aliens could come and go regardless of their political and military affiliation, and Singapore Station filled that need.

It was also a wide-open venue. Whorehouses, catering to all sexes and species, abounded. So did bars, drug dens, casinos, and huge open “gray markets.” (By definition no item was illegal or contraband on Singapore Station, so there couldn’t be any black markets.) There were elegant hotels, comparable to the finest on Deluros VIII. There were gourmet restaurants, side-by-side with slop houses, as well as alien restaurants catering to more than one hundred non-human species.

Four of the nine levels possessed what had come to be known as Standard gravity and atmosphere, though no one knew if that was Earth Standard or Deluros VIII Standard (and since they were almost identical, no one really cared). There was a level for chlorine breathers, one for methane breathers, another for ammonia breathers, and one small section with no atmosphere at all, where space-suited men and space-suited aliens could meet as uncomfortable equals. A middle level provided automatic transport for all.

Cole had chosen Singapore Station as the headquarters for his rapidly growing fleet of ships the first time he set foot on it a year earlier. It was the one place on the Inner Frontier where he trusted the security, where he could replenish his supplies, and where he could make contact with those who might be interested in hiring the services of the Teddy R and its sister ships. Though David Copperfield still negotiated Cole’s end of the contracts, he didn’t have enough contacts to solicit sufficient work to keep Cole’s small but growing navy busy—but there was one man who did, and that was the man who ran Singapore Station. Known as the Platinum Duke for his multitude of platinum prosthetics—not much of the original man remained on the exterior except his tongue, lips, and sexual organ—he had formed a partnership with Cole that had proved profitable to both parties.

The Duke also owned a large casino known simply as Duke’s Place, and it was the unofficial hangout of the Teddy R’s crew. The Duke himself kept a large table at the back of the casino where Cole and his officers were always welcome, and where there was no tab for food or drink.

Cole entered the casino and walked past the human and alien games to the Duke’s table, accompanied by his Chief of Security, Sharon Blacksmith, and David Copperfield. Val had accompanied them as far as the entrance, but made a beeline for the gaming tables the moment she entered. The Duke’s security system alerted him to their presence, and he emerged from his private office, looking far more robotic than human, to greet them as they reached the table.

“I hear you took care of Machtel without firing a shot,” said the Duke. “That’s, what, three in a row?”

“It makes more sense to assimilate the ships and crew than destroy them,” said Cole, pulling a chair out for Sharon and then seating himself. A robot approached, and he ordered drinks for himself and Sharon. “You want anything, David?”

“A bottle of Cygnian cognac,” replied the dapper little alien.

“Come on, David,” said Cole. “Your metabolism can’t handle our stimulants.”

“I know,” replied Copperfield. “But I don’t have to open it. I’ll just let it sit here on the table in front of me for atmosphere.”

“Fine,” said the Duke. “If you don’t open it, I can sell it later.”

“You’ll have to forgive him,” said Cole. “He gets a little more obsessed every day. I can’t believe he hasn’t visited one of the whorehouses here.”

“David Copperfield would never frequent a brothel!” said the alien heatedly.

“I stand corrected,” said Cole.

“How many of Machtel’s ships and crew did you confiscate?” asked the Duke.

“Eight ships, fifty-seven Men and aliens,” answered Cole.

“That’s quite a fleet you’re accumulating,” said the Duke. “You’re going to run out of challenges before too long.”

“We’ve faced challenges,” replied Cole. “Trust me, they’re overrated.”

“Besides, we can’t go getting him shot up now that I’ve finally got him trained,” said Sharon.

“Decorum forbids me from asking what you’d got him trained to do,” said the Duke, his human lips smiling in his platinum face. He looked over at the Valkyrie. “You’d think she’d stop by and say hello.”

“She will, after she’s beaten your table or blown all her money,” said Cole. “You know her.”

“I still wish she’d hire on right here. I never saw anyone who could spot a cheater quicker, and I’ve never seen the human or alien who could beat her in a fight.”

“She’s quite remarkable,” agreed Copperfield.

“I need her right where she is,” said Cole.

“You wouldn’t be happy with her anyway,” added Sharon. “Wilson’s the only person she’ll listen to.”

“Why is that?” asked the Duke.

“Because he’s never wrong,” said Copperfield. “Except when he disagrees with me.”

“Funny,” added Sharon with a smile. “I was about to say the same thing.”

“Ah!” said the Duke, looking across the room. “I see Commander Jacovic has joined us.”

“He was a little late getting in,” replied Cole. “I had him escort the new ships back, just in case one of the them tried to pull anything funny.” He waved his hand to catch Jacovic’s attention, and the tall, thin Teroni walked across the room and joined them.

“Welcome back, Commander Jacovic,” said the Duke.

“I am just Jacovic now,” replied the Teroni. “I am no longer an officer in the Teroni Navy.”

“Commander of the Fifth Fleet, to be exact,” said Cole.

“That’s in the past. We are no longer enemies, and neither of us is a member of any Navy.”

“Except our own,” said Sharon. “The only difference between you and Wilson is that the Teronis haven’t offered a ten-million-credit reward for you, dead or alive,” said Sharon. “The Republic’s Navy is somewhat less enamoured of our Captain.”

“Out here that’s a badge of honor,” remarked the Duke. “In fact, it makes you a hero. The fact that you were justified, that you actually saved millions of Republic lives by forcibly replacing your captain, doesn’t quite detract from the fact that you are the most wanted criminal in the galaxy.”

“How comforting,” said Cole dryly.

“And by the way, the reward is now up to twelve million,” added the Duke.

“Whoopie,” said Cole unenthusiastically.

The Duke studied Cole’s face. “Our hero looks neither pleased nor proud. Why not?”

“We both know the Navy’s not going to send a major fleet to the Frontier after the Teddy R as long as they’re in a war with the Teroni Federation,” answered Copperfield. “But if they keep making the reward bigger and bigger, then sooner or later, despite your security, Singapore Station is going to be crawling with bounty hunters.”

“It won’t happen here,” the Duke assured him. “Whoever accepts the contract will want to live long enough to spend it.”

“You can stop one killer,” continued Sharon. “But what if twenty of them form a partnership? That’s still better than half a million a man.”

“Enough,” said Cole. “The risks go with the job.”

Sharon was about to reply when they heard a cry of triumph from across the room.

“She beat your jabob game,” noted Cole, referring to the alien gaming table where Val was holding up a fistful of cash.

“It would be so much cheaper to have her work for the house than play against it,” muttered the Duke.

A robot delivered a bottle of whiskey to Val.

“Not to worry,” said Cole. “She’ll chug-a-lug a couple of bottles of booze and probably wind up losing it all back to you.”

“Remarkable lady,” said the Duke.

“She’s got her share of rough edges,” agreed Cole. “But when the chips are down, she’s the one I want protecting my back.”

“Just so long as she leaves your front alone,” said Sharon.

Suddenly the Duke summoned a robot. “Where are my manners?” he said. “What will you have to drink, Commander?”

“Just Jacovic,” the Teroni corrected him. “And if it’s all right with you, I think I would prefer to eat.”

“My kitchen is at your disposal.”

“Meaning no disrespect, but there is a restaurant three levels down that specializes in Teroni food,” said Jacovic. “I just stopped in to tell Captain Cole that we returned without incident, and to say hello to you.” He got to his feet.

“You’ll be back later?” asked the Duke.


“Give me the name of the restaurant and I’ll see to it that there’s no charge.”

“Thank you,” said Jacovic, “but I prefer to pay.”

He turned and headed to the door.

“A little anti-Man sentiment there?” asked the Duke.

“No,” answered Cole. “A little pride.” He shrugged. “Besides, out here he’s got nothing to spend it on.”

“We have that in common,” said a familiar voice.

Cole turned and saw Forrice, his First Officer, spinning toward the table with his remarkably graceful three-legged gait. The burly Molarian, whose tripodal structure made sitting on chairs crafted for humans all but impossible, waited until a robot brought him a seat that had been made especially for him.

“I thought you were busy spending all your money, Four Eyes,” remarked Cole when Forrice finally seated himself.

The Molarian’s reply was a guttural growl.

“What happened?”

“Guess,” muttered Forrice.

Suddenly Cole grinned in amusement. “Wrong time of year?”

“It’s not funny!” snapped Forrice. “You and Sharon have sex whenever you want, which is altogether too often if you want my opinion, but Molarians are different. Our females are seasonal.”

“And the Molarian whorehouse didn’t have any in season?”

“Not one!”

“Poor baby,” said Sharon sympathetically, and neither Cole nor Forrice could tell if she was sincere or teasing him.

“So what do you do now?” asked Copperfield.

“It all depends,” said the Molarian. “Have you and the Duke gotten us another assignment yet?”

“No,” said Copperfield. “Steerforth wanted to give the crew a week’s shore leave. Well, Singapore Station leave, anyway.”

“Then maybe I’ll borrow one of the shuttles,” said Forrice. “There’s supposed to be a Molarian whorehouse over on Braccio II. I could be there and back in three days’ time.”

The Duke shook his head. “You don’t want to go anywhere near there, Forrice,” he said.

“Oh? Why not?”

“There are a couple of hundred Navy ships in the vicinity,” said the Duke. “At least, they were there two days ago.”

“What the hell are they doing out here?”

“The usual,” answered the Duke. “Forcibly recruiting cannon fodder. Plundering agricultural planets for supplies. Appropriating fissionable materials from a trio of mining worlds. Pacifying a couple of worlds that have somehow annoyed them. And then explaining that they were doing it all for our own good. You know the Navy.”

“We all know the Navy,” said Sharon. “We were in it. That’s why we can never go back to the Republic.”

“Anyway, I hate to put a damper on your love life, Forrice,” continued the Duke, “but I’d stay away from there until we get definite word that the Navy has left.”

“It’s a damned lucky thing Molarians don’t believe in God,” muttered Forrice. “Because if we did, I’d be sure He hated me.”

“He’s probably just having a little fun at your expense,” said Cole. He put an arm around the Molarian’s shoulders. “Come on, Four Eyes. It’s just another week. You’ve waited half a Standard year, you can wait a few more days.”

“I know, I know,” said Forrice glumly. He got to his feet. “I’m going to wander the streets feeling sorry for myself. If I’m lucky, maybe some mugger will attack me. I’ve got a lot of extra aggression tonight.”

He turned and headed out of the casino.

“Poor bastard,” remarked Cole. “Nature played a hell of a trick on the Molarians. The females are seasonal, but the males are always ready.”

“You’re very fond of him, aren’t you?” asked the Duke.

“He’s been my closest friend for, I don’t know, twelve or thirteen years.”

“I find that surprising.”

“Why?” said Cole. “Molarians are the only race besides Man with a sense of humor. He’s smart, he’s witty, he’s brave, he’s loyal, and”—Cole smiled—“he leaves Sharon alone, even at times like this.”

“Well,” said the Duke, “how about dinner?”

“Yeah, we could use some real food after all those damned soya products on the ship,” said Cole. “What have you got tonight?”

The Duke recited the day’s menu, Cole and Sharon made their choices, David Copperfield ordered a steak that they all knew he wasn’t going to touch, and a few minutes later the meal was served.

And five minutes after that, Val walked over and sat down with them.

“Ah, the lovely and remarkable Valkyrie!” said the Duke by way of greeting.

“Can it,” she said. “I’m not in the mood.”

“You lost it that fast?”

“Shut up and give me something to eat.”

“She lost it that fast,” Cole confirmed with a smile.

Val glared at him, and Sharon decided he was the only living entity in the galaxy who could have said that without being decapitated two seconds later.


Cole made his way to the Teddy R’s security section, where he found Luthor Chadwick, Sharon Blacksmith’s second-in-command, sitting in front of a bank of monitors, keeping a watchful eye on all crew members who remained onboard the ship.

Chadwick snapped him a salute. “Hello, sir,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

Cole resisted the urge to tell him to stop saluting. “Is your boss in her office?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Alone, or still interviewing our new recruits from Machtel’s crew?”

“I believe she’s alone, sir.” He checked a monitor. “Yes, sir. She’s finished the last of them a few minutes ago.”

“Good. That’s what I want to talk to her about.”

Cole approached the door to Sharon’s office, which instantly read his retina and bone structure, and irised to allow him to step through.

“How’s it going?” he asked.

Sharon leaned back on her chair. “I’d call them a mixed lot.”

“You want to expand on that?”

“They’re outlaws and cutthroats, Wilson.”

“So are we, except for the cutthroat part,” replied Cole. “How many can we work with?”

“Well, you’ve got three who are borderline psychopaths and one who crossed that border years ago. I suppose we can fit the rest in.”

“Okay,” said Cole. “That’s still fifty-three more crew members. Give me the names of the four crazies.”

She ordered her computer to print out the four names.

“Thanks,” he said, taking it from her. “The sooner we get the bad eggs off the ships, the less contamination we risk.”

“I’d be very careful handling them, Wilson,” she said. “You’ve got a couple of real killer-dillers there.”

“Well, if you’re going to keep a few systems under your thumb the way Machtel did, I suppose you need some real killer-dillers.”

“What do you plan to do with them?” asked Sharon. “We can’t just turn them loose on Singapore Station.”

“I know,” said Cole. “I suppose I could just have Val beat the shit out of them twice a day until she’s broken their spirits.”


“Seriously? We’ll confiscate their weapons and dump them on some world that’s got a competent police force. If I can’t turn them loose in Singapore Station, and I agree that I can’t, I sure as hell can’t turn them loose on some little pastoral farming world. They’d rob and kill the first family they came upon and swipe their ship.”

“Well, when you decide exactly where you’re placing them, let me know so I can notify the authorities.”

“Will do,” said Cole. “In fact, I suppose I’d better get the ball rolling. Lunch later?”

“Here or the station?”

“The station has real food, the Teddy R has soya products. Which do you think?”

She smiled. “I’ll meet you at Duke’s Place in a couple of hours.”


He turned and left her office, walked out of the security section to a nearby airlift, took it down two levels, got off, and approached the smallish room that had been turned into a very undersized gymnasium. He entered it and found himself facing Eric Pampas, a muscular young man, and the Valkyrie. Both were lifting weights, weights Cole was sure no one else on the ship, even some of the sturdier aliens, could budge.

“Good morning, sir,” said Pampas, putting his barbell on the floor and saluting.

“Good morning, Bull,” replied Cole. “Are you two just about done?”

“Another five minutes,” said Val. “What’s up?”

“Sharon’s interviewed the new crew, had the computer run psych tests on them, and she tells me we’ve got four serious nutcases.”

“Only four?” said Val, lifting her weight again. “That’s better than last time.”

“I’ve got a list of their names. Jacovic is keeping an eye on all the new crew members aboard the Silent Dart until they receive their ship assignments. I want you to pull these four out and—”

“—beat a little obedience into them?” concluded Val. “Good. Bull needs the exercise. I’ll lend a hand if he needs it.”

“Try not to understand me so fast,” said Cole. “I want you and Bull to load them into the Red Sphinx. Stay with them until you land, make sure they’re not in the middle of a desert or a wilderness, give them back any weaponry they’ll need to defend themselves but nothing powerful enough to cause any serious problems to the local constabulary—I’ll leave it to your judgment—and then have Perez bring you back to Singapore Station.”

“We could kill them right now and save a lot of trouble,” said Val. “You set ’em loose on some third-rate world and they’re likely to feel betrayed and resentful.”

“Why?” said Cole. “We could have destroyed them back in the Pirelli Cluster, but we let them live.”

“If they were sane enough to take that into account, you wouldn’t be dumping them, would you?” replied Val.

“Val, we’re not cold-blooded killers,” said Cole. “Well, some of us aren’t,” he amended. “Just do what I tell you to do.”

“I hope they decide they don’t want to go,” she said.

“Bull,” said Cole, turning to the young man, “if that’s the case, make sure it was their decision and not hers.”

Pampas, finding himself between the Captain and the Third Officer, nodded an agreement but didn’t salute, which seemed to satisfy both of them.

“Okay,” said Cole. “Finish up, shower, and get over to the Silent Dart in an hour. By the time you transfer them to the Red Sphinx, Perez will know where you’re going.”

Cole left the room and took a different airlift up to the bridge, where he found young blonde Rachel Marcos sitting at the computer complex.

“Good morning, sir,” she said, standing and saluting.

“Good morning. I’ve lost track of the time. When is Christine back on duty?”

“It’s still red shift for another two hours, sir. She’ll come on when it’s white shift.”

“I need some information sooner than that,” said Cole, frowning. “Hunt up the three nearest nonagricultural oxygen worlds possessing organized law enforcement and reliable medical and transportation facilities.”

She spoke a code that he didn’t understand, and a moment later the computer threw up a holograph of the sector, with Singapore Station and three reasonably close worlds brilliantly highlighted.

“Any immigration restrictions on any of them?”

Another coded statement. “Yes, sir. Niarchos IV is currently closed to human immigration.”

“Which of the other two has the larger police force?”

She asked the computer, and suddenly only one planet was flashing. “Mirbeau III, sir.”

“Thanks. That should do it.”

Cole walked over to stand beneath the half-sling half-cocoon that held Wxakgini, the Bdxeni pilot whose race never slept and whose neural circuits were wired into the ship’s navigational system.

“Pilot,” said Cole, who had long since given up trying to pronounce Wxakgini’s name, “are there any wormholes between our present location and Mirbeau III? You can get its coordinates from the computer.”

“Yes,” answered Wxakgini, whose response to Cole’s inability to learn his name was to never call Cole “sir.” “The Yoriba Wormhole will let a ship out near the fourth planet of the Mirbeau system.”

“Transit time from Singapore Station?”

“Utilizing the wormhole, four hours and seventeen minutes,” replied the pilot. “Through normal space at light speeds, just under four days.”

“Okay, thanks,” said Cole. He turned back to Rachel. “Contact Mr. Perez. Tell him he’s about to be visited by Val, Bull, and four of Machtel’s men. Have him warn his crew that the men are highly dangerous, and to keep clear of them. He’s to utilize the Yoriba Wormhole and drop them off on Mirbeau III.”

“Should I clear it with the planetary authorities first, sir?” asked Rachel.

Cole shook his head. “What if they say no? Tell Sharon to alert them after Perez has dropped off his cargo and is heading back to Singapore Station.”

“Yes, sir.”

“By the way, has Four Eyes returned to the ship yet?”

“I believe he’s in the mess hall, sir.”

“Thanks,” said Cole, heading off to an airlift. He descended to the mess hall, entered it, saw Forrice sitting alone at a table, and joined him.

“Up to a little work this afternoon?”

“We don’t have afternoons in space,” replied the Molarian.

“I know, but it’s easier to say than ‘Up to a little work this white shift?’”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Val and Bull Pampas are about to separate the psychos and put them down on an innocent, unsuspecting planet,” said Cole. “I’d like you, Jacovic, Domak, and Sokolov to take the remaining recruits and their ships out and put them through some more exercises and see what they can do. We know they can terrorize innocent planet-dwellers; let’s see if they can take orders and execute military maneuvers.”

“I suppose it makes sense,” agreed Forrice. “If there are anymore washouts, we might as well find out now.”

“I want you aboard that class-K ship, the one called Hummer.”

“Any reason why?”

Cole nodded. “It has an all-human crew. I want to make sure they’ll take orders from a member of another race.”

“What they do now and what they’ll do when they’re under fire may not be the same thing,” noted Forrice.

Cole shrugged. “Perhaps not, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”

“All right,” replied the Molarian. “I’ll let Jacovic devise the exercises. He’s got a command of military maneuvers that even impresses me.”

“That’s why he was in charge of the Fifth Teroni Fleet. At one time I think he had over ten thousand ships under his command.” Cole paused. “We haven’t needed him yet, knock wood, but when we finally do, we’re going to be damned glad we’ve got him.”

“We fought against each other for years,” remarked Forrice. “I’m surprised he doesn’t feel any animosity toward us.”

“Do you feel any toward him?”

“No,” admitted the Molarian. “The way I view it, we were all just soldiers doing our job.”

“There’s your answer,” said Cole.

“Also, the one time we confronted him, he had us dead in his sights, and he behaved like an honorable being,” continued Forrice. “There aren’t a lot of those in any race.”

“You never know where an honorable being will crop up,” agreed Cole. “Or even a competent one.”

“Maybe we can spot one during the exercises this afternoon,” offered Forrice.

“I doubt it,” said Cole. “If he was honorable, he wouldn’t have been working for Machtel, and if he was competent, he’d have deposed Machtel and taken over his operation by now.”

The Molarian stared at his old friend for a long moment. “You know,” he said at last, “I just hate it when you make sense. So many problems were simpler when they only had me thinking about them.”

“I apologize.”

“Damned well better,” growled Forrice.

“You’re a little ray of sunshine today.”

“Guess why.”

“The Navy will clear out in another day or two, and you can spend a week fucking your brains out on Braccio II.”

“Two weeks.”

“I don’t want you coming back so thin that we have to carry you to your post every day.”

“You’ve been sharing your bed with Sharon for almost two years, and it hasn’t cost you any weight.”

Sharon’s image popped into view. “That’s because he just lies there and I do all the work.”

“You were listening?” asked Cole.

“I’m the Chief of Security. It’s my job to be nosy.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” said Cole. “Four Eyes, if you want her you can have her.”

“If the Navy sticks around another week,” replied Forrice with a hoot of alien laughter, “I may take you up on that.”

After the Molarian had finished his meal and left, Sharon’s image appeared opposite Cole again.

“You know,” she said seriously, “I’m hardly shy, and I haven’t been virginal in a long time—but I find the crew’s constant obsession with brothels disquieting. Not just the men. I know Val frequents that one that supplies male androids. And here’s dear old Forrice unable to talk about anything else. Don’t you find it all rather . . . I don’t know . . . tawdry?”

“You have to put it in perspective,” answered Cole. “Look at our situation. We can’t go back to the Republic. We can’t have families and settle down. We live in a sexual universe, and we have sexual needs. You and I lucked out and found each other, but whorehouses are what most of them have to settle for. When you’re an outlaw ship—an outlaw fleet now—with prices on your heads, the last thing you want are long-term relationships with any planet-dwellers. So you make your accommodation.”

“You know,” she said after a moment, “I think I agree with Forrice.”

“About what?”

“I just hate it when you make sense. You take away all my distaste for a clearly distasteful situation.”

“I was planning on taking you to that elegant new restaurant that just opened up on the sixth level of the station,” said Cole. “They’re supposed to have mutated bison imported from Pollux IV. I suppose we should each pay our own way to avoid another distasteful situation.”

“I can live with that one,” she said promptly.

“You’re sure?” he asked with a smile.

“Easier than you can live a celibate life for the next six months,” she replied. “Your choice.”

“Let me see a menu and check the prices and then I’ll make a decision.”

She laughed, he laughed, and both of them decided they were very fortunate not to have been born Molarian.

It would be a few days yet before they knew how lucky.


Cole and Forrice walked past the gaming tables of Duke’s Place and sat down at the Platinum Duke’s table.

“I got word that you wanted to speak to me,” said Cole.

“How soon can you be ready for a major action?” asked the Duke.

“That all depends. Define major action.”

“The biggest outlaw on the Inner Frontier is the Octopus . . .” began the Duke.

“Human?” asked Forrice.

“I don’t know,” admitted the Duke. “I don’t think anyone does, except his lieutenants.”

“Okay, so he’s the biggest outlaw on the Frontier,” said Cole. “Go on.”

“I’m surprised you haven’t heard of him.”

“Why should we?” asked Cole. “We’re not exactly long-term residents. The Teddy R goes out after selected targets, and then it comes right back to Singapore Station.”

“I’m sure someone on the ship has heard of him,” said the Molarian. “After all, we’ve added more than four hundred to our various crews. Maybe the original members of the Teddy R don’t know who he is, but beings who’ve lived most of their lives on the Inner Frontier probably have.”

“I repeat: What about him?” said Cole.

“There’s a consortium of some forty-three worlds that would like to put a stop to his activities.”

Cole shook his head. “Not good enough. Spell it out.”

“They want him killed or imprisoned, and his fleet demolished.”

“How come no one’s asked us to do this sooner?” asked Forrice. “We’ve been a mercenary fleet for just short of a Standard year now.”

Cole shot him a look that said: Dumb question.

“They never thought you were strong enough until now,” replied the Duke. “Word has spread that you prefer to assimilate enemy ships and crews rather than destroy them, so they figure every time you score a major victory you’re that much bigger and more powerful for the next assignment.”

“What’s the bottom line?” said Cole.

“They’ll pay you the sum of—”

“That’s David’s bottom line,” interrupted Cole. “I want to know what we’re up against.”

“I don’t have exact numbers,” answered the Duke. “It’s estimated that he’s got between three hundred and four hundred ships.”

“I don’t think much of your notion of fair odds.”

“When you hear what they’re paying . . .”

“Later,” said Cole. “Tell me what kind of armaments they’re ­carrying.”

“I haven’t the slightest idea.”

“How many planets do they control?”

The Duke shrugged. “I told you: forty-three.”

Cole shook his head. “That’s how many are willing to pay us. How many does he control—planets that are too afraid to join the consortium?”

“I’ll find out. Don’t you want to hear the price?”

“After you find out what I want to know, then we’ll talk price,” said Cole. “Although right at the moment, I’m inclined to tell you to forget it. They outnumber us six or eight to one, maybe more. We’ve got a lot of small class-G and class-H ships. If they’ve got any Level 4 thumpers or Level 5 burners and commensurate defenses . . .”

“So you’ll lose a few ships,” said the Duke. “You’ll replace them with the ones you assimilate.”

“Those ships you shrug off are filled with people who depend upon me to keep them alive, or at least give them a fighting chance to survive.”

“You have to expect losses. This is war, Wilson.”

“Not if we don’t declare it,” said Cole. “And war has nothing to do with dying bravely and nobly for your side. Our job is making the other guy die bravely and nobly for his side.”

“You really don’t want to hear the price?”

“Not now.”

The Duke shrugged. “Okay, but if I can’t make my commission, at least go place some bets at the tables.”

“You don’t know our Wilson,” said Forrice. “He never gambles.” A hoot of alien laughter. “That’s probably why we’re willing to follow him.”

Cole noticed Val approaching them from the alien jabob table. “She’s smiling. I guess she won her money back.”

“How can she drink like a fish and stay so beautiful?” asked the Duke.

“A better question is how can she abuse her body the way she does and stay so fit and powerful?” said Forrice.

“She’s certainly not like any other woman I’ve ever met,” agreed the Duke.

“She’s not like anybody anyone’s ever met,” said Cole. “Give me fifty like her and I could probably conquer the Republic.”

“If she felt like it,” noted Forrice. “That’s always the wild card.”

“She always feels like conquering things,” replied Cole. “The problem is that she doesn’t always feel like obeying orders . . . though I must admit she’s getting better at it.”

Val reached the table, pulled up a chair, and ordered a bottle of brandy from a robot waiter.

“You’re going to share that with everybody, right?” asked the Duke with a smile that said he was gently teasing her.

“With my shipmates,” she replied seriously. “You own the stock. You can order your own bottle.”

“You know,” said the Duke thoughtfully, “I’ll bet she’s heard of him.”

“Of who?” asked Val.

“The Octopus.”

“Ugly son of a bitch,” she said contemptuously.

“You’ve met him?” asked Cole.

“Not lately. I knew him, oh, about ten, eleven years ago.”

“Is he human?”

“Sort of.”

“What does that mean?” asked Cole.

“He’s either a freak or a mutant,” answered Val. “He doesn’t wear a shirt, and he’s got six misshapen hands sticking out of his sides.”

“Can you tell us anything else about him?”

“He’s smart,” she said. “Almost as smart as me. Physically he’s not much.”

“With six extra hands?” said the Duke.

“They’re not arms, just hands.”

“It’s still impressive.”

“He tried to grab my ass with one of them, so I coldcocked him,” replied Val. “He never tried again.”

“Doubtless why he’s still alive,” said Cole wryly.

“Damned right,” said Val seriously. “Why all the questions?” Suddenly she turned to the Duke. “You got us a commission to take him out.”

“It’s still in the negotiating stage,” said Cole.

“That means you won’t agree until you know what he’s got,” said Val decisively. “I can’t help you. Like I say, it’s been ten years.”

“There’s no rush. Forrice and Jacovic are still working our new ships and crews into shape.” He turned to Forrice. “Any potential command personnel there?”

“Too early to tell,” replied the Molarian. “I think we should leave our people in place there for the time being.”

“Does Jacovic agree?”

The Molarian shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him, though I can’t imagine he doesn’t.”

“All right,” said Cole. “When we put our people permanently in command of the new ships, take the personnel from Perez’s and Jacovic’s ships. I’m getting to where I don’t know half the crew of the Teddy R. I want to keep the ones that I still have.”

“That shouldn’t prove a problem,” said the Molarian. “I’ll make the transfers when we go back to the ship.” He stood up. “And now, if there are no objections and there’d better not be, I think I’ll take my leave of you and go over to the Glowworm, where I plan to try my luck at the stort table.”

He headed off toward the door in his graceful spinning three-legged gait.

“I don’t know what he enjoys about that stupid alien game,” remarked Val.

“Stort?” repeated Cole. He smiled. “He wins at it.”

“Big deal. He ought to try the jabob table right here.”

“You were lucky, my dear,” said the Duke. “It’s got a fifteen percent break for the house.”

“That’s what makes it so challenging,” she said. “Most places it’s only two percent.”

David Copperfield waddled over and sat uncomfortably on a chair that was made for humans.

“Where have you been?” asked Cole.

“I thought someone ought to find out what’s going on in the galaxy,” replied the little alien.

“The Republic’s still at war with the Teroni Federation,” said Cole. “You didn’t have to go to a subspace radio for that. It’s been going on for twenty-odd years.”

“Trivial stuff,” said Copperfield with a contemptuous sneer. “Spica II won the divisional murderball title. The Deluros VIII stock market is up three percent. And there are now thirteen books, disks, cubes, and holos about the mutiny aboard the Theodore Roosevelt.”

“Each more inaccurate than the last, no doubt,” said Cole with no show of interest. “Did you learn anything useful?”

“Not on the radio,” admitted Copperfield, “but a cargo ship that just landed reports that the Navy decimated six more worlds on the Inner Frontier.”

“Why would a naval commander obey an order to wipe out six neutral Frontier planets?” said Cole disgustedly.

“Not everyone is a mutineer,” said the Duke with a smile.

“Oh, well,” said Cole, “if they’re done, maybe we can clear Four Eyes to make a quick trip over to Braccio II.” He got to his feet. “I’m going back to the ship now. David, I’m sure the second I’m gone the Platinum Duke is going to tell you about all the trillions we can make for no effort at all if we accept the assignment he’s working on.” He paused. “First, you do not have the authority to negotiate or accept it without my approval, and second, you are not subtle enough to slyly introduce it into the next ten conversations we have as if it just came up spontaneously.”

“Steerforth, you cut me to the quick.”

“Just remember what I said, or I’ll take a butcher knife and go hunting for your quick.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Val, getting up and grabbing her bottle.

“I thought you’d want to spend the night celebrating your win,” said Cole.

“I do,” she said. “But I want to hide half the money first, just in case my luck turns.”

“I can hold it for you.”

She considered it for a long moment, then thrust a wad of Republic credits, New Stalin rubles, and Maria Theresa dollars into his hand.

“I wouldn’t trust anyone else with it,” said Val.

“I appreciate that.”

“Where will you be if I need it back in a hurry?”

“If you think you’ll need it back to cover some losses, why not just keep it?” said Cole.

She shook her head. “I’ve got to at least go through the motions.”

“If you come by for it later, I could just refuse to give it to you.”

“No,” said Val seriously. “If I’m liquored up and you won’t give me my money, I might kill you.”

“You won’t.”

“I don’t think I will, but you never know . . .”

“I’ve never seen you that liquored up,” said Cole. “I’ll take my chances. You can have the money back when we take off on our next mission, whatever it is.”

She stared at him, then nodded and took her bottle back to the Duke’s table.

Cole made his way to the Teddy R, where he found Rachel Marcos waiting for him.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“We just finished the damage report from the Machtel operation,” she replied.

“What damages?” demanded Cole. “Not a shot was fired.”

“Some space debris damaged the Longshot and the Penny Dreadful inside one of the wormholes.”

“I assume their structural integrity hasn’t been compromised, since they made it back to Singapore Station.”

“They seem okay,” she reported. “But if the abrasions aren’t fixed, the ships could begin developing problems.”

“It is anything Slick can’t handle?” asked Cole.

Slick was the Teddy R’s only Tolobite, an alien who along with his symbiote, which acted as a second skin, was able to work long hours in the airless cold of space.

“He’s seen the holographs of the damage and thinks he can fix it, sir,” said Rachel.

“Okay,” said Cole. “Run the reports and holos by Mr. Odom”—Mustapha Odom, the Teddy R’s engineer—“and if he agrees, tell Slick to go to work on them.”

He went to Sharon’s office, waited until she was through with her work, and took her to dinner on Singapore Station, where he ran into Forrice.

“How did you fare?” he asked.

“I broke even,” replied the Molarian. “Tricky game, stort. Just when you think you’ve got it figured, you find out that it’s more complex than you imagined. Must have been invented by a Canphorite.” Suddenly he smiled. “But I heard some good news: The Navy has stopped killing everyone and is going home.”

“Until the next time,” said Sharon.

“Until the next time,” agreed Forrice. “If you have no objections, I’ll take one of the shuttles and head off to Braccio II in a few hours.”

“I suppose it’s okay,” said Cole. “But there’s no reason why you should be the only happy Molarian on board next week. Take Braxite and Jacillios with you.”

“I’ll take Jacillios,” replied Forrice. “But Braxite messed up one of his legs somehow when we were running the new ships through their paces. He’s in sick bay with some pressure bandages on it.”

“So give him some crutches and take him along anyway.”

Forrice shook his massive head. “Men can get along fine with one leg and a crutch or a prosthetic, but Molarians have to have the use of all three. Believe me, he’ll be in so much discomfort that he won’t be able to partake of what’s awaiting us on Braccio II.”

“Well, you’re the guy who’d know,” said Cole.

“I’m off to get my gear together and alert Jacillios to the fact that we’re leaving shortly. I’ll see you when I get back.”

“Have a good time,” said Cole. “And be careful.”

“I won’t do anything you wouldn’t do with our esteemed Security Chief,” answered the Molarian, “but I’ll do it with far more finesse and élan.”

“I’m sure you will,” said Cole. “But I meant, be careful in case there’s still a Navy ship or two lurking in the area.”

“If I run into one, I’ll give it your exact location in exchange for an extra day on Braccio II,” said Forrice with a hoot of laughter.

“Don’t say it,” remarked Cole as Forrice swirled off to the Teddy R.

“Don’t say what?” asked Sharon.


“I wasn’t going to.”


“Sad,” said Sharon.


“We don’t have any Molarian females aboard the Teddy R,” she replied. “How would you like to face the knowledge that you were on a ship with no women, and you could never go back to your home world?”

“I’d probably develop a crush on Vladimir Sokolov or Bull Pampas,” answered Cole.

“Say that once more and you can spend the night with them,” said Sharon.

Cole decided not to say it once more.

Starship: Rebel © Mike Resnick

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fast Forward 2: Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Gambler"

Fast Forward 2 is an anthology of all original, unthemed science fiction works, edited by Lou Anders, published by Pyr, and featuring stories from such names as Benjamin Rosenbaum & Cory Doctorow, Ian McDonald, Mike Resnick & Pat Cadigan, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Karl Schroeder & Tobias S. Buckell. In October, we provided its opening story, Paul Cornell's "Catherine Drewe," as a sample of the book's wonderful contents. Now, we are pleased to present, in its entirety, the story that closes out the anthology, Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Gambler," a tale that strikes to the heart of SF’s purpose and importance, even as it lays bare our world’s immediate future.

Paolo Bacigalupi is one of the most exciting of the new breed of short story writers, one whose ecological focus, unflinching penchant for hard truth, and exacting prose is garnering attention inside and outside of the genre.
Speaking of "The Gambler," he says, "Given the unfavorable market forces currently swamping the print news industry, it seems like an opportune moment to consider what a new media landscape might feel like if/when its technologies become completely ascendant. 'The Gambler' was partly inspired by my work as an online editor at High Country News, where one of my jobs was to plan for a digital future. The promises and perils of the technologies I was working with turned out to be fertile ground for a story."



My father was a gambler. He believed in the workings of karma and luck. He hunted for lucky numbers on license plates and bet on lotteries and fighting roosters. Looking back, I think perhaps he was not a large man, but when he took me to the muy thai fights, I thought him so. He would bet and he would win and laugh and drink laolao with his friends, and they all seemed so large. In the heat drip of Vientiane, he was a lucky ghost, walking the mirror-sheen streets in the darkness.

Everything for my father was a gamble: roulette and blackjack, new rice variants and the arrival of the monsoons. When the pretender monarch Khamsing announced his New Lao Kingdom, my father gambled on civil disobedience. He bet on the teachings of Mr. Henry David Thoreau and on whisper sheets posted on lampposts. He bet on saffron-robed monks marching in protest and on the hidden humanity of the soldiers with their well-oiled AK-47s and their mirrored helmets.

My father was a gambler, but my mother was not. While he wrote letters to the editor that brought the secret police to our door, she made plans for escape. The old Lao Democratic Republic collapsed, and the New Lao King­dom blossomed with tanks on the avenues and tuk-tuks burning on the street corners. Pha That Luang’s shining gold chedi collapsed under shelling, and I rode away on a UN evacuation helicopter under the care of kind Mrs. Yamaguchi.

From the open doors of the helicopter, we watched smoke columns rise over the city like nagas coiling. We crossed the brown ribbon of the Mekong with its jeweled belt of burning cars on the Friendship Bridge. I remember a Mercedes floating in the water like a paper boat on Loi Kratong, burning despite the water all around.

Afterward, there was silence from the land of a million elephants, a void into which light and Skype calls and e-mail disappeared. The roads were blocked. The telecoms died. A black hole opened where my country had once stood.

Sometimes, when I wake in the night to the swish and honk of Los Angeles traffic, the confusing polyglot of dozens of countries and cultures all pressed together in this American melting pot, I stand at my window and look down a boulevard full of red lights, where it is not safe to walk alone at night, and yet everyone obeys the traffic signals. I look down on the brash and noisy Americans in their many hues, and remember my parents: my father who cared too much to let me live under the self-declared monarchy, and my mother who would not let me die as a consequence. I lean against the window and cry with relief and loss.

Every week I go to temple and pray for them, light incense and make a triple bow to Buddha, Damma, and Sangha, and pray that they may have a good rebirth, and then I step into the light and noise and vibrancy of America.

* * *

My colleagues’ faces flicker gray and pale in the light of their computers and tablets. The tap of their keyboards fills the newsroom as they pass content down the workflow chain and then, with a final keystroke and an obeisance to the “publish” button, they hurl it onto the net.

In the maelstrom, their work flares, tagged with site location, content tags, and social poke data. Blooms of color, codes for media conglomerates: shades of blue and Mickey Mouse ears for Disney-Bertelsmann. A red-rimmed pair of rainbow O’s for Google’s AOL News. Fox News Corp. in pinstripes gray and white. Green for us: Milestone Media—a combination of NTT DoCoMo, the Korean gaming consortium Hyundai-Kubu, and the smoking remains of the New York Times Company. There are others, smaller stars, Crayola shades flaring and brightening, but we are the most important. The monarchs of this universe of light and color.

New content blossoms on the screen, bathing us all in the bloody glow of a Google News content flare, off their WhisperTech feed. They’ve scooped us. The posting says that new ear bud devices will be released by Frontal Lobe before Christmas: terabyte storage with Pin-Line connectivity for the Oakley microresponse glasses. The technology is next-gen, allowing personal data control via Pin-Line scans of a user’s iris. Analysts predict that everything from cell phones to digital cameras will become obsolete as the full range of Oakley features becomes available. The news flare brightens and migrates toward the center of the maelstrom as visitors flock to Google and view stolen photos of the iris-scanning glasses.

Janice Mbutu, our managing editor, stands at the door to her office, watching with a frown. The maelstrom’s red bath dominates the newsroom, a pressing reminder that Google is beating us, sucking away traffic. Behind glass walls, Bob and Casey, the heads of the Burning Wire, our own consumer technology feed, are screaming at their reporters, demanding they do better. Bob’s face has turned almost as red as the maelstrom.

The maelstrom’s true name is LiveTrack IV. If you were to go downstairs to the fifth floor and pry open the server racks, you would find a sniper sight logo and the words SCRY GLASS—KNOWLEDGE IS POWER stamped on their chips in metallic orange, which would tell you that even though Bloomberg rents us the machines, it is a Google-Neilsen partnership that provides the proprietary algorithms for analyzing the net flows—which means we pay a competitor to tell us what is happening with our own content.

LiveTrack IV tracks media user data—Web site, feed, VOD, audiostream, TV broadcast—with Google’s own net statistics gathering programs, aided by Nielsen hardware in personal data devices ranging from TVs to tablets to ear buds to handsets to car radios. To say that the maelstrom keeps a finger on the pulse of media is an understatement. Like calling the monsoon a little wet. The maelstrom is the pulse, the pressure, the blood-oxygen mix; the count of red cells and white, of T-cells and BAC, the screening for AIDS and hepatitis G. . . . It is reality.

Our service version of the maelstrom displays the performance of our own content and compares it to the top one hundred user-traffic events in real-time. My own latest news story is up in the maelstrom, glittering near the edge of the screen, a tale of government incompetence: the harvested DNA of the checkerspot butterfly, already extinct, has been destroyed through mismanagement at the California Federal Biological Preserve Facility. The butterfly—along with sixty-two other species—was subjected to improper storage protocols, and now there is nothing except a little dust in vials. The samples literally blew away. My coverage of the story opens with federal workers down on their knees in a two-billion-dollar climate-­controlled vault, with a dozen crime scene vacuums that they’ve borrowed from LAPD, trying to suck up a speck of butterfly that they might be able to reconstitute at some future time.

In the maelstrom, the story is a pinprick beside the suns and pulsing moons of traffic that represent other reporters’ content. It doesn’t compete well with news of Frontal Lobe devices, or reviews of Armored Total Combat, or live feeds of the Binge-Purge championships. It seems that the only people who are reading my story are the biologists I interviewed. This is not surprising. When I wrote about bribes for subdivision approvals, the only people who read the story were county planners. When I wrote about cronyism in the selection of city water recycling technologies, the only people who read were water engineers. Still, even though no one seems to care about these stories, I am drawn to them, as though poking at the tiger of the American government will somehow make up for not being able to poke at the little cub of New Divine Monarch Khamsing. It is a foolish thing, a sort of Don Quixote crusade. As a consequence, my salary is the smallest in the office.


Heads swivel from terminals, look for the noise: Marty Mackley, grinning.

“You can thank me . . .” He leans down and taps a button on his keyboard. “Now.”

A new post appears in the maelstrom, a small green orb announcing itself on the Glamour Report, Scandal Monkey blog, and Marty’s byline feeds. As we watch, the post absorbs pings from software clients around the world, notifying the millions of people who follow his byline that he has launched a new story.

I flick my tablet open, check the tags:

Double DP,

Redneck HipHop,

Music News,



pedophilia . . .

According to Mackley’s story, Double DP the Russian mafia cowboy rapper—who, in my opinion, is not as good as the Asian pop sensation Kulaap, but whom half the planet likes very much—is accused of impregnating the fourteen-year-old daughter of his face sculptor. Readers are starting to notice, and with their attention Marty’s green-glowing news story begins to muscle for space in the maelstrom. The content star pulses, expands, and then, as though someone has thrown gasoline on it, it explodes. Double DP hits the social sites, starts getting recommended, sucks in more readers, more links, more clicks . . . and more ad dollars.

Marty does a pelvic grind of victory, then waves at everyone for their attention. “And that’s not all, folks.” He hits his keyboard again, and another story posts: live feeds of Double’s house, where . . . it looks as though the man who popularized Redneck Russians is heading out the door in a hurry. It is a surprise to see video of the house, streaming live. Most freelance paparazzi are not patient enough to sit and hope that maybe, perhaps, something interesting will happen. This looks as though Marty has stationed his own exclusive papcams at the house, to watch for something like this.

We all watch as Double DP locks the door behind himself. Marty says, “I thought DP deserved the courtesy of notification that the story was going live.”

“Is he fleeing?” Mikela Plaa asks.

Marty shrugs. “We’ll see.”

And indeed, it does look as if Double is about to do what Americans have popularized as an “OJ.” He is into his red Hummer. Pulling out.

Under the green glow of his growing story, Marty smiles. The story is getting bigger, and Marty has stationed himself perfectly for the development. Other news agencies and blogs are playing catch-up. Follow-on posts wink into existence in the maelstrom, gathering a momentum of their own as newsrooms scramble to hook our traffic.

“Do we have a helicopter?” Janice asks. She has come out of her glass office to watch the show.

Marty nods. “We’re moving it into position. I just bought exclusive angel view with the cops, too, so everyone’s going to have to license our footage.”

“Did you let Long Arm of the Law know about the cross-content?”

“Yeah. They’re kicking in from their budget for the helicopter.”

Marty sits down again, begins tapping at his keyboard, a machine-gun of data entry. A low murmur comes from the tech pit, Cindy C. calling our telecom providers, locking down trunklines to handle an anticipated data surge. She knows something that we don’t, something that Marty has prepared her for. She’s bringing up mirrored server farms. Marty seems unaware of the audience around him. He stops typing. Stares up at the maelstrom, watching his glowing ball of content. He is the maestro of a symphony.

The cluster of competing stories are growing as Gawker and Newsweek and Throb all organize themselves and respond. Our readers are clicking away from us, trying to see if there’s anything new in our competitor’s coverage. Marty smiles, hits his “publish” key, and dumps a new bucket of meat into the shark tank of public interest: a video interview with the fourteen-year-old. On-screen, she looks very young, shockingly so. She has a teddy bear.

“I swear I didn’t plant the bear,” Marty comments. “She had it on her own.”

The girl’s accusations are being mixed over Double’s run for the border, a kind of synth loop of accusations:

“And then he . . .”

“And I said . . .”

“He’s the only one I’ve ever . . .”

It sounds as if Marty has licensed some of Double’s own beats for the coverage of his fleeing Humvee. The video outtakes are already bouncing around YouTube and MotionSwallow like Ping-Pong balls. The maelstrom has moved Double DP to the center of the display as more and more feeds and sites point to the content. Not only is traffic up, but the post is gaining in social rank as the numbers of links and social pokes increase.

“How’s the stock?” someone calls out.

Marty shakes his head. “They locked me out from showing the display.”

This, because whenever he drops an important story, we all beg him to show us the big picture. We all turn to Janice. She rolls her eyes, but she gives the nod. When Cindy finishes buying bandwidth, she unlocks the view. The maelstrom slides aside as a second window opens, all bar graphs and financial landscape: our stock price as affected by the story’s expanding traffic—and expanding ad revenue.

The stock bots have their own version of the maelstrom; they’ve picked up the reader traffic shift. Buy and sell decisions roll across the screen, responding to the popularity of Mackley’s byline. As he feeds the story, the beast grows. More feeds pick us up, more people recommend the story to their friends, and every one of them is being subjected to our advertisers’ messages, which means more revenue for us and less for everyone else. At this point, Mackley is bigger than the Super Bowl. Given that the story is tagged with Double DP, it will have a targetable demographic: thirteen- to twenty-four-year-olds who buy lifestyle gadgets, new music, edge clothes, first-run games, boxed hairstyles, tablet skins, and ringtones: not only a large demographic, a valuable one.

Our stock ticks up a point. Holds. Ticks up another. We’ve got four different screens running now. The papcam of Double DP, chase cycles with views of the cops streaking after him, the chopper lifting off, and the window with the fourteen-year-old interviewing. The girl is saying, “I really feel for him. We have a connection. We’re going to get married,” and there’s his Hummer screaming down Santa Monica Boulevard with his song “Cowboy Banger” on the audio overlay.

A new wave of social pokes hits the story. Our stock price ticks up again. Daily bonus territory. The clicks are pouring in. It’s got the right combination of content, what Mackley calls the “Three S’s”: sex, stupidity, and schadenfreude. The stock ticks up again. Everyone cheers. Mackley takes a bow. We all love him. He is half the reason I can pay my rent. Even a small newsroom bonus from his work is enough for me to live. I’m not sure how much he makes for himself when he creates an event like this. Cindy tells me that it is “solid seven, baby.” His byline feed is so big he could probably go independent, but then he would not have the resources to scramble a helicopter for a chase toward Mexico. It is a symbiotic relationship. He does what he does best, and Milestone pays him like a celebrity.

Janice claps her hands. “All right, everyone. You’ve got your bonus. Now back to work.”

A general groan rises. Cindy cuts the big monitor away from stocks and bonuses and back to the work at hand: generating more content to light the maelstrom, to keep the newsroom glowing green with flares of Milestone coverage—everything from reviews of Mitsubishi’s 100 mpg Road Cruiser to how to choose a perfect turkey for Thanksgiving. Mackley’s story pulses over us as we work. He spins off smaller additional stories, updates, interactivity features, encouraging his vast audience to ping back just one more time.

Marty will spend the entire day in conversation with this elephant of a story that he has created. Encouraging his visitors to return for just one more click. He’ll give them chances to poll each other, discuss how they’d like to see DP punished, ask whether you can actually fall in love with a fourteen-year-old. This one will have a long life, and he will raise it like a proud father, feeding and nurturing it, helping it make its way in the rough world of the maelstrom.

My own little green speck of content has disappeared. It seems that even government biologists feel for Double DP.

* * *

When my father was not placing foolish bets on revolution, he taught agronomy at the National Lao University. Perhaps our lives would have been different if he had been a rice farmer in the paddies of the capital’s suburbs, instead of surrounded by intellectuals and ideas. But his karma was to be a teacher and a researcher, and so while he was increasing Lao rice production by 30 percent, he was also filling himself with gambler’s fancies: Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Sakharov, Mandela, Aung Sung Kyi. True gamblers, all. He would say that if white South Africans could be made to feel shame, then the pretender monarch must right his ways. He claimed that Thoreau must have been Lao, the way he protested so politely.

In my father’s description, Thoreau was a forest monk, gone into the jungle for enlightenment. To live amongst the banyan and the climbing vines of Massachusetts and to meditate on the nature of suffering. My father believed he was undoubtedly some arhat reborn. He often talked of Mr. Henry David, and in my imagination this falang, too, was a large man like my father.

When my father’s friends visited in the dark—after the coup and the countercoup, and after the march of Khamsing’s Chinese-supported insurgency—they would often speak of Mr. Henry David. My father would sit with his friends and students and drink black Lao coffee and smoke cigarettes, and then he would write carefully worded complaints against the government that his students would then copy and leave in public places, distribute into gutters, and stick onto walls in the dead of night.

His guerrilla complaints would ask where his friends had gone, and why their families were so alone. He would ask why monks were beaten on their heads by Chinese soldiers when they sat in hunger strike before the palace. Sometimes, when he was drunk and when these small gambles did not satisfy his risk-taking nature, he would send editorials to the newspapers.

None of these were ever printed, but he was possessed with some spirit that made him think that perhaps the papers would change. That his stature as a father of Lao agriculture might somehow sway the editors to commit suicide and print his complaints.

It ended with my mother serving coffee to a secret police captain while two more policemen waited outside our door. The captain was very polite: he offered my father a 555 cigarette—a brand that already had become rare and contraband—and lit it for him. Then he spread the whisper sheet onto the coffee table, gently pushing aside the coffee cups and their saucers to make room for it. It was rumpled and torn, stained with mud. Full of accusations against Khamsing. Unmistakable as one of my father’s.

My father and the policeman both sat and smoked, studying the paper silently.

Finally, the captain asked, “Will you stop?”

My father drew on his cigarette and let the smoke out slowly as he studied the whisper sheet between them. The captain said, “We all respect what you have done for the Lao kingdom. I myself have family who would have starved if not for your work in the villages.” He leaned forward. “If you promise to stop writing these whispers and complaints, everything can be forgotten. Everything.”

Still, my father didn’t say anything. He finished his cigarette. Stubbed it out. “It would be difficult to make that sort of promise,” he said.

The captain was surprised. “You have friends who have spoken on your behalf. Perhaps you would reconsider. For their sake.”

My father made a little shrug. The captain spread the rumpled whisper sheet, flattening it out more completely. Read it over. “These sheets do nothing,” he said. “Khamsing’s dynasty will not collapse because you print a few complaints. Most of these are torn down before anyone reads them. They do nothing. They are pointless.” He was almost begging. He looked over and saw me watching at the door. “Give this up. For your family, if not your friends.”

I would like to say that my father said something grand. Something honorable about speaking against tyranny. Perhaps invoked one of his idols. Aung Sung Kyi or Sakharov, or Mr. Henry David and his penchant for polite protest. But he didn’t say anything. He just sat with his hands on his knees, looking down at the torn whisper sheet. I think now that he must have been very afraid. Words always came easily to him, before. Instead, all he did was repeat himself. “It would be difficult.”

The captain waited. When it became apparent that my father had nothing else to say, he put down his coffee cup and motioned for his men to come inside. They were all very polite. I think the captain even apologized to my mother as they led him out the door.

* * *

We are into day three of the Double DP bonanza, and the green sun glows brightly over all of us, bathing us in its soothing, profitable glow. I am working on my newest story with my Frontal Lobe ear buds in, shutting out everything except the work at hand. It is always a little difficult to write in one’s third language, but I have my favorite singer and fellow countryperson Kulaap whispering in my ear that “Love is a Bird,” and the work is going well. With Kulaap singing to me in our childhood language, I feel very much at home.

A tap on my shoulder interrupts me. I pull out my ear buds and look around. Janice, standing over me. “Ong, I need to talk to you.” She motions me to follow.

In her office, she closes the door behind me and goes to her desk. “Sit down, Ong.” She keys her tablet, scrolls through data. “How are things going for you?”

“Very well. Thank you.” I’m not sure if there is more that she wants me to say, but it is likely that she will tell me. Americans do not leave much to guesswork.

“What are you working on for your next story?” she asks.

I smile. I like this story; it reminds me of my father. And with Kulaap’s soothing voice in my ears I have finished almost all of my research. The bluet, a flower made famous in Mr. Henry David Thoreau’s journals, is blooming too early to be pollinated. Bees do not seem to find it when it blooms in March. The scientists I interviewed blame global warming, and now the flower is in danger of extinction. I have interviewed biologists and local naturalists, and now I would like to go to Walden Pond on a pilgrimage for this bluet that may soon also be bottled in a federal reserve laboratory with its techs in clean suits and their crime scene vacuums.

When I finish describing the story, Janice looks at me as if I am crazy. I can tell that she thinks I am crazy, because I can see it on her face. And also because she tells me.

“You’re fucking crazy!”

Americans are very direct. It’s difficult to keep face when they yell at you. Sometimes, I think that I have adapted to America. I have been here for five years now, ever since I came from Thailand on a scholarship, but at times like this, all I can do is smile and try not to cringe as they lose their face and yell and rant. My father was once struck in the face with an official’s shoe, and he did not show his anger. But Janice is American, and she is very angry.

“There’s no way I’m going to authorize a junket like that!”

I try to smile past her anger, and then remember that the Americans don’t see an apologetic smile in the same way that a Lao would. I stop smiling and make my face look . . . something. Earnest, I hope.

“The story is very important,” I say. “The ecosystem isn’t adapting correctly to the changing climate. Instead, it has lost . . .” I grope for the word. “Synchronicity. These scientists think that the flower can be saved, but only if they import a bee that is available in Turkey. They think it can replace the function of the native bee population, and they think that it will not be too disruptive.”

“Flowers and Turkish bees.”

“Yes. It is an important story. Do they let the flower go extinct? Or try to keep the famous flower, but alter the environment of Walden Pond? I think your readers will think it is very interesting.”

“More interesting than that?” She points through her glass wall at the maelstrom, at the throbbing green sun of Double DP, who has now barricaded himself in a Mexican hotel and has taken a pair of fans hostage.

“You know how many clicks we’re getting?” she asks. “We’re exclusive. Marty’s got Double’s trust and is going in for an interview tomorrow, assuming the Mexicans don’t just raid it with commandos. We’ve got people clicking back every couple minutes just to look at Marty’s blog about his preparations to go in.”

The glowing globe not only dominates the maelstrom’s screen, it washes everything else out. If we look at the stock bots, everyone who doesn’t have protection under our corporate umbrella has been hurt by the loss of eyeballs. Even the Frontal Lobe/Oakley story has been swallowed. Three days of completely dominating the maelstrom has been very profitable for us. Now Marty’s showing his viewers how he will wear a flak jacket in case the Mexican commandos attack while he is discussing the nature of true love with DP. And he has another exclusive interview with the mother ready to post as well. Cindy has been editing the footage and telling us all how disgusted she is with the whole thing. The woman apparently drove her daughter to DP’s mansion for a midnight pool party, alone.

“Perhaps some people are tired of DP and wish to see something else,” I suggest.

“Don’t shoot yourself in the foot with a flower story, Ong. Even Pradeep’s cooking journey through Ladakh gets more viewers than this stuff you’re writing.”

She looks as though she will say more, but then she simply stops. It seems as if she is considering her words. It is uncharacteristic. She normally speaks before her thoughts are arranged.

“Ong, I like you,” she says. I make myself smile at this, but she continues. “I hired you because I had a good feeling about you. I didn’t have a problem with clearing the visas to let you stay in the country. You’re a good person. You write well. But you’re averaging less than a thousand pings on your byline feed.” She looks down at her tablet, then back up at me. “You need to up your average. You’ve got almost no readers selecting you for Page One. And even when they do subscribe to your feed, they’re putting it in the third tier.”

“Spinach reading,” I supply.


“Mr. Mackley calls it spinach reading. When people feel like they should do something with virtue, like eat their spinach, they click to me. Or else read Shakespeare.”

I blush, suddenly embarrassed. I do not mean to imply that my work is of the same caliber as a great poet. I want to correct myself, but I’m too embarrassed. So instead I shut up, and sit in front of her, blushing.

She regards me. “Yes. Well, that’s a problem. Look, I respect what you do. You’re obviously very smart.” Her eyes scan her tablet. “The butterfly thing you wrote was actually pretty interesting.”

“Yes?” I make myself smile again.

“It’s just that no one wants to read these stories.”

I try to protest. “But you hired me to write the important stories. The stories about politics and the government, to continue the traditions of the old newspapers. I remember what you said when you hired me.”

“Yeah, well.” She looks away. “I was thinking more about a good scandal.”

“The checkerspot is a scandal. That butterfly is now gone.”

She sighs. “No, it’s not a scandal. It’s just a depressing story. No one reads a depressing story, at least, not more than once. And no one subscribes to a depressing byline feed.”

“A thousand people do.”

“A thousand people.” She laughs. “We aren’t some Laotian community weblog, we’re Milestone, and we’re competing for clicks with them.” She waves outside, indicating the maelstrom. “Your stories don’t last longer than half a day; they never get social-poked by anyone except a fringe.” She shakes her head. “Christ, I don’t even know who your demographic is. Centenarian hippies? Some federal bureaucrats? The numbers just don’t justify the amount of time you spend on stories.”

“What stories do you wish me to write?”

“I don’t know. Anything. Product reviews. News you can use. Just not any more of this ‘we regret to inform you of bad news’ stuff. If there isn’t something a reader can do about the damn butterfly, then there’s no point in telling them about it. It just depresses people, and it depresses your numbers.”

“We don’t have enough numbers from Marty?”

She laughs at that. “You remind me of my mother. Look, I don’t want to cut you, but if you can’t start pulling at least a fifty thousand daily average, I won’t have any choice. Our group median is way down in comparison to other teams, and when evaluations come around, we look bad. I’m up against Nguyen in the Tech and Toys pool, and Penn in Yoga and Spirituality, and no one wants to read about how the world’s going to shit. Go find me some stories that people want to read.”

She says a few more things, words that I think are meant to make me feel inspired and eager, and then I am standing outside the door, once again facing the maelstrom.

The truth is that I have never written popular stories. I am not a popular story writer. I am earnest. I am slow. I do not move at the speed these Americans seem to love. Find a story that people want to read. I can write some follow-up to Mackley, to Double DP, perhaps assist with sidebars to his main piece, but somehow, I suspect that the readers will know that I am faking it.

Marty sees me standing outside of Janice’s office. He comes over.

“She giving you a hard time about your numbers?”

“I do not write the correct sort of stories.”

“Yeah. You’re an idealist.”

We both stand there for a moment, meditating on the nature of idealism. Even though he is very American, I like him because he is sensitive to people’s hearts. People trust him. Even Double DP trusts him, though Marty blew his name over every news tablet’s front page. Marty has a good heart. Jai dee. I like him. I think that he is genuine.

“Look, Ong,” he says. “I like what you do.” He puts his hand around my shoulder. For a moment, I think he’s about to try to rub my head with affection and I have to force myself not to wince, but he’s sensitive and instead takes his hand away. “Look, Ong. We both know you’re terrible at this kind of work. We’re in the news business, here. And you’re just not cut out for it.”

“My visa says I have to remain employed.”

“Yeah. Janice is a bitch for that. Look.” He pauses. “I’ve got this thing with Double DP going down in Mexico. But I’ve got another story brewing. An exclusive. I’ve already got my bonus, anyway. And it should push up your average.”

“I do not think that I can write Double DP sidebars.”

He grins. “It’s not that. And it’s not charity; you’re actually a perfect match.”

“It is about government mismanagement?”

He laughs, but I think he’s not really laughing at me. “No.” He pauses, smiles. “It’s Kulaap. An interview.”

I suck in my breath. My fellow countryperson, here in America. She came out during the purge as well. She was doing a movie in Singapore when the tanks moved, and so she was not trapped. She was already very popular all over Asia, and when Khamsing turned our country into a black hole, the world took note. Now she is popular here in America as well. Very beautiful. And she remembers our country before it went into darkness. My heart is pounding.

Marty goes on. “She’s agreed to do an exclusive with me. But you even speak her language, so I think she’d agree to switch off.” He pauses, looks serious. “I’ve got a good history with Kulaap. She doesn’t give interviews to just anyone. I did a lot of exposure stories about her when Laos was going to hell. Got her a lot of good press. This is a special favor already, so don’t fuck it up.”

I shake my head. “No. I will not.” I press my palms together and touch them to my forehead in a nop of appreciation. “I will not fuck it up.” I make another nop.

He laughs. “Don’t bother with that polite stuff. Janice will cut off your balls to increase the stock price, but we’re the guys in the trenches. We stick together, right?”

* * *

In the morning, I make a pot of strong coffee with condensed milk; I boil rice noodle soup and add bean sprouts and chiles and vinegar, and warm a loaf of French bread that I buy from a Vietnamese bakery a few blocks away. With a new mix of Kulaap’s music from DJ Dao streaming in over my stereo, I sit down at my little kitchen table, pour my coffee from its press pot, and open my tablet.

The tablet is a wondrous creation. In Laos, the paper was still a paper, physical, static, and empty of anything except the official news. Real news in our New Divine Kingdom did not come from newspapers, or from television, or from handsets or ear buds. It did not come from the net or feeds unless you trusted your neighbor not to look over your shoulder at an Internet cafe and if you knew that there were no secret police sitting beside you, or an owner who would be able to identify you when they came around asking about the person who used that workstation over there to communicate with the outside world.

Real news came from whispered rumor, rated according to the trust you accorded the whisperer. Were they family? Did they have long history with you? Did they have anything to gain by the sharing? My father and his old classmates trusted one another. He trusted some of his students, as well. I think this is why the security police came for him in the end. One of his trusted friends or students also whispered news to official friends. Perhaps Mr. Intha­chak, or Som Vang. Perhaps another. It is impossible to peer into the blackness of that history and guess at who told true stories and in which direction.

In any case, it was my father’s karma to be taken, so perhaps it does not matter who did the whispering. But before then—before the news of my father flowed up to official ears—none of the real news flowed toward Lao TV or the Vientiane Times. Which meant that when the protests happened and my father came through the door with blood on his face from baton blows, we could read as much as we wanted about the three thousand schoolchildren who had sung the national anthem to our new divine monarch. While my father lay in bed, delirious with pain, the papers told us that China had signed a rubber contract that would triple revenue for Luang Namtha province and that Nam Theun Dam was now earning BT 22.5 billion per year in electricity fees to Thailand. But there were no bloody batons, and there were no dead monks, and there was no Mercedes-Benz burning in the river as it floated toward Cambodia.

Real news came on the wings of rumor, stole into our house at midnight, sat with us and sipped coffee and fled before the call of roosters could break the stillness. It was in the dark, over a burning cigarette that you learned Vilaphon had disappeared or that Mr. Saeng’s wife had been beaten as a warning. Real news was too valuable to risk in public.

Here in America, my page glows with many news feeds, flickers at me in video windows, pours in at me over broadband. It is a waterfall of information. As my personal news page opens, my feeds arrange themselves, sorting according to the priorities and tag categories that I’ve set, a mix of Meung Lao news, Lao refugee blogs, and the chatting of a few close friends from Thailand and the American college where I attended on a human relief scholarship.

On my second page and my third, I keep the general news, the arrangements of Milestone, the Bangkok Post, the Phnom Penh Express—the news chosen by editors. But by the time I’ve finished with my own selections, I don’t often have time to click through the headlines that these earnest news editors select for the mythical general reader.

In any case, I know far better than they what I want to read, and with my keyword and tag scans, I can unearth stories and discussions that a news agency would never think to provide. Even if I cannot see into the black hole itself, I can slip along its edges, divine news from its fringe.

I search for tags like Vientiane, Laos, Lao, Khamsing, China-Lao friendship, Korat, Golden Triangle, Hmong independence, Lao PDR, my father’s name. . . . Only those of us who are Lao exiles from the March Purge really read these blogs. It is much as when we lived in the capital. The blogs are the rumors that we used to whisper to one another. Now we publish our whispers over the net and join mailing lists instead of secret coffee groups, but it is the same. It is family, as much as any of us now have.

On the maelstrom, the tags for Laos don’t even register. Our tags bloomed brightly for a little while, while there were still guerrilla students uploading content from their handsets, and the images were lurid and shocking. But then the phone lines went down and the country fell into its black hole and now it is just us, this small network that functions outside the country.

A headline from Jumbo Blog catches my eye. I open the site, and my tablet fills with the colorful image of the three-wheeled taxi of my childhood. I often come here. It is a node of comfort.

Laofriend posts that some people, maybe a whole family, have swum the Mekong and made it into Thailand. He isn’t sure if they were accepted as refugees or if they were sent back.

It is not an official news piece. More, the idea of a news piece. SomPaBoy doesn’t believe it, but Khamchanh contends that the rumor is true, heard from someone who has a sister married to an Isaan border guard in the Thai army. So we cling to it. Wonder about it. Guess where these people came from, wonder if, against all odds, it could be one of ours: a brother, a sister, a cousin, a father. . . .

After an hour, I close the tablet. It’s foolish to read any more. It only brings up memories. Worrying about the past is foolish. Lao PDR is gone. To wish otherwise is suffering.

* * *

The clerk at Novotel’s front desk is expecting me. A hotel staffer with a key guides me to a private elevator bank that whisks us up into the smog and heights. The elevator doors open to a small entryway with a thick mahogany door. The staffer steps back into the elevator and disappears, leaving me standing in this strange airlock. Presumably, I am being examined by Kulaap’s security.

The mahogany door opens, and a smiling black man who is forty centimeters taller than I and who has muscles that ripple like snakes smiles and motions me inside. He guides me through Kulaap’s sanctuary. She keeps the heat high, almost tropical, and fountains rush everywhere around. The flat is musical with water. I unbutton my collar in the humidity. I was expecting air-conditioning, and instead I am sweltering. It’s almost like home. And then she’s in front of me, and I can hardly speak. She is beautiful, and more. It is intimidating to stand before someone who exists in film and in music but has never existed before you in the flesh. She’s not as stunning as she is in the movies, but there’s more life, more presence; the movies lose that quality about her. I make a nop of greeting, pressing my hands together, touching my forehead.

She laughs at this, takes my hand and shakes it American-style. “You’re lucky Marty likes you so much,” she says. “I don’t like interviews.”

I can barely find my voice. “Yes. I only have a few questions.”

“Oh no. Don’t be shy.” She laughs again, and doesn’t release my hand, pulls me toward her living room. “Marty told me about you. You need help with your ratings. He helped me once, too.”

She’s frightening. She is of my people, but she has adapted better to this place than I have. She seems comfortable here. She walks differently, smiles differently; she is an American, with perhaps some flavor of our country, but nothing of our roots. It’s obvious. And strangely disappointing. In her movies, she holds herself so well, and now she sits down on her couch and sprawls with her feet kicked out in front of her. Not caring at all. I’m embarrassed for her, and I’m glad I don’t have my camera set up yet. She kicks her feet up on the couch. I can’t help but be shocked. She catches my expression and smiles.

“You’re worse than my parents. Fresh off the boat.”

“I am sorry.”

She shrugs. “Don’t worry about it. I spent half my life here, growing up; different country, different rules.”

I’m embarrassed. I try not to laugh with the tension I feel. “I just have some interview questions,” I say.

“Go ahead.” She sits up and arranges herself for the video stand that I set up.

I begin. “When the March Purge happened, you were in Singapore.”

She nods. “That’s right. We were finishing The Tiger and the Ghost.”

“What was your first thought when it happened? Did you want to go back? Were you surprised?”

She frowns. “Turn off the camera.”

When it’s off she looks at me with pity. “This isn’t the way to get clicks. No one cares about an old revolution. Not even my fans.” She stands abruptly and calls through the green jungle of her flat. “Terrell?”

The big black man appears. Smiling and lethal. Looming over me. He is very frightening. The movies I grew up with had falang like him. Terrifying large black men whom our heroes had to overcome. Later, when I arrived in America, it was different, and I found out that the falang and the black people don’t like the way we show them in our movies. Much like when I watch their Vietnam movies, and see the ugly way the Lao freedom fighters behave. Not real at all, portrayed like animals. But still, I cannot help but cringe when Terrell looks at me.

Kulaap says, “We’re going out, Terrell. Make sure you tip off some of the papcams. We’re going to give them a show.”

“I don’t understand,” I say.

“You want clicks, don’t you?”

“Yes, but—”

She smiles. “You don’t need an interview. You need an event.” She looks me over. “And better clothes.” She nods to her security man. “Terrell, dress him up.”

* * *

A flashbulb frenzy greets us as we come out of the tower. Papcams everywhere. Chase cycles revving, and Terrell and three others of his people guiding us through the press to the limousine, shoving cameras aside with a violence and power that are utterly unlike the careful pity he showed when he selected a Gucci suit for me to wear.

Kulaap looks properly surprised at the crowd and the shouting reporters, but not nearly as surprised as I am, and then we’re in the limo, speeding out of the tower’s roundabout as papcams follow us.

Kulaap crouches before the car’s onboard tablet, keying in pass codes. She is very pretty, wearing a black dress that brushes her thighs and thin straps that caress her smooth bare shoulders. I feel as if I am in a movie. She taps more keys. A screen glows, showing the taillights of our car: the view from pursuing papcams.

“You know I haven’t dated anyone in three years?” she asks.

“Yes. I know from your Web site biography.”

She grins. “And now it looks like I’ve found one of my countrymen.”

“But we’re not on a date,” I protest.

“Of course we are.” She smiles again. “I’m going out on a supposedly secret date with a cute and mysterious Lao boy. And look at all those papcams chasing after us, wondering where we’re going and what we’re going to do.” She keys in another code, and now we can see live footage of the paparazzi, as viewed from the tail of her limo. She grins. “My fans like to see what life is like for me.”

I can almost imagine what the maelstrom looks like right now: there will still be Marty’s story, but now a dozen other sites will be lighting up, and in the center of that, Kulaap’s own view of the excitement, pulling in her fans, who will want to know, direct from her, what’s going on. She holds up a mirror, checks herself, and then she smiles into her smartphone’s camera.

“Hi everyone. It looks like my cover’s blown. Just thought I should let you know that I’m on a lovely date with a lovely man. I’ll let you all know how it goes. Promise.” She points the camera at me. I stare at it stupidly. She laughs. “Say hi and good-bye, Ong.”

“Hi and good-bye.”

She laughs again, waves into the camera. “Love you all. Hope you have as good a night as I’m going to have.” And then she cuts the clip and punches a code to launch the video to her Web site.

It is a bit of nothing. Not a news story, not a scoop even, and yet, when she opens another window on her tablet, showing her own miniversion of the maelstrom, I can see her site lighting up with traffic. Her version of the maelstrom isn’t as powerful as what we have at Milestone, but still, it is an impressive window into the data that is relevant to Kulaap’s tags.

“What’s your feed’s byline?” she asks. “Let’s see if we can get your traffic bumped up.”

“Are you serious?”

“Marty Mackley did more than this for me. I told him I’d help.” She laughs. “Besides, we wouldn’t want you to get sent back to the black hole, would we?”

“You know about the black hole?” I can’t help doing a double-take.

Her smile is almost sad. “You think just because I put my feet up on the furniture that I don’t care about my aunts and uncles back home? That I don’t worry about what’s happening?”


She shakes her head. “You’re so fresh off the boat.”

“Do you use the Jumbo Cafe—” I break off. It seems too unlikely.

She leans close. “My handle is Laofriend. What’s yours?”

Littlexang. I thought Laofriend was a boy—”

She just laughs.

I lean forward. “Is it true that the family made it out?”

She nods. “For certain. A general in the Thai army is a fan. He tells me everything. They have a listening post. And sometimes they send scouts across.”

It’s almost as if I am home.

* * *

We go to a tiny Laotian restaurant where everyone recognizes her and falls over her and the owners simply lock out the paparazzi when they become too intrusive. We spend the evening unearthing memories of Vientiane. We discover that we both favored the same rice noodle cart on Kaem Khong. That she used to sit on the banks of the Mekong and wish that she were a fisherman. That we went to the same waterfalls outside the city on the weekends. That it is impossible to find good dum mak hoong anywhere outside of the country. She is a good companion, very alive. Strange in her American ways, but still, with a good heart. Periodically, we click photos of one another and post them to her site, feeding the voyeurs. And then we are in the limo again and the paparazzi are all around us. I have the strange feeling of fame. Flashbulbs everywhere. Shouted questions. I feel proud to be beside this beautiful intelligent woman who knows so much more than any of us about the situation inside our homeland.

Back in the car, she has me open a bottle of champagne and pour two glasses while she opens the maelstrom and studies the results of our date. She has reprogrammed it to watch my byline feed ranking as well.

“You’ve got twenty thousand more readers than you did yesterday,” she says.

I beam. She keeps reading the results. “Someone already did a scan on your face.” She toasts me with her glass. “You’re famous.”

We clink glasses. I am flushed with wine and happiness. I will have Janice’s average clicks. It’s as though a bodhisattva has come down from heaven to save my job. In my mind, I offer thanks to Marty for arranging this, for his generous nature. Kulaap leans close to her screen, watching the flaring content. She opens another window, starts to read. She frowns.

“What the fuck do you write about?”

I draw back, surprised. “Government stories, mostly.” I shrug. “Sometimes environment stories.”

“Like what?”

“I am working on a story right now about global warming and Henry David Thoreau.”

“Aren’t we done with that?”

I’m confused. “Done with what?”

The limo jostles us as it makes a turn, moves down Hollywood Boulevard, letting the cycles rev around us like schools of fish. They’re snapping pictures at the side of the limo, snapping at us. Through the tinting, they’re like fireflies, smaller flares than even my stories in the maelstrom.

“I mean, isn’t that an old story?” She sips her champagne. “Even America is reducing emissions now. Everyone knows it’s a problem.” She taps her couch’s armrest. “The carbon tax on my limo has tripled, even with the hybrid engine. Everyone agrees it’s a problem. We’re going to fix it. What’s there to write about?”

She is an American. Everything that is good about them: their optimism, their willingness to charge ahead, to make their own future. And everything that is bad about them: their strange ignorance, their unwillingness to believe that they must behave as other than children.

“No. It’s not done,” I say. “It is worse. Worse every day. And the changes we make seem to have little effect. Maybe too little, or maybe too late. It is getting worse.”

She shrugs. “That’s not what I read.”

I try not to show my exasperation. “Of course it’s not what you read.” I wave at the screen. “Look at the clicks on my feed. People want happy stories. Want fun stories. Not stories like I write. So instead, we all write what you will read, which is nothing.”


“No.” I make a chopping motion with my hand. “We newspeople are very smart monkeys. If you will give us your so lovely eyeballs and your click-throughs we will do whatever you like. We will write good news, and news you can use, news you can shop to, news with the ‘Three S’s.’ We will tell you how to have better sex or eat better or look more beautiful or feel happier and or how to meditate—yes, so enlightened.” I make a face. “If you want a walking meditation and Double DP, we will give it to you.”

She starts to laugh.

“Why are you laughing at me?” I snap. “I am not joking!”

She waves a hand. “I know, I know, but what you just said ‘double’—” She shakes her head, still laughing. “Never mind.”

I lapse into silence. I want to go on, to tell her of my frustrations. But now I am embarrassed at my loss of composure. I have no face. I didn’t used to be like this. I used to control my emotions, but now I am an American, as childish and unruly as Janice. And Kulaap laughs at me.

I control my anger. “I think I want to go home,” I say. “I don’t wish to be on a date anymore.”

She smiles and reaches over to touch my shoulder. “Don’t be that way.”

A part of me is telling me that I am a fool. That I am reckless and foolish for walking away from this opportunity. But there is something else, something about this frenzied hunt for page views and click-throughs and ad revenue that suddenly feels unclean. As if my father is with us in the car, disapproving. Asking if he posted his complaints about his missing friends for the sake of clicks.

“I want to get out,” I hear myself say. “I do not wish to have your clicks.”


I look up at her. “I want to get out. Now.”

“Here?” She makes a face of exasperation, then shrugs. “It’s your choice.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

She tells her driver to pull over. We sit in stiff silence.

“I will send your suit back to you,” I say.

She gives me a sad smile. “It’s all right. It’s a gift.”

This makes me feel worse, even more humiliated for refusing her generosity, but still, I get out of the limo. Cameras are clicking at me from all around. This is my fifteen minutes of fame, this moment when all of Kulaap’s fans focus on me for a few seconds, their flashbulbs popping.

I begin to walk home as paparazzi shout questions.

* * *

Fifteen minutes later I am indeed alone. I consider calling a cab, but then decide I prefer the night. Prefer to walk by myself through this city that never walks anywhere. On a street corner, I buy a pupusa and gamble on the Mexican Lottery because I like the tickets’ laser images of their Day of the Dead. It seems an echo of the Buddha’s urging to remember that we all become corpses.

I buy three tickets, and one of them is a winner: one hundred dollars that I can redeem at any TelMex kiosk. I take this as a good sign. Even if my luck is obviously gone with my work, and even if the girl Kulaap was not the bodhisattva that I thought, still, I feel lucky. As though my father is walking with me down this cool Los Angeles street in the middle of the night, the two of us together again, me with a pupusa and a winning lottery ticket, him with an Ah Daeng cigarette and his quiet gambler’s smile. In a strange way, I feel that he is blessing me.

And so instead of going home, I go back to the newsroom.

My hits are up when I arrive. Even now, in the middle of the night, a tiny slice of Kulaap’s fan base is reading about checkerspot butterflies and American government incompetence. In my country, this story would not exist. A censor would kill it instantly. Here, it glows green; increasing and decreasing in size as people click. A lonely thing, flickering amongst the much larger content flares of Intel processor releases, guides to low-fat recipes, photos of lol-cats, and episodes of Survivor! Antarctica. The wash of light and color is very beautiful.

In the center of the maelstrom, the green sun of the Double DP story glows—surges larger. DP is doing something. Maybe he’s surrendering, maybe he’s murdering his hostages, maybe his fans have thrown up a human wall to protect him. My story snuffs out as reader attention shifts.

I watch the maelstrom a little longer, then go to my desk and make a phone call. A rumpled hairy man answers, rubbing at a sleep-puffy face. I apologize for the late hour, and then pepper him with questions while I record the interview.

He is silly looking and wild-eyed. He has spent his life living as if he were Thoreau, thinking deeply on the forest monk and following the man’s careful paths through what woods remain, walking amongst birch and maple and bluets. He is a fool, but an earnest one.

“I can’t find a single one,” he tells me. “Thoreau could find thousands at this time of year; there were so many he didn’t even have to look for them.”

He says, “I’m so glad you called. I tried sending out press releases, but . . .” He shrugs. “I’m glad you’ll cover it. Otherwise, it’s just us hobbyists talking to each other.”

I smile and nod and take notes of his sincerity, this strange wild creature, the sort that everyone will dismiss. His image is bad for video; his words are not good for text. He has no quotes that encapsulate what he sees. It is all couched in the jargon of naturalists and biology. With time, I could find another, someone who looks attractive or who can speak well, but all I have is this one hairy man, disheveled and foolish, senile with passion over a flower that no longer exists.

I work through the night, polishing the story. When my colleagues pour through the door at 8 a.m. it is almost done. Before I can even tell Janice about it, she comes to me. She fingers my clothing and grins. “Nice suit.” She pulls up a chair and sits beside me. “We all saw you with Kulaap. Your hits went way up.” She nods at my screen. “Writing up what happened?”

“No. It was a private conversation.”

“But everyone wants to know why you got out of the car. I had someone from the Financial Times call me about splitting the hits for a tell-all, if you’ll be interviewed. You wouldn’t even need to write up the piece.”

It’s a tempting thought. Easy hits. Many click-throughs. Ad-revenue bonuses. Still, I shake my head. “We did not talk about things that are important for others to hear.”

Janice stares at me as if I am crazy. “You’re not in the position to bargain, Ong. Something happened between the two of you. Something people want to know about. And you need the clicks. Just tell us what happened on your date.”

“I was not on a date. It was an interview.”

“Well then publish the fucking interview and get your average up!”

“No. That is for Kulaap to post, if she wishes. I have something else.”

I show Janice my screen. She leans forward. Her mouth tightens as she reads. For once, her anger is cold. Not the explosion of noise and rage that I expect. “Bluets.” She looks at me. “You need hits and you give them flowers and Walden Pond.”

“I would like to publish this story.”

“No! Hell, no! This is just another story like your butterfly story, and your road contracts story, and your congressional budget story. You won’t get a damn click. It’s pointless. No one will even read it.”

“This is news.”

“Marty went out on a limb for you—” She presses her lips together, reining in her anger. “Fine. It’s up to you, Ong. If you want to destroy your life over Thoreau and flowers, it’s your funeral. We can’t help you if you won’t help yourself. Bottom line, you need fifty thousand readers or I’m sending you back to the third world.”

We look at each other. Two gamblers evaluating one another. Deciding who is betting, and who is bluffing.

I click the “publish” button.

The story launches itself onto the net, announcing itself to the feeds. A minute later a tiny new sun glows in the maelstrom.

Together, Janice and I watch the green spark as it flickers on the screen. Readers turn to the story. Start to ping it and share it amongst themselves, start to register hits on the page. The post grows slightly.

My father gambled on Thoreau. I am my father’s son.

"The Gambler" © Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi’s writing has been nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards, and won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best science fiction short story of the year. His debut collection Pump Six and Other Storieswas recently named a best book of the year by Publishers Weekly.