With this introduction, prepared by the author for our readers, The Daily Bell is pleased to present the first installment of an unabridged serialization of Thieves Emporium, by Max Hernandez. …
We are, for the first time in the history of the human race, experiencing something new in the body politic. Until recently, coercive political organizations were limited in their ability to control their fellow human beings. They simply didn't have the information, or the communications, or the reach to force everyone at every level of their society to bow to their will. With the exception of the printing press, the tools governments had during the American Revolution to control their populations were no different from those available to the Kings of Sumer or ancient Egypt.
Then, about 200 years ago, that started to change. Beginning with the telegraph and the railroad, science gave them new ways to enforce conformity. Now, with evolutions in the control of money, surveillance, communications and data management, their ability to construct the ultimate totalitarian state seems unstoppable.
But what the gods of technology giveth, they also taketh away. With digital systems comes increasing complexity and, in the cracks formed between those systems, hidden refuges for those who used to escape into a physical wilderness. For the politically dispossessed, there is now a new digital badlands. If you doubt that, ask yourself why, in a world dominated by government surveillance and big data, do we still have spam or Anonymous or hacking? Why have cyberattacks become more common, not less?
Thieves Emporium is a story that analyzes this new badlands and the conflict that is arising from its existence. If you really want to know where our society is going, you need to consider the ideas it puts forward.
This is not science fiction.
But it is a fun read.
For most of mankind's existence, there was a frontier. Those who didn't fit in always had one option: Cross it. Leave. Walk away and live outside ordered society. That gave the rest of us a way to deal with the misfits and the outlaws: Banishment. Throw them out, or just let them go.
For our ancestors, living in small tribes, the border was always close. Crossing it meant leaving for unsettled lands. Those who did were the first explorers, the first to settle in Europe or Asia or Oceania or the Americas. For them, land was plentiful. They picked the best places, the fields of milk and honey.
As mankind grew, those fertile lands were all occupied by regulated societies. Crossing the border came to mean either moving to another country or going to lands that were too rough, hard, or dangerous for any settled country to want.
And still the world became more crowded. Even the harshest places were claimed by some government. Crossing the border came to mean going from England to France, China to Japan, or the U.S. to Canada. No longer did it mean leaving structured society to trade security for opportunity, regulation for risk.
Finally, about a hundred years ago, regulated societies won. All lands, no matter how rocky or dry or cold, became patrolled, regulated and governed. The wild men, the misfits, the outlaws and the eccentrics lost their final refuge.
Now, that has changed. Once again, there is a place for misfits. Wild and brutal, beyond the reach of any government, it's the last hope for those who have no other option.
Once again, there is a badlands.
* * * * *
THE NEAR FUTURE
She got to the shelter too late for dinner but still managed to find an empty corner. It got little heat, being near the outside of the building, but the safety provided by two walls was worth the chill. Besides, the late autumn cold kept the other mission guests away, and she appreciated her privacy.
Half-leaning against the two walls, she sat with her bare legs clamped to her chest, her torso cocked sideways to favor her left side. A mission blanket draped over her slight frame, covering bare shoulders and a garish low-cut blouse. A padded bra produced the only curve in her too-thin figure. Earlier in the day, heavy makeup had completely covered her face, but now freckles showed, like small flecks of brown soot, under her weary eyes. Not that they detracted from her appearance. On the contrary, when she smiled, they produced a country-girl beauty that was both disarming and stunning.
Leaning against her shins were two small girls, twins, like identical pearls, also with freckles. They huddled together under another blanket, their matching pajamas providing additional protection against the chill. Softly, knowing it was not a good time to annoy their mother, they played some secret game that required occasional spasms of suppressed giggles.
Pain shot through her left side whenever she moved her back, but she didn't think there was any serious damage. The Bastard was quite good at that, just the right amount of force to change behavior, never enough to damage the merchandise. And, God forbid, never where a john could see it.
Tomorrow morning she would have to be out of here. Back to the Bastard? Unless she could think of an alternative, she would have to make do. Her world offered few choices.
Of course, she could stay here. If she wasn't worried about the twins, that is. Social Services visited every morning, looking for mistreated children. Her girls may not be well fed by the state's standards, but they were hers, the only joys she had left after her husband had vanished. She would never give them up.
As she fretted the alternatives, hoping to find something she had overlooked, she noticed a figure walking toward her from the main room.
The stranger was an older woman of average height, dressed in warm, dark and dull. Short pepper hair framed her wide face. She wore no makeup or jewelry except for a large silver cross. In her hands was a tray, held with great care as she picked her way through the dim clutter. Stopping at the foot of the young mother's mat, she raised it and asked, "Hungry?"
Dinner in bed wasn't standard fare here. Although the young mother hadn't eaten since early morning, she didn't welcome the offer. Being singled out made her nervous. All her life, she'd kept her head down, avoided notoriety. Social evasion had become an ingrained instinct.
But the intrusion was here, like it or not. An unavoidable risk.
"You with the government?" she asked. The last thing she needed was a FEMA ride.
"No," came the answer, delivered with a slight smile.
The young mother weighed it in silence, trying to judge its veracity.
"I just work nights," came a further explanation.
"I saw you come in late. Thought you might be hungry," added the visitor as she set the tray on the floor. Apparently she wasn't going to be deterred by silence.
Then the young mother noticed the smell. Split pea soup, hot and full of herbs. Three large bowls, thick, covered with cheese and flavored with sausage. With day-old rolls on the side. Even in the dim light, she could see steam rising. Her girls smelled it, too, and looked to her for permission.
With a wave of her hand, she gave it. But, hungry as she was, she was too wary to reach for a bowl. Instead, she kept her full attention on her patron.
"You give room service to everyone?" she asked.
"Only to the ones I think I can help," answered the Cross.
"God tells me to," came the answer.
Oh oh, here comes the sermon.
"Well, thank you, but we're Buddhists."
"Then give back the soup. There's meat in it."
That made the young mother pick up her bowl. She couldn't ignore the smell any longer anyway. Her girls were already half finished. Made with a generous helping of oil, the soup would have been good and hearty even if she weren't so hungry. After the first spoonful, she ate with a most unladylike haste.
"You staying the week?" asked her patron. That was the mission's time limit.
The young mother shook her head, not willing to talk with her mouth full.
"You leaving tomorrow?"
She answered with a nod, not wanting the conversation, either, but needing to be polite.
A shadow flitted across the visitor's face, barely noticeable in the dim light. But the young mother caught it.
After a moment, the woman with the cross asked, "Want some Advil?"
That stopped the young mother's spoon just as it touched her open mouth. The mission didn't offer pain medications as part of its standard service, either. Why the special treatment?
The Cross held out a bottle. An Advil bottle.
Was it really Advil? If not, what was it? If it was, why offer it to her?
"I saw the way you carried yourself when you came in," came an answer to the unspoken question.
For most of her life, the young mother had hidden in the shadows. Like a mouse on the jungle floor, she survived by not being seen, by not taking chances. When in doubt, hide. Or run. But take no risks. Say nothing that might attract attention, might offend. Do whatever you have to, please whomever you have to, but do it quietly. And don't stand out.
That attitude had kept her safe and alive. But it had also brought her here: Cold, broke, alone but for her girls, and in pain.
Perhaps it was time for a change.
"Thank you," she said and reached for the bottle. It looked genuine. So did the pills inside. She took four with a spoon of soup.
Meanwhile, the Cross watched in silence, waiting to take back the tray. She seemed to be struggling with some inner decision. Whatever it was, she must have come to a conclusion because she said, "Years ago, when I was much younger, I did hard things to keep food on the table." A pause, then, "How'd you hurt your side?"
The two sentences were not uttered together by accident. The younger woman glanced quickly at her girls. The Cross must have gotten the message: They didn't know what their mother did to keep food on their table. And she didn't want them to learn now.
"You don't have to take the beatings."
The statement came from out of nowhere. Sudden, but perhaps not unexpected. Vague enough to protect the children, but specific enough for both to understand the underlying meaning.
"I have to work."
"You still could."
"How?" asked the young mother.
"Get your customers anonymously. Get paid the same way. And keep it all. No one beats you because no one knows your name or where you live."
The girls finished their meal and started playing again, quietly. But the young mother just looked back in silence.
"Tomorrow, you can go back for more beatings. Let him rob you again. Or you can take this chance. One shot. Now or never. How about it?"
The moment of truth. Fear and greed were at war for her soul. Dare the mouse come out of the shadows?
"Go on," the young mother prompted.
Without a word, the Cross stooped down to pick up the tray.
As she did so, she slipped the young mother a business card. On the front, in a tight, neat hand, was written:
Bring pen and paper
On the back, in the same hand, was:
18.104.22.168:1723 Mai Lee Chang
"Go to any library branch," said the visitor. "Sign up for the Internet. If they ask for a library card, tell them you don't have one. Say you're homeless. You won't need one if they believe you. Don't give your name, your address, or identify yourself in any way. If they push, leave and try another branch. And don't bring the girls.
"When you get online, open a browser and type the numbers and punctuation into the address bar. You'll know you did it right if you get an error page from China National Steel.
"Ignore everything except the line that asks who you are trying to reach. Type in the name exactly as on the card. Exactly. Check it. When you're sure it's right, hit the Enter key. When Mrs. Chang comes online, listen to what she says."
"And if I don't like it?"
"Walk away. Go back to your regular beatings. If you don't leave your name, no one will know you were even there. But, whatever you decide, don't come back here again. Don't try to contact me. For your own good, burn this card as soon as you make a decision and forget where you got it."
Finished, the Cross stood up with the tray. The young mother just looked at the card, trapped in her own thoughts, while the Cross watched her in silence. Finally, the older woman spoke.
"What else can you offer your girls? There are no safe bets in this world, not anymore. If you don't make a change, it'll only get worse for them. Do this while they still have a chance."
The young mother looked up from the card and their eyes met for an instant. Then the Cross turned and carried the empty tray back to the warmth of the main room, leaving her alone in the chill to consider the life of a mouse in a world filled with elephants.
The next morning, while the streets were still dark, the young mother and her girls walked out of the mission and disappeared into the dirty Cleveland rain.
* * *
The young mother sat in front of the public terminal looking at a Google search page. So far, she had broken no laws. But she knew that would change if she typed in the address from the business card. She could not explain away that overt act if she were caught. Somehow, she knew it would break some unknown law. Just like almost everything else in her life, or in anyone else's nowadays, for that matter.
What would happen when she hit the Enter key? Alarms? Police? Would they catch her when she left the library, take her twins away from her forever?
Those visions scared her into inaction for weeks, until the Bastard started showing an unusual interest in her girls. She could take the beatings, the theft, the degradation, and the filth; she could take it all if it kept them with her. But not what his interest might become.
So now she sat on the edge, worried that it was too late to take this chance. She looked around once more. No one paid any attention to her. Time for the mouse to crawl out of the shadows. So she typed:
She checked it. There were no mistakes. After a deep breath and a very non-Buddhist prayer, she hit the Enter key.
Magic electrons did their work.
No alarm bells sounded. Police did not rush into the building.
Instead, the browser changed. A page announced, in several languages, that China National Steel Company had encountered a VPN error. She could either seek help through the main site at www.ChinaNationalSteel.com or contact the relevant individual directly by typing his/her name in the blank provided.
Mai Lee Chang
After checking it, she hit the Enter key.
Still no police. The library stayed cold and silent.
Only the browser changed. A chat page appeared along with the promise that Mrs. Chang was on her way.
Seconds later the chat window said:
Chang: This is Mai Lee Chang. How may I help you?
She hadn't anticipated that question. How could Mrs. Chang help her? What did she really want here, and what did she dare say? She didn't even know who she was talking to. Was there really a Mrs. Chang at the other end? And, if so, maybe she was just some coolie working for China National Steel deep in the hills of Hunan.
So she typed the first thing that came to her mind.
Chang: Hello to you, too. You have reached China National Steel. How may I help you?
Guest: I'm looking for work
Chang: I don't normally help with opportunities at China National Steel. Perhaps I may direct you to the Employment Department?
Right. That didn't seem like a good move.
Guest: No, I wasn't looking for that sort of job.
Chang: What sort of work were you looking for?
How to explain this?
Guest: I was hoping to meet some men.
Chang: For employment?
She hesitated, then took the plunge.
Chang: Where did you get our address?
Guest: A woman gave it to me
Chang: Can you be more specific? What did she tell you?
Guest: She said I wouldn't get beaten any more and could keep everything I earned if I contacted you
Chang: What did she look like?
Guest: Middle aged. Gray hair, heavy.
Chang: Did she wear any jewelry?
Then she remembered.
Guest: Except for a cross.
Chang: A small one?
Guest: No. Large and silver.
Chang: Where are you now?
Sitting at a computer, where do you think? OK, that probably wasn't the answer Mrs. Chang wanted.
Guest: In the United States
Chang: Which city?
Guest: Cleveland. Ohio.
Chang: Are you at home?
Chang: Where then?
Guest: The library
Chang: On a public computer? Or do you have one of your own?
Guest: No. I use the one at the library
There was a pause. Somewhere on the other side of cyberspace, Mrs. Chang made a decision.
Chang: Do you have something to write with?
Chang: Please wait a moment.
Thirty seconds passed. More time for Cleveland's finest to set up out front…
Chang: On March 12 at exactly 5:12 pm go to Cleveland Boxing Club on 2157 Superior Avenue. Ask for Vlad. Tell him you wish to pick up a letter. Can you make this meeting?
The date was over a week away. Well, it wasn't like her calendar was all that tight.
Chang: Have you copied the address?
Chang: Then thank you for contacting China National Steel Corporation.
The page changed, back to the China National Steel Corporation error page. Trying not to show fear, she logged out. Sliding out of the chair, she slipped out of the room, out of the library, and down the steps into the trudging crowd. Seconds later, she was just another dirty coat walking through the slush.
She had made her first trip to the New Badlands and returned safely. That was reason enough to be pleased. Hostile border crossings are always dangerous.
* * * * *
Several thousand miles away, in one of the lesser cities of Nigeria, the owner of the GOBI DESERT* crossing house stood up to stretch. A thin, dried-up old Hausan, his black frame glistened in the light cast from a battered monitor. Time had been kind to his body, doing little more than wrinkling his skin and bleaching his hair. And thinning it a little. Especially on top. Still, he had no cause for complaint. His body did not hurt and his mind was clear. More forgetful, and a good deal fussier, but still sharp.
Years ago, he started this crossing house to support a young family. His new family. But in that area, time had not been so good. So now he had only this business. And his indentureds, his fallen angels.
He hadn't set out to recruit prostitutes. It just worked out that way. They made good badlanders. Careful, discreet, hard-working. And loyal. They appreciated the new chance he gave them.
And, at the age when at least one of his organs no longer worked at all, they made good friends, too.
So he smiled as he sweated in the humid darkness. Another recruit was a cause for joy. Like a new grandchild. Pink Jade had fallen on hard times. She needed this. Another producer. Tonight he would celebrate her success.
He knew this one came through Jade because 'Mai Lee Chang' was one of the contact names she used and the description matched. So did the location, since Jade worked the northern Ohio area.
He knew the recruit really was at a Cleveland library branch because he ran a trace** during their chat. Finally, he knew this newbie was tough enough to take chances since she came across on a public computer, probably because she was too poor to own one of her own.
So he would send her a full contact package now, even though it was a bit early. The alternative was to keep her on public computers with the greater risk that she might get caught. If that happened, he would have to shut down the China National Steel doorbell and might even lose Jade to another crossing house.
Someone from Kumar would pick up the package tomorrow.
*See the appendix for a list of crossing houses mentioned in this book.
**See the appendix for a detailed glossary.
To be continued next Sunday …
* * *
To keep reading, click here for Part 2.
Thieves Emporium is available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle and in epub format from Smashwords or Nook. Max Hernandez welcomes comments and feedback and can be reached at MaxHernandez@protonmail.ch.
© 2012-2015 Max Hernandez. Reprinted with permission.