In contrast to the other stories in this collection, I rewrote this one in 2013. What I wrote in 1999 had some promise. My older self, rereading it, was drawn in by the setup—a young man caught up in a revolution with a girl he met in a futuristic Hong Kong—and I enjoyed the predictions of "wearable" technology, which these days is an emerging area of product design.
But then my older self began yawning and checking MS Word's page indicator, even in the midst of the couple's harrowing, meticulously researched flight through the city.
Writing action is tricky. Prose is better at memory, emotion, meaning. The most exciting car chase in a movie can be torture to read in a novel. So I have slimmed down the escape to favor the moments where the man and woman interact and connect with each other.
I hope the following draft succeeds in freeing the story imagined by my younger self from the confines of literal time and space.
When Polanka's apartment got sacked, so did the Perroquet 2.1 translation device. Sloan had gone out without it, just planning to buy groceries. When he returned, carpet mites were still licking up dust from its marble-sized Mandarin ROM crystal, which had been trampled into the fabric like a piece of rock candy. The wrist-band microphone was nowhere to be seen. The device's speaker had been cut with a knife, and so had everything else, the pillows, the cushions, the couch, the carpet. It lay very still among star-shaped foam pieces from the couch, too big and confusing for the carpet's flea-sized "Kowloon slumbots."
"Nî zoû!" Polanka shouted, shoving something into a silver diamond-fabric bag. Then there was silence, no second voice to tell him what she had said.
The 34th-floor apartment was so small—a seamless cell of self-assembled fibrourethane with no closet or restroom—that he could not miss the bodies, whose forest-green combat boots overreached the edge of the futon mattress, which Polanka must have heaved on top of them. She had probably given up on hiding them, because their caps were left in the center of the floor—black-visored caps of the Chinese military police.
"My God." He dropped the sack of oysters he had brought back, again listening for that second voice.
"Xiànzaì!" She pushed her arms into a leather jacket, put the silver bag into an interior pocket, then shoved past him into the corridor. "Zaìjiàn!"
He had picked up enough to know that this last word meant "goodbye."
"Wait!" He moved to follow then turned back to shut and lock the door.
By the time he caught up, she was on the 25th floor, swinging her body down flights of stairs with a double-grip on the railing. She did not waste a breath in response to his shouts.
Sloan was no fool. He knew that the police had been after more than the tabs of gigahertz in her purse. He knew also what might happen to someone like himself, a Westerner with an expired visa, if he was implicated in a smuggling operation. These days he could be tried and shot as a culture terrorist—all part of the thrill that had made him want to party in Hong Kong in the first place.
But his legs carried him down. The white plastic steps were coming fast. He couldn't leap like Polanka—she was getting away again. . . .
The sound of her running halted, followed by abrupt commands in Mandarin, one man's voice then another, maybe two others. A body struck a metal door. Polanka shouted.
"Polanka!" he called.
Down, down, he made himself jump. The deserted foot of the stairwell convinced him that Polanka had been clubbed and dumped into a patrol car. Instead, he shoved open the fire door to find her pinned against the building's immaculate white faux-granite, face against the wall and a Hong Kong cop on each shoulder.
"Bú yaò döng!" shouted someone. "Freeze!"
"Easy easy easy." Sloan held up his hands. Four young faces greeted him with equal measures of menace and fear. The two male cops held shotguns. The two women held automatic pistols. All were outfitted for a siege in black flak jackets, combat boots, stun grenades on their thick belts, helmets gleaming in the mercury-vapor streetlight . . . Two other cops, one to the left and one to the right, were pushing inflatable diamond-fabric barricades down the sidewalk and waving for pedestrians to move back. The electric hum of traffic moved darkly behind the squad's van, which was parked illegally with one wheel on the sidewalk.
He looked to Polanka for a clue about what was happening, allowing himself to be pressed against the wall and searched. Her eyes met him across a wide stretch of pebbled fibrourethane, glassy and unreal, fierce, only giving him a glance, the slightest notice that her boyfriend was being arrested. She began shouting at the cops, lecturing, as though they should each die of shame if they arrested her. She was mixed up in something big, he decided, a major smuggling operation, maybe one of the "Triads," though the way she harangued the police it might have been something more . . . something political maybe. The Perroquet 2.1 had often assigned her a statement like "I accept the choice for tomorrow—I will be a modern woman," but these were just the things people said to each other in bed, talk of the future skewed in translation—drowsy, dreamy talk. He could not recall anything specifically subversive she had said.
"Bet you got a story to tell, old chap." The thickly muscled Cantonese man, who was older and wore the chrome chevrons of a sergeant, had set down his shotgun to empty Sloan's pockets. He had found Sloan's videoplastic wallet, which showed a film loop of two Filipino girls in plastic miniskirts grinding to unheard Canto-pop, a heavy-lidded gigahertz grind, down in Lan Kwai Fong the night he first got to Hong Kong. Once again his amateur interest in photojournalism (mainly a deep fascination with the daily sediments of his own life) was getting him into trouble. By unfolding the wallet, the cop revealed the unmistakable honeycomb distortion of an old-model lapel-pin camera, a keepsake from a deceased grandfather back home in Sydney, and then, on cue and with a charming drunken smile, Polanka gyrated into view, her image stuttering violently from when he had tapped the camera-pin to show he was recording—a great way to meet girls, he reflected automatically, hoping the cop was forming a similarly pleasant impression.
Instead, the dour stub-nosed Cantonese man deftly manipulated the wallet's touch-panels, sniffing softly and saying something in somewhat ragged Mandarin; he was probably old enough to have spoken Cantonese before the language had been outlawed. By degrees, he showed himself to be a dog trained to identify just one substance. "You got quite a few files in here, mate." He was scrolling through pages of text.
The English accent was not the least bit convincing, in particular because even English people no longer had an English accent, except in the movies.
"It's my journal. I've taken a year off from school to do some traveling."
"Very bad, old chap." He tossed the re-folded wallet, now lit up by conspicuous columns of English words, through the van's open passenger-side door. By request, Sloan emptied his front pockets, glancing at Polanka for some sign, but of course she hadn't understood a word.
She had her own problems. One of the cops was pulling on her leg, trying to free the small argentine diamond-fabric bag from the downward pressure of her Reebok. (Western clothing was not included in the embargo.) "Bù!" she yelled. "Bù!" When at last her toes lost contact with the walkway's coarse red-brick texture-matte, she followed the bag with her eyes and then with a turn of the shoulders. A female cop pushed her hands back against the wall. The other cop, having passed the bag on to a subordinate, took a keen interest in the fabric of her jacket, rubbing a pinch of one sleeve between his fingers. He had her remove the jacket, and Sloan could see the captive energy in her muscles, the veins pulsing inside the scoop-neck of her white tank-top, the tendons in her shoulders taut as wires. Only her bowed head implied anything like submission.
When the male cop tried to cuff her, she fought so hard that he had to push her against the wall. The snick of one cuff around her wrist sent her into an absolute fury, a bucking, kicking, punching fury, all crane, like her boxing exercises in the morning (a severe private adaptation of nanquan and shaolin boxing practiced on their futon mattress, which she rolled up and leaned against the wall). She fell onto her back, keeping the three cops at bay with high stabbing upward kicks. She was screaming lacerations of Mandarin, displaying no hint of the softness or cleverness or flow of the snake, which predominated among the morning exercise groups in the parks.
He was sure he would watch her die without ever knowing what inspired her rage, but then a boy with a machine gun on the second story of her building came to the rescue. A stream of bullets quiet as water from a hose cut a zigzag through four or five police officers and the sheet-metal of the squad van, pencil-thin exploding bullets popping like hailstones in the windows of passing automobiles, against the helmet of the police sergeant, and against the diamond barricades, away from which curious pedestrians were now running at top speed.
The destruction was so erratic that Sloan simply froze with his hands pressed to the wall. The woman who had been preparing to handcuff him had used his body as a shield, crouching. Presently she sent a few quick pistol-bursts into the shattered window above. Then she ran for cover behind the van. Sloan, too, would have run—and possibly never got pulled into what was to follow—if the female cop at that moment had not lowered her automatic pistol toward Polanka, who had kicked loose the firearm of the man she had been fighting and was now knocking him to the ground repeatedly with gouging facial blows from the one unfastened bracelet of her handcuffs.
Sloan's reaction was immediate and irrevocable, a gut protective impulse, a need to save—God knows, Polanka, whoever that was to him right then beneath her wild war shrieks and the cuff glinting in the streetlight like a wet silver claw. He had to save her, and so he sprang across the sidewalk in a headlong dive, flung his arms wide, and took down the female cop in a classic rugby tackle. He saw the pistol tumble across two lanes of traffic and slide to a halt. Then he felt the woman's breathing against his ear, hot and rapid as a small dog's. Her eyes watched him as though he were going to strangle her. Up he jumped in horror, leaping backward. He apologized in English.
Polanka had her opponent thoroughly gored and fetal on the blood-spotted sidewalk. She danced past him, this time fluid like a snake, toed the handle of a dropped shotgun into her hand, then unloaded both barrels into the throat of the woman officer, who had sat up and lifted her arms, perhaps to surrender.
The upstairs gunman took out the last Hong Kong police officer, who mistook the relative calm as a safe opportunity to peek over one of the inflatable sidewalk barricades. Then calm it was, the sidewalk empty to both streetcorners like early a.m. in some other, ghost-version of Hong Kong, the wuff of occasional automobiles the only sound of life. Polanka and the gunman—a teenaged boy, really—conversed at volumes only marginally greater than normal speaking voices. Polanka motioned for the boy to come down, but he shook his head and beckoned for her to come up. She motioned again, and back-and-forth they went, with rising urgency, while she got her bag and Sloan's wallet from the front seat of the van.
The kneeling female cop did not collapse like a dropped doll, nor did she flop around to double- and triple-pendulum equations, as in a game. She seeped fluid, she hiccupped and effervesced, she kept breathing and pumping blood, dead only in the face, which seemed to hang from her neck like a mask, pearl-smooth as jade, still, wide with rounded features like the face of a Yi woman, a high blunt forehead . . . yes possibly a Yi woman, a child of a peasant fisherman, come down on a train from high in the mountains for a good job and a place in the New China . . . That was all Sloan saw, accepting his videoplastic wallet numbly, a simple woman of his imagination, with a plastic apartment, a pull-out table beside one small window like the windows on airplanes, a laughing thrush in a cage for taking to the park—not so different from what he had imagined Polanka to be, with her Asian rock-star posters and architecture classes at Hong Kong Polytechnic. He did not want to join any cause that wanted to hurt her.
But he let Polanka arm him with an automatic pistol, extra clips, and concussion grenades that clipped to his pant waist. He wanted to believe in her, maybe for no other reason than . . . what? That she had fallen asleep in his arms one day on the top level of a Kowloon bus, a sunny day . . . He had whispered to his lapel-pin camera that he thought he was falling in love. It was that simple and stupid. He wanted to follow her.
Polanka was already free of the handcuffs, raising her fist and shouting some slogan at the boy in the window, who had vanished.
Sloan tried hard to believe. He conjured phantoms as they crept along the sidewalk past the diamond barricades. Total revolution seemed possible after they joined the fleeing mob, but gradually he and Polanka found themselves pushing through curtains of people, guns quiet inside their jackets, grenades dumped discretely into public waste receptacles, barely able to maintain a brisk walk down wide Xïn Mâ Tän Chéng Avenue, with its jeweled neon towers of Kanji characters, amethyst announcements above blinking neon snakes in bottles, topaz beer mugs, bead-like ruby eyes on the facade of a new dance club—and everywhere the too-calm early evening tar-smell of the road cooling.
Polanka took an immediate right, heading like all fugitives away from the light, up a hill and toward the bay. The cameras were fewer in this direction. But only after a long climb into the unofficial slum on the north face of Eagle's Nest Peak, where empty dirt paths wound past variegated scrap-plastic shacks and open latrines, where a few old men on stools watched them pass gravely, or half-naked children stopped playing and stared, or women with ragged hair quit chopping peppers just long enough to flick them a sideways look, did they really have a chance of avoiding electronic surveillance. They slowed to a jog and found a level trail around the steep face of the mountain. More substantial dwellings crowded together on the side that overlooked Old Kowloon and the glittering bay below. They found a place to rest in a narrow hutong shadowed by clothes that hung on canes from balconies.
This was his first chance to communicate. He pointed his finger in various directions, pretending to recoil from shots, then lifted his shoulders to ask why.
Polanka gave one curt nod. She reached around his waist, slipped a thumb into his back pocket, and removed his wallet.
"Hey . . . "
She unfolded the threadbare widescreen viewer and danced her fingers over the files, highlighting them all.
"I don't have . . . "
She deleted everything with a sweep of her thumb.
"I don't have backups," he said. She had deleted all of his videos of Hong Kong, which had been set to "incognito" to prevent conspicuous uploads.
"Zhè lî." She gave back the wallet.
"I can do a restore," he said to himself.
The menu did not respond to his touch. It was in a different mode, blinking. Polanka's fingers played an arpeggio on her jacket's sleeve.
A transfer started, and all hope of a restore was lost.
"That's everything. All our files. The day I got here. The bike trip up The Peak. Your birthday."
Polanka kept a cool eye on the progress-bar on her cuff. Her free hand probed the dry, crackling, diamond-fabric bag.
"That time those ten-year-old kids kicked our butts in Shonen Warrior. The flower dragon of New Year's Eve."
From the bag, Polanka removed a painted lead Chairman Li, a popular souvenir.
"I was going to make a film. About China. About you. I wish you could understand."
She tapped his wallet. Then she pointed to Chairman Li's head. A movie ran on the wallet, faces in great numbers like piles of leaves, silent in their screaming (the wallet's audio patches had worn away), bodies compressed into a high-walled corner, white plastic walls smooth as children's toys, old faces and young, men and women, some young men slipping off the walls like cockroaches trying to leave a toilet, rows of faces going out like lights, the frontmost rows facing three Chinese soldiers who approached with the full-body swivel of firefighters. The view zoomed in on one of the Chinese soldiers, a boy Sloan's own age, annealed by sweat, visored cap askew, teeth bared in pain or fear or exertion, body shuddering, one drop of sweat trembling on the tip of his nose then shaken loose . . .
Polanka brought her thumb and forefinger very close together, motioning to the movie. Then she patted Chairman Li's head and spread her arms wide. Whatever RAM crystals were hidden in the Li figurine contained a wildly different depiction of Cultural Preservation than the real Li had shown the world.
"Is this . . . Where is this happening?"
Polanka slapped his wallet. The transfer was complete. She pointed to the Milky-Way starscape of Victoria Harbor below. "Zhí zî," she said.
"I don't know if I want to get mixed up . . . "
A high spectral moan tore a path across the sky—a machine. Sloan glimpsed it: a gray, moonlit disk trailing a blue mist. It was a military craft releasing a dust of pin-head cameras.
Everything but his shoes went into a tin basin, along with Polanka's leather jacket. He turned the basin over then stood on top to pull down whatever clothing he could reach. A scabrous old woman with a grass broom pushed open a window and threatened them, but she calmed down when Sloan gave her all the money in his wallet, enough to download ten hour-long dance mixes or, he figured, enough to buy food for a month.
Then Polanka recoiled. A flashing light, coming from behind him . . . Standing back, she barked an order at him, pointing.
The wallet was blinking: bright white for "urgent message." He brought it out and tapped his way to a note from his mother. No video. No audio. Just the following text:
3will 1half 894and
Some sort of code, clearly not from his mother, he decided.
"Bà xiū!" She shook her hand at him, shooing the device away.
"Someone's trying to reach me," he said, scanning the code again.
One hard yank and she had the wallet. She pushed it under the bucket with everything else then pounded the tin hood back down. A dumb animal urge to hide any "aware" material . . .
He pulled it back out again. Tap, tap . . . just those few words . . . and some sort of cryptic return address. Yes . . . a little scary.
The blow to his cheek was not a fist; it felt like a rubber mallet or pole. Perhaps a cushioned part of her hand, he thought . . . several seconds later, waking up on the cold ground.
Up on his feet and down into Old Kowloon she pulled him. This time he didn't protest. Even without the language barrier, he couldn't have denied that his wallet had a few open channels.
3will 1half 894and. Very much like the codes he and his brother Louis had made up as boys . . .
Above, the surveillance dust was spreading, invisible, silent, already recording, collaborating, filing reports.
In the Mong Kok restaurant district, police cars passed frequently, prompting them to hide their faces. Once he pulled Polanka close, being the first to see the white sportscar with its red sidestripe, only to be surprised by a familiar sight: the place where his cousin had treated him the day of their arrival. The white tiger was still in the window, sprinting on a great creaking treadmill, spot-lit in crimson, the same metal box and peduncle of cables where its head should have been—or maybe this was a different tiger, since surely the other one would have been made into steaks by now. The sight had seemed so fun and exotic that first day, when everything Chinese had been a dancing chrysanthemum dragon, but seeing it again, so many weeks later, only revealed how quotidian the gimmick really was, meat from the lab, made in bulk for theme restaurants in who knew how many cities. At a table near the window a corpulent Asian man with slicked-back hair licked the blood from his knife, moistening his lips and smiling, his red tie loosened for the evening. Hong Kong had an appetite, revolution or no revolution, and Sloan could feel the need of its twenty million bodies as he lingered to let the reflection of the patrol car pass below the tiger, twenty million people whose collective yearning seemed terribly manifest—serene and complete—in the blinking LEDs of the tiger's spinal matriculator.
He and Polanka were so small next to these endless fireworks. Bits of ash.
They resumed walking, briskly, through every hue of light, and he pretended to check his watch. Funny how he assumed the image-processing algorithms were intelligent enough to be fooled by pantomime. He had no idea how they worked, actually.
At the crest of a hill, they stood in view of the thick Paulownia trees of Earthquake Park—the young Forest of the Dragons, genetically enhanced and in full bloom, representing a renascent city—and the harbor lights beyond.
It didn't look good. Foot patrols were a fixture in the park, and the crowds thinned out down there.
3will . . . Yes, just like the codes he and his brother had used—an index into a novel, the D. H. Lawrence translation of something called Mastro Don Gesualdo. Only the D. H. Lawrence translation worked. You found the first occurrence of the word you wanted to use, then added . . .
Louis! No, his brother was studying in England. But . . . could it be? Was the message really a dodge to get past the censor daemons? His cousin . . . maybe they showed Sean the code. It had to be Sean. Sean was trying to reach him.
Idiot . . . he should have guessed instantly.
As they descended, he noted the bits of trash in the road: a straw, a gum wrapper, a sock, a dish towel compressed by tires into the asphalt—nothing even remotely "aware." He needed to bring up Mastro Don Gesualdo in order to decode the email message.
They passed ticket stubs, broken green glass, a morph-toy with only enough goo left for half a lizard's head, an overhead billboard for rice wine that was aware but probably would not give access, a shoe lace, anonymous metal parts, a paper magazine—
He knelt down. No good—the magazine had the dead slippery feel of paper. Between the pages, though, he found an insert that advertised some kind of subscription. A hebephrenically delighted Asian woman turned pages of the magazine while wiggling her toes against the arm of an easy chair. A Kanji button presumably led to the publisher.
Polanka had kept moving. He wondered if she had a plan—an escape by sea, maybe? No . . . she had taken them left, but presently—with an expression fierce yet unsteady—she doubled back to the right, into a traffic jam on the ground lanes of Canton Road, heading back toward the city.
Falling behind, he pushed at the little card like a child angry at a video game.
The ad resisted its termination, begging him to take one more look at the delight this publication would bring. Cancel. No. OK. No. Abort. Most ads would release the system only after every possible sales angle had been explored. Only the most obnoxious . . .
But this one kindly departed. He brought down Mastro Don Gesualdo from London University's Free Lending Library.
Polanka yelled at him, and he dashed through traffic just in time to end up stranded with her on a grassy median.
The omnipresent sirens of Hong Kong all seemed to be moving closer. The middle of a causeway was a hard place to avoid notice. He searched for the third occurrence of the word "will." It came in a sentence about a mansion going up in flames. The word it preceded was "go." He found the first occurrence of "half." The second word after it was "to."
The light turned green again. Traffic once again left them marooned.
Go to . . .
The last word to look up was "and . . . "
Go to cactus. "The Cactus Cafe! Polanka!"
He caught her wrist just as she was about to cross the road. She fought him, intent on the break in the traffic, but he held on. The next thing he felt was pain; she had struck his arm hard and broken loose.
He lunged at her, got another hold, pulled.
She went down hard, protecting her face with her arms. He had no problem getting on top of her and pinning her on her side, but she kicked free of his weight. He held her wrists, keeping her down. He held on until the panic subsided. He could see what she was thinking. She was afraid but wanted to understand him.
To explain everything with signs was impossible. He simply made a fist, palm toward her, then brought the fist to his chest. "Trust," he said. He struck his chest a few times. "Trust."
He waited. She had the look of one who has received a bad translation. "You want to sell a blue goose?" he half-expected to hear her say. He pulled her to her feet. "Trust," he said.
Still, she resisted, wildly eyeing the drivers, the streetlight cameras, the invisible air—the countless eyes taking note of the incident.
Simply to talk, to project a certain tone of voice, he said, "My cousin—he's waiting for us a block from the Space Museum." One of the only clubs still bearing an English name. A more thorough Chinese crackdown might have eliminated such an easy landmark for English-speakers.
Holding his hand, she let him lead her back.
The city's eyes had indeed found them. Flashing red dome lights announced themselves, weaving through traffic, and a nearby foot patrol, no doubt tracking blips on their videoplastic visors, turned at just the right moment to see them. Polanka broke into a run, and he couldn't argue.
From behind, shouts came in Mandarin. More lights erupted up ahead.
Moments later, shoving their way through a dense crowd, they risked a glance. He saw fear but also resolve. For a brief instant he felt like they spoke the same language. "Zaìjiàn Hong Kong!" he shouted.
He took a chance, firing off a message to Sean, his brother, and several other relatives, yelling into the card as he ran. "Hey, it's me . . ."
Polanka knocked over a basket of clams. He had to swerve to miss the vendor's flabby, obese arm, which she shook at Polanka as if she were an extra in a movie.
"Message received. Watch the place. En route . . . might not make it. You better get this."
Nothing on-screen indicated an error or interception. Sloan just hoped the yacht was out there somewhere.
They reached the end of the restaurant district. He pointed to the harbor beyond the Cactus Cafe.
Instead of following the road around the old loading dock, Polanka took a sharp right into an alley. Puddles broke like oval mirrors. She took him to a dead end, onto a dumpster, and over a cement-block wall.
The strangest thing about this final footrace was the growing stillness as they went deeper into the ghost-city of open spaces and tall sheet-metal buildings, the silence, the city noise like a wind scattered by many shapes, high cranes keening beside the sea, dry freight containers stacked into rusted castle-like structures or fallen on their ends like crumbled stones, papers still loose about the grounds, real paper, flimsy records of imports and exports, from the wild days before Cultural Preservation, the seven empty berths holding nothing but choppy water. Even the huge old security-cams showed no signs of life. So this was the price of protecting a language and a way of life. Isolation implied stillness, he supposed, even in Hong Kong.
He paced the concrete platform, scanning the distant lights for signs of the yacht. Polanka waited behind him, casting long looks into the ruins of the dockyard.
The red dome-lights they had seen on Canton Road found their way into the alley, and bright patches of light now came over the fence and flew up into the openwork of the cranes. Sloan felt a hand close on his shoulder and pull—Polanka preparing to run yet again. "No!" he shouted. "This is it! Our one chance!"
She grabbed his wrist and pulled him again, but he stood firm.
"We're surrounded!" He looked out to sea. A large military ship had taken a sharp turn toward the loading platform where they stood.
No sign of the yacht. He knew suddenly that there was no exit—that the only question left was whether they would be captured or killed.
Polanka again tried to bolt, but he clung to her. A wild animal. They would gun her down.
"Wô mén zoû!" she cried. "Qîng!"
"Trust," he said, making a fist with his free hand and touching it to his heart. "Trust." He couldn't save her from Hong Kong, but maybe he could save her life. She would thank him someday—he hoped.
She stayed, watching the military ship anxiously. He let her believe it would save them. Meanwhile, Hong Kong police dashed between the freight containers, body-armor shining with reflected points of light. He held up his hands in surrender.
Police spotlights—blinding white suns—converged on the place where he and Polanka stood.
Hesitant now, Polanka began tugging on his shoulder. "It's over," he said. In time her hand receded and she raised her arms as he had.
Behind them the military ship, a new one made of oblique angles and pale gray plates, was less than a hundred yards away, coming into the light. He could make out the markings of a U.S. Navy cutter.
This delayed their arrest. The ship's forward gun battery was coolly directing its gaze toward the shoreline.
As the ship slowed and approached the platform, two American soldiers manually extended an aluminum ramp, letting it scrape across the concrete. On shore a female police officer with a megaphone stepped out from behind a freight container and began making demands to the Americans, but Polanka was already clambering up the ramp on all-fours. "You got nothin' to fear from us!" shouted one of the Americans to the Chinese. "It's comin' from the mainland, which is where you should be pointing your guns!"
Sloan climbed onto the aluminum ramp, and the soldiers pulled him onto the deck with the ramp like he was an ant stuck to the tongue of an anteater. The cutter accelerated, having never come to a complete stop. The Hong Kong police were left with their spotlights and megaphones in the abandoned shipyard.
"Had some strife with the ducks and geese, did you?" Sean's red face shined with bald good cheer. A can of Budweiser occupied his left hand.
Sloan got to his feet among the soldiers and refugees—dozens of them—and saw that his girlfriend was standing very straight, examining the soldiers with a taut expression, ready for the next challenge. "This is my friend, Polanka."
"Bad time for a holiday, eh? My dearest pleasure," he said, bowing to Polanka.
A magazine open and tacked to a lifeboat showed similar scenes to what Polanka had smuggled inside the Li figurines, enhanced by a running commentary in English and by quick-cuts to a stooped Chairman Li with snow for eyebrows, shivering fingers, and subtitles calling for peace.
Other Westerners, mostly Americans, had made the ship's narrow deck into a kind of patio, with coolers of beer, chairs made from suitcases, and very light agreeable conversation all around. "Is it serious?" he asked Sean.
"Supposedly. A real revolt, I guess. Weapons, coordination . . . I dunno—you tell me."
"Well, all I saw—"
A sailor approached with a clipboard. "Mr. Theodore Sloan?"
"Is your friend here also an Australian?"
Polanka listened with a stiff smile, hands clenched inside the pockets of her long robe. By law, she had been forbidden from learning any languages besides Mandarin.
"We can't participate in political refugees. She'll have to go back."
"She can't stay in China. They'll—" The ship was heading out into open sea. Considering, he said, "Don't tell me we're gonna all get shot at to fix some technicality."
"Nî shüo zhöng wén ma?" said Polanka. "Chinese?"
"We'll take care of the little lady," said Sean.
"I guess that's up to Philippines Immigration, at this point," said the sailor. With a sigh, he swept his pen across several fields on the form he was filling out.
Polanka said something else. She clenched the man's arm in earnest.
The sailor eyed Sloan. "What'd she say?"
"Know each other well, huh? Here, why don't I give you this." He unclipped what looked like a brass decoration on his epaulette. "Adds a certain dimension, you know."
The pin was a translator, apparently a single crystal customized for Mandarin. Sloan pinned it to his sleeve.
For an hour the pin gave little wasp-buzz translations of what Sean told them about the widespread unrest in China, the help of the U.S. military, Louis's idea for the code. Polanka simply agreed with Sean's descriptions of her country, making the same two-sentence comment again and again: "The backward reactionaries are finished. Tomorrow comes even when it's a day late."
Only toward sunrise, when Sean settled into soft snoring on the deck, a squashed can for a pillow, did Sloan finally get a chance to talk to this woman he had lived with for three weeks in ignorance of her social ideals, her passion for the West, what else?
"Do you feel free now?" he had to ask.
The morning had brought a vista of rosy new light. Polanka's hand closed over his wrist just in time to muffle the buzz of the translator. Her face glowed. She kissed him with slow, tender attention, eyes bright. He knew her meaning. He told the translator to shut down, and together they faced the light of a new day, hand-in-hand, not saying a word.