Shanghai. Yuck. I always stayed away from China because I found it noisy, crowded and polluted, and Mandarin is a devil of a language to learn. At least in India you can always find an English speaker, and in a pinch, English is the common tongue in the land of one thousand languages. China, for all its focus on education, still had relatively few decent English speakers among the masses. And if they only spoke Mandarin, they were no use to me.
But first I needed some money. This used to be quite a pickle for a guy who rarely had the same face for too many months. You couldn’t always just rip off the credit cards and accounts of whomever you rode. I mean, you could, (and I guess I used to) but I’m a changed man now. What kind of shit karma would that generate? I needed my own funds which would travel with me. I developed a nice trick for passing my new ride a wallet before I shifted, but this was inefficient so I stashed cash everywhere. Swiss banks used to be handy, but after 9/11 foreign money transfers were closely scrutinized. But as e-commerce took off, I had more options.
PayPal was a big improvement. BitCoin was my savior. I kept a few million in BitCoins in an anonymous account which I could withdraw and convert to local currency as needed. I found an Internet cafe, converted some BitCoins into Yuan and withdrew it at a local bank. The Chinese authorities scrutinized these transactions intensely, but for all they knew, I was just a traveling businessman. And I’d be gone soon enough.
Where did the money come from? Trust me, I didn’t rob banks. The funds were the legitimate donations from a series of wealthy but despicable former rides of mine. A while back I had a Robin Hood complex and thought my job was to find wealthy, shitty people and fix them. Didn’t work. As soon as I shifted out, they went back to their old ways. So I just punished them financially.
Don’t worry, a lot of NGO bank accounts were buffed as well.
With cash in hand, I caught a taxi to the address I pulled from Zhang Wei’s memories. I managed to hang out outside the Pudong PLA facility and rode a few of the engineers on their way home. They didn’t know anything about Albatross Corporation or Ought Six, but they did know Wei’s cousin Zhao Joeng. I found his apartment through one of his colleagues and shifted into a local flower merchant. I didn’t dare ride any of the intelligence agents into the Pudong hacking facility. If I was forced to speak Mandarin and failed, I could be placed into solitary confinement, or worse. I’d been down that road in Venezuela and didn’t care to mess with foreign intelligence agencies on their home turf. Better to do my work on the outside. So I just sat by my flower stand and waited for Joeng to come home. When he got on the elevator, I joined him. One brush of his hand and I was in.
The old flower merchant wobbled a bit, suddenly unsteady and very confused about how he got on the elevator. I steadied him and just smiled when he babbled at me in Mandarin. I shrugged and waited for Joeng’s floor while he continued to talk. I left at Joeng’s stop and let myself in his apartment.
Joeng was heading home with some takeout noodles, so I parked myself at the folding card table he used as a dining table and dug in while I reviewed his memories. Joeng was indeed a pretty savvy coder. He had worked on infiltrating Albatross Corporation on and off for the last eleven months, but all they had on the Ought Six group was a series of encrypted messages hidden in image files sent back and forth from Shanghai to the U.S. If someone knew what Ought Six had discovered, it was above Joeng’s pay grade. All Joeng knew was that it was transformation and could redefine everything we knew about reality.
Hmm. I wonder what they’d think if they got their hands on my life.
I sat in Joeng’s tiny apartment, eating day-old noodles and considering my next move. Memories are a funny thing. For most people, they’re not all that accurate and the more you replay them, the less they line up with what actually happened and the more they align with a person’s preconceptions. They more I replayed his memories, the more speculative they got. Joeng sincerely believed that Ought Six discovered something unique and the information had been referred to some other element of Chinese intelligence. But in his mind, Joeng spun theories that seemed fantastical. Hell, even my own suppositions were probably imprinting themselves on his mind. Joeng wasn’t getting me the answers I needed.
So over cold noodles, I mulled my options. I could dive into the belly of the beast, ride Joeng’s supervisor and try to follow the thread there in Shanghai. But why stay in China? Ought Six was a U.S. entity and the information came from a front company for U.S. intelligence. Digging around in China was a low probability return.
I put down my noodles and checked the time. There was probably still another flight back to the states tonight.
Three hours later, I was safely settled into a middle-aged Chinese-American woman named Lily. She…well I actually, sat in the first class section of the United flight to Washington Dulles Airport. I preferred riding men for most tasks — when things needed to get done assertively or I needed to get somewhere quickly. But when you’ve got seventeen hours of flying ahead of you, nothing beats a slightly plump woman for comfort. Men are just too jumpy, too muscly and inherently anxious. They don’t want to sleep on planes. I don’t know if its the body shape, the hormones or what, but she was the right tool for the job. Lily had borne three children, and for those seventeen hours, I slept as content as an infant in its mother’s arms.