At ten of five in the morning, Lao Dao crossed the busy pedestrian lane on his way to find Peng Li.
After the end of his shift at the waste processing station, Lao Dao had gone home, first to shower and then to change. He was wearing a white shirt and a pair of brown pants—the only decent clothes he owned. The shirt’s cuffs were frayed, so he rolled them up to his elbows. Lao Dao was forty–eight, single, and long past the age when he still took care of his appearance. As he had no one to pester him about the domestic details, he had simply kept this outfit for years. Every time he wore it, he’d come home afterward, take off the shirt and pants, and fold them up neatly to put away. Working at the waste processing station meant there were few occasions that called for the outfit, save a wedding now and then for a friend’s son or daughter.
Today, however, he was apprehensive about meeting strangers without looking at least somewhat respectable. After five hours at the waste processing station, he also had misgivings about how he smelled.
People who had just gotten off work filled the road. Men and women crowded every street vendor, picking through local produce and bargaining loudly. Customers packed the plastic tables at the food hawker stalls, which were immersed in the aroma of frying oil. They ate heartily with their faces buried in bowls of hot and sour rice noodles, their heads hidden by clouds of white steam. Other stands featured mountains of jujubes and walnuts, and hunks of cured meat swung overhead. This was the busiest hour of the day—work was over, and everyone was hungry and loud.
Lao Dao squeezed through the crowd slowly. A waiter carrying dishes shouted and pushed his way through the throng. Lao Dao followed close behind.
Peng Li lived some ways down the lane. Lao Dao climbed the stairs but Peng wasn’t home. A neighbor said that Peng usually didn’t return until right before market closing time, but she didn’t know exactly when.
Lao Dao became anxious. He glanced down at his watch: Almost 5:00 AM.
He went back downstairs to wait at the entrance of the apartment building. A group of hungry teenagers squatted around him, devouring their food. He recognized two of them because he remembered meeting them a couple of times at Peng Li’s home. Each kid had a plate of chow mein or chow fun, and they shared two dishes family–style. The dishes were a mess while pairs of chopsticks continued to search for elusive, overlooked bits of meat amongst the chopped peppers. Lao Dao sniffed his forearms again to be sure that the stench of garbage was off of him. The noisy, quotidian chaos around him assured him with its familiarity.
“Listen, do you know how much they charge for an order of twice–cooked pork over there?” a boy named Li asked.
“Fuck! I just bit into some sand,” a heavyset kid named Ding said while covering his mouth with one hand, which had very dirty fingernails. “We need to get our money back from the vendor!”
Li ignored him. “Three hundred and forty yuan!” said Li. “You hear that? Three forty! For twice–cooked pork! And for boiled beef? Four hundred and twenty!”
“How could the prices be so expensive?” Ding mumbled as he clutched his cheek. “What do they put in there?”
The other two youths weren’t interested in the conversation and concentrated on shoveling food from the plate into the mouth. Li watched them, and his yearning gaze seemed to go through them and focus on something beyond.
Lao Dao’s stomach growled. He quickly averted his eyes, but it was too late. His empty stomach felt like an abyss that made his body tremble. It had been a month since he last had a morning meal. He used to spend about a hundred each day on this meal, which translated to three thousand for the month. If he could stick to his plan for a whole year, he’d be able to save enough to afford two months of tuition for Tangtang’s kindergarten.
He looked into the distance: The trucks of the city cleaning crew were approaching slowly.
He began to steel himself. If Peng Li didn’t return in time, he would have to go on this journey without consulting him. Although it would make the trip far more difficult and dangerous, time was of the essence and he had to go. The loud chants of the woman next to him hawking her jujube interrupted his thoughts and gave him a headache. The peddlers at the other end of the road began to pack up their wares, and the crowd, like fish in a pond disturbed by a stick, dispersed. No one was interested in fighting the city cleaning crew. As the vendors got out of the way, the cleaning trucks patiently advanced. Vehicles were normally not allowed in the pedestrian lane, but the cleaning trucks were an exception. Anybody who dilly–dallied would be packed up by force.
Finally, Peng Li appeared: His shirt unbuttoned, a toothpick dangling between his lips, strolling leisurely and burping from time to time. Now in his sixties, Peng had become lazy and slovenly. His cheeks drooped like the jowls of a Shar–Pei, giving him the appearance of being perpetually grumpy. Looking at him now, one might get the impression that he was a loser whose only ambition in life was a full belly. However, even as a child, Lao Dao had heard his father recounting Peng Li’s exploits when he had been a young man.
Lao Dao went up to meet Peng in the street. Before Peng Li could greet him, Lao Dao blurted out, “I don’t have time to explain, but I need to get to First Space. Can you tell me how?”
Peng Li was stunned. It had been ten years since anyone brought up First Space with him. He held the remnant of the toothpick in his fingers—it had broken between his teeth without his being aware of it. For some seconds, he said nothing, but then he saw the anxiety on Lao Dao’s face and dragged him toward the apartment building. “Come into my place and let’s talk. You have to start from there anyway to get to where you want to go.”
The city cleaning crew was almost upon them, and the crowd scattered like autumn leaves in a wind. “Go home! Go home! The Change is about to start,” someone called from atop one of the trucks.
Peng Li took Lao Dao upstairs into his apartment. His ordinary, single–occupancy public housing unit was sparsely furnished: Six square meters in area, a washroom, a cooking corner, a table and a chair, a cocoon–bed equipped with storage drawers underneath for clothes and miscellaneous items. The walls were covered with water stains and footprints, bare save for a few haphazardly installed hooks for jackets, pants, and linens. Once he entered, Peng took all the clothes and towels off the wall–hooks and stuffed them into one of the drawers. During the Change, nothing was supposed to be unsecured. Lao Dao had once lived in a single–occupancy unit just like this one. As soon as he entered, he felt the flavor of the past hanging in the air.
Peng Li glared at Lao Dao. “I’m not going to show you the way unless you tell me why.”
It was already five thirty. Lao Dao had only half an hour left.
Lao Dao gave him the bare outlines of the story: Picking up the bottle with a message inside; hiding in the trash chute; being entrusted with the errand in Second Space; making his decision and coming here for guidance. He had so little time that he had to leave right away.
“You hid in the trash chutes last night to sneak into Second Space?” Peng Li frowned. “That means you had to wait twenty–four hours!”
“For two hundred thousand yuan?” Lao Dao said, “Even hiding for a week would be worth it.”
“I didn’t know you were so short on money.”
Lao Dao was silent for a moment. “Tangtang is going to be old enough for kindergarten in a year. I’ve run out of time.”
Lao Dao’s research on kindergarten tuition had shocked him. For schools with decent reputations, the parents had to show up with their bedrolls and line up a couple of days before registration. The two parents had to take turns so that while one held their place in the line, the other could go to the bathroom or grab a bite to eat. Even after lining up for forty–plus hours, a place wasn’t guaranteed. Those with enough money had already bought up most of the openings for their offspring, so the poorer parents had to endure the line, hoping to grab one of the few remaining spots. Mind you, this was just for decent schools. The really good schools? Forget about lining up—every opportunity was sold off to those with money. Lao Dao didn’t harbor unrealistic hopes, but Tangtang had loved music since she was an eighteen–month–old. Every time she heard music in the streets, her face lit up and she twisted her little body and waved her arms about in a dance. She looked especially cute during those moments. Lao Dao was dazzled as though surrounded by stage lights. No matter how much it cost, he vowed to send Tangtang to a kindergarten that offered music and dance lessons.
Peng Li took off his shirt and washed while he spoke with Lao Dao. The “washing” consisted only of splashing some drops of water over his face because the water was already shut off and only a thin trickle came out of the faucet. Peng Li took down a dirty towel from the wall and wiped his face carelessly before stuffing the towel into a drawer as well. His moist hair gave off an oily glint.
“What are you working so hard for?” Peng Li asked. “It’s not like she’s your real daughter.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Lao Dao said. “Just tell me the way.”
Peng Li sighed. “Do you understand that if you’re caught, it’s not just a matter of paying a fine? You’re going to be locked up for months.”
“I thought you had gone there multiple times.”
“Just four times. I got caught the fifth time.”
“That’s more than enough. If I could make it four times, it would be no big deal to get caught once.”
Lao Dao’s errand required him to deliver a message to First Space—success would earn him a hundred thousand yuan, and if he managed to bring back a reply, two hundred thousand. Sure, it was illegal, but no one would be harmed, and as long as he followed the right route and method, the probability of being caught wasn’t great. And the cash, the cash was very real. He could think of no reason to not take up the offer. He knew that when Peng Li was younger, he had snuck into First Space multiple times to smuggle contraband and made quite a fortune. There was a way.
It was a quarter to six. He had to get going, now.
Peng Li sighed again. He could see it was useless to try to dissuade Lao Dao. He was old enough to feel lazy and tired of everything, but he remembered how he had felt as a younger man and he would have made the same choice as Lao Dao. Back then, he didn’t care about going to prison. What was the big deal? You lost a few months and got beaten up a few times, but the money made it worthwhile. As long as you refused to divulge the source of the money no matter how much you suffered, you could survive it. The Security Bureau’s agents were only carrying out their assigned routines.
Peng Li took Lao Dao to his back window and pointed at the narrow path hidden in the shadows below.
“Start by climbing down the drain pipe from my unit. Under the felt cloth you’ll find hidden footholds I installed back in the day—if you stick close enough to the wall, the cameras won’t see you. Once you’re on the ground, stick to the shadows and head that way until you get to the edge. You’ll feel as well as see the cleft. Follow the cleft and go north. Remember, go north.”
Then Peng Li explained the technique for entering First Space as the ground turned during the Change. He had to wait until the ground began to cleave and rise. Then, from the elevated edge, he had to swing over and scramble about fifty meters over the cross section until he reached the other side of the turning earth, climb over, and head east. There, he would find a bush that he could hold onto as the ground descended and closed up. He could then conceal himself in the bush. Before Peng had even finished his explanation, Lao Dao was already halfway out the window, getting ready to climb down.
Peng Li held onto Lao Dao and made sure his foot was securely in the first foothold. Then he stopped. “I’m going to say something that you might not want to hear. I don’t think you should go. Over there … is not so great. If you go, you’ll end up feeling your own life is shit, pointless.”
Lao Dao was reaching down with his other foot, testing for the next foothold. His body strained against the windowsill and his words came out labored. “It doesn’t matter. I already know my life is shit without having gone there.”
“Take care of yourself,” Peng Li said.
Lao Dao followed Peng Li’s directions and groped his way down as quickly as he dared; the footholds felt very secure. He looked up and saw Peng Li light up a cigarette next to the window, taking deep drags. Peng Li put out the cigarette, leaned out, and seemed about to say something more, but ultimately he retreated back into his unit quietly. He closed his window, which glowed with a faint light.
Lao Dao imagined Peng Li crawling into his cocoon–bed at the last minute, right before the Change. Like millions of others across the city, the cocoon–bed would release a soporific gas that put him into deep sleep. He would feel nothing as his body was transported by the flipping world, and he would not open his eyes again until tomorrow evening, forty–hours later. Peng Li was no longer young; he was no longer different from the other fifty million who lived in Third Space.
Lao Dao climbed faster, barely touching the footholds. When he was close enough to the ground, he let go and landed on all fours. Luckily, Peng Li’s unit was only on the fourth story, not too far up. He got up and ran through the shadow cast by the building next to the lake. He saw the crevice in the grass where the ground would open up.
But before he reached it, he heard the muffled rumbling from behind him, interrupted by a few crisp clangs. Lao Dao turned around and saw Peng Li’s building break in half. The top half folded down and pressed toward him, slowly but inexorably.
Shocked, Lao Dao stared at the sight for a few moments before recovering. He raced to the fissure in the ground, and lay prostrate next to it.
The Change began. This was a process repeated every twenty–four hours. The whole world started to turn. The sound of steel and masonry folding, grating, colliding filled the air, like an assembly line grinding to a halt. The towering buildings of the city gathered and merged into solid blocks; neon signs, shop awnings, balconies, and other protruding fixtures retracted into the buildings or flattened themselves into a thin layer against the walls, like skin. Every inch of space was utilized as the buildings compacted themselves into the smallest space.
The ground rose up. Lao Dao watched and waited until the fissure was wide enough. He crawled over the marble–lined edge onto the earthen wall, grabbing onto bits of metal protruding out of the soil. As the cleft widened and the walls elevated, he climbed, using his hands as well as feet. At first, he was climbing down, testing for purchase with his feet. But soon, as the entire section of ground rotated, he was lifted into the air, and up and down flipped around.
Lao Dao was thinking about last night.
He had cautiously stuck his head out of the trash heap, alert for any sound from the other side of the gate. The fermenting, rotting garbage around him was pungent: Greasy, fishy, even a bit sweet. He leaned against the iron gate. Outside, the world was waking up.
As soon as the yellow glow of the streetlights seeped into the seam under the lifting gate, he squatted and crawled out of the widening opening. The streets were empty; lights came on in the tall buildings, story by story; fixtures extruded from the sides of buildings, unfolding and extending, segment by segment; porches emerged from the walls; the eaves rotated and gradually dropped down into position; stairs extended and descended to the street. On both sides of the road, one black cube after another broke apart and opened, revealing the racks and shelves inside. Signboards emerged from the tops of the cubes and connected together while plastic awnings extended from both sides of the lane to meet in the middle, forming a corridor of shops. The streets were empty, as though Lao Dao were dreaming.
The neon lights came on. Tiny flashing LEDs on top of the shops formed into characters advertising jujubes from Xinjiang, lapi noodles from Northeast China, bran dough from Shanghai, and cured meats from Hunan.
For the rest of the day, Lao Dao couldn’t forget the scene. He had lived in this city for forty–eight years, but he had never seen such a sight. His days had always started with the cocoon and ended with the cocoon, and the time in between was spent at work or navigating dirty tables at hawker stalls and loudly bargaining crowds surrounding street vendors. This was the first time he had seen the world, bare.
Every morning, an observer at some distance from the city—say, a truck driver waiting on the highway into Beijing—could see the entire city fold and unfold.
At six in the morning, the truck drivers usually got out of their cabs and walked to the side of the highway, where they rubbed their eyes, still drowsy after an uncomfortable night in the truck. Yawning, they greeted each other and gazed at the distant city center. The break in the highway was just outside the Seventh Ring Road, while all the ground rotation occurred within the Sixth Ring Road. The distance was perfect for taking in the whole city, like gazing at an island in the sea.
In the early dawn, the city folded and collapsed. The skyscrapers bowed submissively like the humblest servants until their heads touched their feet; then they broke again, folded again, and twisted their necks and arms, stuffing them into the gaps. The compacted blocks that used to be the skyscrapers shuffled and assembled into dense, gigantic Rubik’s Cubes that fell into a deep slumber.
The ground then began to turn. Square by square, pieces of the earth flipped 180 degrees around an axis, revealing the buildings on the other side. The buildings unfolded and stood up, awakening like a herd of beasts under the gray–blue sky. The island that was the city settled in the orange sunlight, spread open, and stood still as misty gray clouds roiled around it.
The truck drivers, tired and hungry, admired the endless cycle of urban renewal.
The folding city was divided into three spaces. One side of the earth was First Space, population five million. Their allotted time lasted from six o’clock in the morning to six o’clock the next morning. Then the space went to sleep, and the earth flipped.
The other side was shared by Second Space and Third Space. Twenty–five million people lived in Second Space, and their allotted time lasted from six o’clock on that second day to ten o’clock at night. Fifty million people lived in Third Space, allotted the time from ten o’clock at night to six o’clock in the morning, at which point First Space returned. Time had been carefully divided and parceled out to separate the populations: Five million enjoyed the use of twenty–four hours, and seventy–five million enjoyed the next twenty–four hours.
The structures on two sides of the ground were not even in weight. To remedy the imbalance, the earth was made thicker in First Space, and extra ballast buried in the soil to make up for the missing people and buildings. The residents of First Space considered the extra soil a natural emblem of their possession of a richer, deeper heritage.
Lao Dao had lived in Third Space since birth. He understood very well the reality of his situation, even without Peng Li pointing it out. He was a waste worker; he had processed trash for twenty–eight years, and would do so for the foreseeable future. He had not found the meaning of his existence or the ultimate refuge of cynicism; instead, he continued to hold onto the humble place assigned to him in life.
Lao Dao had been born in Beijing. His father was also a waste worker. His father told him that when Lao Dao was born, his father had just gotten his job, and the family had celebrated for three whole days. His father had been a construction worker, one of millions of other construction workers who had come to Beijing from all over China in search of work. His father and others like him had built this folding city. District by district, they had transformed the old city. Like termites swarming over a wooden house, they had chewed up the wreckage of the past, overturned the earth, and constructed a brand new world. They had swung their hammers and wielded their adzes, keeping their heads down; brick by brick, they had walled themselves off until they could no longer see the sky. Dust had obscured their views, and they had not known the grandeur of their work. Finally, when the completed building stood up before them like a living person, they had scattered in terror, as though they had given birth to a monster. But after they calmed down, they realized what an honor it would be to live in such a city in the future, and so they had continued to toil diligently and docilely, to meekly seek out any opportunity to remain in the city. It was said that when the folding city was completed, more than eighty million construction workers had wanted to stay. Ultimately, no more than twenty million were allowed to settle.
It had not been easy to get a job at the waste processing station. Although the work only involved sorting trash, so many applied that stringent selection criteria had to be imposed: The desired candidates had to be strong, skillful, discerning, organized, diligent, and unafraid of the stench or difficult environment. Strong–willed, Lao Dao’s father had held fast onto the thin reed of opportunity as the tide of humanity surged and then receded around him, until he found himself a survivor on the dry beach.
His father had then kept his head down and labored away in the acidic rotten fetor of garbage and crowding for twenty years. He had built this city; he was also a resident and a decomposer.
Construction of the folding city had been completed two years before Lao Dao’s birth. He had never been anywhere else, and had never harbored the desire to go anywhere else. He finished elementary school, middle school, high school, and took the annual college entrance examination three times—failing each time. In the end, he became a waste worker, too. At the waste processing station, he worked for five hours each shift, from eleven at night to four in the morning. Together with tens of thousands of co–workers, he mechanically and quickly sorted through the trash, picking out recyclable bits from the scraps of life from First Space and Second Space and tossing them into the processing furnace. Every day, he faced the trash on the conveyer belt flowing past him like a river, and he scraped off the leftover food from plastic bowls, picked out broken glass bottles, tore off the clean, thin backing from blood–stained sanitary napkins, stuffing it into the recyclables can marked with green lines. This was their lot: to eke out a living by performing the repetitive drudgery as fast as possible, to toil hour after hour for rewards as thin as the wings of cicadas.
Twenty million waste workers lived in Third Space; they were the masters of the night. The other thirty million made a living by selling clothes, food, fuel, or insurance, but most people understood that the waste workers were the backbone of Third Space’s prosperity. Each time he strolled through the neon–bedecked night streets, Lao Dao thought he was walking under rainbows made of food scraps. He couldn’t talk about this feeling with others. The younger generation looked down on the profession of the waste worker. They tried to show off on the dance floors of nightclubs, hoping to find jobs as DJs or dancers. Even working at a clothing store seemed a better choice: their fingers would be touching thin fabric instead of scrabbling through rotting garbage for plastic or metal. The young were no longer so terrified about survival; they cared far more about appearances.
Lao Dao didn’t despise his work. But when he had gone to Second Space, he had been terrified of being despised.
The previous morning, Lao Dao had snuck his way out of the trash chute with a slip of paper and tried to find the author of the slip based on the address written on it.
Second Space wasn’t far from Third Space. They were located on the same side of the ground, though they were divided in time. At the Change, the buildings of one space folded and retracted into the ground as the buildings of another space extended into the air, segment by segment, using the tops of the buildings of the other space as its foundation. The only difference between the spaces was the density of buildings. Lao Dao had to wait a full day and night inside the trash chute for the opportunity to emerge as Second Space unfolded. Although this was the first time he had been to Second Space, he wasn’t anxious. He only worried about the rotting smell on him.
Luckily, Qin Tian was a generous soul. Perhaps he had been prepared for what sort of person would show up since the moment he put that slip of paper inside the bottle.
Qin Tian was very kind. He knew at a glance why Lao Dao had come. He pulled him inside his home, offered him a hot bath, and gave him one of his own bathrobes to wear. “I have to count on you,” Qin Tian said.
Qin was a graduate student living in a university–owned apartment. He had three roommates, and besides the four bedrooms, the apartment had a kitchen and two bathrooms. Lao Dao had never taken a bath in such a spacious bathroom, and he really wanted to soak for a while and get rid of the smell on his body. But he was also afraid of getting the bathtub dirty and didn’t dare to rub his skin too hard with the washcloth. The jets of bubbles coming out of the bathtub walls startled him, and being dried by hot jets of air made him uncomfortable. After the bath, he picked up the bathrobe from Qin Tian and only put it on after hesitating for a while. He laundered his own clothes, as well as a few other shirts casually left in a basin. Business was business, and he didn’t want to owe anyone any favors.
Qin Tian wanted to send a gift to a woman he liked. They had gotten to know each other from work when Qin Tian had been given the opportunity to go to First Space for an internship with the UN Economic Office, where she was also working. The internship had lasted only a month. Qin told Lao Dao that the young woman was born and bred in First Space, with very strict parents. Her father wouldn’t allow her to date a boy from Second Space, and that was why he couldn’t contact her through regular channels. Qin was optimistic about the future; he was going to apply to the UN’s New Youth Project after graduation, and if he were to be chosen, he would be able to go to work in First Space. He still had another year of school left before he would get his degree, but he was going crazy pining for her. He had made a rose–shaped locket for her that glowed in the dark: This was the gift he would use to ask for her hand in marriage.
“I was attending a symposium, you know, the one that discussed the UN’s debt situation? You must have heard of it… anyway, I saw her, and I was like, Ah! I went over right away to talk to her. She was helping the VIPs to their seats, and I didn’t know what to say, so I just followed her around. Finally, I pretended that I had to find interpreters, and I asked her to help me. She was so gentle, and her voice was really soft. I had never really asked a girl out, you understand, so I was super nervous… Later, after we started dating, I brought up how we met… Why are you laughing? Yes, we dated. No, I don’t think we quite got to that kind of relationship, but… well, we kissed.” Qin Tian laughed as well, a bit embarrassed. “I’m telling the truth! Don’t you believe me? Yes, I guess sometimes even I can’t believe it. Do you think she really likes me?”
“I have no idea,” Lao Dao said. “I’ve never met her.”
One of Qin Tian’s roommates came over, and smiling, said, “Uncle, why are you taking his question so seriously? That’s not a real question. He just wants to hear you say, ‘Of course she loves you! You’re so handsome.’”
“She must be beautiful.”
“I’m not afraid that you’ll laugh at me.” Qin Tian paced back and forth in front of Lao Dao. “When you see her, you’ll understand the meaning of ‘peerless elegance.’”
Qin Tian stopped, sinking into a reverie. He was thinking of Yi Yan’s mouth. Her mouth was perhaps his favorite part of her: So tiny, so smooth, with a full bottom lip that glowed with a natural, healthy pink, making him want to give it a loving bite. Her neck also aroused him. Sometimes it appeared so thin that the tendons showed, but the lines were straight and pretty. The skin was fair and smooth, extending down into the collar of her blouse so that his gaze lingered on her second button. The first time he tried to kiss her, she had moved her lips away shyly. He had persisted until she gave in, closing her eyes and returning the kiss. Her lips had felt so soft, and his hands had caressed the curve of her waist and backside, again and again. From that day on, he had lived in the country of longing. She was his dream at night, and also the light he saw when he trembled in his own hand.
Qin Tian’s roommate was called Zhang Xian, who seemed to relish the opportunity to converse with Lao Dao.
Zhang Xian asked Lao Dao about life in Third Space, and mentioned that he actually wanted to live in Third Space for a while. He had been given the advice that if he wanted to climb up the ladder of government administration, some managerial experience in Third Space would be very helpful. Several prominent officials had all started their careers as Third Space administrators before being promoted to First Space. If they had stayed in Second Space, they wouldn’t have gone anywhere and would have spent the rest of their careers as low–level administrative cadres. Zhang Xian’s ambition was to eventually enter government service, and he was certain he knew the right path. Still, he wanted to go work at a bank for a couple of years first and earn some quick money. Since Lao Dao seemed noncommittal about his plans, Zhang Xian thought Lao Dao disapproved of his careerism.
“The current government is too inefficient and ossified,” he added quickly, “slow to respond to challenges, and I don’t see much hope for systematic reform. When I get my opportunity, I’ll push for rapid reforms: Anyone who’s incompetent will be fired.” Since Lao Dao still didn’t seem to show much reaction, he added, “I’ll also work to expand the pool of candidates for government service and promotion, including opening up opportunities for candidates from Third Space.”
Lao Dao said nothing. It wasn’t because he disapproved; rather, he found it hard to believe Zhang Xian.
While he talked with Lao Dao, Zhang Xian was also putting on a tie and fixing his hair in front of the mirror. He had on a shirt with light blue stripes, and the tie was a bright blue. He closed his eyes and frowned as the mist of hairspray settled around his face, whistling all the while.
Zhang Xian left with his briefcase for his internship at the bank. Qin Tian said he had to get going as well since he had classes that would last until four in the afternoon. Before he left, he transferred fifty thousand yuan over the net to Lao Dao’s account while Lao Dao watched, and explained that he would transfer the rest after Lao Dao succeeded in his mission.
“Have you been saving up for this for a while?” Lao Dao asked. “You’re a student, so money is probably tight. I can accept less if necessary.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m on a paid internship with a financial advisory firm. They pay me around a hundred thousand each month, so the total I’m promising you is about two months of my salary. I can afford it.”
Lao Dao said nothing. He earned the standard salary of ten thousand each month.
“Please bring back her answer,” Qin Tian said.
“I’ll do my best.”
“Help yourself to the fridge if you get hungry. Just stay put here and wait for the Change.”
Lao Dao looked outside the window. He couldn’t get used to the sunlight, which was a bright white, not the yellow he was used to. The street seemed twice as wide in the sun as what Lao Dao remembered from Third Space, and he wasn’t sure if that was a visual illusion. The buildings here weren’t nearly as tall as buildings in Third Space. The sidewalks were filled with people walking very fast, and from time to time, some trotted and tried to shove their way through the crowd, causing those in front of them to begin running as well. Everyone seemed to run across intersections. The men dressed mostly in western suits while the women wore blouses and short skirts, with scarves around their necks and compact, rigid purses in their hands that lent them an air of competence and efficiency. The street was filled with cars, and as they waited at intersections for the light to change, the drivers stuck their heads out of the windows, gazing ahead anxiously. Lao Dao had never seen so many cars; he was used to the mass–transit maglev packed with passengers whooshing by him.
Around noon, he heard noises in the hallway outside the apartment. Lao Dao peeked out of the peephole in the door. The floor of the hallway had transformed into a moving conveyor belt, and bags of trash left at the door of each apartment were shoved onto the conveyor belt to be deposited into the chute at the end. Mist filled the hall, turning into soap bubbles that drifted through the air, and then water washed the floor, followed by hot steam.
A noise from behind Lao Dao startled him. He turned around and saw that another of Qin Tian’s roommates had emerged from his bedroom. The young man ignored Lao Dao, his face impassive. He went to some machine next to the balcony and pushed some buttons, and the machine came to life, popping, whirring, grinding. Eventually, the noise stopped, and Lao Dao smelled something delicious. The young man took out a piping hot plate of food from the machine and returned to his room. Through the half–open bedroom door, Lao Dao could see that the young man was sitting on the floor in a pile of blankets and dirty socks, and staring at his wall as he ate and laughed, pushing up his glasses from time to time. After he was done eating, he left the plate at his feet, stood up, and began to fight someone invisible as he faced the wall. He struggled, his breathing labored, as he wrestled the unseen enemy.
Lao Dao’s last memory of Second Space was the refined air with which everyone conducted themselves before the Change. Looking down from the window of the apartment, everything seemed so orderly that he felt a hint of envy. Starting at a quarter past nine, the stores along the street turned off their lights one after another; groups of friends, their faces red with drink, said goodbye in front of restaurants. Young couples kissed next to taxicabs. And then everyone returned to their homes, and the world went to sleep.
It was ten at night. He returned to his world to go to work.
There was no trash chute connecting First Space directly with Third Space. The trash from First Space had to pass through a set of metal gates to be transported into Third Space, and the gates shut as soon as the trash went through. Lao Dao didn’t like the idea of having to go over the flipping ground, but he had no choice.
As the wind whipped around him, he crawled up the still–rotating earth toward First Space. He grabbed onto metal structural elements protruding from the soil, struggling to balance his body and calm his heart, until he finally managed to scrabble over the rim of this most distant world. He felt dizzy and nauseated from the intense climb, and forcing down his churning stomach, he remained still on the ground for a while.
By the time he got up, the sun had risen.
Lao Dao had never seen such a sight. The sun rose gradually. The sky was a deep and pure azure, with an orange fringe at the horizon, decorated with slanted, thin wisps of cloud. The eaves of a nearby building blocked the sun, and the eaves appeared especially dark while the background was dazzlingly bright. As the sun continued to rise, the blue of the sky faded a little, but seemed even more tranquil and clear. Lao Dao stood up and ran at the sun; he wanted to catch a trace of that fading golden color. Silhouettes of waving tree branches broke up the sky. His heart leapt wildly. He had never imagined that a sunrise could be so moving.
After a while, he slowed down and calmed himself. He was standing in the middle of the street, lined on both sides with tall trees and wide lawns. He looked around, and he couldn’t see any buildings at all. Confused, he wondered if he had really reached First Space. He pondered the two rows of sturdy gingkoes.
He backed up a few steps and turned to look in the direction he had come from. There was a road sign next to the street. He took out his phone and looked at the map—although he wasn’t authorized to download live maps from First Space, he had downloaded and stored some maps before leaving on this trip. He found where he was as well as where he needed to be. He was standing next to a large open park, and the seam he had emerged from was next to a lake in that park.
Lao Dan ran about a kilometer through the deserted streets until he reached the residential district containing his destination. He hid behind some bushes and observed the beautiful house from a distance.
At eight thirty, Yi Yan came out of the house.
She was indeed as elegant as Qin Tian’s description had suggested, though perhaps not as pretty. Lao Dao wasn’t surprised, however. No woman could possibly be as beautiful as Qin Tian’s verbal portrait. He also understood why Qin Tian had spoken so much of her mouth. Her eyes and nose were fairly ordinary. She had a good figure: Tall, with delicate bones. She wore a milky white dress with a flowing skirt. Her belt was studded with pearls, and she had on black heels.
Lao Dao walked up to her. To avoid startling her, he approached from the front, and bowed deeply when he was still some distance away.
She stood still, looking at him in surprise.
Lao Dao came closer and explained his mission. He took out the envelope with the locket and Qin Tian’s letter.
She looked alarmed. “Please leave,” she whispered. “I can’t talk to you right now.”
“Uh… I don’t really need to talk to you,” Lao Dao said. “I just need to give you this letter.”
She refused to take it from him, clasping her hands tightly. “I can’t accept this now. Please leave. Really, I’m begging you. All right?” She took out a business card from her purse and handed it to him. “Come find me at this address at noon.”
Lao Dao looked at the card. At the top was the name of a bank.
“At noon,” she said. “Wait for me in the underground supermarket.”
Lao Dao could tell how anxious she was. He nodded, put the card away, and returned to hide behind the bushes. Soon, a man emerged from the house and stopped next to her. The man looked to be about Lao Dao’s age, or maybe a couple of years younger. Dressed in a dark gray, well–fitted suit, he was tall and broad–shouldered. Not fat, just thickset. His face was nondescript: Round, a pair of glasses, hair neatly combed to one side.
The man grabbed Yi Yan around the waist and kissed her on the lips. Yi Yan seemed to give in to the kiss reluctantly.
Understanding began to dawn on Lao Dao.
A single–rider cart arrived in front of the house. The black cart had two wheels and a canopy, and resembled an ancient carriage or rickshaw one might see on TV, except there was no horse or person pulling the cart. The cart stopped and dipped forward. Yi Yan stepped in, sat down, and arranged the skirt of the dress neatly around her knees. The cart straightened and began to move at a slow, steady pace, as though pulled by some invisible horse. After Yi Yan left, a driverless car arrived, and the man got in.
Lao Dao paced in place. He felt something was pushing at his throat, but he couldn’t articulate it. Standing in the sun, he closed his eyes. The clean, fresh air filled his lungs and provided some measure of comfort.
A moment later, he was on his way. The address Yi Yan had given him was to the east, a little more than three kilometers away. There were very few people in the pedestrian lane, and only scattered cars sped by in a blur on the eight–lane avenue. Occasionally, well–dressed women passed Lao Dao in two–wheeled carts. The passengers adopted such graceful postures that it was as though they were in some fashion show. No one paid any attention to Lao Dao. The trees swayed in the breeze, and the air in their shade seemed suffused with the perfume from the elegant women.
Yi Yan’s office was in the Xidan commercial district. There were no skyscrapers at all, only a few low buildings scattered around a large park. The buildings seemed isolated from each other but were really parts of a single compound connected via underground passages.
Lao Dao found the supermarket. He was early. As soon as he came in, a small shopping cart began to follow him around. Every time he stopped by a shelf, the screen on the cart displayed the names of the goods on the shelf, their description, customer reviews, and comparison with other brands in the same category. All merchandise in the supermarket seemed to be labeled in foreign languages. The packaging for all the food products was very refined, and small cakes and fruits were enticingly arranged on plates for customers. He didn’t dare to touch anything, keeping his distance as though they were dangerous, exotic animals. There seemed to be no guards or clerks in the whole market.
More customers appeared before noon. Some men in suits came into the market, grabbed sandwiches, and waved them at the scanner next to the door before hurrying out. No one paid any attention to Lao Dao as he waited in an obscure corner near the door.
Yi Yan appeared, and Lao Dao went up to her. Yi Yan glanced around, and without saying anything, led Lao Dao to a small restaurant next door. Two small robots dressed in plaid skirts greeted them, took Yi Yan’s purse, brought them to a booth, and handed them menus. Yi Yan pressed a few spots on the menu to make her selection and handed the menu back to the robot. The robot turned and glided smoothly on its wheels to the back.
Yi Yan and Lao Dao sat mutely across from each other. Lao Dao took out the envelope.
Yi Yan still didn’t take it from him. “Can you let me explain?”
Lao Dao pushed the envelope across the table. “Please take this first.”
Yi Yan pushed it back.
“Can you let me explain first?”
“You don’t need to explain anything,” Lao Dao said. “I didn’t write this letter. I’m just the messenger.”
“But you have to go back and give him an answer.” Yi Yan looked down. The little robot returned with two plates, one for each of them. On each plate were two slices of some kind of red sashimi, arranged like flower petals. Yi Yan didn’t pick up her chopsticks, and neither did Lao Dao. The envelope rested between the two plates, and neither touched it. “I didn’t betray him. When I met him last year, I was already engaged. I didn’t lie to him or conceal the truth from him on purpose… Well, maybe I did lie, but it was because he assumed and guessed. He saw Wu Wen come to pick me up once, and he asked me if he was my father. I… I couldn’t answer him, you know? It was just too embarrassing. I…”
Yi Yan couldn’t speak any more.
Lao Dao waited a while. “I’m not interested in what happened between you two. All I care about is that you take the letter.”
Yi Yan kept her head down, and then she looked up. “After you go back, can you… help me by not telling him everything?”
“I don’t want him to think that I was just playing with his feelings. I do like him, really. I feel very conflicted.”
“None of this is my concern.”
“Please, I’m begging you… I really do like him.”
Lao Dao was silent for a while.
“But you got married in the end?”
“Wu Wen was very good to me. We’d been together several years. He knew my parents, and we’d been engaged for a long time. Also, I’m three years older than Qin Tian, and I was afraid he wouldn’t like that. Qin Tian thought I was an intern, like him, and I admit that was my fault for not telling him the truth. I don’t know why I said I was an intern at first, and then it became harder and harder to correct him. I never thought he would be serious.”
Slowly, Yi Yan told Lao Dao her story. She was actually an assistant to the bank’s president and had already been working there for two years at the time she met Qin Tian. She had been sent to the UN for training, and was helping out at the symposium. In fact, her husband earned so much money that she didn’t really need to work, but she didn’t like the idea of being at home all day. She worked only half days and took a half–time salary. The rest of the day was hers to do with as she pleased, and she liked learning new things and meeting new people. She really had enjoyed the months she spent training at the UN. She told Lao Dao that there were many wives like her who worked half–time. As a matter of fact, after she got off work at noon, another wealthy wife worked as the president’s assistant in the afternoon. She told Lao Dao that though she had not told Qin Tian the truth, her heart was honest.
“And so”—she spooned a serving of the new hot dish onto Lao Dao’s plate—“can you please not tell him, just temporarily? Please… give me a chance to explain to him myself.”
Lao Dao didn’t pick up his chopsticks. He was very hungry, but he felt that he could not eat this food.
“Then I’d be lying, too,” Lao Dao said.
Yi Yan opened her purse, took out her wallet, and retrieved five 10,000–yuan bills. She pushed them across the table toward Lao Dao. “Please accept this token of my appreciation.”
Lao Dao was stunned. He had never seen bills with such large denominations or needed to use them. Almost subconsciously, he stood up, angry. The way Yi Yan had taken out the money seemed to suggest that she had been anticipating an attempt from him to blackmail her, and he could not accept that. This is what they think of Third Spacers. He felt that if he took her money, he would be selling Qin Tian out. It was true that he really wasn’t Qin Tian’s friend, but he still thought of it as a kind of betrayal. Lao Dao wanted to grab the bills, throw them on the ground, and walk away. But he couldn’t. He looked at the money again: The five thin notes were spread on the table like a broken fan. He could sense the power they had on him. They were baby blue in color, distinct from the brown 1,000–yuan note and the red 100–yuan note. These bills looked deeper, most distant somehow, like a kind of seduction. Several times, he wanted to stop looking at them and leave, but he couldn’t.
She continued to rummage through her purse, taking everything out, until she finally found another fifty thousand yuan from an inner pocket and placed them together with the other bills. “This is all I have. Please take it and help me.” She paused. “Look, the reason I don’t want him to know is because I’m not sure what I’m going to do. It’s possible that someday I’ll have the courage to be with him.”
Lao Dao looked at the ten notes spread out on the table, and then looked up at her. He sensed that she didn’t believe what she was saying. Her voice was hesitant, belying her words. She was just delaying everything to the future so that she wouldn’t be embarrassed now. She was unlikely to ever elope with Qin Tian, but she also didn’t want him to despise her. Thus, she wanted to keep alive the possibility so that she could feel better about herself.
Lao Dao could see that she was lying to herself, but he wanted to lie to himself, too. He told himself, I have no duty to Qin Tian. All he asked was for me to deliver his message to her, and I’ve done that. The money on the table now represents a new commission, a commitment to keep a secret. He waited, and then told himself, Perhaps someday she really will get together with Qin Tian, and in that case I’ll have done a good deed by keeping silent. Besides, I need to think about Tangtang. Why should I get myself all worked up about strangers instead of thinking about Tangtang’s welfare? He felt calmer. He realized that his fingers were already touching the money.
“This is… too much.” He wanted to make himself feel better. “I can’t accept so much.”
“It’s no big deal.” She stuffed the bills into his hand. “I earn this much in a week. Don’t worry.”
“What… what do you want me to tell him?”
“Tell him that I can’t be with him now, but I truly like him. I’ll write you a note to bring him.” Yi Yan found a notepad in her purse; it had a picture of a peacock on the cover and the edges of the pages were golden. She ripped out a page and began to write. Her handwriting looked like a string of slanted gourds.
As Lao Dao left the restaurant, he glanced back. Yi Yan was sitting in the booth, gazing up at a painting on the wall. She looked so elegant and refined, as though she was never going to leave.
He squeezed the bills in his pocket. He despised himself, but he wanted to hold on to the money.
Lao Dao left Xidan and returned the way he had come. He felt exhausted. The pedestrian lane was lined with a row of weeping willows on one side and a row of Chinese parasol trees on the other side. It was late spring, and everything was a lush green. The afternoon sun warmed his stiff face, and brightened his empty heart.
He was back at the park from this morning. There were many people in the park now, and the two rows of gingkoes looked stately and luscious. Black cars entered the park from time to time, and most of the people in the park wore either well–fitted western suits made of quality fabric or dark–colored stylish Chinese suits, but everyone gave off a haughty air. There were also some foreigners. Some of the people conversed in small groups; others greeted each other at a distance, and then laughed as they got close enough to shake hands and walk together.
Lao Dao hesitated, trying to decide where to go. There weren’t that many people in the street, and he would draw attention if he just stood here. But he would look out of place in any public area. He wanted to go back into the park, get close to the fissure, and hide in some corner to take a nap. He felt very sleepy, but he dared not sleep on the street.
He noticed that the cars entering the park didn’t seem to need to stop, and so he tried to walk into the park as well. Only when he was close to the park gate did he notice that two robots were patrolling the area. While cars and other pedestrians passed their sentry line with no problems, the robots beeped as soon as Lao Dao approached and turned on their wheels to head for him. In the tranquil afternoon, the noise they made seemed especially loud. The eyes of everyone nearby turned to him. He panicked, uncertain if it was his shabby clothes that alerted the robots. He tried to whisper to the robots, claiming that his suit was left inside the park, but the robots ignored him while they continued to beep and to flash the red lights over their heads. People strolling inside the park stopped and looked at him as though looking at a thief or eccentric person. Soon, three men emerged from a nearby building and ran over. Lao Dao’s heart was in his throat. He wanted to run, but it was too late.
“What’s going on?” the man in the lead asked loudly.
Lao Dao couldn’t think of anything to say, and he rubbed his pants compulsively.
The man in the front was in his thirties. He came up to Lao Dao and scanned him with a silver disk about the size of a button, moving his hand around Lao Dao’s person. He looked at Lao Dao suspiciously, as though trying to pry open his shell with a can opener.
“There’s no record of this man.” The man gestured at the older man behind him. “Bring him in.”
Lao Dao started to run away from the park.
The two robots silently dashed ahead of him and grabbed onto his legs. Their arms were cuffs and locked easily about his ankles. He tripped and almost fell, but the robots held him up. His arms swung through the air helplessly.
“Why are you trying to run?” The younger man stepped up and glared at him. His tone was now severe.
“I…” Lao Dao’s head felt like a droning beehive. He couldn’t think.
The two robots lifted Lao Dao by the legs and deposited his feet onto platforms next to their wheels. Then they drove toward the nearest building in parallel, carrying Lao Dao. Their movements were so steady, so smooth, so synchronized, that from a distance, it appeared as if Lao Dao was skating along on a pair of rollerblades, like Nezha riding on his Wind Fire Wheels.
Lao Dao felt utterly helpless. He was angry with himself for being so careless. How could he think such a crowded place would be without security measures? He berated himself for being so drowsy that he could commit such a stupid mistake. It’s all over now, he thought. Not only am I not going to get my money, I’m also going to jail.
The robots followed a narrow path and reached the backdoor of the building, where they stopped. The three men followed behind. The younger man seemed to be arguing with the older man over what to do with Lao Dao, but they spoke so softly that Lao Dao couldn’t hear the details. After a while, the older man came up and unlocked the robots from Lao Dao’s legs. Then he grabbed him by the arm and took him upstairs.
Lao Dao sighed. He resigned himself to his fate.
The man brought him into a room. It looked like a hotel room, very spacious, bigger even than the living room in Qin Tian’s apartment, and about twice the size of his own rental unit. The room was decorated in a dark shade of golden brown, with a king–sized bed in the middle. The wall at the head of the bed showed abstract patterns of shifting colors. Translucent, white curtains covered the French window, and in front of the window sat a small circular table and two comfortable chairs. Lao Dao was anxious, unsure of who the older man was and what he wanted.
“Sit, sit!” The older man clapped him on the shoulder and smiled. “Everything’s fine.”
Lao Dao looked at him suspiciously.
“You’re from Third Space, aren’t you?” The older man pulled him over to the chairs, and gestured for him to sit.
“How do you know that?” Lao Dao couldn’t lie.
“From your pants.” The older man pointed at the waist of his pants. “You never even cut off the label. This brand is only sold in Third Space; I remember my mother buying them for my father when I was little.”
“You don’t need to ‘Sir’ me. I don’t think I’m much older than you are. How old are you? I’m fifty–two.”
“See, just older by four years.” He paused, and then added, “My name is Ge Daping. Why don’t you just call me Lao Ge?”
Lao Dao relaxed a little. Lao Ge took off his jacket and moved his arms about to stretch out the stiff muscles. Then he filled a glass with hot water from a spigot in the wall and handed it to Lao Dao. He had a long face, and the corners of his eyes, the ends of his eyebrows, and his cheeks drooped. Even his glasses seemed about to fall off the end of his nose. His hair was naturally a bit curly and piled loosely on top of his head. As he spoke, his eyebrows bounced up and down comically. He made some tea for himself and asked Lao Dao if he wanted any. Lao Dao shook his head.
“I was originally from Third Space as well,” said Lao Ge. “We’re practically from the same hometown! So, you don’t need to be so careful with me. I still have a bit of authority, and I won’t give you up.”
Lao Dao let out a long sigh, congratulating himself silently for his good luck. He recounted for Lao Ge his experiencing of going to Second Space and then coming to First Space, but omitted the details of what Yi Yan had said. He simply told Lao Ge that he had successfully delivered the message and was just waiting for the Change to head home.
Lao Ge also shared his own story with Lao Dao. He had grown up in Third Space, and his parents had worked as deliverymen. When he was fifteen, he entered a military school, and then joined the army. He worked as a radar technician in the army, and because he worked hard, demonstrated good technical skills, and had some good opportunities, he was eventually promoted to an administrative position in the radar department with the rank of brigadier general. Since he didn’t come from a prominent family, that rank was about as high as he could go in the army. He then retired from the army and joined an agency in First Space responsible for logistical support for government enterprises, organizing meetings, arranging travel, and coordinating various social events. The job was blue collar in nature, but since his work involved government officials and he had to coordinate and manage, he was allowed to live in First Space. There were a considerable number of people in First Space like him—chefs, doctors, secretaries, housekeepers—skilled blue–collar workers needed to support the lifestyle of First Space. His agency had run many important social events and functions, and Lao Ge was its director.
Lao Ge might have been self–deprecating in describing himself as a “blue collar,” but Lao Dao understood that anyone who could work and live in First Space had extraordinary skills. Even a chef here was likely a master of his art. Lao Ge must be very talented to have risen here from Third Space after a technical career in the army.
“You might as well take a nap,” Lao Ge said. “I’ll take you to get something to eat this evening.”
Lao Dao still couldn’t believe his good luck, and he felt a bit uneasy. However, he couldn’t resist the call of the white sheets and stuffed pillows, and he fell asleep almost right away.
When he woke up, it was dark outside. Lao Ge was combing his hair in front of the mirror. He showed Lao Dao a suit lying on the sofa and told him to change. Then he pinned a tiny badge with a faint red glow to Lao Dao’s lapel—a new identity.
The large open lobby downstairs was crowded. Some kind of presentation seemed to have just finished, and attendees conversed in small groups. At one end of the lobby were the open doors leading to the banquet hall; the thick doors were lined with burgundy leather. The lobby was filled with small standing tables. Each table was covered by a white tablecloth tied around the bottom with a golden bow, and the vase in the middle of each table held a lily. Crackers and dried fruits were set out next to the vases for snacking, and a long table to the side offered wine and coffee. Guests mingled and conversed among the tables while small robots holding serving trays shuttled between their legs, collecting empty glasses.
Forcing himself to be calm, Lao Dao followed Lao Ge and walked through the convivial scene into the banquet hall. He saw a large hanging banner: The Folding City at Fifty.
“What is this?” Lao Dao asked.
“A celebration!” Lao Ge was walking about and examining the set up. “Xiao Zhao, come here a minute. I want you to check the table signs one more time. I don’t trust robots for things like this. Sometimes they don’t know how to be flexible.”
Lao Dao saw that the banquet hall was filled with large round tables with fresh flower centerpieces.
The scene seemed unreal to him. He stood in a corner and gazed up at the giant chandelier as though some dazzling reality was hanging over him, and he was but an insignificant presence at its periphery. There was a lectern set up on the dais at the front, and, behind it, the background was an ever–shifting series of images of Beijing. The photographs were perhaps taken from an airplane and captured the entirety of the city: The soft light of dawn and dusk; the dark purple and deep blue sky; clouds racing across the sky; the moon rising from a corner; the sun setting behind a roof. The aerial shots revealed the magnificence of Beijing’s ancient symmetry; the modern expanse of brick courtyards and large green parks that had extended to the Sixth Ring Road; Chinese style theatres; Japanese style museums; minimalist concert halls. And then there were shots of the city as a whole, shots that included both faces of the city during the Change: The earth flipping, revealing the other side studded with skyscrapers with sharp, straight contours; men and women energetically rushing to work; neon signs lighting up the night, blotting out the stars; towering apartment buildings, cinemas, nightclubs full of beautiful people.
But there were no shots of where Lao Dao worked.
He stared at the screen intently, uncertain if they might show pictures during the construction of the folding city. He hoped to get a glimpse of his father’s era. When he was little, his father had often pointed to buildings outside the window and told him stories that started with “Back then, we…” An old photograph had hung on the wall of their cramped home, and in the picture his father was laying bricks, a task his father had performed thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands of times. He had seen that picture so many times that he thought he was sick of it, and yet, at this moment, he hoped to see a scene of workers laying bricks, even if for just a few seconds.
He was lost in his thoughts. This was also the first time he had seen what the Change looked like from a distance. He didn’t remember sitting down, and he didn’t know when others had sat down next to him. A man began to speak at the lectern, but Lao Dao wasn’t even listening for the first few minutes.
“… advantageous for the development of the service sector. The service economy is dependent on population size and density. Currently, the service industry of our city is responsible for more than 85 percent of our GDP, in line with the general characteristics of world–class metropolises. The other important sectors are the green economy and the recycling economy.” Lao Dao was paying full attention now. “Green economy” and “recycling economy” were often mentioned at the waste processing station, and the phrases were painted on the walls in characters taller than a man. He looked closer at the speaker on the dais: An old man with silvery hair, though he appeared hale and energetic. “… all trash is now sorted and processed, and we’ve achieved our goals for energy conservation and pollution reduction ahead of schedule. We’ve developed a systematic, large–scale recycling economy in which all the rare–earth and precious metals extracted from e–waste are reused in manufacturing, and even the plastics recycling rate exceeds eighty percent. The recycling stations are directly connected to the reprocessing plants…”
Lao Dao knew of a distant relative who worked at a reprocessing plant in the technopark far from the city. The technopark was just acres and acres of industrial buildings, and he heard that all the plants over there were very similar: The machines pretty much ran on their own, and there were very few workers. At night, when the workers got together, they felt like the last survivors of some dwindling tribe in a desolate wilderness.
He drifted off again. Only the wild applause at the end of the speech pulled him out of his chaotic thoughts and back to reality. He also applauded, though he didn’t know what for. He watched the speaker descend the dais and return to his place of honor at the head table. Everyone’s eyes were on him.
Lao Dao saw Wu Wen, Yi Yan’s husband.
Wu Wen was at the table next to the head table. As the old man who had given the speech sat down, Wu Wen walked over to offer a toast, and then he seemed to say something that got the old man’s attention. The old man got up and walked with Wu Wen out of the banquet hall. Almost subconsciously, a curious Lao Dao also got up and followed them. He didn’t know where Lao Ge had gone. Robots emerged to serve the dishes for the banquet.
Lao Dao emerged from the banquet hall and was back in the reception lobby. He eavesdropped on the other two from a distance and only caught snippets of conversation.
“… there are many advantages to this proposal,” said Wu Wen. “Yes, I’ve seen their equipment… automatic waste processing… they use a chemical solvent to dissolve and digest everything and then extract reusable materials in bulk… clean, and very economical… would you please give it some consideration?”
Wu Wen kept his voice low, but Lao Dao clearly heard “waste processing.” He moved closer.
The old man with the silvery hair had a complex expression. Even after Wu Wen was finished, he waited a while before speaking, “You’re certain that the solvent is safe? No toxic pollution?”
Wu Wen hesitated. “The current version still generates a bit of pollution but I’m sure they can reduce it to the minimum very quickly.”
Lao Dao got even closer.
The old man shook his head, staring at Wu Wen. “Things aren’t that simple. If I approve your project and it’s implemented, there will be major consequences. Your process won’t need workers, so what are you going to do with the tens of millions of people who will lose their jobs?”
The old man turned away and returned to the banquet hall. Wu Wen remained in place, stunned. A man who had been by the old man’s side—a secretary perhaps—came up to Wu Wen and said sympathetically, “You might as well go back and enjoy the meal. I’m sure you understand how this works. Employment is the number one concern. Do you really think no one has suggested similar technology in the past?”
Lao Dao understood vaguely that what they were talking about had to do with him, but he wasn’t sure whether it was good news or bad. Wu Wen’s expression shifted through confusion, annoyance, and then resignation. Lao Dao suddenly felt some sympathy for him: He had his moments of weakness, as well.
The secretary suddenly noticed Lao Dao.
“Are you new here?” he asked.
Lao Dao was startled. “Ah? Um…”
“What’s your name? How come I wasn’t informed about a new member of the staff?”
Lao Dao’s heart beat wildly. He didn’t know what to say. He pointed to the badge on his lapel, as though hoping the badge would speak or otherwise help him out. But the badge displayed nothing. His palms sweated. The secretary stared at him, his look growing more suspicious by the second. He grabbed another worker in the lobby, and the worker said he didn’t know who Lao Dao was.
The secretary’s face was now severe and dark. He grabbed Lao Dao with one hand and punched the keys on his communicator with the other hand.
Lao Dao’s heart threatened to jump out of his throat, but just then, he saw Lao Ge.
Lao Ge rushed over and with a smooth gesture, hung up the secretary’s communicator. Smiling, he greeted the secretary and bowed deeply. He explained that he was shorthanded for the occasion and had to ask for a colleague from another department to help out tonight. The secretary seemed to believe Lao Ge and returned to the banquet hall. Lao Ge brought Lao Dao back to his own room to avoid any further risks. If anyone really bothered to look into Lao Dao’s identity, they’d discover the truth, and even Lao Ge wouldn’t be able to protect him.
“I guess you’re not fated to enjoy the banquet.” Lao Ge laughed. “Just wait here. I’ll get you some food later.”
Lao Dao lay down on the bed and fell asleep again. He replayed the conversation between Wu Wen and the old man in his head. Automatic waste processing. What would that look like? Would that be a good thing or bad?
The next time he woke up, he smelled something delicious. Lao Ge had set out a few dishes on the small circular table, and was taking the last plate out of the warming oven on the wall. Lao Ge also brought over a half bottle of baijiu and filled two glasses.
“There was a table where they had only two people, and they left early so most of the dishes weren’t even touched. I brought some back. It’s not much, but maybe you’ll enjoy the taste. Hopefully you won’t hold it against me that I’m offering you leftovers.”
“Not at all,” Lao Dao said. “I’m grateful that I get to eat at all. These look wonderful! They must be very expensive, right?”
“The food at the banquet is prepared by the kitchen here and not for sale, so I don’t know how much they’d cost in a restaurant.” Lao Ge already started to eat. “They’re nothing special. If I had to guess, maybe ten thousand, twenty thousand? A couple might cost thirty, forty thousand. Not more than that.”
After a couple of bites, Lao Dao realized how hungry he was. He was used to skipping meals, and sometimes he could last a whole day without eating. His body would shake uncontrollably then, but he had learned to endure it. But now, the hunger was overwhelming. He wanted to chew quicker because his teeth couldn’t seem to catch up to the demands of his empty stomach. He tried to wash the food down with baijiu, which was very fragrant and didn’t sting his throat at all.
Lao Ge ate leisurely, and smiled as he watched Lao Dao eat.
“Oh.” Now that the pangs of hunger had finally been dulled a bit, Lao Dao remembered the earlier conversation. “Who was the man giving the speech? He seemed a bit familiar.”
“He’s always on TV,” Lao Ge said. “That’s my boss. He’s a man with real power—in charge of everything having to do with city operations.”
“They were talking about automatic waste processing earlier. Do you think they’ll really do it?”
“Hard to say.” Lao Ge sipped the baijiu and let out a burp. “I suspect not. You have to understand why they went with manual processing in the first place. Back then, the situation here was similar to Europe at the end of the twentieth century. The economy was growing, but so was unemployment. Printing money didn’t solve the problem. The economy refused to obey the Phillips curve.”
He saw that Lao Dao looked completely lost, and laughed. “Never mind. You wouldn’t understand these things anyway.”
He clinked glasses with Lao Dao and the two drained their baijiu and refilled the glasses.
“I’ll just stick to unemployment. I’m sure you understand the concept,” Lao Ge continued. “As the cost of labor goes up and the cost of machinery goes down, at some point, it’ll be cheaper to use machines than people. With the increase in productivity, the GDP goes up, but so does unemployment. What do you do? Enact policies to protect the workers? Better welfare? The more you try to protect workers, the more you increase the cost of labor and make it less attractive for employers to hire people. If you go outside the city now to the industrial districts, there’s almost no one working in those factories. It’s the same thing with farming. Large commercial farms contain thousands and thousands of acres of land, and everything is automated so there’s no need for people. This kind of automation is absolutely necessary if you want to grow your economy—that was how we caught up to Europe and America, remember? Scaling! The problem is: Now you’ve gotten the people off the land and out of the factories, what are you going to do with them? In Europe, they went with the path of forcefully reducing everyone’s working hours and thus increasing employment opportunities. But this saps the vitality of the economy, you understand?
“The best way is to reduce the time a certain portion of the population spends living, and then find ways to keep them busy. Do you get it? Right, shove them into the night. There’s another advantage to this approach: The effects of inflation almost can’t be felt at the bottom of the social pyramid. Those who can get loans and afford the interest spend all the money you print. The GDP goes up, but the cost of basic necessities does not. And most of the people won’t even be aware of it.”
Lao Dao listened, only half grasping what was being said. But he could detect something cold and cruel in Lao Ge’s speech. Lao Ge’s manner was still jovial, but he could tell Lao Ge’s joking tone was just an attempt to dull the edge of his words and not hurt him. Not too much.
“Yes, it sounds a bit cold,” Lao Ge admitted. “But it’s the truth. I’m not trying to defend this place just because I live here. But after so many years, you grow a bit numb. There are many things in life we can’t change, and all we can do is to accept and endure.”
Lao Dao was finally beginning to understand Lao Ge, but he didn’t know what to say.
Both became a bit drunk. They began to reminisce about the past: The foods they ate as children, schoolyard fights. Lao Ge had loved hot and sour rice noodles and stinky tofu. These were not available in First Space, and he missed them dearly. Lao Ge talked about his parents, who still lived in Third Space. He couldn’t visit them often because each trip required him to apply and obtain special approval, which was very burdensome. He mentioned that there were some officially sanctioned ways to go between Third Space and First Space, and a few select people did make the trip often. He hoped that Lao Dao could bring a few things back to his parents because he felt regret and sorrow over his inability to be by their side and care for them.
Lao Dao talked about his lonely childhood. In the dim lamplight, he recalled his childhood spent alone wandering at the edge of the landfill.
It was now late night. Lao Ge had to go check up on the event downstairs, and he took Lao Dao with him. The dance party downstairs was about to be over, and tired–looking men and women emerged in twos and threes. Lao Ge said that entrepreneurs seemed to have the most energy, and often danced until the morning. The deserted banquet hall after the party looked messy and grubby, like a woman who took off her makeup after a long, tiring day. Lao Ge watched the robots trying to clean up the mess and laughed. “This is the only moment when First Space shows its true face.”
Lao Dao checked the time: Three hours until the Change. He sorted his thoughts: It’s time to leave.
The silver–haired speaker returned to his office after the banquet to deal with some paperwork, and then got on a video call with Europe. At midnight, he felt tired. He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. It was finally time to go home. He worked till midnight on most days.
The phone rang. He picked up. It was his secretary.
The research group for the conference had reported something troubling. Someone had discovered an error with one of the figures used in the pre–printed conference declaration, and the research group wanted to know if they should re–print the declaration. The old man immediately approved the request. This was very important, and they had to get it right. He asked who was responsible for this, and the secretary told him that it was Director Wu Wen.
The old man sat down on his sofa and took a nap. Around four in the morning, the phone rang again. The printing was going a bit slower than expected, and they estimated it would take another hour.
He got up and looked outside the window. All was silent. He could see Orion’s bright stars twinkling against the dark sky.
The stars of Orion were reflected in the mirror–like surface of the lake. Lao Dao was sitting on the shore of the lake, waiting for the Change.
He gazed at the park at night, realizing that this was perhaps the last time he would see a sight such as this. He wasn’t sad or nostalgic. This was a beautiful, peaceful place, but it had nothing to do with him. He wasn’t envious or resentful. He just wanted to remember this experience. There were few lights at night here, nothing like the flashing neon that turned the streets of Third Space bright as day. The buildings of the city seemed to be asleep, breathing evenly and calmly.
At five in the morning, the secretary called again to say that the declaration had been re–printed and bound, but the documents were still in the print shop, and they wanted to know if they should delay the scheduled Change.
The old man made the decision right away. Of course they had to delay it.
At forty minutes past the hour, the printed declarations were brought to the conference site, but they still had to be stuffed into about three thousand individual folders.
Lao Dao saw the faint light of dawn. At this time during the year, the sun wouldn’t have risen by six, but it was possible to see the sky brightening near the horizon.
He was prepared. He looked at his phone: only a couple more minutes until six. But strangely, there were no signs of the Change. Maybe in First Space, even the Change happens more smoothly and steadily.
At ten after six, the last copy of the declaration was stuffed into its folder.
The old man let out a held breath. He gave the order to initiate the Change.
Lao Dao noticed that the earth was finally moving. He stood up and shook the numbness out of his limbs. Carefully, he stepped up to the edge of the widening fissure. As the earth on both sides of the crack lifted up, he clambered over the edge, tested for purchase with his feet, and climbed down. The ground began to turn.
At twenty after six, the secretary called again with an emergency. Director Wu Wen had carelessly left a data key with important documents behind at the banquet hall. He was worried that the cleaning robots might remove it, and he had to go retrieve it right away.
The old man was annoyed, but he gave the order to stop the Change and reverse course.
Lao Dao was climbing slowly over the cross section of the earth when everything stopped with a jolt. After a moment, the earth started moving again, but now in reverse. The fissure was closing up. Terrified, he climbed up as fast as he dared. Scrabbling over the soil with hands and feet, he had to be careful with his movements.
The seam closed faster than he had expected. Just as he reached the top, the two sides of the crack came together. One of his lower legs was caught. Although the soil gave enough to not crush his leg or break his bones, it held him fast and he couldn’t extricate himself despite several attempts. Sweat beaded on his forehead from terror and pain. Has he been discovered?
Lao Dao lay prostrate on the ground, listening. He seemed to hear steps hurrying toward him. He imagined that soon the police would arrive and catch him. They might cut off his leg and toss him in jail with the stump. He couldn’t tell when his identity had been revealed. As he lay on the grass, he felt the chill of morning dew. The damp air seeped through collar and cuffs, keeping him alert and making him shiver. He silently counted the seconds, hoping against hope that this was but a technical malfunction. He tried to plan for what to say if he was caught. Maybe he should mention how honestly and diligently he had toiled for twenty–eight years and try to buy a bit of sympathy. He didn’t know if he would be prosecuted in court. Fate loomed before his eyes.
Fate now pressed into his chest. Of everything he had experienced during the last forty–eight hours, the episode that had made the deepest impression was the conversation with Lao Ge at dinner. He felt that he had approached some aspect of truth, and perhaps that was why he could catch a glimpse of the outline of fate. But the outline was too distant, too cold, too out of reach. He didn’t know what was the point of knowing the truth. If he could see some things clearly but was still powerless to change them, what good did that do? In his case, he couldn’t even see clearly. Fate was like a cloud that momentarily took on some recognizable shape, and by the time he tried to get a closer look, the shape was gone. He knew that he was nothing more than a figure. He was but an ordinary person, one out of 51,280,000 others just like him. And if they didn’t need that much precision and spoke of only 50 million, he was but a rounding error, the same as if he had never existed. He wasn’t even as significant as dust. He grabbed onto the grass.
At six thirty, Wu Wen retrieved his data key. At six forty, Wu Wen was back in his home.
At six forty–five, the white–haired old man finally lay down on the small bed in his office, exhausted. The order had been issued, and the wheels of the world began to turn slowly. Transparent covers extended over the coffee table and the desk, securing everything in place. The bed released a cloud of soporific gas and extended rails on all sides; then it rose into the air. As the ground and everything on the ground turned, the bed would remain level, like a floating cradle.
The Change had started again.
After thirty minutes spent in despair, Lao Dao saw a trace of hope again. The ground was moving. He pulled his leg out as soon as the fissure opened, and then returned to the arduous climb over the cross–section as soon as the opening was wide enough. He moved with even more care than before. As circulation returned to his numb leg, his calf itched and ached as though he was being bitten by thousands of ants. Several times, he almost fell. The pain was intolerable, and he had to bite his fist to stop from screaming. He fell; he got up; he fell again; he got up again. He struggled with all his strength and skill to maintain his footing over the rotating earth.
He couldn’t even remember how he had climbed up the stairs. He only remembered fainting as soon as Qin Tian opened the door to his apartment.
Lao Dao slept for ten hours in Second Space. Qin Tian found a classmate in medical school to help dress his wound. He suffered massive damage to his muscles and soft tissue, but luckily, no bones were broken. However, he was going to have some difficulty walking for a while.
After waking up, Lao Dao handed Yi Yan’s letter to Qin Tian. He watched as Qin Tian read the letter, his face filling up with happiness as well as loss. He said nothing. He knew that Qin Tian would be immersed in this remote hope for a long time.
Returning to Third Space, Lao Dao felt as though he had been traveling for a month. The city was waking up slowly. Most of the residents had slept soundly, and now they picked up their lives from where they had left off the previous cycle. No one would notice that Lao Dao had been away.
As soon as the vendors along the pedestrian lane opened shop, he sat down at a plastic table and ordered a bowl of chow mein. For the first time in his life, Lao Dao asked for shredded pork to be added to the noodles. Just one time, he thought. A reward.
Then he went to Lao Ge’s home and delivered the two boxes of medicine Lao Ge had bought for his parents. The two elders were no longer mobile, and a young woman with a dull demeanor lived with them as a caretaker.
Limping, he slowly returned to his own rental unit. The hallway was noisy and chaotic, filled with the commotion of a typical morning: brushing teeth, flushing toilets, arguing families. All around him were disheveled hair and half–dressed bodies.
He had to wait a while for the elevator. As soon as he got off at his floor he heard loud arguing noises. It was the two girls who lived next door, Lan Lan and Ah Bei, arguing with the old lady who collected rent. All the units in the building were public housing, but the residential district had an agent who collected rent, and each building, even each floor, had a subagent. The old lady was a long–term resident. She was thin, shriveled, and lived by herself—her son had left and nobody knew where he was. She always kept her door shut and didn’t interact much with the other residents. Lan Lan and Ah Bei had moved in recently, and they worked at a clothing store. Ah Bei was shouting while Lan Lan was trying to hold her back. Ah Bei turned and shouted at Lan Lan; Lan Lan began to cry.
“We all have to follow the lease, don’t we?” The old lady pointed at the scrolling text on the screen mounted on the wall. “Don’t you dare accuse me of lying! Do you understand what a lease is? It’s right here in black and white: In autumn and winter, there’s a ten percent surcharge for heat.”
“Ha!” Ah Bei lifted her chin at the old lady while combing her hair forcefully. “Do you think we are going to be fooled by such a basic trick? When we’re at work, you turn off the heat. Then you charge us for the electricity we haven’t been using so you can keep the extra for yourself. Do you think we were born yesterday? Every day, when we get home after work, the place is cold as an ice cellar. Just because we’re new, you think you can take advantage of us?”
Ah Bei’s voice was sharp and brittle, and it cut through the air like a knife. Lao Dao looked at Ah Bei, at her young, determined, angry face, and thought she was very beautiful. Ah Bei and Lan Lan often helped him by taking care of Tangtang when he wasn’t home, and sometimes even made porridge for him. He wanted Ah Bei to stop shouting, to forget these trivial things and stop arguing. He wanted to tell her that a girl should sit elegantly and quietly, cover her knees with her skirt, and smile so that her pretty teeth showed. That was how you got others to love you. But he knew that that was not what Ah Bei and Lan Lan needed.
He took out a 10,000–yuan bill from his inner pocket and handed it to the old lady. His hand trembled from weakness. The old lady was stunned, and so were Ah Bei and Lan Lan. He didn’t want to explain. He waved at them and returned to his home.
Tangtang was just waking up in her crib, and she rubbed her sleepy eyes. He gazed into Tangtang’s face, and his exhausted heart softened. He remembered how he had found Tangtang at first in front of the waste processing station, and her dirty, tear–stained face. He had never regretted picking her up that day. She laughed, and smacked her lips. He thought that he was fortunate. Although he was injured, he hadn’t been caught and managed to bring back money. He didn’t know how long it would take Tangtang to learn to dance and sing, and become an elegant young lady.
He checked the time. It was time to go to work.
(Editors’ Note: This story is the winner of the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novelette. In this issue, Deborah Stanish interviews Hao Jingfang. Please also read “I Want to Write A History of Inequality,” an essay about this story by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu )
© 2015 Hao Jingfang