By Anna Wu, translated by Emily X. Jin, and first published in Clarkesworld, issue 145, October 2018, in partnership with Storycom.
Read in Chinese here.
It was the end of all chaos.
The room was clouded with murky smog. Ling Xi had coughed herself awake.
She recognized the acidic smell of waste. It’s from the Agriculture Room, she thought to herself, the air pipes must have broken again.
Rolling off her bed, Ling Xi began her simple washup routine. The stream of water dripping down the hose was even thinner than yesterday. Perhaps the rumors about the water storage system failure were not merely rumors, after all.
The face reflected in the mirror was so pale that it looked more like a two-dimensional figure, compressed to fit into the boundaries of a piece of print paper. In this gray container of barely ten square meters, her face was a grain of rice stuck to a sandpaper box.
Nuclear Winter had come for the humans ever since the end of the Great War. Lethal radiation dust snowed over every inch of land, leaving almost no bare ground. Humans were forced to migrate to the underground shelters built beneath the cities, where their habitable area was reduced to the minimum. Every shelter was divided into zones labeled as “agriculture,” “pasture,” “industry,” “entertainment” and “storage.” Clothing and food were distributed in uniform.
In some of those underground shelters, a small portion of the “storage” zone was left to preserve artworks. The city where Ling Xi lived was one of those cases.
In the beginning, those shelters were only designed to host humans for about ten years; yet in reality, the Nuclear Winter was much longer than what the scientists had predicted. The pollution caused by the new nuclear weapons was way beyond everyone’s expectation. The hazy radiant dust gradually settled to the ground in six months’ time, but the strong radiation persisted. Not a single plant could grow out of the damaged aboveground soil.
It had been a fleeting twenty years. Despite the fact that the shelters were constantly mended and converted, the lack of resources made it gradually more difficult to sustain the ecological system.
Ling Xi, an art major graduate, loved paintings. That was the reason why she chose to become the one and only “art keeper” of this city. The payment, in the form of cybercoin, was just as low as it could be; the only additional bonus was a tiny compartment with an even smaller window—this kind of room made up only one percent of the living compounds. The other upside of this job was the abundance of idle time.
Ling Xi pressed her face against the narrow window and looked down.
Thousands of residents in this city were leaving their capsules—their only living space—to gather at the few major roads. Together, they moved in the direction of the cafeteria, like a swarm of iron dust collecting around a giant magnet.
Breakfast would start in twenty minutes, but she had almost no appetite.
Three days ago, all of the paintings disappeared from the storage room overnight. The police investigation was deemed, however, fruitless: staff handover, the padlock, security videos . . . everything went precisely by the familiar routine, and there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.
It seemed like some magic made the paintings vanish into thin air.
Bewildered and clueless, the police had to drop the case.
But then again—in an era of underground shelters, who still cared for art? As soon as people managed to drag themselves through the long, laborious hours of work, all they wanted to do is seek refuge in the virtual world. The police, too, were not an exemption.
Ling Xi knew that her bosses would soon assign new work to her, but the very thought of how the artworks that she had guarded day and night with precious care were now in the possession of some thief still exasperated her. She could perhaps let it go if she knew that those paintings were in good hands—true, they were collecting dust and wasting away in the storage room anyways—but if they ended up ruined . . .
She couldn’t bear to think more. A short stroll in “Eden”—the hottest global virtual entertainment community—should relieve her of these endless worries. She connected her brain to the cerebrum bridge equipment, and the familiar starting menu of “Eden” appeared at once.
“Have you had breakfast yet?”
Cang Jie’s message popped up on her screen as soon as she logged online.
Interesting. She never remembered him as a talkative person. Why did he start the conversation first today?
Three months ago, she met Cang Jie online. The way he spoke gave her a gut feeling that he was a guy—well, she couldn’t be entirely sure of it, because they had never met in reality.
At first, Ling Xi thought he was a writer, since “Cang Jie” was the name of the God who created language in ancient mythology. He was reluctant to talk about his career, however, so Ling Xi felt like it would seem too much like prying if she asked more questions. They grew friendly very fast, when Ling Xi realized that he was also deeply fascinated by the aesthetics of dance and art history. They had never met each other “in person,” though—not even through each other’s online avatars. All of their conversations took place on the chatting software. Ling Xi was not a fan of online avatars; for the same reason, she had never commissioned any Facecrafters to design one for her. Cang Jie never suggested that they should meet up in “Eden” either, anyways.
It seemed like they were both the outliers of this world.
“Go eat something. It will be a stressful day.”
“What stress? Remember what I told you yesterday? I practically lost my job—damn the thief!”
Cang Jie hesitated, and then sent her a crying emoji.
“Isn’t this thief absolutely sick?” Ling Xi continued to vent.
Cang Jie was silent for an entire minute, then his profile picture darkened suddenly, showing that he had just logged off.
What is this nonsense?
She desperately needed to cheer herself up. Maybe something in “Eden” would do the work.
In the virtual world before Ling Xi’s eyes, various different countries and eras were all up for selection—nowadays, virtual worldbuilding was unquestionably the top most thriving economic industry.
The “Prehistoric” zone was bustling with people. That new Zhu Lu Boy Band was probably performing again. Just as Ling Xi wondered whether she should stop by as well, her visual sensor suddenly blacked out.
She immediately reached for the emergency exit button behind her ear, thinking it was an equipment failure.
When her vision was finally restored, she suddenly found herself in an all-too-familiar place—the Art Storage Room.
Weird . . . had this place been added to the virtual server too?
The security system scanned Ling Xi’s pupils and the door in front of her opened. The overhead light flickered once or twice before finally casting a dim glow onto the room.
Everything here was exactly like the real world, even down to details like the room temperature—it was always colder in the storage room. Ling Xi wrapped her cloak tightly around her body. The winter clothes she usually wore in “Eden” had somehow disappeared, she noticed, and instead she was wearing her work uniform from the real world: a thin, almost shabby-looking gray cloak. The machine in the clothing factory had broken down a while ago; not only did nobody know how to fix it, the humans had no resources or storage capacity to produce extra clothes, either.
The government always said that the average temperature control in the underground shelters was around 15 degrees Celsius for this winter, but Ling Xi was almost certain that the real number was much lower than that.
She trudged slowly in the narrow aisle, passing by rows and rows of cabinets that glistened with a cold, metallic spark, her footsteps echoing in this enormous empty space.
Randomly, she pulled open a cabinet door, and found that the lost paintings were still in there, safe and sound. Perhaps this virtual scene was made before the burglary and hadn’t been updated since then.
Ling Xi suddenly halted as she passed by a storage area. One by one, the cabinets in front of her creaked open, as if an invisible hand was controlling them. She could see, however, that three of them were empty.
Knowing the storage room catalog like knowing her own mind, Ling Xi identified the missing pieces immediately: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. La Muse. Guernica.
She frowned. All three of the missing paintings were from Picasso—classic works of Cubism. Why? She shut the cabinet doors closed and looked up.
A rectangular black void around the height of an adult had appeared just a few steps before her, floating about ten centimeters aboveground. Ling Xi circled around the void. The void looked like it was as thin as a piece of paper; a two-dimensional construction inserted by force into a three-dimensional world. It reminded Ling Xi of the time traveling wormhole from Doraemon, one of the most popular animated shows of the past era.
She instinctively tried to touch it, but then decided that it would be too risky. Instead, she pulled out her smartphone to scan the void with her camera lens, thinking that she might find some additional information.
Unknown texture. Calculating length on width gives the perfect golden ratio.
A white silhouette emerged from the black void. Gradually, the figure grew larger and larger, as if they were walking towards the exit of a dark, deep tunnel. As they reached the opening of the void, they bowed their head slightly, and then tapped the ground with a foot as if they were gracefully descending an invisible stair.
Ling Xi found herself uncontrollably backing away. Accustomed to the abundance of horror games in the virtual world, she thought she was used to seeing strange things already, but this figure still sent a chill down her spine.
The figure was around 1.9 meters of height, their body wrapped loosely in a white robe of unknown texture. Black, silky hair drooped all the way down to their waist like a waterfall.
They wore an oval-shaped, white waxen mask. The mask, almost entirely empty, depicted no facial features save for a pair of thin, dark eyebrows.
Androgynous, every line and curve carved to perfection—the mysterious figure was just like a beautifully crafted idol.
They waved their hand. A gray cabinet opened automatically, and a painting inside—Ling Xi recognized that it was Picasso’s Dream—rose slowly into the air.
A second painting followed immediately after, and then a third, a fourth . . . not a single piece of art was spared. The empty storage cabinets hung open like hundreds of gaping mouths.
Stunned, Ling Xi stood and watched. All of the art and calligraphy works floating midair began to converge, soon amalgamating into a massive, colorful collage.
Then, the figure glided toward her, as elegant as if dancing to some muted tempo. In the dim, dreamy light, with their robe rippling in the wind, they looked just like a phantom.
The name was like a streak of lightning that ripped through Ling Xi’s foggy mind. In horror, Ling Xi realized that this person must be that Facecrafter who had never appeared in front of the world before. From what she could recall, Hun Dun was their name.
Slowly, Hun Dun walked towards her. They smelled as fresh and cold as a river breeze.
“ . . . An era where moral is corrupted, art is ruined, and talent has gone unnoticed like great pearls veiled in dust.” They murmured coolly, their voice faint and low.
They lifted their hands and drew intricate lines with pale, slender fingers, as if they were pulling some invisible cords.
The giant collage started to spin, changing form rapidly as it rotated: from a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional cube, then spreading out to form a kaleidoscopic fantasia. It was as if thousands of different angles and perspectives of gazing at the same collage had been magically squeezed into the same dimension and fused together.
Finally, the transformation came to a halt. Before Ling Xi’s eyes hung a hypercube consisting of so many different shapes and colors that it was almost utterly indescribable. It immediately stirred up a strong feeling of nausea in her—the image was almost too dense and too complex for her brain to even begin to process.
As the hypercube emerged, Hun Dun was changing shape as well. Their masked face slowly melted into a swirl. The swirl was just like the empty drain hole in a swimming pool after the stopper plug had been removed, or a magnetic, bottomless black hole: it began to consume the hypercube, transforming it into liquid and then sucking it in.
A roaring river of colors rushed past Ling Xi, flowing so fast and ferocious that it nearly knocked her over.
All of a sudden, Hun Dun extended their left hand towards Ling Xi and tapped her lightly on the forehead. Their fingertip was as cold as the ice from an ancient glacier.
“The Day is near, only lingxi1 can save it.”
Ling Xi blacked out at once.
The next day, Ling Xi went to the hospital.
The hospital was shabby, and barely any working staff was around. Ling Xi glanced at one of the wards. Despite the fact that it was still working hours, a doctor and a few nurses, dressed in crumpled uniforms, were sprawled across a few sickbeds. All of them were connected to the cerebrum bridge. They resembled exactly what one would expect of the people living in this era: wan, skin-and-bones, crooked, sluggish, lips curled into a dazed smile.
At this moment, what kind of alternative lives were they leading in the virtual world? Aristocrats? Upper class socialites? Olympic champions? Master politicians? Were they enjoying the most extravagant dance performances, or were they savoring the taste of the most exquisite cuisine?
It all depended on how much they were willing to spend. Commissioning a decent Facecrafter and purchasing scenario backdrops could be worth quite a lot.
After gaping at those zombie-like creatures for a few seconds, Ling Xi continued down the corridor until she reached the room where her brother Ling Bai stayed.
Leaning against the pillow, a very pale Ling Bai was struggling to eat the food that his sister brought for him. It was the standardized menu from the cafeteria—steamed potatoes, stir-fried seaweed, vitamin water, and a hard-boiled egg that Ling Xi had paid an astronomical figure for to obtain on the black market. He had grown so unfamiliar with the texture of hard-boiled eggs that he almost choked himself on the egg yolk, and he burst into a fit of coughs.
Yesterday, after pulling an all-nighter to work, he fainted in the lab out of hunger. His colleagues discovered him this morning and sent him to the hospital immediately. He probably spent all his money on the black market again to buy new materials for his experiments, thought Ling Xi.
Ling Bai majored in Genetic Engineering, and he worked for the Agricultural Research Center. Everyone thought of him as a hopelessly romantic science nerd, who had been obsessed with a kind of purple colored plant that resembled the shape of a dog’s tail. The plant’s scientific name was Purpureus Herba, but both Ling Bai and Ling Xi called it “the dogtail grass.”
According to years’ worth of research, Ling Bai firmly believed that the only way to save humankind before the underground shelters fail was to breed organisms that could degrade the radiation on Earth’s surface. However, his work on artificially synthesizing the DNA of Purpureus Herba had hit a plateau—the failure rate was stuck somewhere around ninety-five percent. At this pace, the Agricultural Research Center would soon revoke all the funding allocated to this project.
When humans first entered the era of underground shelters, they had exhausted almost every available way to save humankind from destruction, yet the Great War did not leave Earthlings with many resources to spare. The kindling of hope for a better future was thus quenched by thousands of failures.
“Our office’s budget was cut down by half again. The money was allocated to the computer engineers. They say that those people need to create a new facecrafting program. Well, it sure is the only thing that can bring any profit nowadays.” Ling Bai appeared visibly upset.
Ling Xi planned to threaten her brother that she is going to let him starve to death the next time she catches him overworking himself, but upon seeing his face, she swallowed back her words again.
Ling Bai pulled out a small test tube from his pocket and gazed lovingly at a fuzzy, purple plant inside. “Dogtail grass is far more important. Humans are such myopic animals!”
“Well, what your face looks like is important too . . . see, you just don’t understand . . . look at how handsome the Zhu Lu Boy Band is!”
Ling Bai snorted. “Zhu Lu? What kind of oh-so-chic Facecrafter made this one, then? Everyone’s face looks as if they came out of the same produce line! Doesn’t anyone ever get tired of them?”
“I didn’t actually pay that much attention—you know that I don’t follow these things—but I heard that Zhu Lu made their way into the top three months after their debut. Their dances are very special, too—they do things like monsters and mythologies, battle between the Gods and all that. They are nothing like those corny and lame bands. The facecrafter who made them must be an expert.”
Ling Bai looked crestfallen. “Now everyone’s watching the Gods, no one cares about grass anymore!” He sighed. His eyes were still fixated on the test tube.
After a moment of hesitation, Ling Xi decided to tell her brother about what she saw in the virtual world yesterday.
Blacking out and seeing illusions in the virtual world could be taken either just as a joke or very seriously. There had been several cases of sudden deaths in the virtual world, as well.
“As far as I know, there has never been a scenario modeled after a storage room in the virtual system. What happened to you can only be explained by a system error or a pons failure, resulting in an illusion. Are you sure that you feel fine?”
Ling Bai’s rounded face looked paler now. He gave his sister’s shoulder a tight little squeeze, as if to make sure that she wasn’t just an illusion, too. After their parents passed away, they were each other’s only family left.
“Yes, I feel fine, but this is exactly what makes it weird. Vomiting, arrhythmia, fever . . . none of these typical side effects of pons failure has happened on me. Are you sure there isn’t a different explanation?”
“Is it possible that the masked person in white is the thief who stole the paintings?”
“But why would a thief want to give you hints? Isn’t that just walking straight into a trap? I think you’re just imagining things because you can’t get over those paintings.”
“Everything I saw was too real to be illusions.”
Ling Bai pouted at her as if he was coaxing a child. “Ok, keep talking.”
“First of all, in reality, all the paintings disappeared together; but in the virtual world, the three paintings by Picasso disappeared first. Why? Those three paintings are connected by a common trait—they are all works of Cubism. What does this signify?”
Ling Xi inhaled deeply. “Cubism . . . in short, it means that Picasso cuts up a three-dimensional space into fragments, reorders them, and then pieces them together to produce a collage of some sort. As a result, although he technically creates two-dimensional paintings, those paintings are actually depictions of the different perspectives of three-dimensional spaces.”
She found a picture of La Muse on her smartphone. In the center of the painting was a woman. Half of her face was depicted through a frontal view, while the other half was depicted through a side view.
“Look, in this painting, Picasso takes two different perspectives of the woman’s face and fuses them together to create the most unique image. His minimalistic style and bold strokes help draw the viewers’ attention to the woman’s face, too.” Ling Xi gazed at the picture admiringly.
Ling Bai frowned. His eyes narrowed, indicating that Ling Xi’s words had elicited some sparks of interest in him. “A three-dimensional world portrayed through shifting, alternative perspectives . . . what if the paintings are not portraying a three-dimensional world, after all? They could very well be creative attempts at displaying what a four-dimensional world would look like.”
“Are you saying that Picasso has found a way to depict the higher dimensions?”
“Yes . . . wait, tell me more about the octachoron you saw in the illusion.”
Ling Xi described to Ling Bai again the scene she had witnessed in the virtual storage room.
“First, the paintings were pieced together into a collage—two-dimensional; then, the collage started to spin and gradually transformed into a cube—three-dimensional. As for the hypercube, I have a feeling that it is a four-dimensional figure. The reason you find it so strange and volatile, is because it is merely the projection of a four-dimensional object in a three-dimensional space.”
“In other words, if we compare the three-dimensional world that we live in to a piece of paper, all we can see of the four-dimensional hypercube is the part of it that comes into contact with the paper. As the hypercube rotates, its contact with the paper will change form as well. We cannot even try to predict the pattern of the transformation, since we are unable to imagine what the hypercube—as a four-dimensional object—would look like, just like how it would be almost impossible for a two-dimensional figure drawn on a piece of paper to imagine what our three-dimensional world would look like.
“If this thief can control objects in a four-dimensional space, then they must have come from higher dimensions—perhaps five, or even more. For them, extracting items from a world of lower dimension should be no more than a piece of cake, no matter how strict the security is.”
Excited, Ling Bai reached for a piece of paper and traced out the shape of a man. Then, he drew a tiny little heart for the doodle man.
He poked at the heart with his finger. “Look, even though this two-dimensional figure’s body is a perfectly enclosed oval, I can still get to its heart without breaking apart the line that makes up its body.”
“You mean, despite that the storage cabinets were sealed, the thief was still able to remove all the artworks, because they did it from a higher dimension?”
“Yeah!” Ling Bai pounded his fist on the table. “The hypercube is a hint left for you—it means that you should consider the problem from a perspective of higher dimension!”
“To portray the three-dimensional world in which humans live through a two-dimensional painting is already an art of dimensionality reduction. An ordinary painter can only convert between the third and the second dimension; but for the great masters, they are able to depict not only three, but even more dimensions through art . . . ” Wondered Ling Bai.
Ling Xi rose to her feet. Slowly, she made her way to the window. “A while ago, I saw some time-lapse photos taken of the starry night in reality. The shape and color of the distorted starry night look incredibly similar to that of Van Gogh’s painting, The Starry Night, from hundreds of years ago. If we see Picasso as a painter of space, then Van Gogh should be . . . ”
“A painter of time.”
Lost in thought, Ling Bai gazed intently at the tiny plant inside the test tube and muttered. “The ability to navigate between dimensions . . . these great Masters of Art can see the world in a way that we cannot.”
Cang Jie disappeared for three days. Ling Xi spammed his inbox with messages, asking him what he had meant the other day about “a stressful day,” but he never came online.
Finally, on the morning of the fourth day, Ling Xi received a message from him.
“In ancient Chinese mythology, Hun Dun, Tao Tie, Tao Wu and Qiong Qi were recognized as the four guardian beasts. As recorded in The Classic of Mountains and Seas, Hun Dun usually appears as a slender, androgynous, faceless figure, consistently seen in a white robe. They are known for their talent and appreciation for art, especially dance and music. They are also exceptionally skilled in accumulating wealth.
“Putting aside the legends, however, the true form of Hun Dun is the God of Art and Beauty. As a deity, they live in a higher-dimensional space that is far beyond human comprehension. Throughout the history of Earth, Hun Dun has appeared as a part of different centuries and different cultures under altering forms of disguise. For example, in ancient China, Hun Dun was seen as a mythical guardian beast; in ancient Greece, on the other hand, Hun Dun was referred to by the name Venus. During eras when the arts and aesthetics flourish, Hun Dun hides behind the scenes; however, when moral becomes corrupted and art becomes neglected, Hun Dun will most definitely appear on Earth, in one way or another, to intervene.”
Ling Xi did a cross-check between the information that Cang Jie had sent her and her own research. The first half about The Classic of Mountains and Seas still made some sense, but the second half seemed more like a terrible joke than anything else.
Her initial reaction was to immediately type out several pressing questions in the chatbox for Cang Jie to answer, but after a long hesitation, she replaced the lengthy paragraph with only three words:
“Who are you?”
Cang Jie, however, avoided her question.
“Hun Dun is my teacher.”
“Is Hun Dun a Facecrafter?”
“No wonder you were upset when I called them a thief. Are you a real person, then?”
In response, Cang Jie threw another question at her instead.
“Does my teacher remind you and your brother of anything?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean . . . I mean his research.”
“His research? Isn’t his research all about the dogtail grass? What are we supposed to be reminded of?”
“I can’t tell you more, or else it will begin to affect the course of history. My teacher asked me to give you two electronic tickets. A show is coming up in three days. Remember to come see it.”
“What does ‘The Day is near, only lingxi can save it’ mean? The Day for what?”
“Have you ever heard of the story of the Great Flood?”
“What are you even talking about?”
“It won’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last time either.”
Cang Jie’s profile picture darkened almost instantaneously after making this comment, showing that he had logged offline. Ling Xi, not wanting to give up just yet, furiously typed out more questions, but he responded no more.
Hun Dun, the God of Art and Beauty, Cang Jie, brother, The Great Flood . . . Ling Xi began her research with a series of keywords.
The Bible . . . the story about The Great Flood . . . to punish the misdeeds of humans, God sent The Great Flood. The flood persisted for forty days and forty nights. Every living creature—birds, animals, insects, and of course all the humans—died from it.
Then she browsed the wealth ranking of all the Facecrafters in the country. Although she had already expected this, she still couldn’t help herself from gaping at the number of digits in Hun Dun’s income—undoubtedly, ranked number one on the list.
There was also a demonstration of Hun Dun’s previous works, all of which were virtual avatars in different shapes and forms, each with a unique touch. Fan comments followed after: “bringing artwork to life,” “strokes of genius,” “like nature itself . . . ”
Hun Dun is exceptionally talented in accumulating wealth . . . but why would the cybercoin we use in this world matter to them, anyways? Why would they want to destroy humankind? If they really were a deity, why did they disguise themselves as a Facecrafter? Ling Xi wondered.
Facecrafter was a word that first appeared a century ago in computer games. It was meant to describe the creators of virtual avatars. In the beginning, restrained by technology, facecrafting was relatively simple. However, the arrival of the “underground shelter era” caused all-immersive virtual reality technology to come to an exponential bloom—the bleakness of the real world gave the people no choice but to seek joy in a virtual world.
Facecrafting, now an independent career, was also consequently recognized as an art instead of a simple handiwork. Expert Facecrafters would even buy or develop software of their own just to craft virtual avatars, collect face templates of the known beauties from history, and analyze them relentlessly. These days, a well-made avatar could be worth an entire city.
“The Zhu Lu Twelve,” a boy band of twelve virtual characters, was Hun Dun’s finest masterpiece. With every character created by Hun Dun singlehandedly, Zhu Lu was, without any doubt, the jewel of the crown. Three months ago, they made their first debut on stage in the online community. Since then, all of their concerts had been swarming with spectators, consequently bringing Hun Dun an enormous fortune.
Ling Xi sent a video chat request to Ling Bai. Ling Bai accepted the request quickly, yet he contemplated for a long time before finally opening his mouth, his face stern and gloomy.
“First of all, assuming that what you saw the other day in the virtual storage space was real, then we are facing a matter of grave consequence. If Hun Dun really is a deity who comes from a world of higher dimension, then from their perspective, humans are practically helpless. See, humans started the nuclear war, and now they are bounded in this morbid state, cooped up in underground cells to escape from the consequence. Humans have shoved aside the artworks that represent thousands of years of wisdom and left them to rot; humans have forgotten, too, their ambition a century ago to change lives through technology. All they care about now is the fake excitement that the virtual world could bring them. They can squander away millions of cybercoin for the artificial, so-called ‘beauty,’ yet they can’t even stand to look at a Picasso for longer than five minutes. Isn’t this exactly what Hun Dun was talking about? ‘An era where moral is corrupted, art is ruined, and talent has gone unnoticed like great pearls veiled in dust.’”
“Is Hun Dun really going to destroy the world with a flood?”
“Don’t forget that Hun Dun is an organism from a higher dimension. Maybe they are only trying to give us hints through ways that we can understand. As for destroying the world, Hun Dun doesn’t necessarily have to do it through a flood; moreover, the destruction could very well be targeting only humans, while sparing all the other creatures. Remember what Cang Jie said? ‘It won’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last time either.’ Think about all the civilizations that have been destroyed: Loulan, the Mayans . . . ”
“Even the dinosaurs?”
“Maybe. But Cang Jie said that Hun Dun’s plan is related to my job . . . also, Hun Dun said something about ‘only lingxi can save it.’ I think they might be hinting at a way to redress this.”
“Does this Facecrafter want to save humankind or destroy humankind?”
“There’s something else that I heard about. I’m sure similar news has gotten to you as well. They say that the underground shelters can’t hold up anymore . . . a friend who works for the government showed me some data. At maximum, the rest of the energy can only last us a few more months. Perhaps, with or without the Hun Dun’s intervention, we will be facing destruction regardless.”
“What should we do then?”
“I don’t know. Okay, I need to go think some more about the dogtail grass. You should try to pry some more information out of Cang Jie.”
Ling Xi didn’t know what to do. Her instinct told her to trust what Ling Bai had said, yet her logic still protested against this absurd assumption.
“Stay strong. Anything can happen in this universe.” Said Ling Bai before he hung up the phone.
Next day was Zhu Lu’s last performance.
Over the past few days, Ling Xi had read all the information on Zhu Lu that she could find.
Realistically speaking, the boys of Zhu Lu were not even close to what you would call “beautiful” in the terms of the modern society. The most popular online avatars were modeled after perfection: broad shoulders; long, lean legs; skin as smooth as silk; delicate facial features that strictly followed the golden ratio. They were the angels roaming in a digital Garden of Eden.
But Hun Dun’s creations were almost the exact opposite. The members of Zhu Lu were nowhere near perfection: some had short, stout legs and a bushy beard; some had noses too large or eyes too small. Yet, oddly, the twelve avatars of Zhu Lu possessed a fierce and raw kind of vitality that distinguished them from all the other virtual icons.
As soon as Ling Xi saw them, she immediately understood why Hun Dun was such a successful Facecrafter—the sheer power of Hun Dun’s artwork was enough to breathe life into artificial creations.
The smoothness and cleanness of their choreography also far exceeded that of every other virtual performance troop. Many experts had tried to analyze the data modeling of Zhu Lu, yet they discovered that the algorithm of Zhu Lu was so complex and advanced that it was far beyond what they could comprehend. No one could figure out the true identity of this mysterious Facecrafter.
Furthermore, Hun Dun’s choreography mostly took inspiration from ancient Chinese culture, where he uniquely combined classical Chinese elements with other art traditions from around the world. Ling Xi remembered seeing some similarities between Zhu Lu’s dance moves and the figures depicted by ancient pottery or bronze artifacts.
For the act titled Nirvana, the performers’ masks had long ears, high nose bridges, sunken eyes, and foreheads with sharp edges, very much resembling the Easter Island statues. In the end, a mysterious fireball shooting across the sky crashed into the ground. In a ring of flames, the souls of the people ascended into the vast, dark space.
For the act titled Flying Apsaras, the performers were dressed up as the figures represented in the Dunhuang frescoes, playing four-stringed lutes and bamboo flutes as they danced gracefully in colorful robes. As soon as a pack of beasts with bronzed skin appeared on stage, the beautiful melody suddenly became the most powerful weapon: each musical note materialized into a dagger that dashed towards the beast pack, engaging with them in a battle.
The more Ling Xi watched, the more her heart sank.
The choreography, use of color, and sheer imagination of this performance seemed way too perfect—perfect to the point that they were almost unnerving.
The next act came up, and Ling Xi saw that Cang Jie was the protagonist.
The act was titled The Creation of Written Language. This was the first time that Ling Xi had ever “seen” him. He looked no older than a teenage boy, and his features resembled people from the prehistoric period. He had a bronze complexion, broad thick shoulders, and very distinctive facial features. The distance between his eyes was slightly too wide, but this characteristic only enhanced his boyish robustness.
The most special feature about his face, however, was his eyes. Each of his eyes had two adjacent pupils, as if they were the moon and the moon’s reflection in a pond.
On the screen, Cang Jie led the dance as other performers followed. Just as Ling Xi watched, Cang Jie messaged her all of a sudden.
Can we meet in “Eden”?
As if she had been caught red-handed in crime, a pang of panic and embarrassment arose in Ling Xi, almost making her fall off her chair.
. . . Sure.
Cang Jie sent her the link to a personal virtual space.
Ling Xi connected to the cerebrum bridge, and a thick fog swallowed her at once. When it cleared up again, she found herself before a graveyard. Rows and rows of erected tombstones were veiled in a thin, white mist, looking almost as if they were floating amongst the clouds.
She could smell the familiar scent of ink, but her gut told her that something was wrong. Every once in a while she practiced calligraphy too—the ink scent that she usually smelled was alive, with a sharp, fresh hint of wood and grass, yet the ink here smelled moist, rotten and lifeless. For this reason, she almost resented the place immediately.
Cang Jie was waiting for her at the entrance to the graveyard. An amber light shimmered in his odd but beautiful double pupils. He scratched his freckled, round nose. He wore a cloak made from turtle shells that were connected together by thousands of tiny knots and tassels. As he moved, the knots and tassels bounced against each other, creating a rustle.
Ling Xi had never seen any avatar in the virtual world so well-crafted that their facial expressions and actions were as fluent and vivid as humans. In fact, the boy before her eyes looked even more real than any living human.
“Uh . . . sorry about this. I know it’s a bit scary here. My teacher crafted this scene . . . he always likes to speak of things such as ‘the written language is dead’ . . . a lot of times, he is just like a little child. It bothers him, too, the way that you guys are treating this world, you know?”
“Does he mean to kill us, or save us?” Ling Xi asked.
“Well, there’s no need to activate ‘Operation Wipe Out’ yet . . . you know that the underground shelters won’t make it much longer, right? Also, my teacher isn’t actually in charge of wiping things out—other Gods will do the job. Maya was a product of ‘Operation Wipe Out.’ I wasn’t there to witness what happened, though, because my teacher hadn’t created me yet back then . . . I heard it’s because the Mayans were destroying the ecological environment . . . ”
The phrase wipe out sent a shiver through Ling Xi’s body.
“Teacher was angry upon seeing how those artworks were neglected. He was going to take them all away and leave you humans to face the destruction alone . . . then, when he saw the effects that Zhu Lu had on you lot, he changed his mind again . . . ” Stammered Cang Jie.
“Can you help us?” Ling Xi grasped one of Cang Jie’s sleeves. The small knots and tassels on his cloak rustled again.
Cang Jie blushed. “No, Teacher’s authority isn’t enough to intervene directly . . . there are other Gods in charge, too! Just think about the first time you saw Teacher. There will be more hints at the performance tomorrow.”
He glanced at her with a stern look in his eyes. “Ling Xi, tomorrow—tomorrow is your last chance. We are leaving with Teacher immediately after the performance. Do you understand?”
Ling Xi was utterly out of words.
Cang Jie’s figure gradually faded out. For no reason, Ling Xi felt like she saw a shimmer of sadness in the boy’s eyes before he had vanished entirely. His personal virtual space, too, disappeared into a void of darkness.
Midnight was close.
Ling Xi and Ling Bai took their seats in the largest Central Theater of “Eden.” It was a full house—understandably, though, since tonight was Zhu Lu’s last performance before their retirement. Allegedly, a ticket to this performance was worth an astronomical amount of money on the black market.
Ling Xi glanced at her brother and managed to stifle a giggle. Both of them had to choose a virtual avatar tonight for the performance. Amongst the free avatar templates, he had chosen a narrow, sculpted face. Perhaps it was because his face in real life had always been plump and round. As for Ling Xi, she chose one of the free “beauty faces” as well. Her face was very roughly made and had been solely designed to match the standardized criteria.
Ling Bai grasped the dogtail grass test tube tightly. He had been unusually quiet for the night.
The theater darkened. The audience went silence at once.
First came the smell of brooks and rivers, drifting on a gentle breeze. Then a light shone, illuminating the stage. There was a great river in the center of the stage, its water murky and yellow from mud. Amidst the roaring waves, stood a figure in a white robe.
Only Ling Xi and Ling Bai recognized the figure. It was their first—and perhaps last—appearance in a performance.
Burying their face in their palm, Hun Dun sobbed. The water rose to their waist, tinting their white robe the same dingy yellow. The ends of their dark, long hair flowed with the current. They ripped at the edge of the mask, half-lifting it up, as if they wanted to tear it off completely. Blood and tears gushed from the crack and trickled down drop by drop, each drop metamorphosing into a pinkish miniature man the second it hit the water’s surface. The miniature men fought and struggled against the great tide, but their power was too insignificant. The men—now tens and thousands of lifeless corpses—gradually melted into red blotches that dissolved in the current.
Blood continued to flow from Hun Dun’s face, staining half of the river pink, yet the mask still stayed stubbornly in place.
The raging river turned calm again, and darkness fell upon the auditorium. Next, a huge bonfire flared. Twelve men in monstrous masks danced in the blazing flames like leopards leaping across vast plains, each holding axes and spears. Their glimmering shadows were casted onto the encircling walls of the auditorium, endlessly enlarging, flickering and distorting, like the figures of ancient ritual dancers painted onto pottery. Ling Xi looked around. It felt like she was sitting, alongside thousands of spectators, in the belly of an enormous earthen pot.
Storm clouds gathered in the sky, shrouding the outline of a giant beast: half indigo and half purple; antlers like a stag, claws like a hawk, and body like a snake. It was the long, the guardian of emperors and bringer of prosperity in mythology.
The bonfire shimmered, and from the center of the flame emerged a vermilion birdlike creature. The feng, described in old legends as the ruler of all birds and the symbol of peace, many in the audience recognized immediately.
A streak of lightning ripped through the clouds, and the long dived down. The feng, stretching out its wings, soared into the sky to meet it. The beasts clashed in midair, merging into a blazing ball of light and then exploding into a rain of golden sparks.
Ling Xi shut her eyes, only daring to peer again after the blinding light had faded. The long and the feng had both disappeared. The stage was completely empty save for a massive hypercube—the exact one that Ling Xi had saw in the virtual world.
The hypercube disintegrated. From its core, thousands of works of art gradually ascended: paintings, calligraphy, sculptures, literature, and music . . . all of which were the greatest masterpieces of humankind. Bathed in a faint golden halo, the artworks flew toward the audience, dashing past every pair of eyes.
After making a full tour, the artworks regathered at the center of the stage. The golden glow dimmed. Darkness descended upon the stage again, as if an enormous airborne beast had just swallowed all of the stars in the sky.
Thunder rumbled. The scene on stage gradually transformed into the graveyard that Cang Jie had taken Ling Xi to. Yet now, the graveyard was no longer veiled in fog. The howling wind parted the mist cloud, revealing the rows of massive, black tombstones. Ling Xi realized that all of the tombstones were indeed, three-dimensional Chinese characters, carved from black rock.
“洪”“玄”“地”“天”“冈”“昆”“霜”“剑” . . .
All of those characters came from the Thousand Character Classic.2 Why would they be there then, in the graveyard? Were they the puzzle pieces of a scrambled Thousand Character Classic?
No. They were the remains of a dead Thousand Character Classic.
All the spectators, utterly astounded, were trembling from the sheer power contained in those simple characters. In front of them, in the center of the stage, the other eleven performers encircled Cang Jie. As he ascended, the tombstones of characters slowly rose into the air as well. Hanging in midair, they rotated and shifted, gradually reordering themselves into the way that the Thousand Character Classic used to be.
A deep, solemn chant echoed in the auditorium:
The dark heaven and the yellow earth,
After the great chaos was their birth.
Rising and setting, the sun; waxing and waning, the moon,
Then came the stars born from the universe’s cocoon.
Coldness and warmth arrive in turns,
Harvest for the fall and store for the winter, in nature we learn.
Merge scattered days into an extra month for the leap year,
It’s the music of yin-yang that makes time clear.
When cloud emerges, down pours the rain;
When morning dew freezes, frost coats the plain.
The best of gold is born from the Goldsand River,
The best of jade, only the Kunlun Mountains may deliver.
The sharpest sword, Juque, ends all doubts in a fight;
The brightest pearl, Yeguang, can illuminate the night.
The plum and the apple, sweetest of fruits, are most commonly seen;
The mustard and the ginger are essential for tasty cuisine.
The oceans are salty, and the rivers are fresh;
The fishes swim and the birds’ wings spread.
The dragon master, the fire lord, the namer of birds, and the ruler of humans, as legends go,
For their honor we strive and sow.
Characters were first created to express the mind;
To shroud the flesh, then, clothes were designed.
Only the most brilliant may wear the crown,
From Yao to Shun, the legacy passed down.
The scene on stage was collapsing. The black tombstones changed form rapidly, disintegrating into radicals and strokes, shuffling, and then coming together again. Finally, all the characters flew to Cang Jie and disappeared into his palms.
Grasping the characters, Cang Jie’s hands clenched into fists. The veins on his arms throbbed as if he was struggling to hold back an unimaginably great power.
From his palms emerged beams of light that painted the sky purple. Wherever the light swept past, tufts of purple grass emerged and hovered overhead like thick purple clouds. The purple grass—Purpureus Herba—sprouted and bore grain. The pods cracked open after the grain was fully mature, and the seeds rained down into the audience.
The raw grain seeds pricked Ling Xi’s face. As soon as those seeds touched her, she saw an overwhelming illusion rise before her eyes:
Earth was a living hell. Gray radiation dust covered every inch of land; humans holed up in the tiny shelters, drugged by the slow-acting poison that is the virtual world, ultimately faced the fate of destruction.
She heard somebody sniff. More and more people, unable to hold back their emotions, broke into fits of weeping. Soon, the sound of sobs and wails and whimpers permeated the entire auditorium.
Ling Bai, however, was exempt from the group emotional breakdown. Slowly, he rose from his seat and whispered in a voice so low that Ling Xi thought only she could hear.
“Hun Dun, my God, as you are omnipotent, I am sure that you can hear me. Yesterday, I performed a four-dimensional transformation on the DNA of the Purpureus Herba. Observing it from a three-dimensional perspective, three-fourths of the strand of DNA had been twisted into an impossible knot; however, through this trial, I discovered that the DNA-alteration seemed to have solved all of Purpureus Herba’s problems in application. For example, it used to be almost unthinkable for scientists to artificially breed Purpureus Herba, yet now, its reproduction rate has improved exponentially; Purpureus Herba’s capability of absorbing radiation dust also increased by three or four times. I thought I still needed more time, though, to perform more experiments and generate more samples to test my theory. However, just now, upon seeing your dance, I think I have—I might have figured everything out . . . ”
Hands clenching tightly around the test tube, Ling Bai began to cry. It seemed like he still had some things to say, but the rest of his words were all swallowed by an incomprehensible fit of sobbing.
All of a sudden, the theater fell silent. The sobs and bustles faded at once. As if someone had pressed a “pause” button, everything around Ling Xi now froze right in the middle of action. A tear was just about to leave Ling Bai’s cheek and drop to his collar, but it froze, too, in midair.
It was not the people and things that had paused. It was time—Ling Xi’s time—that had paused.
Ling Xi lifted her chin and looked directly at Hun Dun.
Their face was entirely blank save for a pair of thin, arched eyebrows; their hair danced in the invisible wind.
Hun Dun gazed at Ling Xi from behind that smooth, eggshell-like mask. Then, they began to sing, their voice as distant and gentle as the melody of a lyre echoing in deep space.
All the trifles of life are merely illusions and reveries:
Written in a language without words, for men’s curious eyes to see.
The cloud’s grace and the moon’s shimmer,
Burning to ashes in a blink, leaving neither a trace nor a glimmer.
From strife to destruction, rage and despair never tire;
Sacrifice the faceless being of chaos to the altar of desire.
Before the flower withers, before the light of hope dims,
Plant the seed of love in a wasteland of sin.
The song seemed to be Hun Dun’s farewell. A faint blush emerged under their thin, arched eyebrows and disappeared quickly. Ling Xi wasn’t quite sure whether to see the blush as a sign of happiness, relief, or encouragement.
They did not give her a chance to respond. At once, the flow of time resumed. The muted music and the paused audience all came back to life. The tear finally left Ling Bai’s cheek, trembling in the air as it fell.
Slowly, Hun Dun rose to midair with the twelve performers following behind.
Holding back sniffles and sobs, the audience waited in silence, expecting the greatest Facecrafter in history to make their closing speech.
Yet Hun Dun said nothing. The mask hid all of their emotions away from the audience’s scrutinizing gaze. In the end, they chose to leave the same way as they had arrived: as nothing more than an ordinary Facecrafter.
In the glowing stage lights, Hun Dun and his students gradually faded out to thirteen hazy silhouettes. They looked back one last time, as if to make a grand farewell to this era.
Cang Jie glided past Ling Xi and Ling Bai, and smiled at them mysteriously with a shimmer of innocence in his eyes. Then, he turned around, and finally disappeared into the beam of light.
Many years later, the radiation dust cleared out entirely, and humans were finally able to return to their aboveground homeland.
In a vast field, Ling Xi and Ling Bai plopped themselves down on the ground and gazed at the stars together. A gentle, cool night breeze swept past, sending endless ripples through the meadow of Purpureus Herba.
In the end, Hun Dun still decided to leave with all the art and artifacts. Yet, before the departure, they transferred all of the cybercoins that Zhu Lu had acquired through performances into Ling Xi and Ling Bai’s bank accounts.
“If I tell you that the thought of keeping some of this money all to myself had never crossed my mind, that would be a complete lie.” Ling Bai explained, with a little too much honesty, to the bewildered directors of the Agricultural Research Center when he came to hand over the stupendous fortune. “Though, I will never do such a thing—I know better than to cross the one who paid us!”
The stars were dead silent in the night sky.
“Hey, do you think Hun Dun will give the artworks back?”
“Perhaps they will, after they see progress in Earth’s rejuvenation.”
“Then, what do you think he’s doing right now, with Cang Jie?”
“Probably dancing somewhere we don’t know.”
Originally published in Chinese in the collection The Day I Became a Monster, and translated and published in partnership with Storycom.
1 - The name of the protagonist, Ling Xi (or used as a word here, lingxi), means spiritual connection and mutual understanding.
2 - The Thousand Character Classic, in its original language, contains exactly 1,000 Chinese characters, and each character is only used once. Since its creation during the Northern and Southern Dynasties, under the reign of Emperor Liang Wu (502-549), it has been regarded as one of the most essential texts for the Chinese language, as well as one of the primary texts children use to learn their characters for the first time. People have referred to it as “the foundation of the Chinese language.” It touches on topics such as mythology, science, history, philosophy, and it is generally recognized to have good educational value.