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Master Zhao:
The Tale of an Ordinary Time Traveler

1

Master Zhao was punctual today, heading my way across the withered, yellow lawn. I checked the time on my phone: 2:30 PM on the dot. He swerved to avoid an ad-covered utility pole, raised a hand in greeting, and placed my boxed lunch on the bench beside me.

“Master Zhang,” he said, “eat it while it’s hot.”

“Are you busy Master Zhao?” I inquired. “Why not take a load off?”

“This was my last delivery. I could rest a bit.”

I pulled apart disposable chopsticks and tucked into my Kung Pao Chicken with rice and veggies. Master Zhao sat opposite me. He produced a cigarette case, fished out a Yellow Crane Tower, and lit up. Ballsy scurried out of the shrubs, covered in leaves and dead grass. I called out to the Chinese mutt and he rushed happily over, then ran circuits around Master Zhao and me.

Master Zhao coughed. “Regarding this little scamp, Master Zhang, if you take your noon walk tomorrow, steer clear of the pond near the south gate. There could be a . . . problem.”

I looked up from my meal. “Problem?”

He reached out to tease Ballsy. “Yeah, a problem.”

I chuckled. “Master Zhao, are you a geomancer? Does fortune-telling run in your family?”

He shook his head, pointed at the south end of the rundown, low-cost housing estate with his cigarette butt. “I don’t know about all that. I’m just saying don’t go south tomorrow around noon. North is no problem, but don’t go near the pond.”

“Why? What could possibly happen?”

“Maybe nothing.”

It seemed he would say more, but that was it. I didn’t press him.

2

I was unemployed, idling away my time at home, getting by on savings. I played DOTA every day ’til around 2 AM. Then I’d sleep until the nearby primary school’s noon bell. If it weren’t for Ballsy needing to piss—signaled by piteous cries from the living room—I could’ve slept until the CCTV news hour. I was a wretch with no good qualities. My studies were entirely forgotten. I’d worked for a long time, advancement getting more difficult. My knowledge of the world was superficial, not deep enough to be useful or actionable. My dreams and aspirations were dead, my will to fight gone. My original plan, to muddle along and eat until I retired or died, had been preempted by my company’s demise. Who’d have thunk it? I prioritized sleep above all, became a lurker on the margins of society, locked in a kind of symbiosis with a two-year-old dog.

The days passed, lifeless as the Beijing winter. I felt disinclined to ponder anything but my dwindling savings account.

It was my daily custom to take Ballsy out for a noontime stroll. I wore headphones and played Tribal Wars. As I walked along, he ran all over the place, often vanishing. Most residents of the estate were old. After lunch they tended to retire for a siesta, so I didn’t worry about disturbing anyone, and was glad of the solitude.

I usually got tired around 2 PM and ordered food. I had my handful of preferred restaurants, and it was always the same delivery bros, but I found it hard to remember their names. Only Master Zhao stuck with me. One day he came crunching over the dead lawn, lifting a box of seasoned pork strips stir-fried with rice and veg, and said, “Master Zhang, your lunch has arrived. Eat it while it’s hot.”

I smiled at the “master” appellation, which had fallen out of use years before. In the city where I grew up, “master” showed respect, back when simply working for your money conferred status. Nowadays everyone’s “mister” or “boss.” “Master” seems to have become an embellishment for the bike riding and key making trades.

I found his name in the delivery app. “Thanks, Master Zhao.”

He was 40 to 50 years old, with the appearance of a northerner, bags under his eyes, wrinkles deep, seemingly in low spirits. His smiles were always half-hearted. Having chatted several times already, I knew he was from Henan province, and that he lived with his wife near Marco Polo Bridge in southwest Beijing, where they ran a little snack counter. He was childless, and heavily addicted to nicotine. He’d begun delivering food the previous July, had since been promoted to the rank of Golden Knight. He made 1 yuan 6 jiao per delivery. He worked every day. He was diligent and fast, earning just enough to get by.

I tended to stay in my apartment and avoid people, but I didn’t mind brief chats with Master Zhao. On the one hand, our daily encounters bred familiarity. On the other, there was something ineffable about the guy that made me want to know him better.

To reach my usual bench from the south gate you had to cross a grimy tract of lawn—nominally a lawn, but because it was not maintained, it had become an expanse of weeds, rubbish, and scattered dog shit. The delivery bros usually detoured around it, sticking to pavement, but Old Zhao always took the shortcut. His pace was brisk, his gray leisure shoes never sullied. That day I said, “Aren’t you afraid of stepping in something filthy?”

“Not at all,” he said. “Pay attention and you’ll see.”

The next day I watched Old Zhao take the same route, never looking down, only stepping on grass. He moved with a factory robot’s precision, and was soon before me. “Hungry, Master Zhang? Eat while it’s hot.”

“You didn’t once check your path,” I said. “Do you walk through there often?”

“Not so much.”

In the days that followed, I noted further mysteries. His electric bike never malfunctioned. His leisure shoes were forever immaculate. On rainy days he was always raincoated ahead of time. The meals in his insulated bag were always hot. I timed his deliveries three days in a row, and he was never off by more than a second. Once, when we were smoking and chatting, he suddenly stepped to the left. A dollop of bird shit splashed on the cement. I stared in amazement.

“What is it, Master Zhang?” he said, like the feat had been unconscious.

A common, unremarkable, middle-aged deliveryman. Perplexing indeed.

If my curiosity had been exuberant like a 12 year old’s, I would have pursued the mystery. But I had retired from the affairs of life. The prospect of getting to the bottom of Zhao seemed tiresome.

In the final analysis, the guy just brought me lunch. I got used to him as the days dragged on.

3

Master Zhao’s injunction regarding the pond near the south gate was strange, of course. We interacted about five minutes per day, so we weren’t bosom buddies. We weren’t even close enough for casual joking. I finished eating that day, threw away the box, and with the matter in the back of my mind, returned home to game and sleep. I woke the next day as usual, to Ballsy’s whimpering.

I opened the curtain at 11 AM and beheld an average, smoggy day. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, scratched at my hair, threw on a down jacket over my pajamas, and took Ballsy downstairs.

He’d been left behind by my former roommate, who’d gone down to Guangzhou to start a new life. He left me the dog, a computer, and one year’s rent, saying Ballsy couldn’t fly, and the computer was too heavy to lug along. The rent money was payment for my stewardship of animal and machine. He planned to get settled down south, then return for Ballsy and the computer. I don’t know if he was generous, heartless, or simply dim-witted. Four months after he left, I was honorably and gloriously unemployed. Now I lived in his flat, gamed on his computer, and walked his dog. Sometimes I felt like a stand-in for his Beijing life.

Ballsy had his shortcomings, mainly a lack of discipline and a penchant for thicket diving. On the other hand, he didn’t dare range too far from me. He frequently checked in as I walked and gamed. On that fateful day, we took our usual route, a long circuit starting at the north end of the estate, moving southward and passing through the activity center, headed for my lunch spot. Looking up from my game, I saw we’d arrived at the fountain near the south gate. This fountain had never spouted water as far as I knew. In the summer it was a pool of algae, in the winter a pit of dirty ice. It seemed to have no purpose except breeding mosquitoes. Ballsy was afraid of water and never went near the pond, but today, perhaps chasing some winged insect, he charged right in, as if possessed by evil spirits.

I recalled Old Zhao’s warning and cried out, “Ballsy!”

He was already sliding across the dark gray ice. He glanced back at me, and I saw the crack opening around him. The ice popped, snapped, burst open. I broke into a sprint, but Ballsy was already gone. All that remained was a spinning mass of bubbles and broken ice on the water’s surface. “Goddamn idiot!” I shouted, running wildly.

A bamboo pole pierced the ice. Ballsy emerged, struggling violently in the water, scrabbling at the pole, and with its help he swam ashore.

Old Zhao dropped the pole. There he was, in his raincoat, standing at the edge of the pond.

“Zhao, how . . . how did you know . . . ” I realized I was stammering.

Ballsy shook off the water, crazed. Old Zhao didn’t budge, raincoated against the deluge. “Hey, I warned you, and you didn’t listen.” He sighed, seeming disappointed. “I knew you wouldn’t, so I had no choice but to drop by.” He pulled an old blanket from his raincoat and tossed it to me.

I caught the flannelette thing, green flowers on red background, and Ballsy charged over, shrieking. I wrapped him up and hugged him to my chest. He shivered like a newborn chick. “Little fool!” I used the blanket to rub his head as I scolded him. “Still wanna run all over the place? See what happens?”

Old Zhao lit up a Yellow Crane Tower. He offered me a plastic bag. “Garlic shoots, shredded pork, rice and veg.”

I stared at him. “How did you know I was gonna order that today?”

“Look, I’m done with my lunch orders. Let’s us two have a chat.”

“I have some booze at home . . . ”

“I know. I brought drinking snacks . . . shelled peanuts and soy beef.”

I decided it was time to stop being amazed at Master Zhao’s words. He seemed to know everything.

4

Back in our apartment, Ballsy made haste into the cardboard doggie flat I’d constructed. I dropped a few strips of beef on the floor and left him to his own devices. I seated Master Zhao at the dining table, served the meal onto some plates, then went to the kitchen and found a big bottle of NiuLanShan twice-distilled sorghum. It was cooking liquor from the roommate era, but it would have to do.

We ate the garlic shoots and pork, then munched on peanuts and beef as we took a few draughts of the twice-distilled. I extracted an old box of Cuban cigars from the bookcase.

“They’re damp,” Master Zhao warned.

I tore the seal and opened the box, and sure enough the cigars smelled like mildewed socks.

He lit up a Yellow Crane Tower, took two more gulps of NiuLanShan, and drew on the cigarette. Finally, he deigned to speak: “Master Zhang, I know you’re a trustworthy person, and you don’t like to blab. But what I have to say . . . when you hear it, you may want to go out and tell people. But trust me, they won’t believe you.”

I’m no expert in drinking, so I was already red-faced, head pulsing and dizzy. But what he said half sobered me up. “Master Zhao, no matter what you tell me, I’ll believe you. Call me convinced. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a true seer. By all means, read my facial physiognomy, or do some spirit writing, or . . . do you use astrology?”

He forced a smile, his crow’s feet curving downward. “None of the above.”

“Really?”

“If I could read faces or palms, or do geomancy, I wouldn’t be delivering lunches, would I? The summers are scorching, the winters goddamn freezing. It’s hard work.”

“Then how . . . ”

Master Zhao raised his paper cup and touched it to mine, then sipped the liquor. “All I know is we’ve done this before. We’ve drunk bland twice-distilled from paper cups, from a bottle long stored away.”

“But when have we drunk together before?” I took a sip, and the liquor was indeed bland.

“As far as you’re concerned, never. As far as I’m concerned . . . many times.”

“What do you mean?”

“I might seem like a commonplace man, but my brain . . . is unusual.” He knocked the cup on his temple. “I wasn’t like this when I was younger. Let’s see now, when did it start? About the time my wife got sick, I suppose.”

“So, you have superpowers?”

“Superpowers? Well, I still deliver food, if that answers your question. It’s like this . . . my brain moves faster than my body. My body stays put, but my brain moves on and experiences things. Unfortunately.”

“Again, I don’t get it.”

“I married early, left home early. Brought my wife to Wuhan when I was seventeen, looking for work. I moved cement at a construction site, she cooked meals for the workers. Wuhan, Changsha, Shanghai, Taiyuan, Shenzhen, Beijing . . . we’ve lived many places, earning very little, always doing unskilled labor. We have no education. When we came to Beijing, housing costs were low, a tenth what they are now, so buying a house wasn’t out of the question. We planned to open a small restaurant. She’s an expert in frying noodles. I worked hard, didn’t give a damn about fatigue, saving up for a house. Things were looking good, but the restaurant didn’t happen. She got sick. She had these pains in her lower back, and her energy vanished. One night she wet the bed. I laughed and said she was just like a baby . . . I still can’t believe I did that, but I didn’t know how serious it was. She said she couldn’t feel her legs, or move them. She was paralyzed. We went to the hospital and they said there was tumor growth in her spine. Excising would work, but the surgery was dangerous. If it went wrong, she could be paralyzed for life.”

“Malignant tumors?”

“Yes and no. It’s called neurofibroma. We had to spend the money we’d saved for the restaurant and house. The surgery worked, she could feel her legs again, and eventually walk, work, earn money. Double happiness, right? We thought we were going to be fine. We worked and saved for several years. Back then we lived in a village outside Beijing, so we spent a lot of time on buses. One morning we lugged a bunch of stuff onto a bus . . . I guess it was a heavy load. I wasn’t thinking. She complained of back pain and had trouble walking. I sent her home to rest while I went on to work. That afternoon she called from the hospital. I felt like a total heel. The fear was back, and I sat there trying to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. And I just kept thinking . . . why didn’t I go back with her? Why hadn’t I bothered to stay with her?”

“She relapsed?”

“Not exactly. The doctor said she had new neurofibromas, but this type of tumor grows quite readily, and if the growth is not in a vital place, it’s not an issue. But if it’s somewhere important, that’s a problem. It turned out they were in the bone marrow, about the same as last time. She was soon paralyzed again. She said the same thing every day . . . don’t bother with a cure, I don’t want to live, just let me die. I knew she was thinking of the money, but I also knew she loved life more than anyone. And I wanted to save her.”

“So there was another surgery?”

“Yes, we sacrificed everything, and borrowed all over the place. This time her recovery was slow, but eventually she got up and walked. She improved day by day. I forbade her to do heavy work, or lift, or stoop too often. We moved to Fengtai. We still had a little bit of borrowed money left, and we opened a small snack counter, sold drinks, popsicles, smokes. The work was light, but we didn’t earn much. Paying down those debts was a slow slog.”

This was difficult to hear. I’d always thought my life was hard, and I pretended not to see others’ hardships. Now I felt depraved and extravagant. How could I go on as before with a clear conscience?

I toasted him again and took a big gulp, my stomach protesting. “To better days. You’re paying back the money, however slowly, and things will improve. I missed the time to buy a house in Beijing too, didn’t I? Regardless, we can’t afford it now, and real estate prices will keep going up. Why take it to heart? Doesn’t matter.”

Master Zhao filled our cups, shook the bottle, and downed the last bit. “Yeah, we had a few good years. Last year she had her third relapse, in the marrow again, and this time we had no cash for surgery. I squatted on my heels outside the hospital, worrying, smoked four packs in one night. At dawn I lay down in a flower bed, but I couldn’t sleep. The hospital needed tens of thousands of yuan. What could I do?”

“What about this unusual brain of yours?” I had no choice but to interrupt. The more pedestrian and grim his tale got, the more uncomfortable I felt.

“At dawn, I noticed the traffic entering the hospital parking lot. They were all good cars, rich people, and suddenly I had an idea. I went to the road and found a crosswalk, and waited for a Benz. One came by soon enough and I threw myself in front of it, hoping to break a leg, or an arm, and secure a payday.”

“That’s bumping into porcelain!”1

“Yeah I suppose so. Didn’t think of it that way, at the time. Anyway, the car was going too fast to brake. It hit me, ran me over, and then everything went black. Darkness, and then a bright light, and people all around me, a disorderly mob. I had a sinking feeling. Someone said, ‘Does he have family? Quick, find his family!’ That’s when I knew I had died.”

I regarded Master Zhao and his cup of liquor. I couldn’t help reaching out to touch the back of his hand. Warm.

“You’re . . . alive now.”

“Who said otherwise? When I woke, I was still lying in the flower bed, not long after sunrise. Cars were entering the lot one by one. Behind me was the inpatient building. My wife was in the ward on the seventh floor, waiting for me to bring breakfast, and pay bills. Nothing had changed.”

I couldn’t tell if he was joking.

“Drink up.” I didn’t know what else to say. Thank god we had booze. Since ancient times, men have used it to dispel awkward moments, I suppose.

5

“So you didn’t actually die.”

“No.”

“Then it was a dream?”

“Also a no.”

We drained our cups, finished off the soy beef. I got up and snatched a bag of string squid from the cupboard.

“There’s beer in your fridge,” Master Zhao said. “Yanjing.”

I dug around and sure enough found four cans of Yanjing in the back, behind some leftovers. I couldn’t remember when they’d been put there. Master Zhao was clearly more familiar with this flat than I was.

Overheated by the twice-distilled, he took off his yellow overcoat and sweater. Beer in hand, he continued to speak:

“At the time I was bewildered, dazed. I thought it was just a dream. I got soy milk and fried dough sticks at a breakfast stand, then went upstairs to see my wife. She scolded me for being late and letting her go hungry. I helped her eat, then went to speak with the doctor about bills. He explained that the fees were piling up day by day. The earlier the surgery, the better. If we proceeded within two months, that was fine, but waiting any longer could be dangerous. I thought long and hard, and decided the surgery had to happen no matter what. I started making calls to hit up friends and relatives for loans, but no one answered. Finally, I called my father. He said he had five thousand, which he’d saved up for a pigpen heater. He also suggested I approach my maternal uncle, who was doing well in his business. I spoke with my wife, then bought a train ticket to my hometown.”

“And you got the money?”

“No, my uncle didn’t come through. He said he had everything in circulating capital. But he said he had a way for me to make some quick cash. He invited me to go to Xinjiang with him, said I could earn 120,000 in two months, travel and lodging provided.”

“Wow!”

“I went, of course. Guess what kind of business it was . . . transporting heroin. Moving it from Tarbaghatay to Ürümqi. In Beijing and Shanghai, heroin is out of fashion, but in Xinjiang and Gansu there’s a booming trade. A hundred thousand per run. My uncle would escort the goods and take 80,000, I would drive and get twenty. Two months, six runs, 120,000, that was the plan.”

“Hold on, back up.” I sat up straight. “You trafficked narcotics?”

Master Zhao nodded.

I coughed. “Drug trafficking . . . ”

“Yes, drug trafficking. For that kind of money, what choice did I have? It’s 600 kilometers from Tarbaghatay to Ürümqi. Drive through the night and you’re done, in theory. But we were afraid of narco agents and their checkpoints, so we detoured, took smaller roads or just drove across open desert. Each run took a tense few days. The first two runs went off without a hitch, but the third time, at a gas station in Changji, we were stopped by police. Looking down the barrels of their guns, I just froze. I thought . . . this is it. I’m done. I’ll never see my wife again.”

“Drug trafficking is a capital offense!”

“Yeah. We were just in time for the crackdown. And the death penalty.”

I massaged my temples. “But you’re still alive.”

Master Zhao grinned. “Yes I am. When I woke, I was on the train from Beijing to my hometown. Soon to arrive in Jiaozuo, Henan province. Five hundred kilometers from home.”

“Wait a second. You fell asleep on the train, on your way to hit up your uncle, and you dreamt you went to Xinjiang with him to traffic heroin, and were executed. Just so we’re clear.”

“That’s what I thought at the time.”

“And then what?”

“I arrived in Jiaozuo. I had a smoke and a drink and asked my uncle for a loan. He said his money was in circulating capital. He offered me a job in Xinjiang . . . 120,000 for two month’s work.”

“Just like the dream?”

“Just so, and I was scared, believe me. I broke out in a cold sweat. I turned tail and ran. Went and told my father. He said I was losing my marbles, asked if I’d been kicked in the head by a donkey. I told him how real the dream had been. I remembered the taste of the prison food, those awful steamed buns.”

“So it was just like the bumping into porcelain dream. Something that could happen. Your dreams have the power of foresight!” I pounded the tabletop. “That’s how you knew Ballsy would fall through the ice, how you knew about the Yanjings in my fridge!”

Master Zhao blew a smoke ring.

“Am I right?” I said, standing up excitedly.

“Not exactly.”

“Drink up, drink up.”

6

There are many things in the world science can’t explain. Take disposable lighters for instance. They’re always disappearing. Where do they go? And why are socks always getting mismatched? Why does the phone always ring at the exact moment you drop your drawers in front of the computer for a little self-gratification? I’ve believed in the paranormal since I was a kid. I believed in a gray, unknown zone packed with everything humanity feared, and revered, and puzzled over. I was full of curiosity, but also scared. I fell back on reason at times, on superstition at others. When I was a kid there was Bigfoot, Area 51, the Loch Ness Monster, ghost photography, and later, the Blood of Saint Januarius, the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, and the Pisces Jade Event. I didn’t dare call myself a mystic, but I was always ready to accept supernatural explanations.

Now I was confronted by Master Zhao, a common laborer. I sensed something in his thin hair, crow’s feet, sweat-stained collar, and atmosphere of booze and smokes: an enigma.

For the first time in several unemployed months, I felt alive. I was interested in something.

We touched cups and drank the first can of beer. Master Zhao didn’t keep me in suspense. He fished a restaurant leaflet and ballpoint from his coat pocket, smoothed out the folds of the paper, and drew a straight line on the back. “I’ve tried to reason things out. Maybe this will help you understand.” At one end of the line he added two strokes, an arrowhead.

I pushed the food boxes aside. “I’m watching.”

“Someone like you lives day by day, from one point to the next, going straight.” He moved the pen along the line.

I nodded.

“Me . . . my brain goes faster than my body. I mean, my brain covers this stretch of road ahead of time.” He drew a parallel dotted line and gave it an arrowhead. “I haven’t actually covered the distance, except in my mind. Of course, I believe it’s real when it’s happening. But it’s not real. Understand so far?”

I nodded, but I had only a vague notion of what he meant. Master Zhao wasn’t great at expressing himself. His phrasing was odd, and he lacked logic, so it was difficult for me to understand.

“That first time, when the car hit me, I didn’t go far.” He drew a short dotted line with an arrowhead. “The second time, I was in Xinjiang a month. I went further.” He drew a longer dotted arrow. “Both times in my mind.”

“Actually you never got hit by a car, and never trafficked drugs.” I took the pen and drew two dotted arrows, originating with a solid arrow but moving off in different directions, so that the three arrows resembled a bird claw. “Like this. Identical starting point, but the solid arrow is what actually happened.”

Master Zhao ruminated. “Yes and no. My body followed the solid arrow, but my brain took both of those other routes. The smaller roads branched off the main one.”

He drew another solid arrow, and extended a dotted arrow from either side, but starting at different points. Like tree branches.

“Like parallel universe theory, right? Important decisions cause your universe to branch others. After you experience them, the timelines close, and you return to the original timeline. In that case, they must have endpoints . . . death. Both were abnormal deaths.” I drew Xs at the ends of both dotted arrows. “Have you experienced a lot of those?”

Master Zhao shook his head. “Well, first off, they don’t all end in death. As I said, it’s my brain going faster than my body. Sometimes there’s just this . . . flapping sound, and then I’m back.” He drew several more dotted lines, long and short, one with an arrowhead. “You want to know how many times . . . I can’t recall clearly. I’d better just continue with my story. You see, I got the five thousand from my father, and a bit more from other relatives, and returned to Beijing with ten thousand. It was just enough to cover the hospital fees we owed. My wife cried. She said, ‘The poor die, that’s just how it goes.’ I took her home. We hadn’t been back two days when she started suffering again, unbearable pain. She wanted to go back to the hospital. She scolded me, called me a good-for-nothing, said in all our years together she’d never eaten anything good, just medicine. What could I do but stroke her hair and let her rant? One day on my way to work, I heard about a traditional Chinese doctor in Huanggang, Hubei province. People said he cured tumors that flared up over and over, like neurofibroma, with nothing more than acupuncture and traditional medicine. He was very popular with the nouveau riche of Beijing and Shanghai. Apparently it was all Audis and BMWs parked outside his single story house. I had twenty thousand yuan in construction wages. My wife agreed to go to Hubei. Of course, we’d heard of all the medical scams, and we were afraid of being duped, but in the end we resolved to try. Anyway, maybe it was another dream timeline. I didn’t know. I put her in her wheelchair, loaded our luggage on my back, and we got on a train to Huanggang.”

“So you knew about the branching lines at that point?”

“No. Thinking about it just confused me. I didn’t dare think too much.”

“Also, you didn’t know when a branch might’ve started. You couldn’t know if you were on one then.”

“Yeah. I was living in fear. There was nothing to do but gamble.”

“If it was a branch, and the result was bad, at least you would eventually return to the main timeline and know what to avoid.” I pondered this, shivering. “But if the result was bad and it turned out you were on the main timeline . . . then it was game over.” I drew a big X at the end of the solid arrow.

“Exactly. My imagination ran wild, despite myself. We got to Huanggang. The doctor only saw three patients a day. We waited a week to meet him. He took her pulse, and based on that alone he said we could relax, the disease was curable. One month to alleviate symptoms, three months to recover normal brain function and mood, half a year to reduce tumor growth, a year to get up and walk. I was so happy, so ready to believe, that I knelt before the doctor. We rented a room nearby. We went in every week for acupuncture, she drank the traditional medicines, and the doc used an infrared physiotherapy device to roast her lower back. I found a construction site to work at. She kept house, sometimes cooked, and half a year passed in a flash. She said that although she still couldn’t walk, she could faintly feel her toes, and pain in her calves. She seemed to be recovering. It was working. Her mood improved. She scolded me less, and obviously I was pleased. One day the doc said we could stop with the acupuncture. She was to continue drinking the meds, and that would be enough. We returned to Beijing, and the meds periodically arrived from Huanggang.”

“Cured then!” I couldn’t help interrupting. “On the main timeline!”

“Four months later, she was on the verge of death. She couldn’t raise her head. Her speech was unclear. At the hospital, the doctor said her spinal neurofibroma had worsened, gone malignant. The time for a cure had passed. If we’d come earlier for surgery, a cure still would’ve been possible, but we’d squandered our time. It’s strange, you know. A good person can waste away to a human skeleton in one month’s time. I’d hoped for another year together, at least. She made it to the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month, and she was gone. She scolded me a lot before she passed, not that I could really understand her. One afternoon she was muttering curses at me, then she stopped breathing.” Master Zhao’s tone was dull, indifferent. “I walked out of the ward, sat in the corridor, and played the ‘Fight the Landlord’ card game on my phone until it ran out of power. With my phone dead, I suddenly didn’t want to live.”

“But I remember your wife . . . alive. She’s still at the snack counter by Marco Polo Bridge.”

Master Zhao took a gulp of beer. “Yes. And I haven’t attempted suicide. Everything went black, and I returned. It had all been fake, or a branch timeline, fortunately. Guess where I returned.”

“Discussing whether to go to Huanggang with your wife?”

“Already in Huanggang, having begun the acupuncture.” He set down his beer can.

“So you did visit that doctor?”

“Fortunately, we weren’t too far into the treatment. I packed right away, and we returned to Beijing. She wasn’t keen on this, of course. Scolded me the whole way, and I just took it. Before we left, I put a brick through that doctor’s three-faced windowpane. Back in Beijing, I took her to the hospital, and it turned out there weren’t any pathological changes yet. I booked the surgery, then took a train back to my hometown. I searched my uncle’s courtyard at midnight, and stole fifty thousand yuan. He liked to hide cash in his AC housing. I heard him say so, when we were sentenced to death for drug trafficking. I didn’t have to worry about him finding me. Before long, I knew, he would go to Xinjiang to move heroin, and get arrested, and sentenced. So yes, I stole fifty thousand from a relative. But he wasn’t going to miss it, and I needed it.”

Laugh lines had appeared on Master Zhao’s face. Maybe it was the booze, but suddenly I felt elated, and couldn’t restrain a hearty laugh. We finished smoking the Yellow Crane Towers, then started in on the Cuban cigars. Actually, the flavor was passable. “So I was wrong,” I said. “The bitter experience of the branch didn’t help you on the main timeline. When you got back the bad choice had already been made.” I doodled on the paper. “In other words, you could only do your utmost to remedy the situation. The timing was off.”

“Well, no. At first, yes. Later it was different.”

That piqued my interest. “You mean there were further developments?”

“I don’t know if that’s the right word.” He scratched his neck. “Okay, developments then. After my brain had finished running ahead and returned to my body, it was another point in time, right? I just . . . ”

“Wait a second.” My pen tip hovered. “Wait. You were done on the branch, you returned, and the main timeline had advanced. You returned after your departure point. That first time, the branch timeline was short, so it was unclear. The second time, you trafficked drugs for a month, and the main timeline advanced several days. The third time, you spent a year on the branch, treating your wife’s illness, and the main timeline advanced what . . . two weeks?” I drew lines radiating outward, then bending back and returning to the solid arrow. Dotted loops. Now the image resembled a tree branch sprouting leaves.

There were bits of solid timeline between the start and endpoints of the dotted loops. I pointed with the pen at one of these solid segments. “Old Zhao, during these periods, when your brain is off on one of its jaunts . . . who’s in your body playing the role of Master Zhao?”

He stared blankly at my illustration.

7

We got through half a can of beer in silence. Then Master Zhao said, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s still me. My body continued doing what I would do, regardless.”

I crushed a beer can. “Let’s put this question aside, then. Continue, please . . . ”

“Well, my wife had the surgery. It was performed relatively early, so she recovered well, and left the hospital after half a month. The doc said the tumor growth in the marrow was arrested, and swelling was down. He said with physical therapy she would be able to walk again. But this time my wife was scared. She would sit all day on our heated brick bed, not moving. She’d watch TV and chat and eat sunflower seeds, and play on her phone. I tried to make her do the therapy, but she said her back and legs hurt and she dared not move. If I argued she would get angry and start scolding me. In the end I decided we’d been lucky. I let her convalesce how she liked and tried not to worry about it. I went back to work, but the construction project eventually went into a slump. The chief labor contractor had no more jobs for me. About this time I ran into a man named Chen from my home village, and we chatted. I’d been studying some basic machine repair under the machine maintenance master at the construction site. Chen said electric bikes were a booming business, and suggested we open a shop. We partnered up. We had our business in Fengtai district, southwest Beijing. He sold bikes and batteries, I repaired bikes and changed out parts. The first year was not so great, but things slowly picked up in the second year.”

“Was this the main timeline, or a branch?”

“I’m getting to that, don’t worry. By the end of the third year, business was passable. I still had some debt, but my wife was happy, praising me for finally getting my act together and earning. One day, we sold two bikes just after opening for business. That afternoon we sold another, and another just before closing. With the repair earnings, we’d raked in about three thousand yuan in one day. Old Chen was happy. He wouldn’t let me go home, insisting we get drunk. We bought fifty yuan hot and spicy soup, closed the store, and drank the good stuff, Du Kang. We drank ’til about 2 AM, two and a half bottles. Old Chen was too drunk to stand. He passed out on the counter. I was blitzed myself, and wanted to do the same, but I knew my wife would worry if I didn’t go home. So I locked up the shop, and not daring to ride a bike, I walked home. There was a freezing wind that night. I threw up many times on the way home. When I got back, my wife and I had words, then I slept like the dead until noon the next day. When I woke I couldn’t find my phone. I reckoned it had to be back at the shop. I figured Chen was still there, so I wasn’t worried. I had a leisurely lunch, then strolled outside. When I got to the corner there was a crowd. I thought there’d been a traffic accident, so I squeezed through to have a look. A row of businesses had been burned down to charcoal. The street was covered in black ice. People said the fire had started at dawn, possibly from an electric heater short circuit. No one had been in the hot and spicy soup shop, or the jewelry store. Only the proprietor of the electric bike shop had burned to death inside. He hadn’t been able to escape.”

Judging by his tone, it hadn’t really happened. “You just couldn’t catch a break. But it was a branch timeline, right? Master Zhao?”

He nodded. “Yeah. I knelt on the ground and wept. I’d locked the shutter gate from the outside. I’d doomed Old Chen. I banged my skull on the cement, wanting to wake without delay. If I returned to the previous night, I wouldn’t open that second bottle of Du Kang. I wouldn’t let him sleep in the shop. My head was bleeding, and I was still there, crying out. If I didn’t wake, what could I do? Not go on, that’s for sure.

“But you woke . . . ”

“Yeah, suddenly I was back on the main timeline.”

“Back drinking with Chen . . . ”

“No. Much further back. Preparing to start the business with Old Chen. Searching for a location, and suppliers, and learning the bike repair trade.”

I couldn’t help a gasp of surprise. “So long . . . a branch timeline two to three years long . . . ”

“None of it had been real. We never opened the shop, never earned all that money. But Old Chen was still alive.”

“God, that sense of unreality. If it was me . . . ” I couldn’t find the words, couldn’t imagine it.

“I wondered if I should still go in on the shop. If I did, would we still profit? If we did, would Old Chen still get drunk with me? If so, would Old Chen still die? I got scared the more I thought about it. I remembered our shop, burned to ash, and I couldn’t look Old Chen in the eye. Talking with him, I felt guilty. I thought all night. At dawn I went to his place and said I couldn’t go through with it after all. I told him to find a different partner. He was furious, of course. He wanted to beat me to a pulp. I thought, if it keeps him alive, let him do it. I was ready to take the beating. But in the end he didn’t do it. Old Chen was a good guy.”

“You averted possible disaster, Master Zhao. You did the right thing. This time you used the branch timeline to obtain helpful information, and made the right decision on the main timeline. A success!” My spirits lifted. “You can keep experiencing these branches, then reverse mistakes for smooth sailing on the main timeline. Maybe it’s all for the best.”

Master Zhao heaved a sigh. “No. My ability is useless.”

I drew a long, dotted loop, closed against a solid arrow. “This time you spent three years on a branch, while the main timeline only advanced a little bit. That’s a substantial increase in branch time versus real time.”

“The more my mind runs ahead, the faster it goes.”

“Right, like when I walk Ballsy. We take a fixed route, and he runs wild all over the place. Every so often he returns to my side. At first, the further he runs, the slower he returns. Later on he runs faster, until he could piss on all the utility poles in China in one minute, and I just think he’s in a nearby shrub.”

Master Zhao looked at my picture. “Yeah, that’s about the shape of it.”

I dropped the pen and leaned back. “This ability is like time travel. You know that, right? I thought it was only possible in novels and movies. I never thought I’d be sitting face to face with a real time traveler.”

“I’d happily switch places with you.” He shook his head. “I want nothing to do with this demonic ability.”

“As far as I can tell, your biggest problem is not being able to sense when you’ve branched.” I thought for a moment, then drew a dotted line branching off a solid arrow. “When you make a momentous decision, the timeline must split, right? Suppose you make a choice here.” I made the dotted line divide, extending a dotted branch. “After that you make other decisions.” I made the dotted line branch several times, returning just one branch back to the solid arrow. I pointed out the dotted branches with no endings. “At last you discover these decisions are of no consequence. They’re fictitious choices on a sham timeline, with no effect on the main timeline.”

Master Zhao ruminated. “Yes, but at times I’ve wondered if a branch can, in time, become a real timeline. Like this.” He took the pen and made my dotted line solid, then crossed out the segment of main timeline between the branch’s start and endpoint. Now it was like the solid arrow’s middle section curved erratically, like an electrocardiogram’s wave crest.

I sensed a logical problem. “You’re saying a series of choices on a branch could cause it to match up with the main timeline? In terms of . . . what? Some kind of degree of reality? Match up and even replace it? But how could that be? Then you wouldn’t know if you’d experienced a branch at all. You wouldn’t have that moment of impact with the main timeline.”

“Well, I can’t argue with that.”

“What other branches did you experience?”

“Many. Among those I can remember, I worked as a hairdresser, on a factory assembly line, as a tour guide. I operated a backhoe, did pig farming, raised dogs, gambled, worked abroad, even robbed banks.”

“Robbed banks?” If it had been me, maybe I too would’ve given it a try—if I knew I was on a dotted line. But Master Zhao didn’t seem like the type. I could only imagine him being compelled against his will to such an outrageous act.

“The memories are hazy, but I needed the money. I feel like they were Postal Savings banks.” He didn’t seem ashamed. “To be honest, I’ve done many bad things. Luckily they were all on branches. But that doesn’t matter. Bad people get what’s coming to them, Master Zhang. Karma.”

“Have you killed people?”

He hesitated. “Well . . . ”

“If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to, I just don’t remember clearly. These branches . . . the last few are pretty clear. But the ten or twenty before that, or the last two hundred, I don’t even know how many . . . I’ve seen too much, Master Zhang. It’s all mixed up, a fucking mess. My brain’s not up to it.”

The idea was terrifying. Every time he’d branched, he’d experienced those timelines, second by second, minute by minute. Several days here, a few years there. I couldn’t know what it was like in Master Zhao’s brain, what that mass of memory felt like, but obviously those sham days had left their mark on him. The branch timelines did not amount to zero, after all. They’d happened, in some sense. This middle-aged person sitting across from me had not learned from a mere few score years of experience. He’d been through the sum of those countless branches. Had he known centuries? Millennia? Tens of thousands of years?

He was truly a venerable elder.

8

I felt I needed some booze to dampen this reverence I was experiencing, but I couldn’t find anything else in the apartment. We smoked up the cigars, then took turns on the peanuts, until we were down to the last one. Master Zhao applied chopsticks deftly, splitting the peanut in two. He took half, pensively contemplating it.

“So,” I said, “what do you remember most clearly?”

“I’d better tell you about the hazy stuff first.” He nibbled on his half-peanut. “I mean, I did so much work, and encountered so many different people, people of low social status and higher-ups. Most days were unremarkable. Sometimes I helped people, sometimes I schemed for wealth. Money didn’t really matter, in the end. My wife suffered regardless. The disease was incurable. Every few years she’d relapse. Once, when I was really flush, I sent her to America for treatment. We had the best doctors, the priciest meds, and she got better. But of course she relapsed. I don’t know how many times I watched her cry, saying she couldn’t bear it anymore. She begged me to let her die. I knew she feared death, but I couldn’t save her. No matter what I did, no matter where we lived, no matter what religion we adopted. At one point I couldn’t take it anymore. I divorced her. For rich or poor, in sickness and in health . . . I broke my vows. I ran. I got on a train to Guangzhou. The damp, warm atmosphere reminded me of her, her scent, the scent of our bed. I felt sick. I fell to the ground and couldn’t breathe. Later I woke, and I was still in Beijing, in that rented flat, and I was hugging her. I didn’t dare let go. She hit me, scolded me, called me crazy. The more she scolded me, the happier I was, because this at least had to be real.”

“Your life was bound to hers.”

“She once said my ancestors owed hers a debt. In this life I was paying it off.” Master Zhao’s smile was pained, but happy. I’d never seen such a complex expression. “What I remember most clearly is opening the snack counter with her. I delivered orders, she kept house, went through two surgeries, and finally, when she was close to death, I brought her back to her hometown. We rented a house at the foot of a mountain. I cultivated Chinese cabbage and raised a few ducks. She couldn’t stand, so I got her a tablet computer to play ‘Fight the Landlord’ on. I fed her. If the food was too hot or too cold, she scolded me. Or if it was too thick or too thin, too bland or salty, or when it was just right. She scolded me, and heaven and earth. I didn’t mind. Actually I liked it. It meant she still had life in her. Toward the end we didn’t bother with a hospital. She died on that brick bed. I stoked up the heat before I left, so she would be nice and warm on her journey, and not have to fear the cold.”

This was the second time I’d listened to Master Zhao describe his wife’s death. His tone was unfeeling.

“I sent a gift to the village, had her buried in my ancestral tomb. It wasn’t far from where I lived. Every few days I would go and sit by the tomb, and tell her about the cabbages and ducks. When I was 73 years old, my legs started to go, and I couldn’t make it to the tomb anymore. I didn’t want to live. It seemed good to die where I’d been born. My bones could mingle with hers. We could be buried together.” Master Zhao paused. “When I woke, I was back in that rented flat in Beijing. It was late at night. I could smell her beside me, sleeping. I got up and had a cup of water. I checked the date. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I’d lived scores of years, and they’d been so real. For me they had been. All in vain. I recalled visiting the tomb, the cabbages and ducks, all that had happened before leaving Beijing, the surgeries, the snack counter, her, this day, our lunch, when we’d discussed our situation, our lack of children, and what we would do when we grew old. She’d said there was nothing to fear. She’d suggested returning to our hometown and finding a single-story house to live in. Cultivate some vegetables, raise ducks, send a gift to the village head, and plan to be buried together. That’s all I knew when I set out on that branch. I did as she wished, and we passed our days together. As far as she knew, an afternoon had passed since our decision. For me, it had been a lifetime.”

“Dozens of years,” I said. “Half a day.”

Master Zhao put down the chopsticks. “I’m scared, Master Zhang.” His fingers trembled. “I no longer know if my days are real or fake. If I’m on a branch, nothing matters. No matter how beautiful a day, how lovely the scenery, in a wink it can cease to exist. If this is real, drinking and talking with you, it’s all set in stone and can’t be altered. This year, this month, this day, I could’ve gotten better booze, eaten better food, found two beautiful women to chat with. Or stayed with my wife. It can’t be changed. This day will soon be over, and never again return.”

I turned and looked out the window. The sun was westering. We’d chatted all afternoon. For me, it was a few worthless hours in a completely pointless life. But from Master Zhao’s point of view, these few hours seemed congealed, like chunks of lead, heavy, ice-cold, solid.

I had to say something to dispel the bleak atmosphere. “Zhao . . . Master Zhao, you’ve gone to the end many times, right? What’s the oldest age you’ve reached? Ninety? A hundred?” I forced a smile.

He had to think about this. “Five thousand and fifty years old,” he said. “As I told you, sometimes I got in good with people of rank. I got rich. Once, after she passed, I had us frozen. Our doctors were to wait for a cure and resurrect us when the time was right. Well, five thousand years later, I came to. I hadn’t expected it to take so long, of course. The world had changed, but the people still looked like people. But the place . . . was very different. It’s hard for me to recall, let alone describe. I asked where my wife was. They told me she was still frozen. Curing her disease would be simple, they explained, but resurrecting her would not be so easy. I asked where we were, and they said in a new star system. No one lived at Sol anymore because disease was no longer a problem. For the same reason, there weren’t many research scientists left. All anyone wanted to do was explore, probing further afield in the galaxy. They’d thawed me out because my money was no longer valid. They’d been discussing my situation for a thousand years, and finally decided to wake me. What could I tell them? I said I wanted to go on sleeping until they could bring her back. They needed more time to discuss this, maybe another thousand years, so they put me back on ice, and that was it.”

Master Zhao took out a newspaper, drew an arrow, then a dotted branch with no endpoint to illustrate his long journey.

“Five thousand years,” I said, struggling to put words together. “So how much time passed on the main timeline?”

“I remember seeing news about cryonics. I discussed it with my wife, the possible application to our situation. If that was the branching point, then a dozen or so days passed in real time.”

9

“Master Zhao, almost everything you’ve told me is related to your wife.”

“Yes.”

“You’re a time traveler, you know. Without the burden of her, you could go further, not just in time but in space.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You could visit the future.”

“That doesn’t matter to me.”

“You don’t want to see what the world looks like in ten thousand years? Fifty thousand? A hundred thousand?”

“What would be the point?”

I realized he and I were on fundamentally different wavelengths. My curiosity, my fear and reverence . . . as far as he was concerned, they weren’t worth a penny. He just wanted someone to share his odd travels with. A good listener was enough. I respected his devotion to his wife. I understood his choices, but ultimately, he didn’t care to investigate the principles underlying his ability. He had no use for science. Attachment to family was at the core of him.

He was a commonplace time traveler. He couldn’t change the world, and he didn’t need to change himself. His far-ranging travels were utterly worthless to him.

But on second thought, if I were in his shoes, could I stand up to the weight of accumulated memory and time? I had no idea what so many years of tree ring growth did to a soul.

Ballsy woke, totally recovered from his pond trauma. He came to my side, tail wagging, expression bright and submissive. I opened a bag of treats for him. He went to his dog house and I surprised him with a few shreds of beef. Dogs aren’t easy animals to understand. Sometimes they’re forgetful, other times their memory is astonishing. Ballsy could sink into a brief despondency after I scolded him for misbehaving, but a little sleep and he was good as new. The next day he might make the same mistake and get the same scolding, and sink into the same depression. But last year our neighbor accidentally stepped on his forepaw. Since then, every time he sees that neighbor, he lifts his foreleg and plays the role of a disabled pooch, limping until the neighbor is gone. Amazing really, that kind of persistence in holding a grudge.

To a degree, people are similarly difficult to fathom.

10

I turned on the living room light. “Master Zhao, do you know if you’re currently on a branch or the main timeline?”

“No.”

“Do you know if I’m a living person, or some imagined character?”

“I don’t know.”

“Have you had your brain examined? I don’t just mean a CT, but everything a neurologist can do?”

“Yeah. Useless.”

“If I were inclined to believe everything you’ve said, would you think I’m crazy?”

“If I’m not crazy, you’re definitely not.”

“Then, are you crazy?”

He watched me, as if trying to guess the purpose of my words. “If you say I’m not, then I’m not.”

It was getting cold in the flat, so he put on his sweater. I regarded the table, the remains of our feast. “You said you drank with me before. I guess you meant on a branch timeline. I guess you’ve also rescued Ballsy before, and talked away the afternoon with me before . . . ”

“I was promoted to Golden Knight deliveryman. I began delivering food. I hadn’t known you long when I felt you were someone I could talk to. Frankly, I’d been looking for a long time. It’s not easy hiding all this. But I was afraid. Of not being able to take back what I said. Of being considered mentally ill. If that happened on a branch, it wouldn’t matter. But if it happened on the main timeline, I’d lose my job. I’d have no way to save up for my wife’s treatments. We’d be done for. The first time I came here to drink with you, we drank twice-distilled from paper cups.”

“The first time . . . ”

“Yes.”

A chill went through me. “So . . . how many times have we done this?”

“Many.”

“Why me? I mean, you could chat with anyone about this stuff. There are twenty million people in Beijing. Why choose a random sod like me?”

Master Zhao made as if to speak, then hesitated. He sipped some water. “Where to begin? Recently my brain problem has grown more serious. I’m branching more and more often. I said ‘recently.’ Since becoming a Golden Knight, I don’t even know how many times I’ve branched. Every time it’s long and short. On most of them I don’t get to the end. It’s just like now, I start to have second thoughts, and suddenly I’m back in time, and everything that happened is just gone. I’ve passed through hundreds or thousands of branches, while in the real world it’s only been a few months. I’m terrified there will come a day when, no matter how many times I branch, I’ll no longer be able to advance through real time. I’ll endure a lifetime, or ten lifetimes, or a thousand lifetimes, and really just live a day, or an hour, or a minute, or a second. My real time will forever slow, cluttered with ever more branchings . . . slower and slower, until it stops. I’ll be trapped in that moment. Every time I return, I’ll see the same scene, and not even have time to lift a finger before I branch again. Maybe I’ll be sitting with my wife. I’ll say something to her, take her hand, but I’ll be on a branch. The sentence will be fake, the feel of her hand also fake. In real time I’ll still be sitting there, looking at my wife. Frozen. Immobile.”

I tried to imagine such a frozen tableau, such profound incapacity, and I felt my heart would stop.

“If I’m on a branch, what will I return to?” He extended his hand, as if feeling for an unseen button. “Will all this still exist? This paper cup? Beijing? You?”

I contemplated my reflection in the diluted booze at the bottom of my cup. “These characters in your branches . . . are they alive, or some kind of illusion?” I thought of the NPCs in my online games. “In terms of self-awareness, I feel like I’m alive. There are contradictions in what you’ve said. You don’t know if you’re on a dotted line or a solid one, but your main timeline is still paused at several months ago. At least, that’s the last return point you clearly remember, isn’t it? Far from now, and this conversation. Doesn’t that prove we’re currently on a dotted line?”

“The only proof is if everything suddenly melts away!” Master Zhao shouted, at his wit’s end. “I . . . I can’t control this fucking brain! I have to take every day as real! Don’t you see that?”

I thought I understood how he felt. If his main timeline was slowing down, it meant he might never get to the end of his real life. He would be trapped, cycling through endless dreamlands. I couldn’t imagine a more profound despair. He had to steel himself. He had to find the courage to go on. He had no choice.

I tried to organize my thoughts as I waited for him to calm down. “Master Zhao, I’m sure no one can imagine what you’re suffering. If it were me, I would’ve gone mad long ago. I admire you.”

He shook his head.

“In my thirty-year life I’ve never doubted ‘existence’ itself. I’m just an ordinary person living on planet Earth, whether you’re here or not. If you suddenly vanished, I would keep finding ways to believe in the paranormal, and continue living my ordinary, pathetic life. As for your concern that this might be a dotted line . . . well, it’s real enough to me. Couldn’t be more so. It can’t just pop off like a TV during a power outage.”

He scavenged a cigarette butt from the ashtray and gave it a sniff. “Sure, I know. I’ve thought of this. It’s possible the characters on my branches are as alive as anyone. And when I return to the main timeline, those branch people continue living. Maybe the branch versions of me go on as well. My brain might have this world-jumping defect, but I can still think things through.”

“That sounds like what I mentioned before . . . parallel universe theory.”

“I’m not an educated man, so I can’t speak to that. Listen, you asked why I chose you to talk with, over and over. Actually, I’ve chatted with many people. Thousands. People I knew, strangers. I’ve told my story many times. Not many sat through the whole tale. They all thought I was crazy and belonged in a mental hospital. A few, including my wife, made me go in for an evaluation. That was scary, let me tell you. I was afraid of injections, electroshock, and living with a group of lunatics. No one believed me. No one.”

I imagined the loneliness of this time traveler seeking people to open up to, throughout his various lifetimes.

“Until I met you.” Master Zhao lit the cigarette butt. “You’re the first person to really hear me, to invite me home for a drink, to help me analyze these things. You said Beijing has twenty million people. That makes you quite exceptional, Master Zhang. You alone believe me.”

It seemed like predestination. I didn’t know if I should feel moved or terrified. “So it’s the same with me every time? The same chat? Me saying the same things?”

“No. I can’t recall clearly, but no, not exactly the same.”

“And I believe you every time?”

“Yeah, more or less.”

“Well then.” Suddenly my life meant something, which gave me mixed feelings. A vague idea took shape: I’d been a commonplace character since birth. Born to a common family, received a common education, common height and weight, common work, common unemployment, living with a common dog in a common apartment. How could I be of the least significance? I’d considered many paths toward an upgraded life—lottery fraud, pyramid schemes, starting a cult—but they all involved dishonesty. Now here was this man declaring me the chosen one, one in twenty million. It was like something from The Matrix. It shouldn’t be happening in real life.

But what if Master Zhao was a liar? That could explain everything. Maybe he thought me a stupid nouveau riche who didn’t have to work, a fool who read paranormal magazines. He’d surveilled my life and habits, concocted and practiced his fantastical story, and waited for his chance to dupe me. His tale was meant to arouse my curiosity, then he would make a demand I couldn’t refuse.

The suspicion, once germinated, began to snowball. He’d entered my apartment and found no money, but he’d cased the place, noting things like the beers in the fridge. I walked Ballsy the same time every day, and usually didn’t lock the door, so this would’ve been easy. He’d baited the pond, causing Ballsy’s erratic charge, and lain in wait to rescue. He was a repeat offender, a new type of con man. A specialist in sci-fi, and the fleecing of otaku2 programmers.

A cold sweat broke out on my forehead. I watched Zhao with heightened vigilance. He smoked the butt until it burned his trembling fingers, not much resembling a seasoned con artist. But he also didn’t seem like a time traveler who’d seen tens of thousands of worlds, locked in samsara. He just looked scared, and tired.

If he was a con man, where was his demand? Why wasn’t he asking for my credit card number, or cell phone password, or bedside cupboard key? We’d chatted long enough. It was time for him to cast his net.

I waited, on tenterhooks. I wasn’t afraid of getting duped. I was afraid of his amazing story being a lie.

11

Master Zhao glanced out the window at the darkening sky. “Well, we’ve chatted away another afternoon, and I still don’t understand any of it. Thanks for the company, regardless, and the food and booze. I should go home. Gotta prepare for the dinner deliveries.” He stood, donning his bright yellow work coat.

“Why not sit a bit longer? There’s still plenty to talk about.”

“Got bills to pay. Sorry.”

He headed for the door, and I followed. At the door he turned and said, “By the way, Master Zhang, I have a favor to ask of you.”

Here it was. I struggled to maintain a serene tone: “Yes?”

“This is . . . ” He looked embarrassed. “I hope you won’t mind an intimate request from a stranger.”

“Go on.”

“I need your help handling something.”

The disappointment rose in me like a tide. I watched this sun-darkened middle-aged man, who’d supposedly crisscrossed time and space, wipe his nose with a scrap of paper. “Handle what?” I said gloomily.

He hesitated. “Master Zhang, I will die tonight.”

I was surprised, to say the least. I’d expected a tearful plea for money, a sob story about an accident, something like that. The common ploy of a con artist.

“Tonight at 8:40 PM, in Zhengtong while delivering a meal, I’ll be hit by an Audi running a red light. I’ll fly ten meters, land, and break my neck. I’ll die before the ambulance gets there.”

“But . . . ”

“I’ve experienced it firsthand. You know that intersection, I think. The traffic is always a clusterfuck. And the cement is especially rough. I’ll slide quite a ways. Very painful. After I became a Golden Knight, I endured this scene many times, died many times. I can’t say for sure how many, but it hurt like hell every time.”

I studied his path-worn face, trying to judge his veracity. “But you can avoid it, surely. Just take the night off.”

“That time I made money and lived five thousand years . . . when I returned to the main timeline, I was already past the decision point. I’d already taken the test. I was a Golden Knight deliveryman.” His lips trembled, and I believed this wasn’t a performance. “I don’t know why, but afterward, no matter how I chose, life got harder. Nothing else works. I have to be a Knight to provide for my wife. It’s like God is tired of playing with me. Like I’ve been allotted this one path, and nothing else.”

“So if you take the night off . . . ”

“I’ve tried that many times. A freak combination of factors always results in an accident. It’s always a car crash, always the same pain. Like there’s a hand pushing me toward the same dead end, no matter what I do.”

I took out my phone and looked at the time: 7:45 PM. Less than an hour left. At that moment I decided to believe him. There was fear in his eyes, real fear, and despair and dread. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier? You knew you’d die at nine, but you went on chatting and drinking. If you’d said something before, we might have thought of a way out for you.”

He glared at me with frank, bloodshot eyes. “Are we on a branch right now, or in real time? What does your gut tell you?”

I retreated a step. “I don’t know . . . ”

“If this is real time, I’m not bound to die, because none of it has happened yet. If I’m still in my broken brain, then dying doesn’t matter, right?” He let fly a hot, alcohol-laden belch. “What can I do? Nothing, Master Zhang. Do you understand? Surely you must.”

I stood there in profound confusion, my brain a tangled mess of space-time arrows. “I don’t know,” I said, avoiding his gaze. “I don’t know . . . ”

He hung his head, gasping for breath. “Anyway, that leads me to my request.” He grabbed my sleeve. “It’s a simple one. From your balcony you can see the intersection by the district gate. In a little while, at 8:40, be there on the balcony. Watch. See if I die or not.”

I looked at him, mouth agape.

“I’ve thought about this a lot. There are a few possibilities . . . First, we’re on a dotted line. I die and return to the main timeline, leaving nothing behind, and you cease to exist. Second, we’re on a dotted line, I die but you remain, and you see where the ambulance takes my body. Third, we’re on a dotted line, I avoid disaster, go on living, but die next time. Fourth, this is the main timeline, I avoid disaster, and go on living smoothly with my wife. Fifth, this is the main timeline, I get hit by the car and killed, and that’s that. Lights out.” He took a breath. “So, you sit on your balcony and watch. If at 8:40 there’s no accident, and I make it through the night, then tomorrow I’ll bring booze, the good stuff this time, and good meat, and find you. And the two of us will drink like fish until we’re shit-faced. If . . . ”

“Master Zhao, don’t talk like that.”

“ . . . if I die, really die on the main timeline, then please go to my flat by the Marco Polo Bridge, Xiaoyue Gardens, building three, the most westward one near the grocery. My wife can’t really walk. She’ll be lying in our shop. Go around the checkout counter and find her, and tell her I’m dead. She’ll be worried if I’ve been gone all night. Don’t be afraid. Tell her the facts. She can take it. She’s not one of those sensitive types prone to suicide. I hid a bit of cash in the AC casing, enough for her to get by a few more years. The people we owe don’t know where we live. I die, the debts vanish, and she can live in peace for a while, even if she’ll have to manage her own cooking and bathing. She never enjoyed good fortune with me. I’m not worthy of her. If you have the time, visit her now and then, chat with her. She has a bad temper, but if you put up with it, you’ll see she has a good heart.”

I couldn’t respond. I just stared, dumbfounded.

Master Zhao looked beaten and sad, but a smile emerged. “You don’t realize how many times I’ve entrusted you with this. You agreed every time. And I’ve never known the outcome. Nobody can know what happens after they die. Thank you, Master Zhang.”

“Master Zhao . . . you may not die. Nothing is certain!” I went back to the dining table and ripped our drawings to pieces. “All we’ve done is conjecture. No one really knows the future. Chance operates independently, beyond the effects of your dreamlands. We still don’t know how it all works. It’s too complex, full of paradoxes. How to recognize the branching points, how to choose, how to use previews to find optimal paths . . . I already have a lot of ideas. There might be many strategies . . . ”

His smile faded, leaving behind those mournful crow’s feet. “Since nobody can know, what are you afraid of?”

“Master Zhao . . . ”

“If I don’t die today, and stop dreaming, then I’ll just live day by day, earnestly. Tomorrow I’ll deliver a bunch of meals. I’ll earn one yuan six jiao per delivery. Sixteen yuan for ten meals, a hundred and sixty yuan for a hundred. Rent, utilities, medicine. And if I die today, well . . . death ends all troubles. That’s life. It’s only my wife I can’t let go of. If not for her, I would’ve gone mad and simpleminded long ago. With her, I understand what people call ‘life.’ Again, Master Zhang, I’m sorry to trouble you with all this.”

The hallway’s cold draught poured in. I closed my eyes. The door closed, and Master Zhao vanished into the winter night.

12

I sat in the dark and drew a solid arrow. No branches, no intersections. Later I could play DOTA into the wee hours, then sleep until noon, then take Ballsy downstairs for a walk. I could order twice-cooked pork with rice and veg, and sit on my bench and eat. I could proceed with this hopeless life until my savings account was drained. Or until there was just enough left for a plane ticket. I could quit my classmate’s flat, pack his computer and dog, and head south to seek shelter with him. Smell the dank air of Guangzhou, become self-reliant and live something like a good life. Or I could take the ticket money and eat a great feast, then buy a train ticket back to my hometown. Ballsy was a rural mutt, after all. An idyllic, pastoral life would suit him.

Perhaps Master Zhao was a mysterious mental time traveler. Or maybe a profound swindler. Or just a madman.

Maybe my life was illusory, and of no consequence. Maybe I’d live until the end of time. Maybe there were ten thousand tactics for dealing with branching timelines. Maybe tragedy was preordained. It didn’t matter. Master Zhao was right. All you could do was live day by day.

I sat in the cold early evening, watching Beijing light up. On that balcony, in an unremarkable corner of Beijing, I watched the traffic signals flicker below. There was the chaotic intersection, cars coming and going, the usual hubbub. I didn’t know which yellow overcoated Knight was Master Zhao, and I couldn’t distinguish an Audi in the rivers of cars.

I waited a spell, not knowing if the accident was nigh. The victim himself had requested I watch, now, and in many other instances of his samsara.

If you removed the arrows of time, his story was rather simple: the story of a man and a woman. Remove either of them, and the curtain might’ve dropped long ago. Was there a similar tale beneath every streetlight of Beijing, so simple and complex, brief yet long, carelessly begun and never finished? The hands of the clock ticked toward 8:40. It was close, whatever was to be.

Footnotes:

1 - “Bumping into porcelain” is a widespread moneymaking scheme in China. It means jumping in front of a car, to get injured or to feign injury, in the hopes of a payday.

2 - Otaku, Japanese for a young person obsessed with computers or certain aspects of pop culture, to the detriment of their social skills. Zhainan in Chinese.

 

Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.

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This story is 12833 words long.

ISSUE 147, December 2018

Best Science Fiction of the Year
 

Not One of Us
 

locus-magazine

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born in 1981, Zhang Ran graduated from Beijing Jiaotong University in 2004 with a degree in Computer Science. After a stint in the IT industry, Mr. Zhang became a reporter and news analyst with Economic Daily and China Economic Net, during which time his news commentary won a China News Award. His stories have won numerous Gold and Silver Chinese Nebula Awards, and three Galaxy Awards for Best Novelette. He runs a coffee shop in southern China and writes in his spare time. The Windy City, his short story collection, was published in 2015.

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