Issue 196 – January 2023

9000 words, novelette

Zhuangzi's Dream

Latent summer stirred while spring lay dormant. April had come to the Kingdom of S’ong and brought with it spells of rain. Tadpoles in the pond recently developed hind legs; above, a stray shower had been drumming at the water pit-a-pat. The rain-rinsed sky was tinged a darkening hue from horizon to zenith all the way to the concealed, eternal stars. When clouds were few, they resembled freshly picked cotton. Other times, they flocked to build elaborate pavilions in the sky.

A barefooted young man sauntered up a sun-facing, sloped meadow. At this time of the year, the pasture was succulent. Thin grass blades peeked through between his toes and dampened the back of his feet. Draped over his body was a ragged hemp robe with uneven patches at the elbows and around the cuffs. In his hands, he held a folding book, made of bamboo slips. It had been opened countless times, so much so that it had fallen apart at the leather-threaded seams and was scrupulously sewn back together.

He held a lesser office at a lacquer tree plantation and earned his daily millet and rice by performing the same bureaucratic duties that had hardened into a routine. Here and now, he was known as Zhuang Zhou. In the ages to come, he shall be revered as Master Zhuangzi.

Young Zhuangzi lay down on the meadow on his side and made a pillow of his forearm. Nature breathed, in and out. The wind came forth, coursing through the grass to find him and caress his cheeks. Wind also lent dandelion seeds wings, so light, so airy, like downy barbs on a feather.

What a balmy day. Heat from the sun coddled him like a blanket. Zhuangzi yawned and scratched his back with the folding book as slumber inched up his shoulders and closed his eyes.

He fell asleep.

One
Giant Fish

Carved into the oceanic floor was a trench sprawling far and down beyond the stretch of imagination like an inborn scar opening toward the heart of the earth. In the depths of the trench was K’un, a giant fish lying dormant for eons, waiting in silence.

The trench had formed along a winding volcanic belt. This is where the planet beat and throbbed: fractures in the earth’s crust, collisions between tectonic plates, rises of new mountains, and the oozing magma that made the ocean boil. K’un found an active submarine volcano and pressed its abdomen against the crater. Lava poured out and began to thicken as soon as it met the ice-cold seawater. Congealed, this earthly blood swathed K’un and imbued it with vital energy.

Over time basalt deposits accrued on K’un’s back, forming a thick, heaping crust, so the giant fish became a seamount for as long as it stayed still under the fell of dark. All traces of light were swallowed by the miles of water above, letting through not even a glint. Without light, there was no photosynthesis; and without photosynthesis, there was no organic matter. But K’un was growing, and to grow, organic matter was essential.

It was lucky, then, that it did not lack company. Colonies of anaerobic bacteria lived and thrived on its scales. They were Earth’s first inhabitants to whom the tree of life owed its genesis, but for all that they had been outcompeted by latecomers with more affinity for light and oxygen, wherefore they resigned to the deep sea as their dwelling. K’un was a powerful ally to the anaerobes. It took them on excursions along the seabed for inhabitable volcanoes rich in heat and inorganic nutrients, which were essential for the bacteria; in return, they produced organic matter for K’un. So nourished through symbiosis, K’un slowly grew. Coral polyps raise barrier reefs from the sands of time; what the bacteria accomplished in K’un was a miracle in equal measure.

Then, one day, the big fish felt something stir inside. At Nature’s quiet beckoning, its biological clock started ticking. Come to the land. Come to the land. A voice resounded from within. This day had finally come, and K’un was ready. Every cell in its body was eager to answer Nature’s call.

Its scaly body spasmed. Fins beating, K’un quaked tirelessly until the sedimentary rocks on its back were torn asunder. Finally, it broke free, like an ancient god escaping bondage. The steep walls that lined the trench trembled too, sending sound waves through the waters to announce the awakening of a titan.

Once it had cleaned up the deposits on its body, K’un whipped its giant tail and sprang up. Soon, it shot out of the trench and brought behind it a turbid current like smoke rising from the ground. Its snout split waves, its tail stirred ocean tides, and its eyes flashed like two burning torches ascending from the underworld. As K’un drew closer to the surface, light, which hitherto only existed in distant memories of a previous life, registered on K’un’s retinas.

The giant fish finally emerged from the sea. Its body formed a new continent, forging slowly and steadily northward. At its destination, K’un would draw this episode of its life to an end.

Stars rose and the sun set. The passing of time saw aquatic lives prosper: a diverse family of bony fish came to be, and they were accompanied by giant, territorial oceanic beasts. But the creature of nightmares devoured them without distinction. It knew: the land was not far.

It had waited a long time, so long, that the wait didn’t even pale against the age of the planet. The land looked different from the last time K’un visited. Gymnosperms had risen to prominence and ferns retreated to the bower. Rain laved barren lands and made them fertile. Gingkoes, tree ferns, pines, cycads, horsetail reeds, and redwoods—the whole world was damp and warm. Four-legged reptiles, once dumb and addled, had evolved into countless new forms and reached the pinnacle of prosperity for their kind. In this moment they ruled the Earth, but already another warm-blooded animal was quietly propagating. They were harbingers of a new era.

Then, everything changed.

K’un crashed into the shore; eyes closed, shadow looming, it brought with it seismic waves, devastating, like plundering troops. Its heart valves swung into action, followed by atria and ventricles out of dormancy to begin pumping electrolyte blood into K’un’s whole body. During those endless nights undersea, K’un had been generously furnished with fuel from the volcanoes. Now, having connected all the bio-batteries in its organs in parallel, K’un was able to fully engage in the task at hand.

This beast pulled itself forward by crawling. It wiggled its pectoral and pelvic lobe fins like an amphibious fish that left water for the first time. Land creatures looked on in horror at its sheer size, its huge eyes hanging midair like stars, its maw tightly lined with fine teeth, opening and closing like a meat grinder. Devourer of this world, K’un tore and swallowed everything on its way, living being and land alike, leaving a scrape on the ancient continent in its wake.

Nonetheless, K’un was not a glutton. It was too big to gain from the ingestion of food. For all its relentless feeding, K’un was losing energy faster than taking it in. The sole purpose to its consumption was the acquisition of genetic material, which had been perfecting itself day after day through the natural selection of living things. A master at proactive adaptation, K’un also collected genomes. It wanted them for the design of its new body.

So it continued its way up north: through the tropics, toward the temperate zone, the swing of its scythe never stopped. Unceasing, too, was the metamorphosis of its body. Like monks in meditation who enter a new stage of awakening at each epiphany, K’un molted its skin over and over throughout its journey. Its lobe fins grew thicker, and their spines contracted to become part of the endoskeleton. Its dorsal fins lengthened to form a spinous, perforated sail-like protrusion for thermoregulation. Appearance-wise, K’un was growing closer to a four-legged reptile.

Meanwhile, a halophilic bacterial strain had been released from the spores carried in K’un’s tail. Its propagation in K’un’s electrolyte blood turned the giant a violet color. The halophiles converted light into electricity and stored it in K’un’s bio-batteries. Now that it could combine water and carbon dioxide into organic matter, the giant fish started craving water, so much so that it dreamed of going back to its birthing sea in the south. As chance would have it, the rainy season arrived in the northern hemisphere. Whenever rain greeted this young planet, it found K’un couching in repose, quiet, unstirred. Rain washed away the dust of its journey and nourished its body. Rain is the source of life.

We cannot ascertain K’un’s intelligence. Granted, it had five brains to coordinate physical movements, but they were too small against its colossus of a body. Thoughtless and motionless, K’un let itself be stroked by the filaments of rain. All the while, its subconscious mind remained active. Slowly and confusedly, it began to wonder at the meaning of life and its journey. Why does it sleep and idle for so long in exchange for mere moments of toil and trouble? What is the point? Nigh on immortal, it nevertheless relies on access to the genes of living things that exist for brief hours and weeks. Is it worthwhile?

Rain stopped before K’un reached its conclusion, so once again the giant fish rose up. The meaning of its life was none other than the journey itself. Spring passed into summer and became winter. K’un had lost track of how far it traveled. It saw complex flora give way to simple and animal sightings turn scarce. The height of the sun declined, and the loss of heat quickened. Soon from the heavens fell a white crystal, beautiful and unblemished.

At long last, K’un’s body betrayed signs of exhaustion. Drawn into the clutches of fatigue, K’un caught a sniff of fire and heat in the wind and found a volcano with the last of its energy. This was a snow-molded landscape in the extreme north: the volcano smoldered and flamed against the northern lights’ eerie glow to paint the scene of an earthly inferno. This giant fish, now thoroughly spent, crawled to the top, and from there it drew its pilgrimage to a close. Without the slightest hesitation, K’un leaped from the precipice. Inside, it shall be reborn through fire.

Its body dissolved, condensed, and morphed into a giant, ivory egg. This egg would spend the coming years slowly gathering thermal energy while sorting out its collection of genes, for they are the essence of life. When all was done, K’un shall descend the world again in a new form—something more efficient—perchance with wings. The time would then come for it to return to the origin and source of life, the place it came from and where it belonged: the sea in the south; dark, holy, and infinite.

Two
Tentacles of a Snail

The snail was thirsty.

It saw a droplet of morning dew poised inches above at the tip of a grass blade. So it wiggled up the stalk to taste the bead, swaying gently, slowly, even leisurely. Though the snail was little, it was born noble, an emperor who carried its own castle. Nothing was worth its hurry.

Buddhists say that a single mustard seed, though minuscule, contains the entire Mount Meru. Likewise, the snail’s two tentacles seated two entire nations. On the left lived a feisty people who called their nation Pugnus and the left tentacle, Terra Pugni. On the right lived a people equally bellicose. Their nation was Brutus and the right tentacle, Terra Bruta.

During the prehistoric dark ages of chaos and ignorance, there was no contact between the two. The world was too big and men too small; when their forebears worked the wilderness by slashing trees and burning bushes, they could hardly imagine that there might be limits to the world where eyes failed to reach. Thousands of years had passed since then; civilizations had come into being in both, but they remained separate from each other.

It was in philosophy that the existence of the other was first postulated. Thinkers in Pugnus introduced the concept of Yin-Yang, which stated that in all things and all states of affairs, the opposites are complementary, mutually implicated, and unified. If Pugnus and Terra Pugni existed, then a complementary nation and a complementary continent existed ipso facto. Meanwhile, in Brutus, the thesis “Numbers rule the universe” had risen to prominence. Mathematicians in Brutus deduced from a series of complex calculations that a universe containing exactly one world could not possibly be at equilibrium; ergo a continent distinct from Terra Bruta must exist.

A thousand and three hundred years passed before these existential claims were empirically evidenced by the inventions of the compass and the polarizer. Seafarers in Pugnus had long used compasses for direction and navigation, and they noticed that the indicators in compasses consistently deviated from true north. What was more, there were patterns to the disagreement. Through trial and error, the seafarers came up with a correctional calculus. When this calculus was acquired by the royal house, the imperial observatory subjected it to intense scrutiny and, in the end, confirmed the results with calculation rods and located the source of the interference in another continent beyond the horizon.

Meanwhile, in Brutus, the flourishing of visual arts gave rise to the need for a special kind of glass that enabled naturalist painters to filter out diffuse light. These glasses were smoothed down from natural mica splitting at first. Then, when demand increased, craftsmen began manufacturing glass polarizers aimed at different wavelengths. One day, as a craftsman held a new lens against daylight during calibration, a whole new world suddenly took shape in front of his eyes.

He gasped in amazement, which drew his workmates close, and they too gaped at the heavenly spectacle through his lens. Word spread like wildfire. Production scaled up immediately in these specs, while business in the industry at large also boomed. At once, the whole nation was looking up at the heavens with polarized lenses in their hands. Nature disjoined two adjacent worlds with a clever optical barrier, but when the curtain was lifted, the land of myths and legends came to light in plain sight.

Sight, so vivid and transparent, left an impression far stronger than could be produced by any hypothesis or proof following rod calculus. Soon, positivism and skepticism became broadly influential in Brutus’ public discourse. The people of Brutus abolished religious courts, sent the king to the guillotine, and instituted a democratic republic. Minds so freed set off growth in productive forces. Empirical sciences triumphed, while rationalist principles motivated reforms in the humanities. The nation marched steadily into the age of steam.

Progress continued for hundreds of years until every street was teeming with steam-powered machinery enshrouded in their own pearly vapor. Brutus began to stagnate. Overpopulation crowded its land; endless coal smoke poisoned the air; the widening gap between the rich and the poor, adding to deteriorating living conditions, caused existing civil tensions to escalate. A revolution was on the horizon. Desperate to redirect popular grievances and find a scapegoat for themselves, the governors of Brutus turned their eyes to the sky.

At this point, survival was already strenuous. Nevertheless, Brutus pooled its recourses and built a fleet of nine airships equipped with the latest military technology and nine thousand crew members. The plan was to sail across the heavenly barrier, settle in the other continent, colonize it, and carve out a new home for the people of Brutus, which had become, by now, a nation teetering on the brink of disintegration. The expedition was its last throw of the dice.

When the fleet from Brutus arrived, they came to a people still living under feudalism. Here, lords thrived, and their tenants suffered. All the while, hollow crowns exchanged hands by the day. The people of Pugnus gawked at these extraterrestrial visitors as if they were something other than human. But, abiding by principles of civility, they still received the crew with friendliness. It dawned on the crew then, that, contrary to the propaganda they had received, Pugnus was not populated by monsters in human guise. Far from it, these were real people like themselves. Troubled by their own conscience and embittered about Brutus’ ruling clique, the crew refused to obey the genocidal order and declared alliance with Pugnus in its self-defense.

Their mutiny was the last straw for Brutus. When the news broke, Brutus’ two major parties descended into malicious smear campaigns against each other, and then proceeded to commence a ninety-year civil war. This was the breathing space Pugnusneeded. It seized the opportunity to reinforce itself against the next round of attack. The expedition crew taught Pugnus everything they knew, sowing the seeds of an industrial revolution. The encounter with foreign ideas also breathed a new life into Pugnus’ ancient sciences. Its civilization entered a stage of rapid growth.

Keen on making the traitors pay, and eager to nip Pugnus’ technological revolution in its bud, Brutuslaunched a second campaign the moment its civil war came to an end. Steam-powered chariots fitted with swivels were airdropped onto Pugnus’ plain in coordination with foot soldiers carrying high-pressure smoothbore guns. But never in their wildest dreams did they think that Pugnus would be waiting for them with ironclad super robots. These metal giants were driven by internal combustion engines and wore indestructible alloy armor protection. Slowly but surely, they advanced, tearing through Brutus’ front lines, wreaking the armors on the steam powered chariots, and crushing the troops’ hyperbaric airbags.

All that live by technology shall perish by technology. The Brutus army, so thoroughly defeated, had no choice but to surrender. From then on, the two nations entered a two hundred-year standoff. They hadn’t figured each other out fully, and for that reason they cautioned against reckless attacks, which held potential for self-sabotage. The compromise was a cold war, one rife with mutual provocation and espionage.

During this time, public support for peace never tailed off, but many more came under the sway of fanaticism. They sang the tune of hate and called for an arms race. Vigilant nationalists even discovered the subtlest distinction between the two people: those native to Pugnus had bigger right eyes and the contrary was true of those native to Brutus. But how could a common humanity pertain to faces so different? The foreigner must go! We must secure the existence of our people!

Ignorance fueled chauvinism. The cold war soon escalated into hot, violent battles. They had been sitting at the poker table for two hundred years, watching each other, thinking. Now, they were ready to play their hands. First, Pugnus deployed its ground forces, then in return Brutus destroyed all of Pugnus’ satellites and space stations in one fell swoop. Pugnus launched MIRV intercontinental ballistic missiles at Brutus, so Brutus turned its strategic laser weapons to Pugnus’ capital. Pugnus redirected an asteroid at Brutus, and Brutus intercepted it and resolved the threat into a meteor shower.

The war went on for six hundred years, and neither saw that war was good for nothing but agony and devastation. Instead, they came to the decision that conventional weapons were simply incapable at vanquishing the opponent. This prompted both nations to propose “millennium projects” aimed at catalyzing scientific progress in their own nations, suppressing breakthroughs in the enemy’s by any means necessary, and culminating in the design of an ultimate superweapon to wipe the other off the map.

Pugnus, a weapon design project, code named Singularity, began research into quark fission chain reactions to generate the energy capable of ultra-mass destruction. Meanwhile, Brutus started developing an electromagnetic pulse weapon designated Ragnarök. It would produce microwaves that broke chemical bonds by setting atoms in vibration and, when directed at the enemy, would completely obliterate them. Time passed. Regimes changed. Periods of peace punctuated the unending war. The millennium projects staggered from time to time but were never put to a full stop.

In the end, they were completed at almost the same time, with the quark bomb coming into existence only a week earlier. The state council of Pugnus spent those few days in deliberation, dithering between unleashing total destruction and staying with deterrence tactics. Just then, their spy satellites picked up signals in Brutus of countless high-power radars switching on. Their opponent had launched the first and ultimate strike—the deadly microwaves shall arrive in minutes. The president of Pugnus held his finger above the launch button. His advisor shook her head: nothing can revert this world’s course to death now, so why destroy another before taking its last breath? The president let out a sigh before pressing the red button.

The snail felt an itch in tentacles, so it brought them in and rubbed them against each other. Pugnus and Brutus were born at the outset of its ascent, and the millenniums and eons that had passed for them were mere seconds to the snail, who remained oblivious that two civilizations just perished on its head.

For the snail, the droplet was yet beyond its reach, and there was still half the way to go.

Three
Chaos

The lawgiver of the southern galaxies was Speed, the lawgiver of the northern galaxies was Haste, and the lawgiver of the center was Chaos.

Measuring five kilometers in diameter and approaching a small terrestrial planet in magnitude, Speed was, at least in size, less a living being and more a celestial body. As it turned out, its corporeal self was a layer of crystalline solid wrapped around a planet, stretched over its terrains like floor covering. Lattice vibrations in the crystal is what Speed used to build a basic arithmetic logic unit; then the unit evolved into an advanced, multitiered logical architecture. It was a supercomputer, commanding all silicone-based life-forms in the universe, fueled by none other than radioactive decay in the planetary core, but Speed owed its humble origin to three simple logic gates: OR, AND, NOT.

Meanwhile, the appearance of Haste was still stranger. It had evolved, consequent of a carbon-fundamentalist movement, into a nebula of clustered nerve fibers. Once upon a time, carbon lives warred against silicone lives; the carbon alliance was losing and driven all the way to the edge of a spiral arm in the Milky Way when a puritan movement broke out across the alliance calling for the destruction of any and all inorganic modules used in assisted computation. Haste commanded all carbon lives, but even so it was helpless against the revolution. The computation matrix employed in military strategy and resource allocation had, too, been blown up by the radicals.

As a last resort, Haste transformed itself. It grew out its nerve fibers, which provided structural integrity to its body, and placed bimolecular chips at all nodes. Haste also wrote a biological algorithm that did away with binary data, thereby overcoming the propagation delay in signal transmissions inherent to organic bodies, to allow for concurrent processes execution in disjoint parts of its body.

In the early days of its new anatomy, Haste’s tremendous computing power helped the carbon alliance win battle after battle against all odds. But soon enough, Speed came to the realization that it was no longer a good match to its rival and resolved to forgo tactics. By then, silicon-based lives had taken hold of the majority of resources in the Milky Way, so they took advantage of their reproductive efficiency and advanced through the battlefield by way of suicide attacks against staggering casualty figures.

Had Chaosnot stepped in, the galaxy would still be mired in infinite, cyclic war and strife. The details of the story did not survive, though one thing was certain: Chaos swayed Speed and Hastetoward peace by demonstrating its own power. Since then, silicone and carbon lives had resigned to their own provinces: one residing in the galaxies on the Scutum-Centaurus arm, and the other in the galaxies on the Perseus arm.

For long, it remained a mystery just what sort of thing Chaos was, a mystery even Speedand Haste knew very little about. It was less a thing and more a thought insofar as its consciousness did not turn on any single entity. Nor did its existence depend on anything else, including gravity and electromagnetic waves. Chaos was omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. Some civilizations worshipped it as a god, which Chaos did not endorse; other civilizations hunted after it across the galaxies, and they received no punishment.

Speed and Haste were the only ones to enjoy the privilege of unilateral communication with Chaos, who seemed to hold the two commanders in certain esteem. The passage of time saw developments to intergalactic space travel technologies that led to the expansion of civilizations from the Milky Way to galaxies beyond. This was a new chapter in history, marked by the easing tension between silicone and carbon lives and the retirement of their commanders to the backstage. Speedand Hastewent on to rove the Milky Way. They became living legends and were revered as lawgivers and spiritual leaders.

After Speed and Haste moved on from their respective communities, Chaos began reaching out more frequently. It occurred to them that Chaos had started paying more visits to their consciousnesses, as well as exchanging a great deal more information at each visit. In confidence, Chaostaught them lost knowledge and unknown theories and, at times, also answered their questions. Although they did not know Chaos’ reason for doing so, living things as they were, they suspected that Chaos was lonely.

At last,Chaos reached into both Speed’s and Haste’s minds at the same time, which allowed them to feel Chaos and come face-to-face with each other for the first time. Cautiously, they reached out to each other and attempted to communicate. These two rivals, who had fought for tens of thousands of years, understood at once that despite the astronomical differences in their life-forms, mental structures, and values, in other fundamental ways they were the same. Haste hesitated for a few microseconds before sending its greeting to Speed, which Speed returned in goodwill without dallying.

Just then, they received Chaos’ neural oscillations. “I am dying.”

“That’s impossible. Even we can attain immortality, let alone you?” Haste rejected the claim out of incredulity.

Speed was more prudent. It evaluated Chaos’ declaration carefully and came to its own conclusion. “Chaos was right. It had suggested to us that the universe is an isolated system where, according to the principle of increased entropy, all things eventually and inevitably end in decay.”

Silence overtook them. Chaos departed, but it left behind a data packet and kept their Speed and Haste in connection. Chaos’ intention was beyond them, so after a brief exchange of opinions, Speed and Chaos began working on decoding the data packet together. Soon, a sea of information came pouring in, and the past lives of Chaos the living being was revealed to the two galactic leaders.

Chaos’ species originated from a brain parasite. They swayed their hosts to make macro decisions favorable to the parasites without compromising the hosts’ self-determination. At the advent of the age of exploration, the host civilization of this parasite species began to venture outside their own stellar system. When galactic civilizations in the Milky Way came in contact with each other, Chaos’ species flourished through their communication and collision.

Having absorbed and synthesized the wisdoms of so many civilizations, Chaos’ species surpassed them all and grew to be leader of the pack. During their heyday, the Milky Way was the parasites’ farm for knowledge. These hidden puppet masters raised civilizations as if they were sowing seeds, accelerated their development in all sorts of ways, harvested their technological achievements, and finally destroyed them before they became too difficult to deal with.

At last, the parasites grew tired of the bondage of corporeality and decided to let go of material existence completely. They succeeded and, as a result, gave up reproduction and lost the possibility of evolution ever again. They were stunned to discover that even the purest minds decay over time and grind to nothing. One after another, Chaos’ fellow beings stepped into the graves they dug themselves. Chaos was the most powerful among them and so survived to this day.

But now torrents were rising in the depth of its subconscious too. Chaos had an inkling that it had little time left, so it made Speed and Haste know of its last wish. As a parasite, Chaos had no sensory faculty of its own. It perceived the external world only through other living things. But there are a thousand worlds in a thousand lives’ eyes, so Chaos had no integral understanding of the universe that belonged to itself. Its wish was for Speed and Haste to modify the body it once had. Chaos wanted to experience the universe in its essence without mediation before its life slipped away.

At the end of its message, Chaos left a series of coordinates. A myriad of things went through Speed’s and Haste’s minds; nevertheless, they followed the coordinates, which led them to a cleverly hidden black dwarf. This was the carcass of a star, and at the center of the carcass, they found Chaos’ well-preserved corpse. It looked like a ball of flesh, round and sturdy, with functionally indeterminate appendages and wings. After initial analyses, Speed and Haste found that it was composed mainly of organic matter; in addition, it had a crystalline organ, reminiscent of Speed, and the organ was responsible for reason.

Speed and Haste did not know how such a strange life could be capable of parasitism. They conjectured that Chaos was the leader of its species and that was why it had such an unusual body. Once they scanned Chaos’ body, Speed and Haste decided on a modification plan. They would implement various external sensory receptors for Chaos, construct a central processor to deal with the external stimuli, and connect the processor to Chaos’ rational organ. Speed and Haste completed their construction nearby on a dead planet that orbited the black dwarf. And if measured from on this planet, their creation took seven sidereal days.

Now that Speed and Haste’s work was complete, they felt a powerful consciousness descending by them. That was Chaos—about to return to its former body. Then, all of a sudden, this strange ball of flesh showed signs of life. Speed and Haste looked on from the exosphere at this tiny, insignificant thing below: who would have thought that it was once the master of the Milky Way? Chaos sat still and quiet and saw the world for itself for the first time. The universe opened up in front of it.

It saw flashes of nebulae, the births of stars. Satellites orbit planets, stars heave the Milky Way, their movements unceasing. Heavenly bodies collide, heavenly bodies explode, their sounds a thunderous silence. Species originate, species die, but the transmission of electromagnetic waves was a constant through their ebb and flow. The foldings of space carve out dimensions. Time twists and coils and compels all things to their destiny. Scattered pulsars are the lighthouses that coordinate the universe. Black holes, the graveyards of time and substance, make what is into what is not. The cosmological redshift and the expansion of the universe are never slowing down. Dice fall and wave functions collapse. In lieu of God, the observer determines the outcome. A singularity becomes chaos. Existence reverts to nothingness. Between meaning and meaninglessness, life strikes a balance.

The presence of Chaos grew dimmer and dimmer. To Speed and Haste it directed its last words:

My friends, thank you.

Four
The Happiness of a Fish

Zhuangzi and Huizi met by River Hao for some fresh air. Schools of fish shoaled back and forth while they leaned against the bridge in contemplation.

Hao was very clear, so much so that the fingerlings appeared to have defied gravity and risen in thin air, leaving behind mere shadows on the riverbed, vivid with crisp contours. As Zhuangzi and Huizi contemplated the fish, the fish were also looking back, torpidly, as if they were philosophers of the subaquatic world. Huizi picked up a pebble and flicked it at the water. The fish all scattered except for one; it stayed behind, unruffled.

“That’s a dumb one.” Huizi said, eyeing the rotund animal. Then he turned around to pester Zhuangzi. “Look. This fat chap is just like you. Not a thought behind those blank eyes.”

Zhuangzi dismissed his verbal missile easily. “What do you know? This fish roams around by itself and delights in its own being. It is not disturbed by the material world, nor does it answer to anyone else’s whim. It has achieved the state of Dao, and that is true happiness. How could an uninitiated chump like you ruffle its feathers?”

The polemicist Huizi did not relent. “Alright then. If you will, since you are not a fish, where did you learn what’s happy for a fish?”

Apprehensive, Zhuangzi sidestepped the question and put it back to Huizi, “If you will, since you are not me, how do you know that I don’t know what’s happy for a fish?”

Seeing that his opponent had risen to the bait, Huizi seized on the misstep. “Sure, I am not you, so I can’t know what you know. But likewise, you are not a fish, so you can’t know what’s happy for a fish. This much, at least, I can ascertain.”

Now that he was losing the debate, Zhuangzi resorted to non sequiturs. “Don’t stray from the question you started with! You asked me ‘where’ I learned what’s happy for a fish, assuming as given that I do know. Now, I will tell you just where I learned it—right here on this bridge over River Hao!”

Huizi cackled. He had finally evened the score against Zhuangzi since their last debate under an ailanthus, where Huizi came away the loser. For him, the gratification of seeing Zhuangzi bear dialectical defeat and resort to sophistry rivals the pleasure of devouring rare delicacies.

Meanwhile, Zhuangzi’s concern was of something else entirely. Eyes fixed on the dumb chubby fish, his mind was nevertheless drifting further and further away. There was no doubt that he knew what the fish thought because it had no thought whatsoever. It was simply that Zhuangzi couldn’t stomach laying bare the reason, for this fish was in fact an automaton made by him.

About two years ago, Zhuangzi became engrossed in bionics out of the blue. He wasn’t much interested in its practical applications, which were the preoccupation of the utilitarian Mohists. Rather, Zhuangzi was taken up with the possibility of artificial life—Gods born from giant eggs, men made of molded mud, so on so forth—that’s what fascinated him.

His very first creation was a wooden dragonfly. With saved gourd seeds he exchanged for a set of used micro carving tools from a student of Master Mo himself: gouges, carving knives, marking knifes, tiny chisels, and micro hand planes. Then with a few bottles of fish glue reduced over a long simmer, he acquired an array of precision-made springs and transmission components. The springs when uncoiled were as thin as the wings of a cicada, the engaged gears as fine as mustard seeds, and the transmission belts as narrow as strands of hair.

He carved the dragonfly’s body out of oak heartwood and placed the clockwork motor in its hollow. Then he shaved the dragonfly’s wings from basswood planks and scored them with decorative loop patterns, before tightening the winder and releasing the dragonfly gently into the air. The clockwork began to unwind, gears creaked, the transmission shaft turned, springs bounced, and finally the dragonfly flapped its wings. It wove through the air haltingly, and at times seemed to linger in the spirit of playfulness.

The dragonfly was a small, toylike thing, and still it took an incredible amount of effort to bring into existence, and for the first time Zhuangzi felt the joy of creation. Since then, he had built more mechanical creatures: frogs from oracle bones, birds from fruit peels, turtles from mud tiles, and bees from wax paper. He practically reigned in the animal kingdom like a divinity.

This fish was Zhuangzi’s latest work and a technical upgrade by a mile. It had a tailor-made self-winding mechanism that took advantage of natural ripples and wavelets to spin the rotor and keep the fish always fully wound. It also had four water reservoirs and an intricate counterweight, so the fish could rise or sink by adjusting its buoyancy to avoid undercurrents and vortices. If needed, the fish could be made to swim all the way to the East Sea.

But Zhuangzi was not pleased with his designs. He found himself to be a mere imitator, not a true creator. The trinkets he had made, though some of them were so vivid as to pass for the real deal, were ultimately not alive. They were insentient, unconscious, unthinking, let alone intelligent. They were good for the sake of passing time, but a long way from the elusive goal of artificial life.

Seeing that Zhuangzi had knitted his brows together and lost himself in thinking, Huizi let his mind wander too. The debate had also struck a chord with him. As he leaned against the parapet, he pondered: of course he knew what was on Zhuangzi’s mind; but he didn’t have the heart to lay bare the ugly truth, the fact that he had designed Zhuangzi’s entire mind and that the latter was no more than a conscious android.

When Huizi first decided to make an android, he was only looking for an opponent for himself. He was heir to the School of Names1 and a champion of their theory. Having mastered the rhetorical art, he could debate concrete issues and unravel conceptual paradoxes with equal flourish. He vanquished counterarguments with ease and finesse and defended patently false claims through sophistry. When it came to disputation, Huizi had become unbeatable and as a result lonely, too. What he needed was a friendly rival, someone of equal caliber so as to stand a chance in debates against himself.

But as his project progressed, Huizi grew more ambitious. His art was an imitation of life, but life was itself an imitation of being, so he was at least two degrees removed from absolute truth. Hopeful that he could break through mere appearances, Huizi was no longer content with the making of an equal opponent. He put his mind to the creation of a perfect man, one that exceeded all of nature’s creations so as to approach the realm of true being. The success of Zhuangzi was one big step toward that goal.

Of the glass test tubes and Petri dishes stacked to the ceiling in his basement, and of the temperature-controlled chambers heated by charcoal, rattling and murmuring around the clock, Huizi had vivid memories still. His closest acquaintances then were, at very most, a bronze microscope, droppers made from split bamboo, and perchance an old and beaten hand-cranked centrifuge. The incubator needed a constant supply of energy, so he harnessed the power of wind, lightning, water, and fire. The growth of Zhuangzi’s body needed minerals and protein, so he sourced them from masons and butchers. He procured anatomic drawings from the Kingdom of Yan, programming scripts from the Kingdom of Qi, high-speed computing machinery from the Kingdom of Chu, and a brain-machine interface from the Kingdom of Qin.

With a partial copy of his own mind, Huizi configured the low-level device drivers in Zhuangzi’s brain architecture. Then, borrowing from the philosophy of Lao Tzu, he distinguished his opponent with a separate logical framework. At last, he fabricated Zhuangzi’s memory and simulated emotions with the appearance of reality. When Zhuangzi stepped out of the incubator it was clear as day that Huizi had succeeded; true being was now within reach. The birth of a new intelligent life called for baptism, so he engraved the back of Zhuangzi’s neck with a symbol, also to betoken its bearer’s artifactuality.

Huizi had worked day and night on Zhuangzi, putting in him more than twenty years’ work and, not to mention, his heart and soul. But it was worth the toil; now, Zhuangzi was not so much an opponent as a friend and brother. Over the course of their debates and discourses, Huizi came to see that Zhuangzi was steadily surpassing him in intellect and learning. There was no telling where Zhuangzi would reach in the future, though plainly it was impossible to overstate his potential. The one thing Zhuangzi would remain ignorant of was the number SEVEN engraved on his neck. That was his registration number and doubled as his code name. The secret may accompany him for a lifetime.

But. Hold on. Why “seven”? Had there been six others? No, no. Why can’t I remember? How? Could there have been another android? . . . Seven . . . seven . . . six . . . six?

The back of Huizi’s neck itched. He reached around to scratch at the spot. To his horror, he found a number faintly engraved, hidden at his nape. It read: SIX.

Five
To Dream of a Butterfly

On the meadow, a light-footed butterfly materialized by Zhuangzi’s side, dancing around him with fluttering wings.

There he is, asleep. What a great opportunity. The miniature camera in the butterfly’s eyes activated and refocused to capture all of the sleeping philosopher in one frame. In the butterfly’s abdomen was a superconducting battery working at maximum capacity, and in its thorax a nanocomputer running at full speed. After lossless compression, the captured video signal was transmitted back through antennas in the butterfly’s front tentacles to the future.

This butterfly was in fact a machine, and a micro time travel machine at that. Time traveling was too costly; transporting every additional gram required exponentially more energy. Even this butterfly, which was made with atom packing technology and had not a single excess component, still weighed a whopping 9.73242 grams. The energy spent on sending it here was equal to all the solar energy the Earth absorbs in a second, the equivalent of detonating the Tsar Bomba2 eight hundred and fifty times over, which could power a one hundred-watt light bulb for fifty-six million years.

Stellar energy harvest technology had long entered its mature phase, and if he were to screw up this experiment—the young man shuddered—his advisor would have his guts for garters. Here he was, in a space station in Mercury’s orbit, feeling hot and sweaty just at the sight of the oversized sun, and the thought still gave him chills.

He had no idea why he even bothered to do a PhD in temporal history. If he had left for industry jobs sooner, with his degree in satellite minerology, he could have easily bought a beachfront home on Titan by now. He’d be standing in the middle of the house, turning the ceiling to transparent, and watching the orange sky bespeaking rhythmic motions of primitive life. He’d have a glass of Bordeaux in hand, and his beautiful wife would wear a sleeveless cheongsam. She would embrace him from behind, red lips pressed on his nape . . . alright, maybe life wouldn’t be that comfortable. Still, it would be better than being single in his late twenties and living in single graduate student housing with a bunch of other bachelors!

This young man liked to dream. Strange ideas came to him like mushrooms blooming after rain. While he was lost in a daydream, Nana—that’s the name he gave to the butterfly time travel machine—sent back the first batch of data. The terminal pinged, calling him back to reality. He rubbed his face and refocused his attention at the screen. The data compression ratio was too high, so it took a couple seconds for the image to decompress.

It is here! It’s here now! The image was blurry, but still it showed the silhouette of a human figure lying in a meadow. The young man tapped away on a virtual keyboard as if he were playing a Chinese plucked zither: adjust the angle, enlarge, adjust the angle again, enlarge, stop, zoom in, zoom in, zoom out, focus, render the pixels—snap! Excellent! Oh, that is great, so clean and sharp!

The young man clenched his fist in excitement. He was over the moon to be the first person to take a photo of Zhuangzi! That alone made learning time archaeology worth it! Screw the seafront house on Titan! To hell with it! He piloted the butterfly around Zhuangzi to create a three-dimensional scan, which he would later use to generate a digital hologram. The supercomputer on the space station communicated with Nana through a channel enabled by quantum entanglement, but a bottleneck in the data flow necessitated the use of data compression and decompression. As a result, there was a two-second delay to the operation of the butterfly.

He had to be careful. If he touched any object from the past or if his disturbance reached the threshold value, he would create a butterfly effect in the stream of time, in which case this tiny time machine would be crushed by temporal tides. Current experiments had reached the tentative conclusion that time has a perfect stabilizing mechanism. There is no need to worry about changing the future. No grandmother paradox. Time flows in one direction only and kills every possibility of alteration in its cradle.

What is it like to be crushed by time? Experimentation in short-interval time travel had shown it to be an exercise in annihilation, a total obliteration of matter without the discharge of energy; stuff became, simply, nothing. But according to the principle of mass conservation and Einstein’s equation, matter can only become other matter or energy. So what new form did that obliterated matter assume? Where did it go? The answer remained unknown.

The young man put Nana on autopilot. It hovered over Zhuangzi’s head to create a scan of his cerebral cortex and record its activities. If all went well, the young man’s team would be able to use these data to map Zhuangzi’s essential thinking patterns in the next few months. Looking at the electroencephalogram results and brain graphs on the monitor, the young man could tell that Zhuangzi’s brain was very active. He must be sleeping then. The young man wondered about the dreams: what would they be like, belonging to a man who lived thousands of years ago? And, as for the young man himself, he had been writing a science fiction story, adapted from Zhuangzi’s parables.

The superconducting battery could well last Nana another half hour; afterward, a self-destruct program would be activated to wrap the project up; he could not leave it to time to bury all traces. The young man looked at the photo print: Zhuangzi, asleep, seemed to be about his own age, a man in his twenties. He had a beard and delicate features, wore his hair down, and had a folding book splayed by his side. The young man struggled to make out the etched ancient characters on the book. Maybe it was Tao Te Ching, or maybe not. Well, it doesn’t matter; he will investigate later. Just then, a message from Nana popped up: Data collection completed. Do you want to activate the self-destruct program now? The young man glanced at the time; there was still seven minutes left. An idea came to him.

He could find out about Zhuangzi’s dreams! If he connected his brain to the computer, he could project the scans from the butterfly directly into his own brain! Yes, that’s at least theoretically possible! Another article he had read came to mind: if one person’s brain activities were converted to analog signals and entered into another person’s brain, then visual representations in the former can be recreated in the latter!

The young man quietened for a moment. He would need to sidestep data compression and decompression by increasing the power of the quantum channel; then data transmission would be synchronic. He would also need to change Nana’s output from the default digital signal to analog. Finally, in order to project Zhuangzi’s mind into his own, the amount of data scanned would need to increase drastically, far exceeding the system default threshold limit.

Doing these things might lead to overheating and destroying Nana, but he would have a window of a minute or so. Theories of brain projection were still immature, so there would be some risk. But. What the heck. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and won’t come knocking a second time. He had used the energy equivalent to five million tons of coal just to take a photo of an ancient Chinese philosopher. This sort of thing would never happen again. He had to seize the opportunity. The risk was worth it.

The young man quickly grabbed a data cable attached to the terminal and connected it to the portal on the back of his neck. The microchip planted in his cerebellum began connecting his brain to the supercomputer in the space station. The young man migrated access control from the terminal to himself and began removing default system permission restrictions one by one. The butterfly bustled about, and Zhuangzi rolled over in his sleep. The young man closed his eyes, waiting for Zhuangzi’s mind to upload.

Here it comes. Zhuangzi’s thoughts, or rather, his dreams. Contrary to what the young man expected, the impact was minimal; nor was there discomfort or pain as the article described. These dreams were as gentle and serene as the hymns of ancient brahmans.3 They cast shadows one after another in the young man’s mind: the giant fish that became a mighty bird, countries on the tentacles of a snail, emperors in the sea, the happiness of fish, and a butterfly in a reverie. These ideas were passed down through thousands of years and were still living and breathing, vividly, to this day; and now they came to him directly from the source. This very moment, this young man who lived in the space age felt himself to be in one with the philosopher from antiquity.

But wait. Wait a second. A strange feeling overcame him. There was something very familiar in the projection, ideas that he seemed to know, terminology and concepts that appeared after the technological revolution. This . . . this is . . . no! No way! Absolutely no way! The projection has been reversed! His thoughts are being cast into Zhuangzi’s mind! They are synchronizing!

The young man scrambled to disconnect himself from Zhuangzi, but the synchronization process was hogging the quantum channel’s bandwidth. The butterfly too started malfunctioning from overwork. It’s done! It’s all done! His own death wouldn’t even matter now. If he created any disturbance in the timeline, he’d have committed the crime of generations. Desperate times call for desperate measures—the young man ripped the data cable off the back of his head. The abrupt disconnection caused pain like an electric shock. He fell to the ground with a start, his mind blank.

A long time later, he came to himself. Did he change the course of history? When he looked around, nothing seemed amiss. Spit out from the printer, the photo had fallen to the ground. The man in the photo was still sleeping, just as the eternal sun outside the space station was still the same through changing seasons. Nothing had ever been any other way.

What eluded the young man was that he hadn’t changed history by accident as much as created the very history that always was. Time was the world serpent coiled in a closed circle devouring its own tail, and he was at the juncture. Nothing was accidental and everything that happened was destined to be so. Time moves—forward.


Zhuangzi woke up.

Slowly, he opened his eyes and thought that he saw a butterfly perching on the tip of his nose, but when he attended to it, the butterfly was nowhere to be found. The very moment Zhuangzi’s eyes alighted on the butterfly, it had already been annihilated in time and turned to dust. Zhuangzi sat up. He was asleep for a long time and had many dreams.

He dreamed of strange men, beasts, and even his old friend Huizi. The wild creatures and stories appearing in the dreams had been in his mind for a long time; but this time around, there was something new. They appeared in unfamiliar forms, spoke incomprehensible words, and operated baffling machines.

Zhuangzi sighed and sat cross-legged on the meadow. Wind tousled his hair and the world breathed with him. Flowers blossomed and wilted; clouds drew closer together and broke away; tall grasses bent down when wind rose; out of pellucid water, schools of fish came into view. It was April in the Kingdom of S’ong; Nature cohered with the cosmic order and life came forth when summoned by the earth. The land was prosperous wherever one looked.

Is this therefore Dao? No, not quite. But Zhuangzi thought he had come very close in the dream just now. Did he at long last find Dao, or did Dao come across him by chance? Have I become a butterfly in my dream? Has a butterfly become me in its dream? Did I wake up to my own world? Or did I fall into someone else’s in sweet slumber?

Zhuangzi smiled. He had forgotten who he was and who he wasn’t. The immensity of his introspection echoed the immensity of the cosmos, so for a brief moment there was no more distinction between self and the world.

Footnotes:

1 - The School of Names was a philosophical movement in China’s Pre-Qin period (?–221 BC) with intellectual interests in disputations concerning ming (which means names) and their relationship to shi (which means objects or reality).

2 - The Tsar Bomba was a Soviet thermonuclear bomb detonated in 1961, producing the largest human-made explosion on record. It had a one hundred megaton capacity but was modified to yield fifty for the test.

3 - Legend has it that the prince of Kingdom Cao heard the echo of Brahma on his visit to Yushan (which means Fish Mountain). It prompted the prince to write chants known as the Buddhist hymns of Fish Mountain, and they became the source of original Chinese Buddhist music.

Originally published in Chinese in Science Fiction World, October 2013.

Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.

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Author profile

Cao Baiyu was born in Luoyang, Henan Province and currently lives in Shanghai. He started writing science fiction novels during college, which led to some publishing success and awards. He also writes poetry and fiction in other genres and currently works as a game designer. Cao’s favorite science fiction writer is Han Song.

Author profile

Stella Jiayue Zhu is a translator, editor, and academic. She is interested in all questions concerning the nature of intention and reality. When not writing, she is a tutor at St. John’s College, Annapolis. She has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and is the managing editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

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