2890 words, short story
K’un died. It breathed for tens of thousands of years and, at long last, life came to an end.
Its body was washed ashore. Pale red scales plowed through vegetation as the bulging exoskeleton grazed against dunes. Its enormous carcass formed an imposing mountain range along Pearl Island’s shoreline.
Countless miners abandoned their digs and headed for the island. They were going to mine K’un, whose flesh was worth more than gold. A frenzy seized the world as legions of aspiring young men and women acquired permits from the State and came to the mountain of K’un for new opportunities.
Forehead creasing, a fisherman shook his head. “It’s not working. Just not working,” he said as he caressed a giant fish scale with his right hand, holding a harpoon in the left. Next to him lay two broken harpoon heads. They had been strengthened with diamond dust, but K’un’s scales were even harder than shields of steel.
“Goddamn!” the Fisherman muttered. He was furious. Both he and his son were denied a permit, so they could not access the mining field through K’un’s giant gaping mouth. Poaching wasn’t even an option as everywhere else was covered under strong, unyielding bones and scales.
It was his fishery that this mountain, driven forth by sweeping waves, crashed into. Iron fences were staved in and three hatcheries crushed. Now the fries and fingerlings were all gone, and he was left without recompense, let alone a stake in the mountain. With his sole, meager livelihood destroyed by an “act of god” and nothing left to salvage, there was no way he could feed his family. The Fisherman needed to pry open a scale—somehow—and carve a pound of flesh—just a pound. That would be enough to make up for all his losses from the fishery.
“Do you know why K’un lived so long?”
Popular belief had it that K’un of the Northern Sea was divine and thus immortal. Nobody knew the real reason—at least, nobody on Pearl Island did. It was a nation of fishermen, where myth took the place of explanation.
“It’s fine if you don’t know. So long as you do know that eating its meat slows aging and promotes longevity!”
“One serving for me, then.”
At Pearl Island’s market, a vendor peddled the precious meat of K’un to tourists. He went behind a curtain, carefully carved a small piece, then wrapped it in layers of golden tinfoil for intrigue. The tourists left satisfied with a sham panacea masked by golden wrapping, but they didn’t know that the curtain hid nothing more than a stinky kipper.
Flesh from the real K’un would never be made available on this island. It was shipped by sea and land to bigger countries thousands of miles away. Only the rich and powerful of society’s upper echelon could find this holy meat on their tables. Every tin of canned K’un meat was a collector’s item tantamount to aged wine in value, and exchanging gifts of meat was a way to cement the bonds between important families. Some elites would even visit Pearl Island to offer sacrifices at K’un’s foot for every piece of meat they consumed, just so they could strengthen their connections to the spiritual energies in K’un’s bosom.
The Fisherman sold the rest of his belongings and bought a case of dynamite. He looked forward to the end of poverty and longed for days when his family had enough to put on the table.
As another sacrifice at the mountain drew to a close, a jovial festival began. The Fisherman ignited the dynamite that he’d stuffed under the scales. Instantly, a scale—taller than a person—lifted, while jubilant fireworks drowned out the sound of the explosion. No one took notice, not even the Fisherman, that an irreversible disaster was fast approaching.
A month passed.
The mountain of K’un grew even bigger.
Taken by surprise, more people came to mine its flesh. They all told the same story, that K’un of the Northern Sea absorbed the spiritual energies of the heavens and the earth, and distilled them inside its body. As a result, the price of its meat shot up instead of sliding. In time, its bones, scales, and skin also appeared on the market—as well as counterfeits that were indistinguishable from the real deal.
Under the night’s disguise, the Fisherman snuck down to the mine. He took his youngest son, who was just over ten. Once he moved the scale at the entrance to the side, a grim gust of wind blew right out and carried with it a few flies. As they landed on the Fisherman, he felt a twinge. “Goddamn! Do houseflies bite people now?”
The young boy coughed with a hand over his nose and the other hand fanning the air in front of him, desperately trying to stay away from this dreadful stench. He felt as if tens of thousands of spores were brewing in the air. “What is this smell?”
“It smelt nothing like this just days ago. Seems like the fish is starting to rot. We should hurry up and dig more!” The Fisherman was undeterred. He needed to make more money, so he tugged at his son to come with. “Help me load the cart. Then, we carry the meat out.”
“Sure, Father.” The boy nodded, reluctantly suffering his father’s command. He trailed closely behind with one hand held firmly over his nose. The deeper they went, the dimmer the light grew.
One cart following another, the meat deliveries went on for months without pause.
The young boy was delivering meat into the harbor. He couldn’t remember how many trips he had completed; he only knew that the horse was out of breath and grunting. He had no idea where Father got his stamina—the man had abundant energy despite working in the mine’s foul air. He kept on digging endlessly and seemed stronger than ever.
Even more surprising, everyone around was suddenly full of energy. Peddlers, dockhands, tourists, and especially the rich and powerful and politicians who barely exercised. Many people weren’t sleeping nights, but were still spirited during the day. Aristocratic pilgrims who came to Pearl Island demanded to go down into the mine even before cannon salutes were fired. They walked alongside miners whose foreheads were covered in sweat and grime, and had no care for how they themselves looked or how the stench of rotting fish hung over them. Their children made friends with the Fisherman’s boy. A couple times, they took off their jackets and shirts to exchange for the Fisherman’s straw coats and waders. The young boy rightly refused. He asked them why and was told that this was the only way to absorb the energies of the earth and become one with K’un.
This did not interest the boy. All he wanted was for Father and Mother to live happily together and stop fighting over money. But things did not go the way he hoped.
The Fisherman made a fortune from exporting K’un’s meat. His wish came true—but he did not buy the new home that his wife wanted or quit while he was ahead and move into the city. Instead, he put all his money into more horse carts, shovels, boats, and other mining tools. His wife left him. On the same day the boy, in tears, asked his father why he didn’t quit. The man replied that money was no longer the priority.
A fever had overtaken society and it spread to those holding political power in every state. Mining K’un was no longer regulated by law. Anyone at any time could enter the mine. The poor would in fact receive handsome government subsidies, and they were rich overnight.
Increasingly, people bought into the magic power of K’un. A religion emerged of its own accord that preached the coexistence between K’un and mankind and the unity between K’un and the spirits. Believers could be found in all corners of the world, among whom were university professors, priests, composers, writers, landowners, and knight commanders. Their work revolved around K’un and they created a new discipline, seeking to influence the trajectory of the world in hidden, diffusive ways. This was an age of enlightenment that changed the course of history. Around the world, literature and music sang praises of K’un. Work was no cause for fatigue so long as it was for or about K’un. Over time, work would even become hobby.
The articles of faith evolved, and Pearl Island was soon crammed with visitors.
The State then realized that Pearl Island must not be trampled. It recognized the island as a heritage site to be protected from abuse. Eight of the biggest nations in the world signed a treaty to restrict residency on the island. They ruled that only those with superior familial power, wealth, and education had the right to live here. From then on, the Great Migration began. A third of the world’s population was tightly packed on the island. They didn’t need fancy clothes, and instead made do with a few darned and patched shirts. Neither did they need the comfort of beds, for the softness of soil was comfort enough. There was no regularity to their eating habits; a meal a day sufficed so long as they could live with K’un. By eating its flesh, they had attained divine grace.
The Fisherman’s boy was sent away to the neighboring island on a freighter and separated from his father. He didn’t know if he could adapt to this brave new world. It was all too sudden—a whirlwind that robbed him of the people most dear to him. His father had grown distant and estranged. He was given the highest honor by the State, deemed as one of the forefathers of the new era, like a forbidding god. The young boy was helpless. He could only lean against the rocks by the sea to catch a glimpse of Pearl Island. Once upon a time, it had been his home.
The magic of Pearl Island hadn’t waned. Under State prohibitions, people outside the island lost access to the meat and gradually lost their sanity. The addiction made it impossible to rein in their cravings, so they started building ships to set sail for the island. Fishing, cargo, and military—ships of all stripes—crowded the routes to the island. It was surrounded by mobs.
The boy saw everything, but it never occurred to him to go back home. He had never even tasted the meat.
A few years passed.
The world had perhaps grown weary. Same for its people. So much happened in these years that everyone was exhausted and numbed. Not much was heard about Pearl Island. Its residents had become quiet—maybe, too quiet.
The energy supply in the outside world started draining when people first flocked to Pearl Island. Nature began to reclaim the exterior of buildings. Weeds peeked through cracks in cliffs and quickly overtook the asphalt on roads. Having run out of coal, the boy could only keep himself warm by burning twigs and leaves.
Lucky for him, life wasn’t too bad. He fished like his father taught him and that was more than enough to nourish him. But he hadn’t seen anyone else in a very long time. Indeed, months had passed since he last saw a tramp jumping in the sea while singing a paean to K’un. He wondered if he was the last survivor on this continent.
Whenever he was bored, he would watch Pearl Island through a pair of binoculars. But he saw nothing. They were as quiet as the dead. At times he thought maybe they were dead and were now part of the ash heap of history. Weeping, he recalled the aristocratic children who were once his playmates and wondered how they were. And he thought of the cabins by the sea that housed those hatchlings. A bitter smile appeared on his lips as he remembered Father’s flustered face when they were crushed under the mountain.
He raised his binoculars to continue observing. At times he wanted to do nothing else except stay here and watch—
Until one day, he discovered that K’un grew taller. Through the binoculars he saw a school of tiny creeping things climbing the mountain, like millions of ants licking sweet sugar off a sand dune. They were the island’s residents, naked, unspeaking, heads slumped forward, crawling against K’un’s rough armor of scales, inching up slowly until they reached the concave at the summit: K’un’s mouth.
The throng of tiny people leaped, orderly and methodically, before disappearing into the darkness.
The boy squinted and looked on. He watched them carefully as sweat seeped through every pore and coated his body.
K’un continued to swell, growing ever taller and bigger. This time, it was not putrid gas that filled the mountain, but people. The pilgrims made their bodies into the flesh of K’un. They made its abdomen full. They prayed to become one with the earth, with the sea, and with the giant K’un.
The binoculars trembled in the boy’s hands. He thought he saw his father, whose shadow exuded regret, disappointment, and irreconciliation. By now, the man could only hope for redemption inside the mountain’s belly, just like all others who placed blind trust in their beliefs. At last, he took the plunge and joined the other suffering men and women.
Tears poured out of the boy’s eyes. He had an epiphany in that moment and no longer blamed his father. On the contrary, he looked at the man in awe, for he was the destroyer of the world. The pilgrims created a new era, and brought it to an abrupt end to propitiate the enraged K’un and stop a once-in-a-millennium manifestation of divine power.
But K’un was never angry. Everything it did was simply for the sake of survival.
Hundreds of years ago, it had exhausted all its telomeres. They became dead and sterile over a life of tens of thousands of years, and were no longer regenerable. Without them, K’un would age and become the stuff of ashes—like everything else on earth—before returning to the ecosystem’s cycle of matter at long last.
So K’un swam through tens of thousands of years and made its landing one more time, so it could offer its ancient body as sacrifice to the rulers of the new age.
Sunshine graced the shore. Exposed to a humid environment, K’un started to decay and fester.
Pseudomonas strains had laid down a fine layer of colonies against K’un’s nail grooves. They penetrated its skin, flooded its body, suckled on its flesh for nutrients and secret toxins, evolved flagella and resistance to the elements, and multiplied exponentially into tens of billions of mutants with similar DNA sequences. They joined forces to break down the flesh, which released a large amount of putrid gas.
The midday sun scorched the earth. Bacterial growth had reached a new order of magnitude, but that meant they were no longer useful. The time had come for viruses to take over. The viruses tore apart bacterial cells from within and rapidly spread to more places. Once they infiltrated the compound eyes of flies, they gained access to unlimited nutrients in the giant K’un through the flies’ proboscises. Thus, they evolved more efficient ways of spreading.
Twilight’s glow enveloped K’un. Flies consumed its spleens before sucking its bone marrow dry, which yielded a long narrow hollow inside K’un’s body. Nourishment from the holy meat made the flies more than flies. They evolved sharper proboscises that could pierce leather to access the flesh underneath. A new species had thus been created and it was independent of K’un’s body.
Night fell at the gaping mouth of K’un. A little bug was lulled to the cave’s entrance by a blaze of fire.
It landed on a middle-aged man with tanned skin and a hunched back. Then, it positioned its proboscis and firmly drove it down. K’un’s blood, mixed with neurotoxins, was injected into the man’s body.
Now, the same blood was coursing through the men and women who stood around K’un’s gaping maw. The pilgrims were ready to return their flesh.
K’un closed its mouth. This was its sixth feeding. Having overcome tens of thousands of years to arrive at the age of humans, this time it ate even better.
When the boy on the neighboring island cast his eyes on K’un, it seemed as if a giant mountain rose up. The thousands of bones making up its exoskeleton spread to form wings, which aroused oceanic waves and broke flurries of clouds. The behemoth of yore stretched its stiff body and dove into the deep ocean, leaving a giant freak wave in its wake.
Imagination proved wrong as the end of the world turned out to be a dispassionate affair, deplete of any grief or joy or desperation to hang on to life. As the waves at Pearl Island slowly receded, the peace of the past was also restored.
The Fisherman’s boy put down his binoculars and tightened his grip on the harpoon in his left hand. He hoped that future civilizations would learn from what had happened here.
Originally published in Chinese in Science Fiction World Vol. 2, 2019.
Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.
Chu Shifan is science fiction writer currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Engineering at Imperial College London. He has won a Science Fiction World School Prize and his work has been published in Science Fiction World and the Best of Science Fiction World 2019 anthology.
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.