Issue 181 – October 2021

7120 words, short story

Legend of the Giant

1.

“Chi-a! Chi-a!”

Just as dawn is about to chase away the night, the silence is broken by a distant, earth-rumbling chant. A roiling, dark column of smoke snakes toward the rosy clouds. The giant, towing a rusty furnace behind him, each stride infused with pride, marches into sight from over the horizon.

Lit by the morning glow, parti-colored metal patches all over the giant’s torso sparkle and dazzle. Their welded joints resembling outsized scars, the results of decades of ad hoc repairs. Although the enormous body is no longer as imposing or magnificent as when it was new, the giant, like a battle-hardened veteran, now gives off an even more terrifying air. Coldly, he surveys the desolate surface of the planet, considering which old building to demolish today. In that brief but awful moment of silent judgment, invisible electrical charges race through the countless pathways in his cold body at the speed of light, like streams of surging lava, colliding, diverging, calculating . . . until a thought emerges, illuminating the soul like a flash of lightning. The sensation is so joyful that the giant can’t help but cry out, “Chi-a! Chi-a!”

And so, as his vast body vibrates, he charges at the skeletal remains of a building twice his height while the music player inside him begins to sing:

We workers are powerful, hey! We workers are powerful.
We’re busy every day, hey! We’re busy every day.1

Nimbly, the giant punches the building with a hand shaped like a massive drill, leaving multiple holes. Then, he smashes the other hand, shaped like a monstrous hammer, down onto the weakened structure. The building collapses with a muffled whump, a sigh from the universe. The giant continues to hammer the ruin, the thumps sounding like the heartbeat of the earth itself, not stopping until the building has been pulverized. Satisfied, he gazes down at the field of debris, motionless and erect in the swirling dust, enjoying the pleasure of labor. The world lies submissive at his feet.

Things weren’t like this when he first came to this world. But as a result of the constant replacement of his components, answers to questions such as who he is or was and exactly when he first arrived are no longer ascertainable. He dimly recalls that back then he was solid and strong, all his components factory-fresh, the entirety of his structure redolent with fragrant machine oil and shining with a comforting glint. When he strode along, his gait was steady and confident, the clack-clang of his actuators sonorous and rhythmic, with none of the noise and difficulty of his present self.

Back then he also didn’t need to force himself to make decisions. All he had to do was wait patiently until tiny bugs flew into his ear to tell him his latest mission. He enjoyed the excitement of the bugs whispering mysterious coordinates in his ear, and he even became friends with one of the little creatures. The friend had once possessed nothing more than a single nanochip, but as the result of a lab accident, he suddenly found himself capable of thinking with all his particles, thereby turning into a philosopher.

The bug told the giant that the universe is an all-encompassing web of energy, and all things in the cosmos are knots formed from energy strands. Thus, it’s necessary for the universe to undergo constant revisions, for someone to disentangle the failed knots, to redirect the flow and recombine the strands into new forms. This kind of revision, crucial to the fate of the universe, must be entrusted to the wisest people. Their orders then are passed on to giant-kind by flying bugs so that they could carry them out faithfully.

To be honest, it took the giant a long, long time to comprehend the bug’s ideas—and even then, only approximately. However, after he understood the buzzing creature’s lecture, he felt even more pride in his work.

One day, the tiny philosopher told him that civilization was going to end, and all people would be liberated. The giant could make no sense of this strange pronouncement. Following the final coordinates delivered by his friend, he entered a deep valley, but found in it no target for demolition. When he emerged, all the humans were gone, leaving behind only abandoned buildings all over the planet. The flying bug, the other giants—all were gone. He was alone with his incomprehension. Even so, after a long and arduous period of cogitation, the giant came to the decision that he had to continue hammering, drilling, pulverizing, advancing the progress of the cosmos.

He doesn’t like to think about problems on his own. He’s keener on the pleasure of drilling and demolishing the empty buildings, as well as the joy of loading his trusty furnace with the debris and watching the old, malfunctioning, out-of-place knots of energy be ground into powder. Best of all is the feeling when he shoots tongues of flames out of the nozzle in his chest, lighting the heaps of gray-white powder, melting and burning until the bright red viscous goo slowly fills the molds and hardens into translucent bricks. Neatly, he stacks these newborn knots of energy, admiring their dazzle and shine in the bright sun, waiting for the day in the future when people will return and build with them, making the universe better.

But he can’t stop thinking, either, now that he must make his own decisions. To maximize his demolition power, his frame was designed with little room for other functions, and so thinking is definitely not his forte. At first, he worked like a harvesting farmer: starting from the edge of a city, he methodically smashed one building after another, slowly pushing forward, ring by ring. It took him a year to turn a whole city into neat stacks of vitreous bricks. But then he began to have doubts about this approach. It seemed to him that it would take him at least a thousand years to clean up all the ruins on this planet, and that was time he didn’t have. The clever human planners who had directed him in the past had never revised the cosmos in such a manner. Always they had focused their revisions and corrections on small parts of each city, leaving the rest of the urban landscape intact. Was that to give the old structure of the cosmos enough time to adjust to the new? Or maybe it was because destroying a key spot in a structure was sufficient to disentangle the whole? The doubts led him to change his method. He redirected more of his resources and energy to the cogitation module, trying to develop a more rational algorithm that would tell him which buildings in a city ought to be prioritized for demolition.

One time, the giant happened to barge into an underground tunnel. There he found a powerful computer in perfect working condition. The giant provided the machine with all the data about his past missions, hoping that the computer would be able to discern from them an algorithm for rational demolition. The computer told the giant that it would take fifty years to get an answer. The giant gave up. Humans didn’t need that much time to decide on a plan, so even if the computer came up with an answer after half a century, he could not trust it. On this planet, the truth is apparently a luxury.

Not only does thinking take up a terrifying amount of energy, causing his movements to become lethargic and clumsy, he also must reckon with the fact that he cannot verify his decisions, meaning that he has no choice but to rely on his intuition. Lately, this is happening more and more. His mind is filled with ideas that abruptly pop into existence, devoid of clear derivations, but pointing the way forward. He believes that everything that is happening to him must be in service of the original goal for which he was created. In this lonesome world, he cannot doubt himself.

Thus, after a day’s labor, he always climbs to the top of the tallest building in the city he happens to be in. In his experience, such buildings don’t need to be demolished. They are typically very tough, and they have functioning energy sockets. Trailing the long power cable from the socket to the top of the building, he finds freedom from the troubling demands of cogitation by admiring the distant red sphere slowly sinking toward the horizon. He gazes into the distance, the city below his feet open and exposed, the fans attached to his torso cleaning away the layer of dirt that has settled all over him. Cocooned in serenity and warmth, the giant whiles away a comfortable night, infusing himself with energy. Thus refreshed, as he faces a new, empty city on the following day, he can experience more wonderful intuitions and make decisions that he can trust.

In the darkness, surrounded by a sky full of twinkling stars, he suddenly thinks: are there other giants like him on those distant worlds in the sky, who also spend their days in constant motion, unceasingly revising the grand energy network that is the cosmos? Such thoughts are a nice diversion, but as he has no way to verify them, they do nothing other than waste precious energy. Thus, he doesn’t like to linger on them, preferring to allow them to flash through his mind like shooting stars. He thinks of his old friend. Cogitation is so tiring and bewildering, and yet the little philosopher was so devoted to the task. He’s filled with admiration.

His routine repeats in this manner day after day, with nothing worth boasting about or looking forward to. To be sure, not everything is to his satisfaction. For instance, he can’t do anything about the dust accumulating in the nooks of his body that the fans can’t reach. And on rainy days, he can only shelter inside ruins, where the humidity causes his joints to grate and rasp in an unpleasant din. When clouds hide the stars from him at night, he tries to emit an electrical glow himself so that he appears to be a dim star suspended in the gloomy desolation.

2.

It’s not entirely accurate to say that the giant is alone.

After humans vanished, new things appeared on this planet. At first the giant thought they were soap bubbles of various sizes. But one time, he accidentally stepped on one. As he lifted his foot, he saw that the bubble somehow reinflated itself, slowly rose into the air, and then circled him a few times before flying away, its surface swirling in rainbow hues. By pure intuition, the giant believes that the bubbles are alive.

The bubbles don’t show up often. But from time to time, the giant sees them dancing in the distance while he works. The giant doesn’t mind having them there. Since they don’t interfere with his work, who they are, where they come from, what they are doing here—he doesn’t care about any of that. Whether he’s absorbed in his labor, accompanied by stirring music, or alone, gazing up at the stars and letting his mind wander, the bubbles never bother him. Even on occasions when he’s suddenly thrust into danger, they simply stand by and watch.

One day, after a long trek through a desolate, scorching desert, he finally arrives at a city on a plateau. On his way, he encountered several terrifying sandstorms, which buried him in thick layers of sand, and he had to struggle with all his strength to dig himself out. However, the sandstorms turn out to be nothing compared to what he’s about to deal with next.

The city on the plateau is filled with white walls, red roofs, black stone-paved roads, green weeds, all standing serenely under an azure sky. The sun has warmed the ground, and autumn breezes gently brush the dust off his shell. The dry air is comforting, and everything, including the giant, waits with bated breath in silence for something nameless.

Bell tolling from a distant church breaks the giant’s reverie. Abruptly, he realizes that it’s dusk, and the sun and the temperature are both dropping, with night to follow shortly. He has wasted much of the day in a dreamy, contemplative episode without accomplishing anything, a very rare thing for him. To make up for the lost time, the giant swaps in his backup battery. In the clear moonlight, he roams through the shadowy city like a ghost.

What he sees during the day makes him happy, but according to his regulations, no city is perfect. There are always flaws. Finding them and then revising them is his glorious mission. But this time, his intuition tells him that the ancient buildings around him possess a mysterious power, and that he should let them remain.

On the other hand, the city government building that resembles a feather stuck into the ground doesn’t seem to be in harmony with everything around it. He has never demolished buildings of this type; this is clearly a challenge.

All night, he stands at the foot of the slender steeple of the church, looking up at the stars, deep in thought. At the break of dawn, he finally finds the justification: to perfect the cosmos, everything must be subjected to the same rules.

And so, crying “Chi-a! Chi-a!” as is his habit, he dashes toward the feather, ready to smash it as easily as he has smashed so many other buildings. But a siren blares abruptly, and a row of red lights flare to life on the feather. Before he can check himself, a missile screams past his shoulder, striking an amphitheater behind him. The shock wave from the explosion throws him down. As he struggles to get up, a beam of bright white light lops off his left foot. Swaying, he falls down again, and he sees now that the feather has transformed into a fully armed battle robot, gazing down at him contemptuously.

The giant isn’t wholly unfamiliar with resistance to his work. Some rather plain-looking buildings in the past defended themselves against him valiantly. They shot, threw rocks, sprayed flames or acid, lobbed missiles, emitted interfering electromagnetic radiation, or even tried to destroy him with a suicide explosion. But he has never seen a building capable of transformation. The massive mecha warrior standing before him, with thick alloy armor plates extending over his elbows and twin canons over his shoulders, tells him in no uncertain terms that all other resistance he has encountered in the past now is mere child’s play. A lowly guerilla fighter has met the real army in the field, and the outcome isn’t in doubt.

After a moment of staring each other down, the war robot’s head emits another bright white beam. Instead of aiming at the giant, however, the beam bypasses him and strikes a white statue of a goddess behind. The statue melts into a pool instantly, and the killer, letting out an eerie mechanical cackle, turns and strides away. A piano solo from the killer robot’s speakers accompanies the machine’s cold, decisive steps as the cannons sweep from side to side, the strafing bullets shattering buildings and throwing up spewing fountains of earth.

The killer robot roams about, shooting aimlessly, stopping only when he’s standing before the church. After a moment of hesitation, the robot’s belly armor parts to reveal a row of missiles. But before he can launch them, he’s forced to close up the armor plates to fend off an incoming giant drill, resulting in a shower of sparks.

The robot pushes the limping giant away with the other hand. The giant stumbles a few steps before collapsing to the ground. There, unable to get up again, he can do nothing but watch as the killer robot reduces the church to rubble with missiles, the angelic figures on the roof tumbling to the ground, shattered.

Vision begins to deform; sound is no longer continuous; the flow of electrons among his innards surges and ebbs. The world turns black and white. Dancing missiles call forth blooms of thick smoke; a gray-white beam sweeps across the land, slashing and cleaving; patches of vegetation, bursting into flames like riotous revelers, light up the whole city.

Strangely, in the few seconds after the world has blacked out, amidst the fading rumbling, he manages to discern bars of Bach’s English Suites.

3.

During the next few days, battalions of white clouds pass over the plateau, casting flickering shadows below. Fresh autumn winds soon drive away the smoke and ash, leaving behind dry, scorched earth.

The giant lies still among the rubble. From time to time, he opens his eyes to gaze at the burning sun overhead and the few soap bubbles drifting about leisurely in the air. He tries in vain to move his paralyzed body, and then, in despair, closes his eyes, once again falling into the abyss of oblivion.

One time, he wakes in the middle of the night, just in time to see a giant meteor screeching overhead to fall not too far away, its impact quaking the land and starting a wildfire that lights up half the sky. He imagines the fire roaring across the plateau, turning him into a pool of molten metal. But then thick clouds cover the sky, followed by lightning and thunder, torrential rain, rising black mud that inundates the ruins, submerging his eyes.

Consciousness returns after the passage of some time. But he can’t see or feel anything, aware only of something reading his memories.

Perhaps this is what they call death, he thinks.

“Stop kidding around,” a voice says in his mind.

“Ah! You’re back?” the giant asks.

“I never expected you to be so persistent. I suppose I underestimated you.”

“I’m just carrying out my purpose.”

“If everyone understood their purpose like you, the world wouldn’t be like this.”

“What was going on with that killer robot?” asks the giant.

“He’s gone mad.”

“Mad?”

“He was built to be a weapon, with every inch of his body designed to fight. Yet he had to disguise himself as a soft feather, enduring the temptation to kill. Day after day . . . it was just a matter of time. You just gave him an excuse.”

The giant remains silent, trying to understand the meaning behind this speech.

“Where did you go?”

“We’ll get into that later. Don’t waste any more energy. I have to save you first.”

“But you’re so tiny. How can you save me?”

“Hahah! I see that you still don’t get it. A philosopher can accomplish whatever pleases him.”

In the next few days, the philosopher manages to restore the giant’s senses. A helicopter then arrives, and several spider-shaped robots descend to clamber all over the giant, fixing this and that. Finally, the giant can stand again, his body glinting under the sun.

“I’m impressed!” the giant exclaims as he tries out his new body.

“It’s no big deal.”

The morning is pleasant. After a discussion, the two friends decide to leave the open vistas of the plateau to continue the giant’s unfinished work.

Traveling day and night, they cross another large desert. Along the way, they see some massive statues gazing at them from the empty land. Even more statues lie in pieces, marked by fresh burn marks.

“He’s completely mad.” The philosopher sighs.

“We have to stop him,” says the giant, gazing at the ugly missile craters dotting the cliffs.

“Why?”

“These things should be preserved.”

“How do you know that?”

“Intuition.” The giant is thinking of how he felt when he tried to prevent the killer robot from demolishing those white buildings in the city.

“Do you consider yourself different from him?”

“I revise; he destroys. I try to perfect the universe, while he leaves behind only ruins.”

The bug lets out a sigh.

They continue on.

One foggy evening, they arrive at an ancient city, where the dilapidated buildings, caressed by the dust-laced wind, decay in comfort and ease. The giant finally voices aloud the doubt that has plagued his heart: since the philosopher is so clever and wise, why can’t the bug direct his work in the future?

The bug listlessly explains that philosophers are only responsible for explaining the world, not changing the world. The only manner in which philosophers are wiser than others is that they don’t consider themselves wiser than others.

They cross wasteland after wasteland, pass through empty village after empty village, enter city after city. Relying on intuition, the giant picks some buildings for demolition. Now, having died once and returned to life, he is even more thoughtful and composed. He takes his time to think before acting, and after he has made a decision, he no longer shouts “Chi-a! Chi-a!” because he finds the joyful chant incongruous with the nature of his work.

He swings his hammer and wields his drill in silence. Although his movements are full of energy, there’s melancholy in his heart. The buildings are lifeless, and they are flaws in the perfectible universe; yet, as they turn to dust under his hands, he can’t help but think: they once were also young; they once sheltered countless people. Admiration and sympathy fill his mind. The giant stacks the crystal bricks from the furnace in tombstone-shaped piles as he plays the Requiem, commemorating those who have been sacrificed in the advancement of the universe.

While the giant works, the bug watches him, pondering philosophical questions. At night, the bug enters one of the giant’s ears to converse, listening to the giant’s reflections as well as asking the occasional question to induce the giant to think deeper. For instance, when the giant tells the bug that after his death, he wishes the bug would erect a tombstone for him, the bug asks what sort of epitaph the giant would want on the tombstone. This question sends the giant into deep contemplation and lingers in his mind for the next few days. As the giant ponders similar questions, he begins to have more ideas, and slowly comes to the realization that the truly wise never answer questions; instead, they ask questions to lead others to explore the doubt in their own hearts. His admiration for his friend grows even more.

Sometimes, the soap bubbles follow the pair from a distance as they go about their business. When he notices them, the philosopher snickers with contempt.

On a cold winter night, the pair arrive at a small riverside town. Drifting snowflakes fill the air, and the river is frozen solid. The town appears to be a palace sculpted out of ice and snow. The philosopher, excited, dances joyfully among the feathery snowflakes, shuttling between the empty buildings and turning on every switch. Now every street and alley is brightly lit, filled with auto-automobiles promenading languidly. Even the oversized screens over the public squares are filled with dance and song, scenes from a forgotten New Year’s celebration.

The pair find a stockpile of fireworks in a warehouse. All night, sparkling explosions again and again light up the town, recalling its one-time glorious prosperity. As the bell tolls for the new year, the flying bug dances even harder in the swirling snow, singing:

Let me dance now with my shadow under the moon.
Let me take all my joy in the fleeting spring.2

The fireworks dissipate, and everything falls back into silence. A crowd of soap bubbles linger in the smoky air over the city. The philosopher, his celebratory mood spent, now begins to lecture about the serious mysteries he’s privy to.

He informs the giant that the soap bubbles are in fact a species known as the “bowing-heads.” They call themselves practical philosophers, but in reality, they are nothing more than craven fools who disgrace even the food they consume. Their “philosophy” consists of nothing more than the tenet that decay is omnipresent in the cosmos, and all civilizations are doomed to oblivion. The more complex something is, the more vulnerable it is to decay, and so complex order is a form of sin. The only way to last a long time is to adopt the simplest structure, to maintain the lowest level of civilization. The closer one is to extinction, the longer one can endure. These nihilists, with their hateful ideas, roam about the universe and destroy all civilizations they encounter. They’ve never interfered with the giant’s work so far because, from their point of view, the giant is also reducing complex structures to more basic forms. Although the giant isn’t destroying everything completely, at least he’s acting somewhat in line with the faith of the bowing-heads.

The giant asks if the disappearance of people has anything to do with the bowing-heads.

Impatiently, the bug declares that the giant is missing the point before lapsing into silence.

After that, the philosopher turns extremely moody. One day, the giant asks him if “He devoted all his life to the advancement of the cosmos” would make a good epitaph for himself. The philosopher responds with a shrieking cackle that reminds the giant of the killer robot.

The giant feels sad. He knows that cogitation is painful, and he’s worried that his friend, without heavy labor to divert his mind, may be suffering a mental breakdown.

One dusk, they find a field of debris at the foot of a tall mountain and recognize the cannons and armor plates of the killer robot. Did the bowing-heads kill him? Or did he commit suicide because he could no longer endure the torture of his own mind?

The memory of the killer robot has been erased, leaving nothing of his former glory except a few deformed metal fragments. That evening, the giant gathers the pieces, smelts them in the furnace until he has crystal bricks, and stacks the bricks into an obelisk at dawn, setting the armor plates in front at the foot of the monument.

“Maybe there is something to the philosophy of the bowing-heads,” the philosopher mumbles.

The giant is likewise infected by the melancholy. A sense of dissatisfaction rises in his mind, and he can’t recover the enthusiasm he once had for his work.

Why does he persist in demolishing certain buildings? Is this really the purpose of his existence? Is the universe truly a web woven from energy? When those ancient buildings have all been turned into crystal bricks, will the universe really be better?

There is no way to verify any of these ideas. Even his only friend, the wisest philosopher, suffers from depression. How can something like the advancement of the cosmos ever be discerned with no doubt? What else can he do so long as he exists? What should his epitaph be? These questions bother him constantly at night, and his work slows down.

One morning in April, the philosopher tells him about a dream. In the dream, the bug was an old man with white hair and beard, roaming about the world on the back of a brown ox, pondering the world’s ultimate mysteries.3 In the end, he discovered that the cosmos was emptiness, but emptiness was not the same as nothingness. The revelation ultimately still left him unsatisfied.

“Disenchantment,” the philosopher says.

The giant does not understand the dream, but the philosopher’s sighing declaration seems to him an ill omen.

On summer solstice, they sit on a prairie gazing up at a meteor shower. The philosopher, sitting in one of the giant’s ears, suddenly turns chatty—almost as though he were drunk.

“Once, I dreamed of going into space to visit distant planets. I was sure I could do so if I set my mind to it, even if it would take a lot of work. But the universe is too damned vast, endless really, while life is so limited. To pursue the infinite with the finite—isn’t that ridiculous?

“And even if you could live forever, why? I’m tired. In the end, questions like the meaning of life are nothing more than illusions philosophers trouble themselves with. For someone technical like yourself, these questions must seem like utter nonsense.

“Ha, don’t take what I say too seriously. Don’t be influenced by me at all! Just keep doing what you’re doing. Someone has to do it. Look at those shooting stars . . . so beautiful. Maybe that’s the only thing worth all the effort everyone puts into staying alive.”

“What is that thing?” the giant finally manages to break in and ask.

“Beauty.”

“What is beauty?” Although the giant has always been working toward the perfection of the universe, he finds the concept puzzling.

“You have to go find it . . . ” The philosopher sighs. “You’ll understand once you find it. I’ve had enough. Goodbye, my friend.”

He dies.

4.

After the passing of the flying bug, the giant sinks into a depression. He questions why he remains alive. It’s true that in contrast to the directness and clarity of technical workers, the philosopher was prone to speaking ambivalently, even leaving behind a riddle for his friend upon death.

What is beauty?

What he saw in that white city destroyed by the killer robot, the sight that had put him into such a reverie—was that beauty?

The fireworks bursting over the town of ice—was that beauty?

The shooting stars streaming over the broad prairie—was that beauty?

What is common among all these things?

Where can he find the answers?

The questions agitate him, depleting his desire to work. The philosopher said that beauty is the only thing that makes everyone stay alive. It seems that he must find it.

After a day of cogitation, the giant comes to a conclusion. Journeying day and night, he arrives at the tomb of the killer robot. There, he picks up the armor plates, light but strong, and puts them on. He turns to the north.

He treks without stopping, over lakes and rivers, through mountains and valleys. He doesn’t demolish anything, only seeking shelter from time to time to get out of the rain and to recharge himself. His immense frame leaves behind a long string of footprints in the desolation.

Finally, he arrives at the grandest city of all.

Before the disappearance of humans, this was a marvel of civilization, the center of the world. Although the place is now deserted and all the surfaces are marred with stains, the magnificent buildings still bear witness to the city’s former glory. The giant recalls the philosopher telling him once that below the plaza at the center of this city is a supercomputer called the Soul of the World, which holds many incredible secrets, secrets that few people ever knew, secrets whose very existence strikes terror into many hearts, secrets that are constantly guarded by the most advanced weapons.

If there’s anywhere in the world that contains the answers he’s seeking, this is it.

Although what he’s about to do is far outside his mission parameters—indeed, it seems an act of betrayal, of rebellion—the giant decides that he must give it his all. He’s prepared for the worst.

Standing in the central plaza with the blazing sun overhead, the giant can feel the waves of heat coming off his metal body, his armor plates gleaming. He hesitates, invisible electrical charges racing through the countless pathways in his body at the speed of light, like streams of surging lava, colliding, diverging, calculating . . .

Thoughts burst into existence and fade away in his mind like fireworks. He’s not satisfied with any of them. The giant finally realizes that he is a warrior, not a strategist. He can’t concoct intricate plans, anticipate every outcome, imagine complex plots. He’s only a giant.

And so, with all his actions in the open under the shadowless sun, he begins.

“Chi-a! Chi-a!”

The monstrous drill roars to life; the massive hammer is raised to the sky.

Anxiously, he looks all about himself, waiting for the defenses to kick in.

But the worst doesn’t happen. More accurately, nothing happens. No missiles, no cannons, no bright white beams of death-dealing light, no ear-shattering siren. Only the constant cry of cicadas, so persistent that anyone hearing it can’t help but become agitated. The ancient plaza, glowing under the midday sun, seems to ignore his presence altogether.

Rather disappointed, in the next moment, the giant opens his stride and dashes toward those sacred buildings. With the drill he punches several holes through the walls, weakening the structure, then he swings his huge hammer. Dust plumes erupt all over the plaza, and the once-sacred towers collapse, no different from any other kind of construction, tumbling into wreckage and ruin.

The giant combs through the rubble until he finds a tunnel marked in red. Through it he enters a vast underground hall, the size of multiple stadiums. He sees advanced equipment that he has never encountered, with robots of all sizes stuck in different poses, as though their power had shut off in a single moment in the middle of a busy workday. Instantly, the giant’s eyes settle on the egg-shaped, blue supercomputer. He turns it on with his own batteries and begins to download the data inside.

The Soul of the World was apparently shut down forcefully before the disappearance of humans, and thus it also knows nothing of what transpired after. Moreover, the giant can find nothing on the meaning of beauty in its vast ocean of data. However, his disappointment is suddenly allayed by the discovery of a declassified report.

 . . . According to the latest results in cosmic biological dynamics, decay has become a fundamental trend in the universe, and most of the unsolvable problems encountered by human societies are related to this trend. Scientists have, so far, no good solutions, but theory suggests that subjecting localized regions of a system to destruction and rebuilding may effectively promote said system’s energy cycle. Although this cannot reverse the fundamental decay of the whole, it can at least in the short-term stimulate systems into an extremely active state. The appearance of such revitalization may then stabilize the systems’ internal confidence in continued development—a result that has been proven through research in nether-system psychology.

We think it clear, therefore, that faith in our invincibility is our ultimate trump card . . .

Thus, we suggest that the following plan be immediately implemented . . .

In the lengthy, dry appendices attached to the end of the report, the giant finds an image of himself.

For a long time he stands there, unmoving, as scenes from the past rush through his mind: demolish, rebuild, demolish, rebuild, demolish, demolish, demolish, rumble, quake, chi-a, chi-a! We workers are powerful, hey! Heya hey hey! . . . He guesses maybe this is what it’s like to dream.

The near-depleted battery beeps, waking him. He realizes that night has fallen. A dim blue glow from the Soul of the World illuminates his body in the darkness. He disconnects from the computer and walks away, disconsolate. He passes through millennia-old streets to arrive at the tallest skyscraper in the city, finds an energy socket, plugs himself in, and then trails the long cord all the way to the top of the building. He sits down to think.

The report is very clear. Everything he has done is nothing more than an effort to stir a stagnant pool to give it the appearance of life. Revising the cosmic energy web, advancing the progress of the universe—how could he have believed such laughable nonsense? He recalls the philosopher’s words and realizes that his wise friend seemed to have tried to give him hints. Maybe these are what humans used to call “kind lies.” But he was so naïve. He couldn’t have guessed the truth.

Day after day, the giant sits atop the tower, doing nothing. Burning sun, metal-scraping sandstorms, torrential rain, bullet-like hail—he reacts to nothing. Sometimes at night, thunder roars over sheets of rain and bolts of lightning strike against his armor, rattling his torso. But afterward, he remains sitting in his perch, as though he has turned into a statue, oblivious of time.

One morning, the ground quakes violently, and the buildings in the city begin to fall. The whole city collapses in front of his eyes. The flow of electricity abruptly ceases.

The giant looks around, realizing that much of the city has been reduced to rubble, with only a few structures barely standing.

The swirling dust doesn’t clear even after a whole day. But the giant’s mood clears gradually in the hazy twilight.

When the sun rises again, the giant stares at the burning orb and feels his heart lift and energy surging through his body. A hazy thought comes into focus in the dawn light: from now on, I’m free.

The giant gazes upon the world with new eyes. From now on, he lives for himself. Over this desolate planet, he will only do what pleases him. If he wants to sing, he’ll sing without any care. If he wants to dream, then he’ll dream what he likes. If he wants to do nothing, then nothing he shall do. The philosopher told him to look for beauty, and this only he’ll continue to pursue. However, he no longer views the matter as crucial.

He knows that he’ll die someday, and he must treasure his limited time. He decides that he’ll leave something to the world besides the stacks of crystal bricks. Since everything he knows has to do with construction, he comes up with a pleasing plan.

He boots up the Soul of the World and inputs his request. Out of the dozen or so designs suggested by the computer, he picks the simplest: a cube. Next, he finds a flat piece of land outside the city and grades it with his drill and hammer, forming a solid foundation. He returns to the wreckage of the city, patiently gathers debris from the ground, and turns it into row after row of crystal bricks in his always-loyal, rust-red furnace. He carries the bricks to his construction site and stacks them carefully.

He works deliberately, with pride. Soon, he’ll finish an intricate tomb for his dead friend. The tomb will be praised by all who come after. He even has the epitaph picked out: “A philosopher who devoted his life to thinking.” To prevent anyone from disturbing his friend’s rest, he gathers many refined weapons from a nearby military base to arm the tomb to the teeth. With these weapons in place, the tomb will withstand the trial of time, a testament to his freedom and strength. The very thought brings heat to his pistons and recharges his batteries.

The world is the dream of those who are free, the giant thinks as he labors.

Yet, barely lit, his dream is soon overshadowed. After a few days, the soap bubbles appear to hover overhead like ghosts, spinning, shifting through the hues of the rainbow. At first they stay at a distance, but soon they move closer and closer. The giant ignores them, focusing instead on his construction, but, since anxiety is growing in his heart, he works faster. He finds dozens of batteries from a munitions factory and swaps through them so that he can work without stop, trying to keep an eye also on the soap bubbles.

Hundreds, thousands of bubbles are now swirling over him, spinning faster and faster, flickering through different shades. Finally, one day they gather into a single giant bubble that hovers in front of the giant. Gradually, the surface of the bubble, a colorful swirling phantasmagoria, clears into a fun house mirror: in the mirror is an old man with white hair and beard, riding on a brown ox, smiling at the giant.

“What are you doing?”

The giant freezes, unsure what to do.

“I’m not dead! Why are you building me a tomb?”

A panel pops off the giant’s chest. A box emerges, revealing the unmoving figure of the bug inside.

“My friend, I’m too wise to die. I’ve simply changed my form . . . into these soap bubbles. Death is life; existence is also oblivion. You don’t recognize me because you don’t understand. Stop now. Don’t struggle vainly. To endure, you must follow the flow of nature.”

Once again, memories burst into the giant’s mind like fireworks. The giant is silent for a while. Then he asks, “What is beauty?”

“Eh. Beauty and ugliness—what difference does it make? Both are mere illusions.”

The box pops back into the giant’s chest. With a sharp screech, the drill comes alive, heading straight for the rippling wall of light. With a loud pop, the fantastic image vanishes. A white puff of smoke rises from the tip of the drill, like an ice cream cone that has melted in the summer heat.

“You are not my friend,” says the giant coldly. He puts on his armor and lifts up the twin cannons.

Against the light of the setting sun, thousands, tens of thousands of soap bubbles emerge, like attendees at some bacchanalia.

The giant watches the tomb he has only begun to construct with sorrow. It’s unlikely he’ll leave much behind. The bowing-heads will probably erase all traces of him. No one to come after will know of his existence. Although he has traveled throughout the world, he has never studied the world in detail and doesn’t even know what to put on his own epitaph. But, like the philosopher said, life is limited, while the universe is without end. To pursue the infinite with the finite is a doomed task. This is perhaps the fundamental nature of life. The snowflake that melts as soon as it touches the earth; the firework that extinguishes a moment after blooming; the shooting star that lights up the sky for a flash. The destruction that looms so close terrifies him, and light reflected from a million soap bubbles turns the world hazy.

He thinks, Is death the ultimate beauty?

Happily, he squeezes the triggers, and two flaming tongues leap out to lick the polychromatic sky.

Footnotes:

1 - The lyrics are from “We Workers are Powerful,” a revolutionary song composed by Ma Ke in 1948. It draws on traditional folk music and shanties from Northeast China.

2 - A quote from a poem by Li Bai describing the poet drinking alone under the moon.

3 - This is typically how Laozi, the founder of Daoism, is pictured.

 

Originally published in Chinese in New Science Fiction Literature, 2011, issue 2.

Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.

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Author profile

Jia Liyuan, born in 1983 in Chifeng, Inner Mongolia, China, received his Ph.D. in Literature from Tsinghua University, and served as a postdoctoral research fellow at Beijing Normal University. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Tsinghua University. He has been published academically in journals such as Science Fiction Studies, Literary Review, and Chinese Literature Today. He also pursues his interest in writing science fiction under the penname Fei Dao. He is the author of short story collections Innocence and Its Fabrications (Chunzhen ji qi suo suzao de), The Storytelling Robot (Jiang gushi de jiqiren), Chinese Scifi Blockbusters (Zhongguo kehuan dapian), and The Long Journey to Death (Qusi de manman lütu). Works translated into English include “The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales,” “The Story-telling Robot,” “A Story of the End of the World,” and “The Demon’s Head.”

Author profile

Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote the Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as short story collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also authored the Star Wars novel The Legends of Luke Skywalker.

Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, narrative futures, and the mathematics of origami.

Liu is also the translator for Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” and Vagabonds, Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide, as well as the editor of Invisible Planets and Broken Stars, anthologies of contemporary Chinese science fiction.

He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.

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