15820 words, novelette
: Your name, sir.
: Just call me K.
: Apologies, sir. This process is meticulously controlled. You are required to state your full name and surname.
: It’s K Li.
: Alright, Mr. Li. Shall we begin? My colleagues have completed your health and background checks. Now, I’m here to assist with the final confirmation. Mr. Li, in accordance with the PDO37-R Resolution on Population and Lifespan Control by the International Population Planning Department in conjunction with the World Health Organization, and based on your inspection results, you qualify for the Reduced Population Lifecycle Compensation Policy. We hereby accept your application in accordance with all applicable laws. Your application code is PDO-3210-1287-T9734. Mr. K Li, in a voice no lower than sixty decibels, please state your confirmation of this application.
: Yes, of course. Let’s get started!
: Mr. Li, as I have said, this process is meticulously controlled and—
: I confirm!
: Thank you for your cooperation. Application PDO-3210-1287-T9734 is officially accepted. Now I will confirm each point with you before we begin implementation. Based on the results of your status and health check, we appraise your Optimistic Lifespan at seventy-nine to eighty-two years. Therefore—
: Seventy-nine? Why so low? Everybody lives to at least a hundred these days. Why would I die so young?
: Yes, thanks to modern medicine, the current average life expectancy is 107.3 years old. However, in addition to referencing current average life expectancy, a PDO applicant’s Comprehensive Lethality Rate is a critical indicator. It is the combination of these two factors that determines one’s Optimistic Lifespan.
: Comprehensive . . . Lethality Rate?
: Mr. Li, you are currently nineteen years of age. According to our analysis of your data, you have an 86.5 percent chance of unemployment over the next twenty years. You are also a Level Six crime risk, 29.2 percent higher than average for your residential area. Moreover, four people in your social radius have died from homicide. Sixteen people have been disabled due to direct or indirect involvement in criminal activity. And although you physically meet PDO application health standards, we must also take such living conditions and crime risks into account. If you are dissatisfied with our appraisal of your Optimistic Lifespan, you may terminate this application. Termination does trigger a five-year waiting period during which you would not be eligible to file for PDO. However, during those five years, you could improve your life habits, social radius, and overall quality for your next application.
: Five years . . . I’d have to wait that long?
: Indeed, Mr. Li. According to relevant provisions of the PDO Resolution, citizens who suspend their application may not again apply within five years.
: I can’t wait five years . . . If it’s really seventy-nine, how much can I earn?
: If you accept your status review and health check results, then with your Optimistic Lifespan and minimum reduction of thirty-five years, your legal death will occur in 9,874 days, eight hours, and fourteen minutes. You will therefore receive immediate compensation of 3,342,000 U.S. dollars.
: 9,874 days . . . That’s . . .
: You will be forty-six years old, Mr. Li. If the application goes into effect, you may legally live to forty-six. At that age, you would then be required to go to any PDO Administrative Center globally to perform legal death by July 12, 2124.
: Forty-six years old . . . Well, I still got twenty-seven years!
: That’s correct, Mr. Li.
: Twenty-seven years . . . So, I’d live for twenty-seven more years . . . Is there any way we could cut back a few reduction years?
: Your service representative should have gone through this with you prior to preliminary checks. For applicants under age thirty, the starting point for reduction years is thirty-five years. Fewer reduction years are not permitted. If you are unsatisfied with compensation, we do allow you to increase your reduction years—
: Fuck you. Do I get to live a life or not?
: Apologies, sir, but too few reduction years would deviate from the intention of the PDO and its global population planning strategy. However, if you are truly dissatisfied with your results, you may choose to terminate your current application and begin the five-year extension. Such is your legal right.
: Alright, confirm. I confirm. So now what . . . the injection?
: That’s correct, Mr. Li. After confirmation, we begin the formal acceptance phase. Then, we will inject you with the PDO Genetic Synthesis Compound and this whole application process will be complete. You need only wait for the transfer of funds. The injection of the PDO Compound is an insurance mechanism to guarantee legal death. The Compound will remain inactive until the date stipulated for your legal death. If you do not visit a PDO Administrative Center to perform legal death by the arranged date for legal death, the PDO Compound will activate. According to your physical tolerance, the Compound Reaction Period could last for one to three months, but not more than three months. The PDO Compound, when activated, increasingly interferes with normal physical and behavioral functions. Discomfort and pain intensify over time, peaking within about one month. Any drug intervention or treatment would be futile. You would only suffer pain and eventually die. Therefore, to avoid such an unpleasant situation, please be sure to contact a PDO Administrative Center before the onset of the Compound Reaction Period. We do our utmost to alleviate all pain and deliver a humane legal death. Remember that it is your obligation to die before the end of your legal life.
A knock woke K. The sun must have just set. Skyscrapers usually illuminated with every color of the rainbow were not yet lit. K had caught that brief moment of darkness before the city turned on its lights.
Through half-open eyes, K stared at the living room floor. His head was buried deep in one of the sofa’s soft cushions. His sinuses filled with the astringent scent of bearskin. That was probably why in his dream just now, he had been talking to the Russian who had sold him this sofa so many years ago. K remembered the tattoo of the bear on the Russian’s arm, his snow boots splashed with blood. The smell that had emanated from that man’s body was identical to that in his nose now.
The sofa was the first thing K had bought with his PDO compensation. His reason for buying the sofa was simple. He had been living on the roof of an abandoned building where a Siberian tourism billboard was lit up. Every night, K had fallen asleep while looking at that brown bear roaring atop the billboard. Many nights, he had imagined himself riding atop that bear like some brave Slavic hero. For six years, he had carried that dream. Upon receiving his PDO compensation, he abandoned the rooftop but not his dream. He purchased the bearskin sofa for twenty-thousand U.S. dollars. It was tied to the top of a truck and driven to his apartment while K, wrapped in a fur coat gifted by the Russian trader, lay atop his new sofa with feet high. K wore that thick fur coat all day. At the time, the thick brown fur carried the gamy scent of blood. He had taken pleasure in that scent as though it were the conclusion of some great battle. The only disappointment he felt was there had been so few onlookers, though K understood people were already growing accustomed to people like him and the excesses of their overnight wealth.
Upstarts. That was what people like K were called, that class of nouveau rich building their small fortunes from PDO compensation.
The PDO ads painted an aspirational vision of sacrifice for the good of population control. The truth, however, was most upstarts were happily trading years of their lives for wealth rather than struggling with life’s hardships. The first thing upstarts did after receiving compensation was always the same: they showed off their wealth where they lived for a bit. Then after they had made enough noise, they vanished.
The knocking on K’s door started up again.
“Go away!” K shouted, then doubled over with a violent cough. When he finished coughing, he sat up on the sofa.
Since the onset of a severe headache two weeks ago, K had felt the screws tightening on his heart. Every second, he could feel himself aging. He was unable to stand for long periods, unable to even chew quickly. His skin appeared dry and brittle. Just speaking at more than a whisper wore him out. These changes had all taken place over the past two weeks. Six months prior, the PDO Administrative Center had sent a thick instruction booklet detailing the pain he would experience during his PDO Compound Reaction Period: from initial physical decline, insomnia and abnormal vision to blindness, dementia, and eventual organ failure. The commissioner who had come to his door had read the booklet like it were gospel. K remembered lying naked under a cashmere blanket with several women. The commissioner’s exegesis had been the most vexing foreplay of his life.
The knocking started again.
K wanted to scream and curse but his trembling throat failed to muster the dirty words. According to his original plan, the bottles of gin he had consumed should have helped him sleep until at least tomorrow morning. Now that knocking had lifted the gin’s anesthesia. Noise like this was no way to wake from after all the drinking he had done. For someone in the Compound Reaction Period, it was unbearable.
K clenched his teeth and pushed himself off the floor with both hands. He crossed a living room strewn with alcohol bottles and made his way to the apartment door. He twisted the handle.
Finally, the knocking ceased.
“Did you not hear me? I don’t want to see anyone!” K said, balancing himself against the open door.
He was surprised to see a short teenage girl in the doorway. She wore an oversized jean jacket that seemed big even for K. The wide sleeves made her thin body appear all the more delicate. Her cheeks were dotted with light freckles.
“Excuse me,” she said. “May I ask if you are Mr. Li?”
As she spoke, K noticed the bright red lips on the girl’s wan face. Those lips seemed not to belong to her face at all. Her makeup seemed designed to achieve just this disconcerting effect. She spoke with a lilting cadence that feigned maturity. Her voice was as annoying as her knock.
“I see the PDO is employing child labor now.” K gripped the door. “Do they think I’m afraid to slam the door on a child?”
“No, I’m not from PDO! I’m looking for Mr. Li. It’s urgent!”
“Save it. I’ve been through this several times already.” K put a hand on the girl’s shoulder and then pushed her out into the hall. “Listen, I have no money left. And even if I did, I wouldn’t donate it to charity. I don’t need hospice counseling. I don’t need a custom funeral. And I certainly don’t need some dumb teenager in my doorway bugging me!”
“Wait!” The girl rushed forward and grabbed the edge of the door. “I have something important—”
“Get the fuck out!” K yelled.
“One more word and you’ll be in front of me in line at the gates of hell.”
“Wait. My name’s A Xu.”
“I don’t care who you are. Fuck off!”
K grabbed the girl’s arm and flung her to the ground with all his remaining strength. She tumbled hard against the hall floor.
Without a second glance, K slammed the door.
He leaned against the shut door and gasped. Compared with the other visitors, this girl hadn’t been particularly difficult, but she had sapped his energy. He felt his joints creaking like gears in a busted machine. If she had fought back, he would doubtlessly have broken a bone. Fortunately, he now heard nothing from her side of the door.
Propping himself against the wall, he stumbled to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and scanned its shelves. Stacked bottles reflected the halogen light in an odd rainbow of colors. But this once glorious spread provided no comfort. A few days ago, his sense of taste had vanished. Now, the only thing differentiating one bottle from another was its alcohol concentration.
The PDO’s proposition was that one could trade a few years of life to make one’s remaining life happier. K had now spent that happiness. He sighed and considered which bottle would best numb his pain. His eyes rested on a dark green bottle decorated with cryptic symbols. The bottle seemed to wield a magic that was already taking hold of him.
“This bottle . . . ” K squatted and examined it only to find the cap was already opened. The bottle was wrapped with a bent silver ribbon. It had been some sort of gift.
K stirred his tongue, stimulating his salivary glands. He tried to recall the last time he had drunk from it. Suddenly, he shot up and raced to the door. He threw it open and was relieved to find the girl still in the hall.
She was gripping her left elbow with the palm of her right hand. From the way she clenched her teeth, K could tell he had hurt her. The girl stared back coldly.
K’s face sparked with the excitement of a child unwrapping a present. His face had almost forgotten it could form this expression.
“So . . . A Xu is a real,” he said and held the door all the way open.
“Of course, I’m real!” The girl straightened herself and stared down the stunned K.
“Zhang Heng really has a daughter.” K swallowed hard. “A living daughter.”
: I can’t have a child?
: Yes, sir, that is correct. Your reproductive rights will be legally revoked, and the PDO injection will make you infertile.
: That . . . well . . .
: There is no need to worry, sir. The injection will not affect your physiological needs or performance.
: That’s not what I meant. What I meant is . . . when do I get the money?
: Compensation will arrive in your designated account within eight hours after your application officially goes into effect. Once started, the process is irrevocable, and you must begin fulfilling your duties immediately.
: My . . . duties?
: There are three parts I must explain in this regard. First are the rights you must surrender. From the effective date of the resolution, you may not engage in positions above Official Level 4. You may not work for national institutions or participate in projects assigned by national institutions. There are in total twenty-seven rights you will be restricted from exercising, including the right to vote, the right to be elected, and the right to will assets, among other rights outlined in the Resolution. The assets you hold may not directly or indirectly participate in trading activities of Level C or higher as specified by the World Trade Organization. You may not hold financial investment products, including stocks and bonds. You may not purchase cultural relics recognized by UNESCO, real estate older than one hundred years, or any commodities prohibited for PDO applicants. You may review all specific categories of prohibitions at your convenience. The reversal of these rights is to ensure your legal death will have minimal negative impact on the normal social order, as well as to prevent the waste of cultural and social resources.
: My existence is a waste of social resources?
: Of course not, Mr. Li. Within the boundaries of the law, you should enjoy your compensation to your heart’s content.
: And what if I don’t spend all the money before I die?
: According to the Resolution, all belongings—including your body—must be recycled and disposed of by the PDO Administrative Center.
: I can’t will my estate to someone else?
: I believe I already explained that your assets may not in any form be willed or used for other purposes prohibited by the PDO Resolution.
: [laughter] I couldn’t maybe leave them to you?
: Such is strictly forbidden, sir. To maintain fairness in application processes, all employees of PDO Application Centers and PDO Administrative Centers, as well as their immediate families, are forbidden from participating in PDO applications. Employees like myself may not apply for or profit from PDO compensation in any way.
: In other words, your bosses blocked every avenue you have to get rich, eh?
“This is how you live . . . ”
A Xu looked around, searching for a place to sit. Almost every surface was occupied by alcohol or medicine bottles. An odd indistinguishable smell permeated the space. She leaned against the wall, which appeared clean relative to the rest of K’s apartment. She sighed. “I thought upstarts all lived in . . . ”
“Penthouse apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows atop skyscrapers looking out onto Olympic-size swimming pools strewn with bikinis and champagne bottles? The PDO ads paint a pretty picture.” K snatched the dark green bottle and took a swig. The alcohol woke him up a bit. “Truth is we can’t buy most things. They add to the purchase bans every goddamn year. Good buildings don’t even permit upstarts to apply for residence. This kind of apartment here is designed exclusively for upstarts. Rent it out, let the tenant die, rent it again to the next sucker. We get the worst buildings in the city. When I came to look at this place, the previous tenant was on the floor half dead. A PDO man was counting his assets while the staff mopped up his vomit.”
“Then what happened?” A Xu seemed intrigued by K’s story. Teenagers found such gritty scenes enlightening.
“What do you think? They put him down in the PDO Administrative Center. Come back in a few days and watch the same scene play out in real-time.” K took another sip of his drink. “Why come looking for me?”
“My father often said he was going next door to drink with K. So, I figured why don’t I knock and find out who lives next door.”
“Knock on the door and find out . . . What are you looking for exactly?”
“I’m searching for my father, of course.”
“For your father—” K felt as if someone had poked a nerve in his brain with a needle. “Don’t you know your father has already . . . ”
“Already what?” A Xu straightened herself. “What’s the matter?”
K examined A Xu, then sighed. “Listen, I don’t have kids. My parents died when I was a tot. I never got along with children . . . So I’ll tell you straight. Your father lived out his legal life, and he’s passed on now. Just like the former tenant I told you about.”
K considered what euphemisms and lies he could have told the girl. Perhaps he should have said her father had gone far away and was never coming back. But as a dying man himself, K figured there was no reason to beat around the bush. Death was death.
A Xu stood, her expression frozen.
K expected her to start wailing but she showed no hint of sadness. There was only a calmness on her young face, as incongruous as the dazzling red on her lips.
“That is not possible.” A Xu shook her head. “He could not have died because of that.”
“The night before he was taken away, he presented me with this gift and said farewell.” K raised the green bottle and shook it. “Listen, your father was a good friend of mine, but upstarts like us die when our time comes.”
“But my father was no such thing.”
“I saw your father taken away by PDO men. Those people . . . ”
“What PDO men? What did they do to Dad?”
K took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes. “When it happened, I was at the peephole. Your dad got picked up by several men in PDO uniforms. He resisted, shouted at the top of his lungs. I wanted to open the door and tell him goodbye, but my legal life’s up too . . . So, opening the door would only have led to questions.”
“You should have opened the door. You should have stopped it.” A Xu’s expression grew fraught. Her young face had not learned to mask fear. “This is bad . . . I have to find a way to save him.”
“Save him? Don’t you understand he’s dead? Once the PDO comes, that’s it. They euthanized him. Surely you understand that?”
“No, you don’t understand. My father couldn’t have died for that reason.”
“I guess the bastard didn’t tell you anything. Everyone who applies for PDO arrives at this stage sooner or later. And everyone in this building is a PDO applicant—”
“My father couldn’t apply for PDO.” A Xu took a deep breath and reached into her baggy denim jacket. She took out a card sealed in a transparent plastic cover and handed it to K.
The security ID was Zhang Heng’s, but the man in the photo looked more dignified than the Zhang Heng whom K knew. Beneath his angular cheeks was a calm smile, on his gray suit and royal blue tie, there was a logo composed of three bright English letters, a logo K was painfully familiar with.
“Maybe he never told you. My father works for the PDO.”
“So . . . he . . . does . . . ”
K studied the card, read the title: Dr. Zhang Heng, Senior Consultant, PDO Administrative Center, Pharmacy Department.
“All PDO are forbidden to apply. Therefore, it’s impossible Dad died for the reason you said.”
“But he . . . ” K stared at the photo of Dr. Zhang Heng. “So . . . if . . . ”
“So if the people who came for him were PDO . . . ” A Xu looked up at K, red lips trembling. “Then Dad’s in real trouble.”
: You’re implying if I don’t listen to you, I’m gonna be in real trouble.
: Mr. Li, do you understand that once your application is approved, you will be compelled to fully comply with all terms? We must ensure you do nothing contrary to the spirit of the PDO Resolution in your future legal life. If you hold valuable cultural relics, or participate in significant national projects, or hold a position in an institution we deem significant, such action might hinder the implementation of the PDO Resolution. Therefore, it’s necessary for you to surrender those rights. Your other legitimate rights and interests will of course still be protected.
: So for those like me who choose money over life, what value do we have in your eyes?
: You applicants are pioneer citizens who seek to demonstrate responsible stewardship over Earth’s population. In our era, when there are few diseases and life expectancy is maximized, some must surrender a bit of their natural lifespan, rights, and social resources to contribute to the responsible control of unfettered population growth. Your sacrifice is extremely valued.
: That’s moving. Must have taken you quite some time to memorize.
: Mr. Li, people across the globe truly appreciate your efforts.
: [laughter] Yeah, let’s see how they thank me.
“Can we speak respectfully for a moment?” K said as he gasped for breath.
“You suggesting I be grateful to you?” Clenching his fist, the floor supervisor sneered at K. Though nearly one hundred years old, he had the burly cut of a young man. An elaborate tattoo spread from the base of his ears to his thumbs, likely a gang tattoo from the man’s youth. “You’re supposed to be a dead man. Don’t you know you died two weeks ago? Now, get your dead ass out of here!”
This wasn’t the first time K had dealt with the prejudices of those who wished to humiliate him. K had been dealing with such people since moving into upstart housing. Most of the time, he just got out of harm’s way. This time, however, K couldn’t just get out of harm’s way because the floor supervisor was blocking the door.
“I apologize for troubling you,” K said, taking Zhang Heng’s card from his shirt pocket and flashing it at the supervisor. “I just need to go in and take a few things. The previous tenant—”
“A few of your things, yeah? The only thing that belongs to you dead assholes is the daily reminder notice sent to the Building Management that if you don’t go to a PDO Administrative Center immediately, you’ll die in this building. And I don’t want to clean up your body.” But as the building supervisor said this, he kicked open the door. “Grab your things quickly. And don’t mess with my opportunity to rent to others.”
The supervisor walked down the hall. K took a deep breath. Fatigue swept his body. He had been standing too long. He stretched out his hand to hold the open door, but A Xu just stared at him.
“What’s the matter? Aren’t you going in?”
A Xu nodded. “That man just now . . . ”
“Now you see the crap we upstarts put up with.” K smiled and gestured her through the door.
The layout of Zhang Heng’s apartment was identical to K’s: a slender corridor leading to an open kitchen, a living room connected to the bedroom on the first floor, a crescent-shaped balcony, a view of the city drenched in spinning lights.
K slumped on the sofa in the living room, reached into the side of the liquor cabinet, and pulled out a bottle of beer. He pulled hard on the bottle’s ring.
Suddenly, he realized something and looked at A Xu: “According to PDO regulations, when legal life ends, these things should all be recycled, but . . . they’re still there.”
“I told you, Dad isn’t an upstart.” Since they had come in, A Xu had mostly ignored K. She was behind Zhang Heng’s desk searching for something. K glanced at the documents and machine parts scattered over the desk. The computer at the center was on as always, emitting its cold light. “Seems Dad was careful. He didn’t tell you anything.”
“I knew he had a daughter.” K downed a mouthful of beer. To his disappointment, he couldn’t taste it. “He liked talking about you. Every time we met, he mentioned your birthday, or your favorite movie, or that fair you had been asking him to take you to.”
“That was it.”
“Not just remembered, talked about it all day.” K collapsed on the sofa and laughed. “I thought for sure these were fantasies, that you had died long ago. People go a bit crazy when approaching the Compound Reaction Period. They’ll see ghosts and—”
“Why did you think he put in a PDO application?” A Xu sat in front of the computer. The blue light made her face appear even more solemn. “What did he say?”
“Everyone living here is an upstart! Why would anyone mention such a thing?” K leaned toward A Xu. He thought he could see a few similarities between A Xu and her father. “Well, since you live well, why don’t you tell me why he lived here? Don’t you have a home?”
A Xu’s tapping on the keyboard ceased. Her face retreated behind the screen, but K could sense her trembling, like the wings of an injured insect still trying to take flight. He breathed as softly as he could.
After some time, A Xu’s voice came from behind the screen. “Our home is in Caesar District.”
K was impressed. “That’s a good place.”
Caesar District was the most expensive district in the city. It had always been uninviting to upstarts. Though the PDO Resolution never stipulated that upstarts couldn’t enter certain areas, most all shops, hotels, and even buses in Caesar District refused payment from upstart accounts. Everyone knew those in Caesar were the real rich. What they hated most in this world were upstarts like K, trash draped in gold and silver.
“After Dad went on the run, the PDO sent someone to our home. For a while, I used a radio my father gave me to communicate with him. Later, the radio stopped working. One day, I skipped school because Dad had promised he would come back to take me to the opening of Space Park. I thought maybe—”
“He went on the run?” K nodded. “No wonder he chose this place. There are many temporary tenants here. No one seriously registers.”
“If only I had come earlier.”
“What happened to him exactly?” K sat up from the sofa so he could better see A Xu behind the screen.
“I don’t know, but he obviously did something to piss off the PDO. I only remember one day he came back from work and began packing his things. He told me he had to go on a long business trip and would contact me through our secret radio. Eventually, he revealed he was living here temporarily, but he didn’t allow me to tell anyone or allow me to visit.” The tapping sound of the keyboard ceased again. “Soon after that, the PDO arrived. They forced their way into our house, saying it was to protect us. They were rummaging through all our stuff, our cabinets . . . They kept asking questions I couldn’t answer. That day was the last Dad contacted me on the radio. He said it was now unsafe and he had to leave, and then . . . ”
K recalled the scene at the door of his apartment a week ago, how Zhang Heng was shouting, struggling. The uniformed PDO men in the hall appeared to have tied him up.
K walked over to A Xu.
On the computer screen were opened folders of all sizes. A stream of code popped up and A Xu’s eyes fixed on the flashing numbers and letters. K had no idea what they meant.
“Everything’s deleted.” A Xu gripped the peripheral as if she were trying to hold back her anger. “Nothing. Which is why . . . ”
Suddenly, A Xu turned her head, looked at K, and asked, “Did you say Dad brought you alcohol on his last night?”
“Yes . . . ” K looked at A Xu’s suddenly serious face. “But I’ve drunk it . . . ”
“The alcohol isn’t the point. Did he say anything special when he came to you?”
“Nothing special I don’t—”
“Quick, think. It’s important.”
“When he came that night, I had taken painkillers and was laying on the sofa. He brought the alcohol and put it into the refrigerator. Then he said he was leaving . . . I figured it was the end of his legal life and he didn’t want to suffer, so he was planning to go to the Administrative Center.” K shook his head. “We didn’t even chat really. He delivered the alcohol then said he was going back to deal with some mail and left.”
K nodded. “I said I hoped he wasn’t sending out a suicide note.”
A Xu turned her head, searched the outbox . . .
“All deleted. And according to the log, it was my father who deleted it.” A Xu smiled. “He knew they were coming . . . ”
K’s eyes shifted from the screen to the girl so familiar with the keyboard. “Is there any way to—”
“According to his settings, if I reload his mail account, it should show the last sent address as the default, so . . . ” A Xu created the new mail and set recipient and subject to default.
The apartment fell back into silence as K and A Xu stared at the results:
Subject: Result of Synthesis of PDO Preparation Antibody 142: Success
: Now, for the second part, Mr. Li.
: Everything we discussed up to now was just the first part?
: The first part was about the rights you must surrender. The second part is about the duties you must fulfill. This part concerns your life and health, Mr. Li.
: If I cared about my health, I wouldn’t be here . . . This is becoming a hassle, you know?
: Mr. Li, the most important duty you need to fulfill is legal death. But you also need to abide by the rules stipulated in the PDO Resolution, especially the second and fourth items on page 45.
: Let’s see . . . Article 4: Exclusivity of Medical and Scientific Services . . . What is this exactly?
: Unless permitted by the PDO Administrative Center or a qualified scientific medical research institution recognized by the PDO Administrative Center, you are strictly prohibited from using your own blood, organs, or body tissues in any surgical operation, medical research, or genetic engineering project of Level-2 or higher. The appendix of the very complete instruction manual itemizes the specifics of all that is prohibited. Mr. Li, the PDO Compound is a high-precision genetically targeted formula. Any biological experimentation, even when seemingly harmless, may lead to a chain reaction that disrupts the genetic sequence. The PDO cannot predict the consequences. Please honor your body and legal life by not listening to any third-party rumors or participating in any experimental research that violates the PDO Resolution.
: I can’t even get surgery?
: Not by an unapproved third party. Mr. Li, this policy prevents phenomena that could be harmful to your health. You likely heard that two years ago in Argentina, there was an organ trafficking organization purporting to inhibit PDO Compound efficacy via the removal of a part of the pancreas. Applicants who pursued the promise of that surgery met with unnecessary tragedy. The PDO Compound does not exist in any organ in your body and no surgery on any organ will inhibit its efficacy.
: I’ve heard of cases. A few months back, there was someone selling a quick-freeze needle on Manila’s black market, saying it put applicants in frozen stasis to avoid death.
: Such methods should not be trusted, I assure you. This is why we remind you even though it’s too early for you to worry about such things.
: Too early? [laughter] But if there’s an antidote available when it’s my time to die, what could you do about it?
: Mr. Li, the PDO Compound is not a poison, so there is no antidote. Everyone’s genetic sequence contains a threshold life expectancy for their normal aging and according to the current human benchmark, that averages from 104 to 127 years. The PDO Compound merely compresses this threshold. The implanted code is top secret. It is irreversible but completely safe prior to the Reaction Period. It is your obligation to die before the end of your legal life. The PDO Compound is the most efficient coercive measure we have at present to ensure that happens. But it is the means, not the end.
The car stopped in front of an abandoned factory.
“Is this the place?” K opened the window and looked out. Cold wind rushed into the car, making him shiver.
On the trip from the apartment, the driver had been constantly glancing through the rearview at his two oddball passengers. A middle-aged man with red eyes and a teenage girl wrapped in a baggy denim coat. The oddest thing wasn’t their look, but their destination: the Dirt District. Before it became the Dirt District, this area had been a mining town. When the mines closed, the area became overrun by drug gangs and developed a reputation for every breed of illegal activity. Drugs, gambling, and weapons trades were in full swing. Then, a few years back, a landslide buried half the town. The thugs abandoned it for some new outlaw paradise. The area was now believed to be deserted.
“The IP address and Dad’s radio signal both came from here.” A Xu said as she pushed open the door and stared at the factory’s rusted gate.
“Wait for us here.” K glanced at the driver. The real-time fare was still displayed on the counter. K raised his hand and after beeping a prompt, the counter read “complete” and flashed a portrait of K.
“Of course, sir.” The driver nodded respectfully. Then the driver turned his head and stared at K with trepidation. He nervously read the operator screen. “Sir, when settling your account, the system received a message from PDO asking me to remind you that your legal life is forty-six days overdue. In order to avoid discomfort triggered by the PDO Compound Reaction Period, you are requested to please—”
“I spent 800 bucks.” K pushed open the door without waiting for him to finish. “So shut up and wait.”
When K caught up with A Xu, she was nearing the side door. It was marked with a sign reading High Pressure Workshop. Faded graffiti of naked girls could be seen through the dust on the factory walls. The largest graffiti work illustrated a supine blonde dancer in mesh stockings. The factory door was between her legs. K wondered whether he should cover A Xu’s eyes.
She unexpectedly turned toward him with a look of complete resolve. “Before I knocked on your door last night, I prepared myself psychologically for whatever might happen. Fortunately, it was you on the other side of the door.” She placed her right hand on the door. “Hopefully this will have an equally positive result.”
K smiled. “Let’s hope you don’t get pushed down again.”
After several knocks, the door did not open.
But soon, the second-floor window above them did scrape open. Covered in graffiti, the glass window was opaque except for one thin glint of sunlight reflecting at the base of the glass. A black gun barrel protruded from beneath.
K didn’t think but quickly gripped A Xu and brought her to the ground, his body shielding hers.
“Gun,” K gasped. He curled and covered A Xu’s whole body under his arms and torso. “Don’t be afraid. I know that make of gun from the casino where I used to work . . . Once it’s fired, it needs to be reloaded.”
“Whu . . . what . . . ”
“If you hear a shot, you immediately run. You hear me, run.”
He clenched his teeth and closed his eyes as if all his senses were waiting for that one crisp shot.
But instead of a gunshot, they heard a delicate female voice.
“You get the chance to tell me three things before I shoot.” The woman kept the gun aimed at K’s body. She tapped a beat with the gun against the window and said: “One.”
“Please, I’m a friend of Zhang Heng.” K clenched his teeth and stood hands up, eyes fixed on the gun. He felt the hurried breaths of A Xu, who clung to his back.
“Friend?” She burst into laughter, tapped the gun against the window again. “Why didn’t I know he had such a friend?”
“I am his friend. I live next door to him.”
“That the second thing you want to say?” She sneered from the window. “Guess you don’t care about your life. Now, your third and final point before we finish this?”
“I . . . ”
K raised his hands above his head unconsciously. Countless images of Zhang Heng passed through his mind like a film edited at random. He racked his brain for anything that would convince her but thought of nothing.
“Me!” A Xu cried.
A Xu stepped to K’s side, still clinging to the corner of his coat. She too stared at the gun. “I’m Zhang Heng’s daughter. My father has been missing for some time . . . I found this place in his last email after he was taken by the PDO.”
This time, the woman with the gun did not respond. K pushed A Xu back behind him.
“No, look.” A Xu pointed to the side door now half ajar.
There was the harsh screech of the rusty door opening. K bowed and put his hands over his ears. When he turned he saw an old man in a white coat and goggles in the doorway. The man studied A Xu for some time. Then he removed his goggles to reveal deep sunken eyes.
“I was at your tenth birthday party.” The old man coughed. “Your father prepared a fireworks show for you in To . . . To . . . ”
A Xu nodded. “Tottori Prefecture.”
The gun withdrew from the window. A young woman wearing a peach camisole peered down at them. Neon lit her pale face, setting off her sweet red lips.
“At last, you said something useful!” The woman yelled.
“Diana,” the old man shouted in a hoarse voice, “call everyone over.”
Moments later, A Xu and K were joined by the few remaining residents of the Dirt District at a long rusty table at the heart of the factory. There was no doubt that these people knew Zhang Heng. The table was covered with every kind of document and five computers blinking with the same blue lights and red chemical formula patterns he had seen in Zhang Heng’s apartment.
In her camisole and stockings, Diana leaned seductively against a battered column. She gestured at the old man seated opposite K. “Dr. Imai was Zhang Heng’s teacher at the Department of Medicine at Tokyo University. He was also a genetic medicine consultant for PDO.”
With her cigarette, Diana pointed at the next man. “Chris used to work in the Network Security Department of the PDO Administrative Center in Seoul.”
She glanced at a burly bald man wearing a vest and too-tight jeans. He looked like some kung fu star from a classic comic, thick arms and clenched fists ready for a kill. “That’s Shaji. I was using his gun just now. He’s from the PDO Bangkok Freight Department, which is responsible for the transportation of raw materials used in the PDO Compound.”
“Raw materials?” K shivered. “What are you . . . planning here exactly?”
“First we need to know how much Zhang Heng told you.” The old man named Imai glared at K and A Xu. “How could you find this place knowing so little?”
“Just . . . I had the address of the mail receiver. Other than that, Dad hardly told me anything.” Since they had come in, A Xu’s eyes hadn’t left the old man. K surmised she really did remember him from Japan. “As for Mr. Li, he was my father’s neighbor.”
“We meet here for our experiments. Each of us has a role to play.” Imai looked at A Xu with a forlorn look in his eyes. “Zhang Heng was supposed to have met us last week but never showed. The PDO must have been watching him for some time.”
“We were worried his disappearance was related to PDO. You may have confirmed that,” Shaji said. His muscles rippled as he lifted a heavy steel pipe from the old assembly line.
“Chris is hacking into the PDO cloud now,” Diana said.
“Done,” said Chris. He stood with a proud smile. “Security Department of the Administrative Center. Arrest files from last week.”
“You’re quick.” Diana hurried to Chris’ computer and looked at the file. They both turned to K.
Realizing something was wrong, A Xu walked over to Chris’s computer screen and looked at the screen’s cracked file.
PDO Security Archive . . . Investigation Records . . . An expeditor from the PDO Administrative Center discovered the target while planning to expedite a legal life in Reaction Period on the same floor . . . The security department has issued an arrest notice . . .
“Metadata can’t be decoded but it coincides with the time they were seen by K.” Chris turned and nodded to Imai. “Dr. Zhang was indeed taken by PDO.”
“So . . . ” Diana sneered as she stared down K. “Who was the person on the same floor they were sent to expedite?”
That night came back to K, all he had seen through the peephole. The moment Zhang Heng was taken. His cry. His struggle. Every detail of that night burned in his memory.
“The expeditor came to see you . . . ” A Xu looked at a stunned K. “You said, you never open the door to those people . . . ”
K raised his hands. “It wasn’t like . . . ”
“The expeditor met the same resistance I did when I came to your door yesterday. He couldn’t open your door, so he knocked . . . on my father’s door.” A Xu scowled. “He never imagined PDO would come to the door at that time . . . So when he realized he might have been recognized . . . ”
“Then, he thought it was me saying goodbye.” K couldn’t stop shaking. His mind flooded with fear and the images of that night.
“And you watched him get taken away, too afraid to open the door because you didn’t want to answer to the PDO.” A Xu shook her head.
“I—” K tried to think of an explanation, but his body was lifted up from behind. His coat was pulled up above his shoulders. The joints in his arm cracked.
“You upstarts are only out for yourselves!” Shaji held K with his left hand and slapped him with the right. “Our gang lives in this awful place to save your lives and you treat us like this!”
“Let him go, Shaji!” Diana yelled at the enraged Shaji. “He has reached phase two of the Reaction Period. He could die!”
“He’s already a dead man. I’m just assisting law enforcement. PDO will thank me!” Shaji gripped K’s neck with terrible strength. “Why don’t you just go to the Administrative Center and die, you coward!”
“Enough, Shaji!” Imai stood up. “He might still help us!”
“He’s not helping anyone . . . But I’ll help him die . . . ”
Imai hammered the table. “Let him go now!”
Shaji stared at Imai then unleashed a rageful scream. His grip loosened, dropping K to the ground.
“Fuck!” Shaji punched a column with his full strength. The factory echoed as dust billowed from Shaji’s blow.
“You sure know how to take it out on the wall!” Diana stepped forward and extended a hand to K.
“Fortunately, it was just the wall this time.” Chris stretched lazily. He was used to such scenes. “People like Shaji need an outlet. Better dust on the floor than blood.”
With Diana’s hand, K righted himself. His neck was red. His Adam’s apple pulsed. His whole body trembled like vibrating glass about to shatter. From his abdomen to his scalp, searing pain shot through his flesh. He saw a dazzling light, then the rhythm of his heart clenched. Boom, boom, boom . . .
“Is he going to be . . . ” It was A Xu’s voice. She carefully lifted K’s hand, as though she were checking its every joint.
“He’s all right for the time being,” Diana relaxed the hand she had pressed to K’s chest. “The effects of the PDO Compound have not yet penetrated the bone. If the bone were subject to that impact after third-phase fibrosis, it would be game over.”
“Li . . . Mr. Li.” Squatting, Imai gazed into K’s half-open eyes and spoke in a raspy voice. “You did what you did because you wanted to live. It’s not your fault . . . But Zhang Heng’s experiments had reached the very last step, and we need you to help us . . . ”
“That man help us?” Diana said.
“Once the test results are made public, the PDO will have to admit the existence of the Compound antibody. They will have to release Zhang Heng.”
“But we haven’t found the right person to test it on yet. That person will be the focus of the world. He must receive training, have the right identity and data—”
“If he’s a friend of Zhang Heng’s, then isn’t this already the right person?”
“No time, Diana,” Imai said firmly as he watched K struggle to regain full consciousness. “Mr. Li, we need you to work with us to save your friend Zhang Heng.”
K trembled his eyes open. From mottled points of light, his vision slowly gelled into a clear picture of Imai staring back in front of a curtain of silver light. In the eyes of this old Japanese man, there was a sadness K had never seen. It seemed only now was he old enough to even conceive such sadness. “Tell me what I can do?”
“Live.” Diana stared at K. “You have to live. And keep living.”
: So when the time comes, no matter what I do, there’s no way to keep living?
: Indeed, Mr. Li.
: Even if I save the world or something—no exception?
: Without exception, it is your obligation to die at the end of your legal life.
: Fine. Hurry up. What’s the last part you have to tell me?
: A few final points to understand and authorize. First, the PDO application requires genetic compatibility, which is to say, your PDO status will be written into your genetic account and become a part of your personal genetic information record, just like your assets, educational background, and criminal record. With a single hair, the authorized department can access all such information, though you can trust the PDO Administrative Center will only exercise that right according to reason and law.
: Any other way besides trusting you?
: By confirming this application, you authorize us to access your full genetic data. This is for your security. We carry out detailed encryption protocols to ensure your data integrity. Any retrieval or update of such data will require professional and compliant data replacement, as well as multiple authorizations by you personally. This makes it almost impossible for anyone to ever steal your genetic data access.
: And who would want to steal my data?
K watched the IV needle plunge into his vein. His arm clenched. Bright blood flowed back into the syringe. He felt a change in pressure under his skin, like some forgotten pain.
“How should it feel?” K looked at Diana who was carefully preparing the next syringe with a mixture of white powder and pale blue liquid.
Diana bit her lip. “How should it feel?”
“Can I ask . . . Are you scared of me?”
“It’s just been a while since I last did this. When you were back in the PDO Application Center, what would people ask before each injection?”
“You . . . You used to work for PDO?”
“In the injection lab.” Diana nodded, then injected the freshly prepared treatment into a dropper bottle. “But the equipment there was better. For eighty bucks, you even got aromatherapy and soft drinks.”
“I remember that!” K recalled his PDO Compound injection more than twenty years ago. “They repeatedly asked me whether I would like the Recuperation Package, which could be deducted from my compensation. Even after I had granted them my life, they were still trying to make money off me.”
“You hate the PDO to its core, don’t you?” Diana glanced at the suddenly high-spirited K and couldn’t help but laugh. “Anyway, I’m a bit worried this room is too crude. It probably scares you.”
The makeshift lab was located at the center of the factory. On the side of the operating table were the usual syringes and medical tape. Set off a bit further was equipment that looked like modules of a robotic arm. On the wall opposite were piled cartons of all sizes and cardboard boxes covered in what looked like ash.
“All of you were PDO. Why would you choose to do what you’re doing now?”
“You mean engineering antibodies to resist the PDO Compound?” Diana paused, walked to the stacked instruments, and lit a cigarette. The sunset afterglow from the high windows filtered in. K watched the last of the sun’s warmth reflect off Diana’s red lips. K knew he had seen that shade of red before.
“When I was PDO, not only did I have to administer the PDO Compound injections, but I also had to administer euthanasia. I had to poison every applicant who came to me. The number of people who died by my hand would make the most horrible serial killer bow before me.” Diana dragged deeply on her cigarette. “And that was my legal right and responsibility according to PDO regulations. But who would want that fucking right? Who would want to go to work every day and kill people one needle at a time—then have to do it with a smile? Would you want that job, Mr. Li?”
K stared at Diana. He had no idea how to answer the question. He had never done a legit job in his life. He had grown up in the casinos as just another thug beating up people who couldn’t pay their debts. Then he applied for PDO.
“The worst part was PDO didn’t allow anyone to resign. If you left, you would never find work again. Mr. Li, those people at the Application Center, those people always adding ‘sir’ at the end of every sentence, forcing you to say, ‘I confirm’—those people were after your life.”
“So now you synthesize antibodies to make amends . . . ”
“That’s Ikai and Zhang Heng’s work.” Diana pinched the butt of her cigarette and spit out one last plume of smoke. “Perhaps they suffered a deeper torture. They were at the core of the PDO—”
“Senior Pharmacology Consultant, right? I saw it on Zhang Heng’s ID.”
“His guilt ran deep. A while back, Zhang Heng was supposed to go with Shaji to Manila, where the Compound is manufactured. But Zhang Heng said he wanted to move to the dorm where all you upstarts were living, to be with you together. I sensed it was too dangerous but didn’t protest. Reflecting on it now, perhaps living in that place was what gave him his sense of urgency.” Diana crushed her cigarette. “I guess, he was good to you.”
“Maybe the only friend I ever had. I never imagined I’d meet someone like that at the end, facing death.”
“Your life might still be long.” Diana put a hand on K’s shoulder. Through his clothing, he felt an electric warmth transmit from her flesh to his. “You might not only live but save many others like you. You can end this era when people put their lives up for sale.”
K was still thinking about how he should respond when the door burst open.
“Our hero ready?” Chris marched in with a screen full of code in hand. He glanced at K and grinned. “Ready for resurrection?”
“So . . . It’s really gonna be ok?” K turned to Chris, but Chris had walked to the back of the operating table. He was seated atop a pile of cartons again absorbed in his screens. The clattering of his keyboard brought the operating room back to life. K glanced at the IV. “Has the antibody injection started?”
“Just basic tranquilizers and enzymes to assist the absorption of the antibodies. There’s one more step before injection of antibodies.” Diana shook her head toward Chris. “You know the PDO Compound is designed for genetic compatibility.”
“Yes,” K said. “When I applied, the PDO rep mentioned it was for my safety.”
“Since birth, all our genetic accounts are uniformly recorded, distributed, monitored, and managed. They record all our information and exclude all information that does not belong to us.” Diana pointed at the IV flowing into K’s body. “Antibodies can successfully inhibit the active ingredients in the PDO Compound in an experimental environment, but in your body, because the preparations have your genetic attributes, we must first write the parameters of the antibodies into your genetic account to ensure genetic compatibility.”
“Parameters of the antibodies . . . genetic compatibility . . . ” K repeated what Diana said like a babbling child. Such thinking made him dizzy. He simply nodded. “You need to modify my genetic account?”
“I remember . . . the PDO rep said . . . ”
“Retrieval and update of such data will require professional and compliant data replacement, as well as multiple authorizations by you personally . . . Was that the sentence?”
“Something like it.” K nodded, embarrassed. It turned out the PDO already had written answers for every question he had asked. “But . . . who can do this?”
“Data replacement.” Diana pointed to Chris then back to K. “Authorize and confirm.”
“How do I . . . authorize?”
Diana smiled. “If you confirm to begin implementing this application, Mr. K Li, please answer with a voice of no less than sixty decibels and confirm.”
“Really . . . ” K looked at Diana and nodded. “The exact words of the people who designed it.”
“Whether you’re a service rep in the PDO or a prostitute in the red-light district, work is just repetition.” Diana picked up the IV bag, from which the last bit of medicine she had prepared flowed. She squeezed in a fresh syringe. “That’s it.”
“Whu . . . what?”
The playfulness faded from Diana’s face. Her eyes became fierce and focused. She stared at K and spoke slowly: “Next, you may feel dizzy, which is normal. Do all you can to stay awake. Chris will need your voice to update your genetic account.”
“Okay . . . ”
“Chris will enter your genetic account information and implant the antibody sequence into it. During this period, you must clearly confirm each point requiring authorization. Do you understand?”
“Understood . . . ”
“Fear is normal. You haven’t been trained. Mr. Li, once the antibodies integrate into your genes, the PDO will detect abnormalities. You could soon face arrest, interrogation, detention . . . I don’t know whether you can cope with what comes next.”
“Worst case is just death?” After listening, K smiled. “That’s completely acceptable for an upstart. I’d rather die for a reason than be just one more PDO euthanasia.”
Diana looked into K’s eyes. “What do you feel?”
“Dizzy . . . My body feels light . . . But it’s a comfortable lightness . . . ”
“Stay awake and remember what I just said. You can end this era, Mr. Li. Though you’re a very different person from the one we originally agreed on, it’s up to you now. You must become our hero.”
“Hero . . . ”
“Yes, we need a hero. Can you do it, Mr. Li?”
“I . . . ” The drug rolled in a cloud-like softness. K had suddenly escaped the pain haunting him these past weeks. He felt as though he were amidst a sea of stars, a titan shaping the early universe, illuminating the dark stars floating in that primal sea of darkness. A sound as soft as the night wind brushed his eardrums.
“But can you do it, Mr. Li?”
He felt Diana’s breath, the tapping of Chris’s keyboard, the dust floating through the factory. Everything in the universe seemed to be responding to him. He was the hero—adorned in flowers and armor. He nodded.
“If you authorize to open genetic sequence source data extraction, please answer in a voice of no less than sixty decibels and confirm.”
“If you authorize to start genetic code replacement, please answer in a voice of no less than sixty decibels and confirm.”
“If you authorize to ignore the warnings of your genetic account, please answer in a voice of no less than sixty decibels and confirm.”
“If you authorize to start reprint loading, please answer in a voice of no less than sixty decibels and confirm.”
“I confirm . . . ”
“I confirm . . . ”
“I confirm . . . ”
K gripped these words like a sword in hand. He was the hero wielding that sword, fighting without hesitation or trepidation.
: What about the money? Will the money be transferred directly into my genetic account?
: We automatically generate a sub-account in your genetic asset account to distribute compensation.
: A sub-account?
: Yes, because everyone’s initial genetic asset account is submitted to the central bank within seventy-two hours after birth, that lifelong binding cannot be altered. However, after the PDO Compound takes effect, your genetic information must be altered, requiring the generation of the sub-account. Both accounts will continue to represent your identity and will be completely under your control.
: And the money in the sub-account is secure?
: Although the sub-account is not as strictly controlled as the genetic asset account, it is also secure. Once the compensation enters your sub-account, it will load your PDO identification attributes, so that every cent is identified as yours across all global trading networks. This is all for your security, Mr. Li. Many PDO applicants’ living environment and social radius are not positive, therefore the sudden influx of large amounts of funds can pose a threat by criminals to their personal safety.
: But might it also prevent me from spending money where I shouldn’t?
: Understand that the PDO invests nearly three trillion in compensation funds every year. The World Bank requires us to supervise these funds to ensure they are not manipulated by illegal means.
: You think I’m the kind of person who has illegal means?
: Of course not, Mr. Li.
“This is where you had to bring me?” A Xu shot a suspicious glance at K. “We shouldn’t have come here.”
The table for two by the window was covered in a vintage red-and-white checkered tablecloth. Two hours prior, K had woken up in the operating room and said he had to go to this particular German restaurant in the city center and wanted to bring A Xu along. A Xu had trusted him that there was an important reason, but since they had squeezed into the crowded restaurant, K had hardly opened his mouth, instead focusing intently on the menu. They sat across from each other at the table, each with an untouched glass of lemonade.
“Didn’t you hear Imai tell you the antibody won’t go into effect for eight hours, that nothing can go wrong during this time, that we cannot risk discovery by PDO? You’ve just injected the antibodies, so you should be resting.”
“Didn’t Diana say that the PDO won’t find out until tomorrow at the earliest? She just asked you to look after me carefully. You’re looking after me now, aren’t you?” K replied, eyes fixed on the menu. “Besides, Diana and them are taking a lot more risk than me.”
“They’re preparing to rescue my father.”
Engrossed by the menu, K didn’t answer. Finally, his eyes paused toward the last page of the lengthy menu. His eyes narrowed and he raised his hand.
The waiter approached with a smile.
“Good evening, sir. The special today is Bavarian white sausage with pretzel.”
“The Nuremberg sausage with stout set, please.” K pointed to the combo marked Chef’s Choice of the Month. “Give me two.”
“Yes, sir,” the waiter nodded and continued. “The combo includes a ticket to the Space Park exhibition, but it seems today is the last day for the Caesar District tour. If you cannot attend, I can exchange it for—”
“No, that’s why I came!” K closed the menu and looked up at A Xu. The retro chandelier above her glowed like a halo. “We can’t miss the last day.”
“You . . . ” A Xu stared at K in surprise. “So, that’s why . . . ”
“Didn’t your father promise to go with you? You haven’t forgotten?”
“No, I didn’t forget.” A Xu lowered her head, as though she didn’t want K to see her face. She had wiped off that bright red lipstick that never suited her. Her oversized jean jacket was replaced with a satin baseball bomber Diana had gifted her. With its yellow daisy embroidery, it looked far more fitting for A Xu. “I’m just surprised . . . You remember such things.”
“But I couldn’t help it. The Space Park is in Caesar District. My account can’t buy tickets directly for Caesar District, so I could only . . . ” K beamed, proud he had discovered this loophole. He hid his smile behind a sip of lemonade. His smile faded. “Despite the antibodies, I still don’t taste anything.”
“Perhaps it doesn’t take effect so quickly.”
“But I do feel better. Maybe life was too dull before. Now I finally found something to do, so everything is different.” He burst into unrestrained laughter.
“Your father liked to say that life was different because he had found what he had to do. No wonder he was always in high spirits. It was because he was doing such a great thing.” K put down the cup. The lemonade had achieved a far more invigorating effect than the expensive alcohols he was accustomed to. “You want to hear the story of your father and me?”
A Xu looked at K and nodded.
“The first time I saw him, I had fallen drunk down the stairs of the upstart building. He helped me back up. Later, whenever I went out for a drink, I’d take him along because I was guaranteed to wake up the next day in my own bed. My legal life was approaching its end, and I had no friends . . . ” K took a deep breath. “That’s how all upstarts live. When legal life is over, there’s only that one thing left to endure. If you can’t endure it, you go to the PDO Administrative Center to end it. I had in fact already decided to die, but your father . . . Your father would come to arrange my medicine each day, put those colorful pills in a row on the kitchen island. My body was an endless crashing wave of pain. But every night, your father came over to drink and chat. I grew tired of hearing about you and that Space Park . . . But I remember it all too well.”
“Thank you for remembering.”
“What’s the use of just remembering? It’s useful to remember those chemical formulas of your father, drugs that save people. That’s useful.” K laughed. “He had a mission, to be of use. He always said he was busy and had things to do. I assumed he said this because he was afraid of death . . . I told him he was my first real friend and that scared me.”
A Xu looked askance. “First friend?”
“Actually, he wasn’t even that great of a friend . . . He disappeared, was super busy, and shared harsh truths . . . but I never had a real friend, not one who was good to me.”
“How can that be?”
“Because upstarts only know other upstarts, and ninety-nine out of one-hundred upstarts are as pathetic as me. Would you be friends with the man who shoved you down when you knocked on his door looking for your father? I’ve been an upstart for twenty-seven years. That first day twenty-seven years ago, I also thought I would live well, make friends, and do all the things I wanted to do. By the end of the first year, I had bought the things I wanted, gone to the places I wanted to go, bedded the type of women I had imagined sleeping with . . . For the remaining twenty-six years, it seemed the best I could hope for was to repeat that first year. When you don’t know what you want, life is just repetition and mindless work.”
“K . . . the color in your face. You look ill.”
“You know, I always thought you were just some fantasy of Zhang Heng’s. How could upstarts have children?”
“Wait. Something’s wrong . . . You look wrong . . . ”
“I took your father to a whorehouse . . . Women, men. I ordered both. I had no clue what he liked.”
“Damn it . . . Did Diana make some mistake?”
“Diana said, I should be a hero . . . a hero, you know?”
K was high on the memories flowing over him. His eyes had no sight left for the real world. He didn’t even notice when the waiter came by with the sausage and beer, or when A Xu’s voice began pleading.
“K . . . K . . . K! That person with the hostess . . . I think she’s PDO.”
A Xu clapped her hands.
“K! She . . . She’s walking right towards us!”
A Xu leaned in. “She’s searching for us!”
“K! You hear me? She’s coming!”
A glass of beer splashed across K’s face, finally pulling him back from his revery. His face was wet with beer foam, K looked like he had stumbled in from a tsunami.
“We have to leave now! PDO!” A Xu stood, her trembling hand holding the empty beer stein.
K turned and glanced behind him.
The restaurant was full but only a few customers were standing. K locked in on the woman in the red dress ten meters away. She swayed in front of each table, sometimes saying something before moving on to the next table.
When K turned again, the woman was standing with the waiter. She took something from her bright red coat, and the waiter nodded in the direction of K.
“How did she find us?” K asked.
“Driver, that driver.” A Xu was shaking. “She’s walking right towards us.”
K clenched his fist. He felt no fear, only a fire burning at his core. He was now fighting for something close to him without hesitation or trepidation.
K glanced at A Xu. He saw the fear in her eyes and shook his head. “Don’t be afraid.”
“What the hell do we do?”
“Use that little trick of yours.”
“Mine . . . what trick?”
“Hold my hand, A Xu.” K grabbed his stein of beer in one hand and held A Xu’s trembling wrist with the other. “Hold on tight.”
: So that’s part three. Time now for the injection?
: Sorry, Mr. Li, we must delay a moment. There’s an additional matter we need to confirm.
: What is it?
: There is no information in your application’s column for family members, and the declaration for your family background is completely blank.
: That a problem? My family are all dead.
: You see, in the Genetic Record, we now have found a genome of high similarity to your own. The person can even be identified as an immediate family member if—
: There’s no need.
: Mr. Li, this could improve your Optimistic Lifespan, if your relatives demonstrate progress—
: I said no need. I don’t want to know who they are. They’re the assholes who gave birth to me and didn’t want to raise me.
: We may have some misunderstanding, Mr. Li. This immediate family member has just now completed genetic registration in a nearby city two hours ago. She is . . . a baby girl, which is why this report is only now received.
: A girl . . . baby?
: She should be your daughter, Mr. Li.
: My daughter?
: Yes, the registrant only filled in the mother’s name: Eda. Do you have any impression of this name?
: Eda . . . a woman from the casino . . .
: Mr. Li?
: Do you have—
: No, none. I never had a daughter.
: Well . . . In that case, we will proceed with your original results.
“Don’t you dare lie to me. When we jumped from that window, as you held me, I heard your bones crack.” A Xu bit the straw as she sucked from the Galaxy Soda in her hand. It was the third Galaxy Soda, the signature drink of Space Park, that A Xu had drunk in the past half hour. She inspected its transparent glass bottle filled with colorful orbs floating in a blue liquid. With each sip, her mouth sparked its own private big bang.
“I didn’t lie to you. I can run laps around you.” K laughed. He also had a Galaxy Soda in his hand, but he had barely taken a sip. “If you want me to prove it, I’ll carry you from here back to the subway station where we got away from that woman.”
“When we got past those children, you were all tired and panting. I know you’re not feeling well.”
“There!” K looked ahead and pointed to the planet Gliese 581g. Its gray color was dull compared to what they had seen on Mars, which had been surrounded by numerous Space Park visitors gawking at the dazzling reds.
Though nearing dawn, Space Park was still crowded. Stars were displayed across the field in magnificent nebulae. Against the backdrop of Caesar District’s skyscrapers, throngs of fans strolled among the virtual stars like gods walking amidst the garden of the universe.
“Read what it says,” A Xu said, pointing to the display board next to Gliese 581g.
When Stephen S. Vogt, the discoverer of Gliese 581g, was asked whether there was life on the planet, he said: ‘I’m not a biologist, nor do I want to play one on TV. Personally? Given the ubiquity and propinquity of life to flourish wherever it can, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are one hundred percent.”
“Does that mean there are people on that planet?” K asked.
“Not human, but biological beings.” A Xu looked at K as he came closer. “Among the celestial bodies discovered by mankind so far, this is among those most likely to have given birth to life.”
“It looks . . . ” K inspected the orb of Gliese 581g again and shook his head. “It’s ordinary, not particularly beautiful. I prefer the one we were just at . . . That blue one of the Pleiades . . . What was it, Rigel? If up to me, I’d live there in style.”
“Rigel, yeah?” A Xu was amused by how dazzled K had been by the star’s brilliant blue light in the Orion Exhibition. She laughed a few times again. “I hope your air conditioner is cold enough. Rigel is a star and many times hotter than even our sun.”
“Oh, it’s like that?” K laughed. “Sure, but if you’re as ignorant as me, you need only look at the surface. You don’t need to know whether it’s dangerous or not.”
A Xu turned back toward K. Her lips twitched as she bit at the straw. She was shivering.
“Are you okay?” K looked at A Xu. “Uncomfortable?”
“No.” A Xu shook her head as though waking from a daydream. “You know how to respond to danger. You have no idea how much danger we were in at the restaurant. But you knew just what to do, toss that beer in the PDO woman’s face and jump out the window.”
“Just a trick I learned. When I was young, I often saw people do things like that when they had lost a bet and needed to escape the casino without paying up.”
“I thought it was cool.” A Xu raised her head. “Cooler than anything I’ve ever seen.”
Surrounded by Gliese 581g’s dim light, she and K ceased talking. In the darkness, both felt as though they really were twenty light-years away, floating in their own silent universe. K stretched out his hand and stroked A Xu’s hair. He wondered about the beings on Gliese 581g. Then his gentle touch became a playful slap.
“Miss, you know, I spent thirteen-hundred bucks to get these tickets. And then you tell me that Space Park isn’t even as cool as me throwing a beer on someone?”
“Well, Kepler-16b is way cooler than you.”
“The one with two suns in the sky, just like Tatooine. Right up ahead.”
“How far ahead?”
A Xu took off then looked back to K. “Why isn’t our big hero running already?”
In Space Park’s final hours, A Xu and K’s interstellar journey traversed these and many more stars. In Andromeda, they joined a galactic dance floor. Amidst the Perseid Meteor Shower, K got into a scuffle they ended up having to run away from. They witnessed the most spectacular solar flares in solar history with thousands of revelers. They reached out and touched the sun, feeling its hot, dazzling virtual light.
At 3 A.M., they finally lay down beside an artificial lake in the park. By then, most of the other tourists had gone home. Without the crowds, the stars seemed calm. Only a few groups remained on the lawn built around the embankment, waiting for Space Park’s grand finale.
A vibrant tangerine halo slowly emerged in the night sky over the lake. A Xu and K stared up as the sky’s curtain opened. A lone spacecraft meandered through a reddish-orange light, then the halo stretched and faded. The silent universe behind that lone spacecraft throbbed with a dull echo as the shifting colors began to take shape: a huge, orange planet surrounded by vast rings. The spacecraft slowed at the edges of its orbit, as small as a grain of dust in its rings.
“What planet is that?” K asked.
“This is what you said we had to see . . . ”
“This part of the exhibition is a scene from Yunning Xie’s book Crossing Saturn’s Rings. They selected many famous scenes from the novel for the exhibition.” A Xu’s eyes stared at the spacecraft above them. “It’s exactly like the scene in my mind when I first read it.”
“So, is the person in that spaceship the hero?”
“Yes, his spacecraft met with disaster. So, he was alone, floating among the rings of Saturn.”
“That explains the lonesome feel.” K watched the spacecraft slowly approaching Saturn’s rings. Next to such a behemoth, the ship appeared insignificant. K thought of how alone he had felt all these years as an upstart.
A Xu and K’s eyes followed the ship as the curved rings of Saturn drew closer. The dense particles of the ring collided, separated, disintegrated. A Xu pointed at the night sky, explaining to him the plot of the novel.
“ . . . Then . . . what about the woman?” he asked.
“Doris. She wasn’t a real woman. But without Doris, the hero could never have completed his journey alone.”
“I hope they had a fond farewell.”
“Doris had a father. Their farewell scene is especially touching.”
“Good.” K’s breathing slowed. A deep fatigue spread over his whole being. Unconsciously, he loosened his hand still holding the soda bottle. “Such a journey is difficult without family . . . but not impossible . . . I guess . . . because that’s how I lived my own life.”
“There was never anyone else?”
K thought about it for a moment and then glanced at A Xu sideways. “Actually, I seem to have a daughter.”
“I didn’t know until my application for PDO . . . I was so irresponsible then . . . The woman I left behind still gave birth to the child.” K bit his lip then managed to squeeze a faint smile. “Now that I think about it, that was probably the only opportunity I ever had to spend my life with someone.”
“Did you ever meet her?”
“No, and I never looked for her either. But now, do you think Chris can find a way to give her what PDO money I have left? PDO forbids any will of one’s inheritance, but Chris knows how to work the PDO system. He should be able to find a way. If like Diana said, I’ll soon be arrested and taken to various hearings and even put on the news, I’m not sure there’s any chance for my freedom. So, I think it’s best to give her all the money as soon as possible.”
“You want to give her all the money?”
“I . . . feel . . . ” K raised his head and looked at the night sky overhead again. The hero’s spacecraft was sailing toward Earth as Saturn’s beguiling rings dimmed. The sky’s dark curtain faded in. “Perhaps she would also like to see the next stop of Space Park. I could buy her a ticket . . . ”
A Xu didn’t answer. The field was now perfectly dark.
“You made me think of her,” K said. He turned his face toward A Xu, but the dark night obscured her expression. He saw only the glistening of her bright eyes. “What happens tomorrow? Will they interrogate me?”
After some time, A Xu replied, “I don’t know.”
“This is the first moment in my life I truly care about. Tomorrow.” K touched his chest, felt his heart beating like a war drum. “There is still something worth doing.”
“I’m sorry.” A Xu rested her hand on K’s. She too felt the rhythm of his heartbeat, which sparked an uncontrollable shiver in her body. Something colder than the night fell over her. She muttered, “I’m so sorry, so so sorry . . . ”
“I’m sorry . . . I made you go through . . . all this . . . ”
“What are you talking about? I’m happier right now than I’ve been my whole life, like . . . I am going to live . . . and live for tomorrow.”
“I . . . I think I can’t do this anymore.”
Fatigue overtook K, who was now incapable of opening his eyes. He felt as if he were floating amidst the vast rings of Saturn. The cold night pressed against his chest. The remaining stars faded.
: Well then, your application has been fully confirmed and can officially be implemented, Mr. K Li.
: Great . . . wait . . .
: So now, I’m to be injected? So soon?
: Weren’t you just complaining that the process was too slow? If there is anything else you need to check or go over, I am happy to facilitate.
: So . . . twenty-seven years. I live exactly twenty-seven more years.
: You have twenty-seven years left in your legal life. And it is your obligation to die before the end of your legal life.
: Twenty-seven years . . .
: Mr. Li, if you are still dissatisfied with your Optimistic Lifespan, you have this last chance to terminate your application and accept your five-year waiting period, which is your legal right.
: I’m . . . no . . . Anyway, it’s meaningless to live so long like this.
: Mr. Li, I need you to answer carefully whether you wish to terminate or confirm this application.
: At least it’s possible to live more meaningfully if . . .
: Mr. Li?
: I confirm the application. Let’s go!
“Impossible!” K shouted. “There’s at least three hundred thousand in my account.”
“Open your eyes. Payment failed!” The driver shoved K against the ground, locking his hands behind his back. With his free hand, the driver shoved the screen into K’s face to show him the payment result. “I knew from the start you were up to no good. I took a taxi from Caesar’s out to the middle of nowhere because of you. If you don’t pay up right now, I’m going to bury you here!”
“Wait. My friends are in that factory over there. They’ll pay.” K gasped. Since he had woken up in the park this morning, his head had been a mess. Pain throbbed through his head, through his every bone and joint. He had dragged his shattered body through the park in the morning searching for A Xu but had only found workmen dismantling the Space Park. In desperation, he had called a car service to take him to the factory, but today’s driver was obviously not as kind as yesterday’s.
“You fucking liar. Your friends are here in the Dirt District? No one’s lived out here for years!”
“Really! I mean it! Trust me!”
“You’re a damn ghost. I don’t know how many drugs you took last night. You upstarts really think of yourselves as saviors of man? You’re garbage. You all disgust me. I’m going to do you in now before you harm anyone else.” The driver dropped the screen and grabbed K’s throat. He pushed his head into the dry earth.
“Let him go!”
A woman’s voice came from the direction of the factory gate. “Let him go, now!”
K struggled to raise his head to see who had come to save him. He thought he would see A Xu or Diana. His eyes instead landed on a bright red dress and his heart filled with fear. Step by step, the woman’s face came into focus. It was the PDO woman he had thrown the beer at the night before.
“Let him go.” The woman took something out of the pocket of the red leather coat and showed it to the driver. The driver looked at it and released his hands from K’s neck.
“Fuck,” the driver cursed. “You’re one bad egg. Even the police are after you.”
“You can leave now,” the woman said.
“Fuck you,” the driver spat on the ground next to K, then returned to his car. “This fare should be your funeral fee. Hope you’re sentenced soon, so you can hurry up and die.”
K struggled to rise. Wobbling on his feet, he was swallowed by the smoke and dust from the driver’s car. Dirt burned his eyes. His already blurred vision sunk into blindness. He stumbled a few steps backward, bumping into the woman.
K dropped back to the ground in panic. His legs were numb and unwieldy.
“There’s no need to run. I didn’t come here to catch you.” The woman stretched out a hand and helped lift K’s rickety body. “I wasn’t after you last night either. I was after the girl.”
“A Xu?” K shook off the woman’s hand. “What did you do to her? You should’ve been after me!”
“I’ve already caught her. She and her gang are suspected of stealing 367 thousand in PDO compensation under your name.”
Soon, K again found himself seated at the long table at the heart of the factory. Once littered with documents and computers, it was now empty. Policemen in uniform were carrying away boxes of various sizes. He saw two cops struggling with the operating table where he had lain for his IV.
Seeing K and the woman at the table, one of the cops grinned. “Hey Mandy, this the same upstart who invited you out for a beer last night?” His partner puffed his cheeks and defensively waved his arms as though he feared K might throw a beer at him too. The woman, Mandy, ignored their ridicule. She motioned for them to leave and they shuffled out still chuckling.
K and Mandy seemed to be alone in the vast factory. She took a deep breath and looked at K. Sitting in the familiar chair, K’s face was expressionless, eyes clouded. If it weren’t for the slight rise and fall of his chest, Mandy wouldn’t have known if K were still alive.
“You’re not their first victim. They are suspected of stealing close to six million. They always target PDO applicants to steal their compensation. Lisbon, Los Angeles, Osaka, Hong Kong . . . and now here. One big scam at each destination. We’ve been tracking them for some time.”
“So it was all just a trick?” K asked weakly.
He spoke as though he didn’t really care about the answer, but she still nodded.
“Conning a desperate upstart out of compensation used to be easy. Just tell them there’s a surgery that will reverse the PDO Compound with an organ transplant, cryogenics, or whatnot. I’m sure you’ve heard such tales.” Mandy simpered. “Now, applicants have wised up. They don’t fall for those tricks anymore. So, the conmen have developed more advanced methods, like the people who conned you. Usually, they’ll send over a person to be friends with the applicant first, take care of all their needs, then introduce their little family. Usually, it was the wife who did the trick.”
“You would have seen the woman, the one on the most-wanted list, the former mistress of the drug lord of the old Dirt District. When the Dirt District collapsed, she disappeared but eventually surfaced as part of this gang of swindlers. Typically, after the so-called pharmacist disappeared, she would find the victim, plead for help, open the pharmacist’s apartment, find clues in his email, and so on. More than a few victims confessed she also seduced them.”
“Diana . . . ”
“Of course, that’s not her real name.”
“But the one Zhang Heng most often mentioned was . . . A Xu.” When he spoke her name A Xu, K raised his head to look at Mandy. “A Xu was his daughter.”
“We believe this is the first time they used her this way. I guess they decided it was time to change scripts. In the testimony of previous victims, the girl you mentioned played the role of the young nurse giving the injection.”
“A Xu . . . ” in K’s mind, a bright red, familiar red suddenly appeared. It gradually took shape, becoming A Xu’s lips, Diana’s lips. “They have . . . the same red.”
“Their division of labor is clear. The neighbor creates the foundation of friendship. The wife threads the needle. The thug triggers the mark’s anger and guilt. Then, the nurse provides comfort, makes the mark believe the PDO is their mortal enemy. She gives the mark that sense of mission. The hacker then obtains all authorization to implement the real theft. The leader is the old man, the one who inspires a sense of justice. Eight hours later, when the money lands, they all disappear into thin air.”
“But I watched the PDO take Zhang Heng away . . . ”
“If you had watched more closely, you would have seen it was just them dressed up in PDO uniforms shouting outside your door. They do that to ensure you witness the scene.”
“They . . . Weren’t they afraid I might actually open the door?”
“Mr. Li, they have thoroughly studied the psychology of you upstarts.” Mandy took a deep breath. “They are certain you will not open the door.”
“All . . . all of it was fake?”
“Your friend, the antibodies, the rescue plans . . . all part of the scam. Victims feel stimulated for several hours after the supposed antibody injection. They believe they have escaped the pain. But it’s just a drug. But this time it seems the injection wasn’t prepared correctly due to the change in roles, so there were excess drugs in your body that made your reaction last night more intense. It was probably highly destructive to your body. I think the girl also noticed.”
“Those drugs . . . They were made by A Xu?”
“Yes, we believe she’s the one in charge of preparing the drugs. That girl is the only actual scientist in the group. She is proficient in chemistry, astronomy, physics . . . According to our research, it seems she went astray at a young age after her parents died.”
“A Xu . . . Both parents died . . . ”
“Their scam has several flaws, so they wait until the victim reaches the Compound Reaction Period, typically the second phase. By this time, the victim’s consciousness has experienced the devastation of various Reaction-related diseases, but they still have the ability to act. At the same time, they are at their most desperate for the promised antibodies, and . . . ”
“The victim usually enjoys the process of being cheated, Mr. Li.” Mandy looked at K’s dark, empty eyes. That kind of emptiness she was very familiar with. She couldn’t remember how many times she had looked at such eyes. “Helping friends, gaining new life, fighting evil, saving the world. One dream after another . . . ”
K’s head drooped.
Mandy paused. She seemed used to such reactions. “What is strange, however, is that this time they didn’t give you the anesthesia.”
“The transfer of assets takes eight hours. To prevent any unexpected mishaps, they find a reason for a second injection, this time to make you unconscious. Only this time—I don’t know why—they instead took you into the city.”
“Yes . . . I proposed it. I needed to take A Xu somewhere.”
Mandy glared suspiciously at K. What made her more confused was the sparkle in K’s previously gray eyes. “And they actually agreed?”
“They all opposed. But A Xu convinced them. She said she would go with me.”
“That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you had let me rescue you at the restaurant, maybe we could have recovered your losses.”
K took a deep breath, and his body trembled. He raised a hand to his chest, felt the familiar rhythm of his heart, still beating. He mustered a smile for Mandy. “No, I would have lost something more.”
“It seems you had a good time last night.” Mandy rose from her seat. “I’ll take you back. I wanted you to assist further in the investigation, but you’ve earned your rest. And you provided an important clue as to how they’re adjusting their division of labor.”
“That . . . No.”
“That girl. She won’t be playing the role of the daughter anymore.”
“She told me personally,” K raised his head and his eyes met Mandy’s. The red curve of her coat reminded him of the story he and A Xu had watched, the arc of the spacecraft returning home. “She said she would never do it again.”
: Hi, is this Miss Edi?
: And you are?
: Hello, Miss Edi, this is the customer service center at Space Park.
: Space Park? Is that the exhibition thing in the rich area?
: Yes, Miss Edi, we have your reservation here for two VIP Deluxe Packages, including pick-up service in your city, night camping, and an on-site buffet. This call is to confirm the agenda for you and your mother. We are happy to arrange your pick-up vehicle and fast-pass certificate at your convenience. Also, your tickets include a private booking of the night sky exhibition, Crossing the Rings of Saturn, so I have to confirm with you in advance—
: Wait! Wait! I ordered this?
: Yes . . . It says here you made the reservation six hours ago.
: But I thought upstarts were prohibited from buying tickets to the Space Park or anything else in Caesar . . .
: Miss Edi, we have received a paid reservation signed for you. If you have any questions about the reservation or would like to refund your ticket—
: Damn, who’s pranking me? Who paid for this?
: Just a moment, Miss Edi, allow me to check for—
: Don’t tell me. It was probably one of those jerks from the bar.
: Hello, Miss Edi, the payment account is . . . K Li, Mr. Li.
: K Li? Mom! Mom, come here. Do you know anyone named K Li?
: Miss Edi, please wait a moment. There may be an issue. It says here the genetic account was . . . canceled three weeks ago. This may be due to a system error, but the reservation is good. Do you have any other questions about the reservation? Miss Edi? Are you still there?
Originally published in Chinese in the Nebula XI anthology (Science Fiction World, August 2021).
Translated and published in cooperation with Science Fiction World.
Lu Ban built a following in China with his 2020 debut novel Futuritis, currently under development by Ronghuan Films. In 2021, he published “Upstart” and won the the 2021 China SF Galaxy Award for Best New Writer. His work explores relationships between technology and systems of control.
Blake Stone-Banks is a translator of Chinese speculative fiction. He speculates in his own fiction too. Born in Kentucky and domesticated in Beijing, he thrives on bluegrass and revolutionary model operas.