9030 words, novelette
Wu Ding's Journey to the West
The Second Law of Thermodynamics: In the natural course of things, the chaos (or “entropy”) of a closed system can only decrease. Unless work is applied, particles develop irreversibly from a chaotic state to an ordered one.
“For you, Wu Ding.”
The government official took out an embroidered pouch that was supposed to contain 40 silver taels, and handed it to Wu Ding.
Wu Ding weighed the pouch in his hand. It felt a few taels short of the agreed-upon sum, but this was of little importance. “Many thanks, Excellency. Won’t you have a cup of tea before you go?”
Some hospitality was in order for this official. After all, he’d just put real silver, Distinguished Youth Fund Foundation silver, in Wu Ding’s hand. Wu Ding would be able to realize his grand dream with this money.
The official waved his hand in refusal. He was fifty or older, his skin taut and smooth. There were only a few strands of silver in his long braid of jet-black hair. Soon enough he would retire, and by then all trace of forehead wrinkles and crow’s feet would be gone. He would be aglow with the luster of youth. This radiance would envelop him as he progressed from adolescence to childhood to infancy, and finally death. His coffin, less than a meter long, would overflow with that brilliance.
Wu Ding showed the official out. There was more he wanted to say, but the official interrupted him: “You needn’t be too happy about receiving this money. Only two people in the whole Empire applied for it. And the other applicant chose to withdraw after asking the opinions of Supernals. So, the Imperial Court had no choice but to award you the money, even though in our view your proposed project is totally worthless.”
Young Wu Ding planned to build a highway, from the Heart of the Empire, Beijing, to the most prosperous city in the West, St. Petersburg. It would allow four-wheel vehicles to make the journey unimpeded, and facilitate trade with the various regions along the way.
But why go to all that effort building the highway? Not only the court, but everyone, was asking this. No one understood. Someday, the highway would come into being on its own.
The only question was time. Nobody knew when, at last, the highway would spontaneously arise from crushed stone, Gobi sands, and mountain slopes. In most cases, Supernals used pai gow dominoes to divine when things would come into being of their own accord. But for some things, this method was not effective, and they didn’t know why. This matter of the highway was a prime example. The Supernals didn’t have a definite answer. All they could say was, “Wait a while, and surely the day will come.” Thus, Wu Ding decided he might as well take matters into his own hands. He applied for a ten-year Distinguished Youth Fund Foundation grant, and he won.
The official’s car still hadn’t come. He and Wu Ding stood waiting in the entryway. By the time Wu Ding had drummed up enough courage to speak, a 15-horsepower Spyker automobile, drawn by two Mongolian horses, pulled to stop before them. The official hastily got in and without so much as a goodbye, ordered the driver to go. The Spyker took off, stirring up a cloud of dust, in a hurry to get out of Beijing’s poorest, most ruined district.
Wu Ding watched it vanish around a bend of the alley. He recited to himself the words he’d prepared for winning the award. It wasn’t a long speech, but he hadn’t been given the chance to say it aloud. Nobody was interested.
Wu Ding was disappointed, but he understood the official’s urgent desire to leave. This was Xicheng, Beijing’s most dilapidated and chaotic district, a ghetto for immigrants from other universes. Entropy here had slowed to a lamentable degree. For decades, no natural entropic ordering had been seen in Xicheng. Extra-Universal families crowded inside shacks on the verge of collapse, people who had immigrated here for various desperate reasons. This was no small feat. The overwhelming majority of Extra-Universals grew backwards. Like Wu Ding, they progressed from infancy to infirmity, ending their days wrinkled and hunched and liver spotted. Their metabolism was even more embarrassing, running contrariwise to the locals’. Extra-Universals had to obtain negentropy from the environment to maintain normal bodily functions. In other words, they had to absorb organic nutrients, which was none other than the locals’ excrement.
Although they faced poverty and all kinds of humiliating circumstances, most Extra-Universals overcame and prevailed. They adapted to local life and local entropy. They put down roots and they multiplied. Wu Ding was a third-generation Extra-Universal.
This was why he had such a strange notion, to build a highway west, straight to another continent.
That night, Wu Ding rode his bike to Beijing’s best pub. He felt like celebrating his accomplishment. He wanted to buy everyone drinks. He imagined a historical moment, delivering his brilliant speech and, after the brief silence that would follow, everyone would raise their glasses in succession and toast him with lively benedictions. Still en route, he imagined stirring scenes, practically shaking with excitement. He locked up his bike in a nearby stable and entered the pub. He reminded himself the speech had to be brief. He was, after all, an unassuming and modest man by nature.
Three drinks in, Wu Ding knew he would drink alone and then go home. There would be no speech, no benedictions. He fished out some money and bought a round for everyone. They did him the honor of drinking his booze, and that was that. He stared out the window, in a daze. Not far away, the dark silhouette of the Bell Tower was growing by slow, visible degrees. The foundation was rising, the main structure beginning to take shape. The outlines of windows was becoming visible. The Supernals said the double-eaved roof of dark glazed tile and the white marble railing would appear in seven days. In another seven, the copper bell would materialize, and then the roof ridge carved with little animals, and the Bell Tower would be officially complete.
Wu Ding sighed. He glanced at his cup, where the foam was starting to form on his beer. He got up and left the pub.
Wu Ding packed early the next morning and walked out of the family home. By ash gray daylight, he carefully locked the door. He turned around and nearly collided with someone’s chest. This person was a head taller than Wu Ding, with dashing eyebrows and an aquiline nose, a slim, wrinkled face, and a full head of silver hair. His countenance was attractive but fierce.
“That’s me. And you are?”
“You’re setting out now?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
The stranger seemed to understand something. He took a step back and handed Wu Ding a letter. “I’ve been dispatched by the Distinguished Youth Fund Foundation Committee. They want me to act as your assistant throughout the project.”
“That’s as may be,” Wu Ding said, opening the letter and reading, “but my project doesn’t require an assistant.” The content of the letter was concise, leaving no margin for doubt. He pocketed the document. “As long as we have an understanding.” He turned and mounted his horse. “The committee dispatched you, so the committee will have to pay you.”
“No problem.” The Foundation man got on his own horse and caught up.
Wu Ding glanced sidelong and sized up the man’s horse. He’d never seen one so big and majestic except in paintings. Wu Ding’s mount, by comparison, was a shaggy-haired, short-legged mule.
“Do you know what you’ve gotten yourself into?” Wu Ding said.
“Well, yes. But construct how?” Wu Ding was proud of himself, of course. After all, he hadn’t told anyone about this method except for a few Supernals.
“A common enough circumstance. Slurry, mud, crushed stone, and dirt road will, on their own, generate a highway. We can only wait. But we can also catalyze the process, promote the orderly development of matter through human activity, or change the form of that development . . . only human activity can alter these settlements’ shapes. No matter how complex, indefinite, or invalid the form, they are all brought about by human intention.”
“So how do we do it?” Wu Ding was getting exasperated.
“Find a vehicle, a car. Drive it once along the route of the proposed road. The work of external force will quicken the entropic ordering of soil grain assembly.” The Foundation man glanced at Wu Ding’s horse. “So, where is our vehicle parked?”
“What vehicle? We’re riding to St. Petersburg on horseback. We’ll return in a car.”
“Oh, I didn’t know the particular circumstances of this journey. Yes, to drive there would indeed be too risky. So, we ride horses, surveying the land and finding a safe route for an automobile. Then we drive back.”
Wu Ding’s impression of the man changed somewhat. He hadn’t guessed at the uncertain nature of Wu Ding’s plan, not completely, which caused Wu Ding a twinge of pride. But he still didn’t trust this agent of the Youth Fund. The Foundation had sent an assistant, ostensibly, but really he was here to keep an eye on things. In the end, it made people uneasy to award so much money to a descendant of Extra-Universals.
“Off we go then,” Wu Ding said. “Oh, by the way, I still haven’t asked your given name.”
“You can call me Peter Luo. That will do.”
“Is there a problem with that?”
“No, no. Very well. Off we go, Peter Luo.”
They headed north along shopping streets. The decorated archways on roof ridges stood tall and erect, and the tessellated horizontal boards glittered with dazzling inlays. The streets were still empty of pedestrians. The chill in the air gradually concentrated. Wu Ding pulled up and tightened his collar, already missing the warmth of his shack. At the great and noble gate of Deshengmen, city guards regarded them with suspicion, and examined their documents and seals fastidiously before letting them pass. The massive, red, gold-inlaid gates opened. They reverberated powerfully as they groaned closed behind Wu Ding, and his throat tightened. That short speech he never got to deliver remained stifled within him, festering.
One day he would return. He would release his stifled words in a bright, clear, booming voice, to countless upturned faces . . . Thus fantasizing, Wu Ding spurred his horse on, and his retinue of one followed him out of Beijing.
“We’ll return,” he consoled Peter Luo, who kept turning to look back.
The Foundation man’s tall, powerful appearance seemed to be a mere façade. “I’m afraid my hair will be black and lustrous by then. Nobody’s made it to St. Petersburg, and nobody has ever driven back from there.”
“By the time our road is complete,” Wu Ding said, dreamily, “countless people will be driving there and back with ease.”
The sun had appeared as they spoke. An alder forest extended before them in the soft golden light, a seemingly a good omen.
They crept across a landscape of earthen slopes, crossed a small, silty wash of rainwater, went through a forest on the far bank, and pressed forward against the wind. Sand blown in from the Mongolian desert bombarded them and their mounts. If all went according to plan, they would be in that desert the day after tomorrow. Wu Ding had no choice but to ride behind Peter Luo, hoping to take advantage of his sand shadow, although it was a futile effort. As they passed along the road, they watched clay loam forming itself into square-shaped bricks. One by one, the bricks layered themselves in an orderly way, becoming a wall. The wall gradually rose, following the undulation of the topography. In some places it was just beginning to take shape, but was clearly on its way to becoming a grand and powerful fortification. Here and there it plunged into a valley before leaping back into view. Sometimes it blocked the way ahead, and peculiar beacon towers rose at regular intervals.
The wall grew in different ways elsewhere. Sometimes it formed a circle, or more often a square or rectangle. Entering wide open city gates, the two travelers beheld wide-open land lacking even crude dirt tracks. Near these cities- and towns-to-be, there were usually groups of conical tents, families patiently enduring the elements and waiting to occupy the spacious courtyard compounds that would soon arise.
As Wu Ding and Peter Luo passed through, settlers peeked out of their tents to watch.
“You should stick around,” one said. “There’s going to be a town here soon. There’ll be beautiful residences to divvy up. You could claim one!”
“Not me,” Wu Ding said.
“But where are you going? There’s nothing ahead.”
“There is St. Petersburg,” Wu Ding said. “I’m going there, then returning.”
People stared in amazement, and no one else spoke up. They’d never met such travelers.
They’d been traveling many days and could no longer count how many times they’d explained themselves to squatting settlers. Most of the time they rode in silence, listening to the sough of wind, the birdsong, the occasional neigh of their horses, and stones gently colliding. They lost the ability and desire to keep track of time. They cared more about the land underfoot: soil quality, road width, load-bearing capacity of old bridges, and other safety considerations for the passage of future automobiles. As they rode their horses, they were also driving hypothetical cars.
To find a return route suitable for an automobile, they sometimes had no choice but to make long detours. Some days they made very little progress. This of course didn’t make for a carefree journey. Particularly troublesome was gorge terrain, which obliged them to descend cliffs and measure canyon widths. When they finally left this convoluted, mountainous country behind, the two of them were completely exhausted. They fell into a muddled state akin to sleepwalking. Indeed, they often fell asleep on horseback. Somehow their animals knew where to go, as if possessed of a mystical wisdom. Wu Ding and Peter Luo could do little more than strive not to fall off their mounts.
“Where are you two headed?” someone asked.
Wu Ding opened his eyes and saw a high-ranking man of some kind, a duke or governor perhaps, fingers loaded with black jade rings, nails long and well-kept. The man wore a Western-style hat with long tassels and an embroidered ceremonial robe of satin. Wu Ding tried to dismount and make the proper abeyances, but his horse had not agreed to stop.
The horses had endured difficult mountain paths for too long. Now that they were on open, level grasslands and could gallop at full speed, they didn’t wish to just stop.
The governor took no offense. He and his bodyguards came running after them on foot, calling out in high spirits, making a game of the scene.
“Excellency!” Wu Ding cried from horseback.
“Now now, let’s dispense with formalities!”
“But you must forgive my manners.”
The governor was laughing breathlessly. “Think nothing of it. You two . . . where are you going?”
“A far-off foreign land, Excellency.”
“Oh, I see.” The governor nodded thoughtfully. In a more serious tone he added, “But you must stop.”
The horses reared to a stop at once. In the suddenly quiet grassland, there was only the flutter of a multicolored Manchu dragon banner.
Wu Ding dismounted. He took a slightly cold document out of his breast pocket and respectfully offered it to the governor.
But the governor fished out some snuff from a pouch and inhaled deeply, then blinked with contentment. “Oh, your papers. No, it’s not that. You need to stop for another reason. There is a river ahead. Normally just a trickle, you understand, but the rainy season has just passed and now you’re dealing with a veritable flood. I’m afraid you two won’t be able to cross.”
“Oh, I see. Is there another way?”
“You’ll have to make a rather long detour, I’m afraid, and go over the bridge. Several days out of your way, unfortunately.”
Wu Ding and Peter Luo glanced at each other.
“Is it a wide bridge?” Peter Luo asked.
“Wide enough for horses, but probably not palanquins.”
“Many thanks, Excellency,” Wu Ding said. “We’ll go to the river first and have a look. If we’re convinced we can’t cross, we’ll return.”
The governor shrugged, yawning, expressing no further opinion on the matter.
Wu Ding brought palm and fist together in obeisance, mounted his horse, and bid farewell to the colorful, satin-clad group of men. He and Peter Luo hastened toward the river.
It was a broad and torrential rapid, but an automobile could probably cross it. This was a relief. The next question was how to cross just now. Wu Ding felt it wasn’t such a danger, and they should just ride across, never mind the detour and bridge.
“Then at least put your baggage on my horse,” Peter Luo said. His animal was tall enough to keep saddlebags dry. Wu Ding declined, perhaps out of pride, or just stubbornness. He led his short-legged horse by the halter, step-by-step seeking safe footing. The river was deeper than he’d thought. A few steps in and the water was already up to his waist, and soon it was at his throat. He cried out for help, unable to swim. His foot came down on a sharp stone and he lost his balance. He held on tight to his horse’s reigns for dear life. The horse struggled backwards, baggage falling into the water. Wu Ding fought his way out of the deeper current and Peter Luo grabbed him around the waist. They watched helplessly as Wu Ding’s baggage washed away.
Inside were all his rations.
If only he could have a simple pancake.
Wu Ding hadn’t expected to run into a food shortage issue so early in the journey. After crossing the river, they continued through desolate, uninhabited wilderness. Back on the grassy steppes they’d still seen hares, but now there was nothing. Wu Ding’s only sustenance was his imagination. Already two days without food, his stomach was growling, his body exhausted. Sleeping or waking, he thought only of food. It got so bad that once he hallucinated and ended up chewing a mouthful of air.
“Perhaps we should stop and rest a bit,” Peter Luo said with a worried expression. He dismounted, and spread a blanket on a patch of shady, cool earth.
Wu Ding lay on the blanket, unable to move or do anything but gaze enviously at Peter Luo. They were together in all this, but Peter suffered no hunger. He glowed with health and radiated vigor. While Wu Ding rested, Peter Luo practiced gymnastics and calisthenics, shouting out commands to himself: “One! Two! Three! Four!” squats, “One! Two! Three! Four!” push-ups, “One! Two! Three! Four!” backward somersaults.
Through the haze of his weakness, Wu Ding remembered: these locals relied merely on work, on exertion, to synthesize the nutrition their bodies needed. Peter Luo wasn’t doing insane, pointless exercises—he was eating. Wu Ding watched, growing dizzy. He closed his eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Peter Luo asked, sounding deeply concerned.
What else can I do? Wu Ding thought to himself, swallowing a mouthful of saliva. Contrary to his expectations, his stomach rumbled with hunger.
“Ah,” Peter Luo said, “you’ve been hungry for quite some time. Just give me a moment.” He seemed excited, as if he’d just solved a riddle, and took off running. Wu Ding didn’t understand his companion’s suddenly elevated spirits. Over the past few days, he’d discovered that Peter Luo, despite his fierce appearance, was unexpectedly innocent, even naïve.
In short order, Peter Luo reappeared from behind a boulder. He came jogging back, carefully holding something in both hands. He came to stand before Wu Ding, then shyly and humbly lowered his gaze. “Here, for you. Have a look. Is it edible?”
Wu Ding hesitantly took the warm, round, sticky thing from Peter Luo’s hands.
“Apparently you people rely on ingesting this kind of thing to maintain life,” Peter Luo said. “If that’s really the case, then this . . . well, you should be able to eat it.” He struggled to conceal his embarrassment, but his careful avoidance of eye contact gave him away.
Wu Ding studied the brown ball in his hands. It looked suspicious, nauseating really, not at all appetizing, but it gave off an undeniably pleasant scent. It was redolent of carbohydrates, a fragrance more powerful than any of Wu Ding’s reservations.
He swallowed the thing whole, and it was delicious.
The problem of food had been unexpectedly resolved. A mutual respect had developed between the two travelers, so Peter Luo never said anything regarding the food’s origin, and Wu Ding never asked. With this tacit agreement between them, they came to the mountainous region between the Hala and Youlu Rivers. They followed camel-trodden trade routes. They rode through ravines sheltered from the wind, slogged through unavoidable marshes, passed by terraced houses that once detained criminals, white buildings with pointed rooftops, and entered a canyon forest. At last, they stood in an open space before a towering marble stele. On the eastward face were engraved the two characters for “Asia,” 亚洲, and on the westward face the two for “Europe,” 欧洲.
At first glance there was no distinguishing between the two halves of the world. But after standing there for a while, a subtle difference became apparent. This was an unequivocal border. Despite being separated by a mere stele, a chunk of stone, it was as if each side was filtered through a different lens. The Asia side radiated a slight yellow, while the Europe side was suffused with a faint green. These were two worlds with two different grains, two different textures. Although their skies were similar, and their soil and forests and roads, they were composed of different particles. Here, on an unremarkable mountain in the Ural range, was a confluence of continents. And two people who’d never left Beijing before were now here. The land behind them, the ground they’d passed over that was already full of the memory of humanity’s passage, was perhaps already burgeoning with settlements, becoming a highway of civilization that led to this place, and this moment.
It occurred to Wu Ding he ought to mark down this border. He extended a hand toward Peter Luo and said, “Map please?”
Peter Luo went through his bags, searching, growing agitated. “I seem to be short one saddlebag. It may have come off in that grove we just passed through, snagged by a branch.”
Wu Ding’s heart sank. He immediately wanted to turn back and search the forest, but it was already growing dark. By the time he got to the grove he wouldn’t be able to see anything. Wracked by indecision and frustration, he heard someone call to them.
“Hey there, you two!”
A tall woman draped in a reddish-brown frock stood on the open ground of Europe, then rushed toward them, waving an arm. Her right sleeve was wound around her waist, and she was completely unselfconscious about exposing half her body. Behind her, in charming, picturesque disorder, were arranged a dozen or so conical tents. Before each stood several women, giggling and directing coquettish glances at the travelers.
“You’ve run into some difficulties?” the apparent leader asked.
“Well,” Wu Ding said, “we’ve lost our map, possibly somewhere back there in that grove.”
“Oh dear,” the woman muttered to herself. “If you go back and search, I’m afraid it would be very difficult to retrieve your map. Let our Supernal see if she can’t produce another.”
“Excellent!” Peter Luo nearly fell off his horse in his excitement.
The leader summoned her Supernal from behind the group of women and instructed her to prognosticate on the matter of the map. Wu Ding and Peter Luo were invited into the leader’s tent, which was shady and cozy, and filled with a delightful fragrance. A tidily shaved cube of ice warded off the suffocating air and heat of the forest. Wu Ding and Peter Luo couldn’t restrain sighs of relief as they reclined on soft cushions and a maidservant brought them fruit, and the coolness of the tent set them at ease.
“Shall we play at cards?” the leader invited. “Regardless, there’s nothing more we can do about your troubles for the moment.”
Wu Ding and Peter Luo couldn’t argue with this. The maidservant dealt cards from a deck, and the guests earnestly studied the rules of the game. They soon mastered the fundamentals and were playing nearly as well as the leader and maidservant. Compared with the Empire’s Mahjong, this was child’s play. The leader told them the game was called “tractor.”
“Tractor,” Wu Ding said. “Sounds like some future means of transportation.”
The leader nodded. “That’s what the Supernals say.”
Just then, the maidservant brought word from the Supernal. According to her prediction, a search would be fruitless.
“So, regarding our original map,” Wu Ding said, “she means . . . ”
“If the map is so very important,” the maidservant said, “you two can wait here. A new map can be made here at our settlement, in two days or so. It will be identical to your old map.”
Wu Ding said nothing and simply showed his cards, which the maidservant took. This match was a draw.
The maidservant began shuffling the cards. This was an arduous task that required patience. Slacken in the work even slightly, and the cards would again sort themselves according to suit and value. Wu Ding dazedly watched the cards fly up and down in her deft hands, the blur of the cards like a fantastical curtain. He felt light, buoyant, like he was sinking into a bed of soft cotton. His heart rate slowed. He thought perhaps continuing to wait was a great idea. Good things come to those who wait, he mused. Inundated by all manner of good things, as one was in a universe of increasing order, something you wanted was always on the way.
Besides, without a map, it would be impossible to drive an automobile from St. Petersburg back to Beijing.
All the hardships they’d suffered would mean nothing.
He needed that map.
That being the case, why not keep waiting?
In the comfort of the tent they continued to play tractor, waiting for the map to be produced.
Peter Luo’s voice came to Wu Ding’s ears, as if from a great distance, further away than Beijing. Wu Ding was too distracted by the cards to respond.
“Wu Ding . . . what shall we do?”
“Wait, of course. We need the map. You heard the Supernal’s words. Perhaps two days or so and we’ll have it.”
“Perhaps?” Peter Luo said. “And what if our westward highway forms before we get the map?”
Wu Ding thought, Wouldn’t that be for the best? Even if they hadn’t completed the whole journey, they had quickened the birth of the highway. Wu Ding looked up at his companion and wondered what he was sad about. Waiting here wasn’t laziness, or opportunism. Waiting for the map wasn’t the same as those squatters waiting for roads and houses and cities to arise from nothing. Those settlers just watched and waited for order to increase. But Wu Ding and Peter Luo had, after all, come so far.
“Come on now, what’s wrong?” Wu Ding said.
“When it all comes down to it, what are we doing here?”
“Playing tractor,” the impudent maidservant said.
Wu Ding glared at her resolutely. “We’re waiting for our map.”
“Waiting,” Peter Luo said. “My hair could go black and yours white doing that. Why come all this way to wait? Why didn’t we just stay in Beijing and wait for the road to appear?”
“That’s not the same. Those people waiting in Beijing . . . they’re waiting for a road. They’re doing nothing. But we’ve been proactive! We’ve accomplished something! And now we’re just waiting for a map.”
“Are we so different from those Beijingers?” Peter Luo threw down his cards and stood up. “Wu Ding, you haven’t even asked me.”
“Asked you what?” Wu Ding didn’t understand, and Peter Luo didn’t explain. He simply walked out of the tent.
All along, the leader of the women was grinning at Wu Ding, as if she understood everything. “Why not ask him if he remembers the map? Perhaps he can sketch the entire thing from memory.”
“I can!” Peter Luo said in a loud voice outside the tent.
The two travelers hastened on through the night, without rest.
On the second day, and then on the third, it was more of the same. Man and horse utterly drained, they pushed incessantly forward. In the end, they had become little more than automata, mechanically progressing west.
On the fourth day, the majestic, resonating blast of a steam whistle shocked them out of a light doze. Eight eyes opened at once, hastily peering around in all directions. They discovered they had ended up on St. Petersburg’s bustling cargo wharf.
As far as the eye could see there were arched windows, colonnades, beautiful vaulted domes and multistoried buildings, rows of linked, pitched arches joined like music, like waves under the blue sky.
For a long time, Wu Ding and Peter Luo couldn’t speak.
Wu Ding found himself lost in profound thought. He couldn’t quite lift his head yet, to appreciate the bright, piling clouds, and inhale the mingled scents of the wharf.
Peter Luo said nothing, but patted Wu Ding’s shoulder.
“If it weren’t for you,” Wu Ding said, “we might still be sitting in a tent waiting for a map.”
“All is well now.”
“I didn’t expect St. Petersburg to be so big. I mean, it’s no Beijing of course, and I really miss Beijing’s dusty look. And I wonder if the Drum Tower will be finished growing by the time we get back.”
“We’ll be back soon enough, and we’ll know all about the tower. In fact, we’ve made it halfway. Next is simply the road home.”
According to Wu Ding’s plan, the return trip would be three times faster than getting here. They would be taking the favorable route they’d painstakingly explored. They would be in an automobile that never grew tired or irritable. Homesickness would make of Wu Ding and Peter Luo two arrows hurtling east. For the moment they stayed in a beautiful domed hotel. They bathed, changed clothes, then immediately set out to purchase a vehicle. Although St. Petersburg was a booming city, it was no match for the center of the cosmos, Beijing. Even though there weren’t many pedestrians or horse-drawn wagons in the downtown area, it was only three or four degrees colder here than in the forest. Strolling along, Wu Ding and Peter Luo maintained their composure and offered each other opinions. Wu Ding, who’d begun to develop deep crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes, consoled his friend and told him not to lose heart. Although St. Petersburg was backward, it would become Europe’s leading port city. The Empire’s tea, porcelain, and rice liquor would, via this city, be conveyed all over the world. Peter Luo’s lips, which were growing rosier by the day, curled in a smile. He’d accepted Wu Ding’s optimistic prediction.
However, matters were not so simple. They found themselves confronted with a weighty fact: there were still no automobiles in St. Petersburg. All the metals needed for their manufacture had not been produced yet. Although Wu Ding had known St. Petersburg’s entropic deceleration lagged behind the Imperial Capital’s, he’d underestimated the entropic difference between the two cities.
Give up, or persevere? Do this or do that?
He stood facing Peter Luo for a long time. During this silent confrontation, heavy casualties were suffered. On insufficient grounds, and without a feasible plan, they finally agreed to stay in St. Petersburg, to first smelt steel, then manufacture automobiles, and at last drive back to Beijing.
Wu Ding and Peter Luo passed the latter half of their lives in St. Petersburg. They founded an automobile materials laboratory, with the goal of manufacturing everything they would need to produce a car. Because vehicles in the Imperial Capital came into existence automatically, nobody knew the specific properties of car materials. But according to textbooks, the required materials were all made of the same stuff: countless particles, atoms, invisible to the naked eye. Change the arrangement of these atoms, and you could create new types of matter.
Although no one had ever seen these atoms, or even understood their description—never mind comprehended how to arrange them into new materials—Wu Ding and Peter Luo decided to experiment a bit. They chose the most common materials on this strange continent to extract and refine, and were unceasing in their trials and tests, striving to produce abundant permutations of atoms. They worked day and night. Finally, they began to stumble upon some of the materials they would need for an automobile, such as metal crystals. In this way they plunged into the world of atomic permutations, feeling duty bound not to turn back.
It is said that Wu Ding and Peter Luo passed away on the same day. They were discovered in their workshop. Wu Ding, decrepit and hunched in his cushioned chair, was holding the infant Peter Luo in his swaddling clothes. They seemed asleep.
Each was survived by an only son, and these two young men carried on their fathers’ enterprise, devoting their lives and all their energy to manufacturing steel. Wu Ding the Second and Peter Luo the Second were together from birth. They grew up together, were educated together, and then worked together. At a certain stage they were nearly indistinguishable. They were like one of the composites they strove to create in their lab, both old and young, innocent and shrewd. Whenever anything cropped up, they always turned their efforts toward completely opposite directions. It was hard to say whether things might’ve gone smoother if they didn’t have each other.
Regardless, by the time they were both toothless, they had finally produced steel and rubber.
On his deathbed, Wu Ding the Second, like his father before him, carefully dictated a speech to his son, character by character, line by line.
The old man believed his son would live to see Wu Ding the First’s dream realized. Wu Ding the Third would behold the completed Drum Tower that Wu Ding the First so often dreamed of and pined for. Wu Ding the Third would face that city of gray brick and black roof tile and declaim in a booming voice the words that had waited three family generations for breath.
And the great highway three generations had spent their lives hoping for would, perhaps, in Wu Ding the Third’s words, come spontaneously to be.
Both Wu Ding the Third and Peter Luo the Third lacked the faith and confidence of their forebears. They broke their generational continuity and sank into self-doubt, their morale collapsing. And yet, when they were 45 years old, they miraculously invented St. Petersburg’s first automobile. The vehicle’s main fuel was people’s exhaled breath, mixed with some other gases that weren’t so reactive. This mix automatically condensed in the tank, actuating pistons that provided the vehicle’s motive force, while generating diesel oil that drained through a tube into a vat.
The day the new automobile began its journey, two people’s spirits were roused to vigorous action. Wu Ding the Third drove the vehicle over a bridge, hurtling past pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages, leaving them behind in the dust, and in short order leaving St. Petersburg. Peter Luo the Third turned in the passenger seat and watched the beautiful, multicolored domes and palaces shrink with distance.
“We could be back before long,” Ding said in an attempt to comfort Pete.
“Sure,” Pete said, “with roads established, driving back and forth between two places will be no big deal.” His mood was improving again. “I’m really anxious to get to the Capital. I want to see how their cars compare to ours, composition-wise. And if they’re not the same, let’s see whose are faster, whose are sturdier!”
Ding had been accustomed to Pete’s boyishness for a long time. Despite the Wu clan allegedly being more naïve than the Luos, there was actually no difference. Ding stepped on the gas, propelling the vehicle energetically onward.
The towns and villages along the way had news of their coming ahead of time. Locals fell over each other with eagerness, fighting for a glimpse, wondering what sort of machine Europe’s first car was. They lined the streets to welcome Ding and Pete, tossing care packages of bread, cheese, tomatoes, and vodka into the vehicle. They kept watch at ferry crossings or muddy ground, ready to assist if the vehicle ran into problems. At the bazaar in Novgorod, car enthusiasts surrounded the vehicle and couldn’t be dispersed for several hours, everyone striving to reach out and touch this miraculous four-wheeled house. Finally, the police rushed in and restored a degree of order, but Ding’s hopes to immediately quit this fanatical city were dashed, because police are human too, curious as anyone else, and they had knowledge-hungry relatives. Ding and Pete soon discovered they would need at least half a day to escape Novgorod.
Having learned a valuable lesson, Ding chose to drive onto the Volga River’s ferry steamer at dawn. Most people were still dreaming in bed at this time. On board there were seven or eight night-duty Cossack workers. They surrounded the vehicle, inspecting it and arguing amongst themselves, until finally one of them asked Pete where this strange carriage was hiding its horses.
Pete roared with laughter and they chatted at length. Pete was a congenial, loquacious person. It was as if anyone with bright and smooth skin were naturally garrulous. Ding couldn’t remember if he’d been that way when his flesh was youthful. He was 45, but had already forgotten so much of his youth. He often felt his life had begun with his paternal grandfather’s. What he was seeing now seemed to have already passed, long ago. No matter what he came across, it all seemed to have happened before. He couldn’t shake this feeling. Life was as tasteless as the water in his mouth.
On about the fourth day of the journey, in the vicinity of the Kazan River Valley, they had to stop. The fuel tank was empty—it was time to replenish. Ding and Pete got out, opened the hood, pulled the rubber tube out from under the fuel tank, and started taking turns blowing air. It began to rain, and there was nowhere around to take shelter. They had no choice but to get wet and blow into the tank.
Just then, a long row of chariots came charging out of the gray void of the rain. Seven or eight gorgeously-clad young people pulled to a stop and jumped down from their vehicles. When they had come to understand Ding and Pete’s situation, they immediately proposed joining in the work of refueling.
“You can feel confident handing this over to us,” a big-nosed young foreigner said. “We are the best brass wind instrument players in this region!”
This was no empty boast. Sure enough, in very short order, the fuel tank was full.
The young people cheered as they got back on their chariots, and charged away before Ding could even finish thanking them.
“Well what do you know,” Pete said, “strangers aren’t always bad.” Even though their outward appearances were quite different, they were growing and developing in the same entropic direction, so Pete and these Russians had gotten along well. He trusted them.
Wu Ding the Third said nothing to his companion. He returned to the driver’s seat. He stepped on the gas, and the engine issued its beautiful roar.
The rain had stopped, but the fog continued to roll in heavily. They hadn’t seen the sun in days. Although the road through the forest was wide enough for an automobile, there was often a fallen tree or branch obstructing the way. Pete always took the initiative, getting out and clearing the way. One time he even had to drag a dead stag off the road. Ding’s expression grew more and more somber, day by day, until it seemed he would melt into the fog. No matter how hard Pete tried, he couldn’t provoke a response from his companion. Finally, Pete also grew dejected. The two of them endured the passing landscape in silence, the splash of mud as they sped through pools, until they finally left behind the clusters of iris and undergrowth, and on the distant frontier line there was clustered a small town.
While they took a rest, Ding found a family of Chinese who’d opened a fuel station. In his halting, accented Mandarin, augmented with gesticulations, he engaged in some fierce haggling. He ended up spending his last rubles on several liters of diesel oil dumping rights. He drained the automobile of the diesel it had accumulated over the last few days. Into the Chinese family’s depot it pooled. Alleviated of this load, the vehicle’s maximum speed increased considerably, and soon enough they had entered Mongolia.
“What’s that?” Pete suddenly asked, pointing.
Ding spotted a distant cloud shadow sweeping over the earth, closing in on them—but he knew right away this was no cloud shadow. At the same time, a strong breeze hurtled by, advance notice of an imminent sandstorm. Pete tried to take over the driving wheel from Ding, in order to evade the coming storm, but Ding fought him off, dragged him under the seat, and used his coat to cover his mouth and nose. The vehicle violently swerved and rocked, as if toyed with by a great formless hand. They almost flipped over many times. Sand flowed like a torrential river, spinning, soon rising in a vortex to obstruct the sky. Briefly, the sand was so powerful it swallowed up heaven and earth and all living things, along with a tiny automobile and the two people inside. Ding tightly gripped Pete, aware for the first time in his life that they might not die at the same time. One of them could die before the other.
This revelation shook him more violently than the sandstorm ever could, and when the tempest had finally passed, the idea was still there.
Although they were now moving through a pine forest, and the clean air was fragrant with pine resin, Ding remained uneasy. They were still far from Beijing. Anything could happen. One generation’s vaguely worded “difficult, endless journey,” experienced firsthand, suddenly grew into a giant, terrifying beast. Wu Ding the Third felt his physical powers in decline, while his companion seemed to grow more vigorous by the minute. The balance they’d maintained between them was no more. That was how Ding felt about it, anyway.
As if to confirm his opinion, when they arrived at a forest rest station, they found the tire on their left drive wheel was flat. They removed the tire, hoping to find a source of hot water to soak it in. The station ranger recommended they go to the Youlu Riverbank’s bathhouse. Ding and Pete chose to take this opportunity to relax a bit. In the bathhouse, Pete held the tire and focused on the soak. Faced with Pete’s naked, well-built physique, Ding’s sorrow intensified. Shedding tears, he stood up and approached Pete. He bent down and spoke in his ear the words handed down from Wu Ding the First.
Pete was shocked. “Why are you telling me this?”
Ding didn’t answer. As if nothing had transpired, he continued to bathe. This body of his, once tall and well-muscled, skin firm and clear, was now old. He didn’t expect to survive crossing the dreadful Gobi Desert.
Several days later, Ding and Pete bid farewell to the loud, heartily laughing Mongols and their cattle herds, and drove into the Gobi. The heat was indeed hellish. Every particle of air was agitated and restless. In Pete’s words, the air particles were like jumping beans in a heated pan. The waste cold from their engine was the only source of civilization’s chill in this wild hot zone.
“The living creatures of the Gobi must feel our car is heaven-sent,” Pete said, with a sidelong glance at Ding, his awkward smile faltering.
Ding’s face was swollen after so much sun exposure and had gone from gloomy to downright frightful. He drove, staring straight ahead with a grim expression, sometimes not bothering to swerve around large stones in the road. He didn’t seem to care that by crushing stones and other detritus under the wheels, he was endangering the vehicle. Even faced with a veneration-worthy Mongol boundary marker, a large pile of earth and stones, he had no misgivings about plowing right through it.
Sacred streamers and flags with Tibetan prayers written on them held no stopping power for Ding now.
Pete winced as they drove over horse or ox skulls. That crushing sound sent shivers down his spine. He proposed replacing Ding behind the wheel, but Ding refused. In this endless, lonely wasteland, distant horizons seemed closer than they were. The vast heavens were enough to make one’s heart palpitate. Distance and scenery combined to become surreal. The road behind them quickly retreated, like the sea’s turbulent waves.
“Ding!” Pete finally yelled. “Stop! The car is going to fall apart!”
And the vehicle did stop, but not because of Pete’s exhortation. They’d been climbing a sand dune when the wheels sank, losing their purchase. The sand was too loose. They cranked the start lever, turned the steering wheel without moving forward, and all they accomplished was to start overcooling the engine. It was emitting freezing air and beginning to frost over. If they kept it up, the other parts of the vehicle might start freezing up.
They stood there under the sun, helplessly rubbing their hands.
“Go,” Ding said. “You might be able to make it. You’re stronger now than you’ll ever be. You could still get out of the Gobi.”
Pete squinted at Ding. He opened the trunk, took out a shovel, and got to work trying to free the wheels.
“Useless,” Ding said, grabbing the shovel in mid-plunge. “Don’t put it off. Just go. And when you get to Beijing, remember to say what my grandfather always wanted to say.”
“Say . . . say what?” Pete seemed confused. “Oh, that’s right. I was joking. Those Mongols we were traveling with for a while, the eldest brother, he believed you and I were twins. He said he couldn’t tell who was who unless we were together right in front of him.”
“You and I are not the same, Pete.” Ding’s throat hurt terribly. No, he was not Peter Luo the Third. His body was progressing from stability to chaos. His life energy was nearly exhausted. He had neither the strength nor the enthusiasm to return to Beijing, simply to complete a road that would come to exist regardless of what he did.
On this long journey that had inspired so many, he felt only tired. He perceived only tedium. Why should he put effort into a road that would inevitably come to be, with or without him?
This question had finally consumed his spirit. He’d had enough of this dreariness.
Both he and Pete hoped to reach Beijing as soon as possible. Pete, for the sake of the road. Ding, to bring a swift end to this tedium.
“True, you and I are not the same,” Pete said, choking with emotion. “You are Wu Ding the Third, and I am Peter Luo the Third. This road is your grandfather’s. If you don’t go on, there can’t be a road. Think of the world, think of all the people waiting for you to create this new road.” He pushed Ding out of the way and continued to shovel sand. “Sure, maybe there are other ways to make this westward highway. But now there’s only one way, this way, to make your highway, this highway. Just because something is futile doesn’t make it meaningless.”
Ding took a step back, no longer intent on preventing Pete’s shoveling.
Some people liked useless effort. Some people needed it. It was like this desert. Once upon a time, it was an ocean. Now all that was left was dryness, salt flats, desolation. Digging a well or two wasn’t going to change that.
After the engine had rested a bit, it began to warm up. But it was still a long way from being able to start. Unless of course it was supplied with water . . .
In Wu Ding’s mind there arose a creaking noise, like a door that had been shut for ages finally opening. He realized there was still a glimmer of hope. If they could only find some water, they could melt the frost on the engine.
Almost too far away to see, on a small patch of sparse grass, there was a well . . .
Wu Ding the Third and Peter Luo the Third spent more than a month and suffered untold hardships before finally arriving in a suburban county of Beijing. They consulted Wu Ding the First’s map and crossed over an easily surmounted mountain ridge, and then they were within moments of reaching the Imperial Capital.
As the sun sank westward, they ascended a final peak and stood looking down upon a grand scene.
There was the dark gray city wall, and moat, that had been awaiting them for so many years.
“You could shout out those words now,” Pete suggested.
“No. I will go down into the city and speak in front of the people.”
“Sure, but why not practice a bit first? Speak, hold forth, and don’t get stuck. Come on, pretend I’m the audience.”
Ding glanced at Pete, and shyly lowered his head.
“Come on then,” Pete said, giving Ding a swift poke in the ribs.
Ding raised his head and took a few deep breaths in preparation. Wu Ding the Second’s energetic, spring-loaded sentence delivery arose in his mind. Wu Ding the Third gradually turned to face Peter Luo the Third. “Go?”
Wu Ding the Third threw out his chest, and keeping in mind the vast twilight gloaming before him, said in a forceful voice: “History shows us that those who speak pleasant words are always more popular than those engrossed in accomplishing deeds. But it doesn’t matter, because history also tells us that it needs those fools who quietly immerse themselves in work, putting their shoulders to the wheel, because it is they who make history!”
Silence followed as the dusk deepened.
The quiet between heaven and earth was extraordinary, as if in that moment all the world had ceased to breathe, waiting for the lingering echoes of Ding’s speech to spiral upward, or slowly descend like fine, pure snow, or an extinguished spark from an anonymous chest.
Even though it had just been a few unadorned, awkward, common words.
“Too long-winded, right?” Ding said. “This speech has been transmitted through three generations of people.”
“Wordy, sure. They really are Wu Ding the First’s words. Authentic.”
“Genuine, indeed.” Ding’s nose tingled, his eyes dampened. For a moment, Beijing blurred in his vision, so that there were several Imperial Capitals. Until a tear dropped, there was still orange light on the uppermost wall towers. Ding rubbed his eyes. He saw clearly again, but again didn’t dare believe his eyes. In the northwest corner of the Beijing city wall, a wide gap had opened. A large structure was rising from ground level, slowly but surely, growing steeply, already towering over the city wall. Wu Ding the First had described Beijing countless times. He had never mentioned this tall building.
Ding and Pete looked at each other in bewilderment. This seemingly immaterial structure triggered an indescribable unease. Behind them, the sun finally vanished below the horizon. The veil of night enveloped the world, providing dark contrast for Beijing’s lights. Even standing on this distant mountain peak, it was as if they could hear the city’s hubbub.
Just then, a 4-horsepower Spyker came along the road and passed them by. Pete jogged along to keep up, and into the window said, “Excuse me, but you fine people seem to be coming from Beijing. May I ask if you know what that new building is, the tall one at the northwest corner of the city wall?”
“Yes,” said someone inside, “we’re from the city, and it’s not strange you don’t know that building. It hasn’t been growing but a few days. It is Beijing West Railway Station. The Supernals say that within half a month of its appearance, at most, a train track from Beijing to the West will come into being. From now on, heading west from Beijing will take no great effort. If you want to go further, you can just go further. Longed for so many years, this westward way . . . at last it has come to be, all on its own!”
The vehicle hadn’t stopped during this explanation. It soon vanished into the night, leaving two dumbfounded travelers standing there in silence for quite some time.
Pete finally turned to Ding. “Well, that was unexpected, eh?”
“Unexpected,” Ding managed.
“At least . . . ”
“Right, at least . . . ”
It was dark up here. Beneath the inky sky, Wu Ding the Third moved toward the edge of a steep cliff. He gazed into the distance. Beijing was still Beijing, still the Imperial Capital. The Capital, plus one new tall building. That towering structure was a dazzling sight, resplendent in jade green and glittering gold, luminous, like a heavenly realm where immortals might dwell, a place for humans to look upon in awe, but never touch.
Originally published in Chinese in Flower City, Issue 06, 2018.
Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.
Tang Fei is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her works have appeared in Shanghai Literature, Flower City, and Fiction World. She has written fantasy, science fiction, fairy tales, and wuxia, but prefers to write in a way that straddles or stretches genre boundaries. Many of her stories have been published internationally and her work has been included in The Year’s Best Science Fiction in the United States. She has published a collection of stories, The Person Who Sees Cetus, and a novel, The Unknown Feast. Her story “Panda Breeder” was selected as Smokelong Quarterly’s Best Flash Fiction of 2019. The same year, “Wu Ding’s Journey to the West” won Speculative Fiction in Translation’s Most Popular Short Story silver medal. “Spore” was awarded the 2020 Chinese Readers’ Choice Awards (Gravity Awards) for best short story.
She is also involved in different art forms such as literary criticism, poetry, installation, and photography.
Andy Dudak is a writer and translator of science fiction. His original stories have appeared in Analog, Apex, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best, and elsewhere. He’s translated many stories for Clarkesworld, and a novel by Liu Cixin, among other things. In his spare time he likes to binge-watch peak television and eat Hui Muslim style cold sesame noodles.