选登 | 科幻小说 | 北京折叠（一）
选登 | 科幻小说 | 北京折叠（二）
A noise from behind Lao Dao startled him. He turned around and saw that another of Qin Tian’s roommates had emerged from his bedroom. The young man ignored Lao Dao, his face impassive. He went to some machine next to the balcony and pushed some buttons, and the machine came to life, popping, whirring, grinding. Eventually, the noise stopped, and Lao Dao smelled something delicious. The young man took out a piping hot plate of food from the machine and returned to his room.
Through the half–open bedroom door, Lao Dao could see that the young man was sitting on the floor in a pile of blankets and dirty socks, and staring at his wall as he ate and laughed, pushing up his glasses from time to time. After he was done eating, he left the plate at his feet, stood up, and began to fight someone invisible as he faced the wall. He struggled, his breathing labored, as he wrestled the unseen enemy.
Lao Dao’s last memory of Second Space was the refined air with which everyone conducted themselves before the Change. Looking down from the window of the apartment, everything seemed so orderly that he felt a hint of envy. Starting at a quarter past nine, the stores along the street turned off their lights one after another; groups of friends, their faces red with drink, said goodbye in front of restaurants. Young couples kissed next to taxicabs. And then everyone returned to their homes, and the world went to sleep.
It was ten at night. He returned to his world to go to work.
There was no trash chute connecting First Space directly with Third Space. The trash from First Space had to pass through a set of metal gates to be transported into Third Space, and the gates shut as soon as the trash went through. Lao Dao didn’t like the idea of having to go over the flipping ground, but he had no choice.
As the wind whipped around him, he crawled up the still–rotating earth toward First Space. He grabbed onto metal structural elements protruding from the soil, struggling to balance his body and calm his heart, until he finally managed to scrabble over the rim of this most distant world. He felt dizzy and nauseated from the intense climb, and forcing down his churning stomach, he remained still on the ground for a while.
By the time he got up, the sun had risen.
Lao Dao had never seen such a sight. The sun rose gradually. The sky was a deep and pure azure, with an orange fringe at the horizon, decorated with slanted, thin wisps of cloud. The eaves of a nearby building blocked the sun, and the eaves appeared especially dark while the background was dazzlingly bright.
As the sun continued to rise, the blue of the sky faded a little, but seemed even more tranquil and clear. Lao Dao stood up and ran at the sun; he wanted to catch a trace of that fading golden color. Silhouettes of waving tree branches broke up the sky. His heart leapt wildly. He had never imagined that a sunrise could be so moving.
After a while, he slowed down and calmed himself. He was standing in the middle of the street, lined on both sides with tall trees and wide lawns. He looked around, and he couldn’t see any buildings at all. Confused, he wondered if he had really reached First Space. He pondered the two rows of sturdy gingkoes.
He backed up a few steps and turned to look in the direction he had come from. There was a road sign next to the street. He took out his phone and looked at the map—although he wasn’t authorized to download live maps from First Space, he had downloaded and stored some maps before leaving on this trip. He found where he was as well as where he needed to be. He was standing next to a large open park, and the seam he had emerged from was next to a lake in that park.
Lao Dan ran about a kilometer through the deserted streets until he reached the residential district containing his destination. He hid behind some bushes and observed the beautiful house from a distance.
At eight thirty, Yi Yan came out of the house.
She was indeed as elegant as Qin Tian’s description had suggested, though perhaps not as pretty. Lao Dao wasn’t surprised, however. No woman could possibly be as beautiful as Qin Tian’s verbal portrait. He also understood why Qin Tian had spoken so much of her mouth. Her eyes and nose were fairly ordinary.
She had a good figure: Tall, with delicate bones. She wore a milky white dress with a flowing skirt. Her belt was studded with pearls, and she had on black heels.
Lao Dao walked up to her. To avoid startling her, he approached from the front, and bowed deeply when he was still some distance away.
She stood still, looking at him in surprise.
Lao Dao came closer and explained his mission. He took out the envelope with the locket and Qin Tian’s letter.
She looked alarmed. “Please leave,” she whispered. “I can’t talk to you right now.”
“Uh… I don’t really need to talk to you,” Lao Dao said. “I just need to give you this letter.”
She refused to take it from him, clasping her hands tightly. “I can’t accept this now. Please leave. Really, I’m begging you. All right?” She took out a business card from her purse and handed it to him. “Come find me at this address at noon.”
Lao Dao looked at the card. At the top was the name of a bank.
“At noon,” she said. “Wait for me in the underground supermarket.”
Lao Dao could tell how anxious she was. He nodded, put the card away, and returned to hide behind the bushes. Soon, a man emerged from the house and stopped next to her.
The man looked to be about Lao Dao’s age, or maybe a couple of years younger. Dressed in a dark gray, well–fitted suit, he was tall and broad–shouldered. Not fat, just thickset. His face was nondescript: Round, a pair of glasses, hair neatly combed to one side.
The man grabbed Yi Yan around the waist and kissed her on the lips. Yi Yan seemed to give in to the kiss reluctantly.
Understanding began to dawn on Lao Dao.
A single–rider cart arrived in front of the house. The black cart had two wheels and a canopy, and resembled an ancient carriage or rickshaw one might see on TV, except there was no horse or person pulling the cart. The cart stopped and dipped forward. Yi Yan stepped in, sat down, and arranged the skirt of the dress neatly around her knees.
The cart straightened and began to move at a slow, steady pace, as though pulled by some invisible horse. After Yi Yan left, a driverless car arrived, and the man got in.
Lao Dao paced in place. He felt something was pushing at his throat, but he couldn’t articulate it. Standing in the sun, he closed his eyes. The clean, fresh air filled his lungs and provided some measure of comfort.
A moment later, he was on his way. The address Yi Yan had given him was to the east, a little more than three kilometers away. There were very few people in the pedestrian lane, and only scattered cars sped by in a blur on the eight–lane avenue.
Occasionally, well-dressed women passed Lao Dao in two-wheeled carts. The passengers adopted such graceful postures that it was as though they were in some fashion show. No one paid any attention to Lao Dao. The trees swayed in the breeze, and the air in their shade seemed suffused with the perfume from the elegant women.
Yi Yan’s office was in the Xidan commercial district. There were no skyscrapers at all, only a few low buildings scattered around a large park. The buildings seemed isolated from each other but were really parts of a single compound connected via underground passages.
Lao Dao found the supermarket. He was early. As soon as he came in, a small shopping cart began to follow him around. Every time he stopped by a shelf, the screen on the cart displayed the names of the goods on the shelf, their description, customer reviews, and comparison with other brands in the same category. All merchandise in the supermarket seemed to be labeled in foreign languages.
The packaging for all the food products was very refined, and small cakes and fruits were enticingly arranged on plates for customers. He didn’t dare to touch anything, keeping his distance as though they were dangerous, exotic animals. There seemed to be no guards or clerks in the whole market.
More customers appeared before noon. Some men in suits came into the market, grabbed sandwiches, and waved them at the scanner next to the door before hurrying out. No one paid any attention to Lao Dao as he waited in an obscure corner near the door.
Yi Yan appeared, and Lao Dao went up to her. Yi Yan glanced around, and without saying anything, led Lao Dao to a small restaurant next door. Two small robots dressed in plaid skirts greeted them, took Yi Yan’s purse, brought them to a booth, and handed them menus. Yi Yan pressed a few spots on the menu to make her selection and handed the menu back to the robot. The robot turned and glided smoothly on its wheels to the back.
Yi Yan and Lao Dao sat mutely across from each other. Lao Dao took out the envelope.
Yi Yan still didn’t take it from him. “Can you let me explain?”
Lao Dao pushed the envelope across the table. “Please take this first.”
Yi Yan pushed it back.
“Can you let me explain first?”
“You don’t need to explain anything,” Lao Dao said. “I didn’t write this letter. I’m just the messenger.”
“But you have to go back and give him an answer.” Yi Yan looked down. The little robot returned with two plates, one for each of them. On each plate were two slices of some kind of red sashimi, arranged like flower petals. Yi Yan didn’t pick up her chopsticks, and neither did Lao Dao.
The envelope rested between the two plates, and neither touched it. “I didn’t betray him. When I met him last year, I was already engaged. I didn’t lie to him or conceal the truth from him on purpose… Well, maybe I did lie, but it was because he assumed and guessed. He saw Wu Wen come to pick me up once, and he asked me if he was my father. I… I couldn’t answer him, you know? It was just too embarrassing. I…”
Yi Yan couldn’t speak any more.
Lao Dao waited a while. “I’m not interested in what happened between you two. All I care about is that you take the letter.”
Yi Yan kept her head down, and then she looked up. “After you go back, can you… help me by not telling him everything?”
“I don’t want him to think that I was just playing with his feelings. I do like him, really. I feel very conflicted.”
“None of this is my concern.”
“Please, I’m begging you… I really do like him.”
Lao Dao was silent for a while.
“But you got married in the end?”
“Wu Wen was very good to me. We’d been together several years. He knew my parents, and we’d been engaged for a long time. Also, I’m three years older than Qin Tian, and I was afraid he wouldn’t like that. Qin Tian thought I was an intern, like him, and I admit that was my fault for not telling him the truth. I don’t know why I said I was an intern at first, and then it became harder and harder to correct him. I never thought he would be serious.”
Slowly, Yi Yan told Lao Dao her story. She was actually an assistant to the bank’s president and had already been working there for two years at the time she met Qin Tian. She had been sent to the UN for training, and was helping out at the symposium. In fact, her husband earned so much money that she didn’t really need to work, but she didn’t like the idea of being at home all day. She worked only half days and took a half–time salary. The rest of the day was hers to do with as she pleased, and she liked learning new things and meeting new people. She really had enjoyed the months she spent training at the UN.
She told Lao Dao that there were many wives like her who worked half–time. As a matter of fact, after she got off work at noon, another wealthy wife worked as the president’s assistant in the afternoon. She told Lao Dao that though she had not told Qin Tian the truth, her heart was honest.
“And so”—she spooned a serving of the new hot dish onto Lao Dao’s plate—“can you please not tell him, just temporarily? Please… give me a chance to explain to him myself.”
Lao Dao didn’t pick up his chopsticks. He was very hungry, but he felt that he could not eat this food.
“Then I’d be lying, too,” Lao Dao said.
Yi Yan opened her purse, took out her wallet, and retrieved five 10,000-yuan bills. She pushed them across the table toward Lao Dao. “Please accept this token of my appreciation.”
Lao Dao was stunned. He had never seen bills with such large denominations or needed to use them. Almost subconsciously, he stood up, angry.
The way Yi Yan had taken out the money seemed to suggest that she had been anticipating an attempt from him to blackmail her, and he could not accept that. This is what they think of Third Spacers. He felt that if he took her money, he would be selling Qin Tian out. It was true that he really wasn’t Qin Tian’s friend, but he still thought of it as a kind of betrayal. Lao Dao wanted to grab the bills, throw them on the ground, and walk away. But he couldn’t.
He looked at the money again: The five thin notes were spread on the table like a broken fan. He could sense the power they had on him. They were baby blue in color, distinct from the brown 1,000–yuan note and the red 100–yuan note. These bills looked deeper, most distant somehow, like a kind of seduction. Several times, he wanted to stop looking at them and leave, but he couldn’t.
She continued to rummage through her purse, taking everything out, until she finally found another fifty thousand yuan from an inner pocket and placed them together with the other bills. “This is all I have. Please take it and help me.” She paused. “Look, the reason I don’t want him to know is because I’m not sure what I’m going to do. It’s possible that someday I’ll have the courage to be with him.”
Lao Dao looked at the ten notes spread out on the table, and then looked up at her. He sensed that she didn’t believe what she was saying. Her voice was hesitant, belying her words. She was just delaying everything to the future so that she wouldn’t be embarrassed now. She was unlikely to ever elope with Qin Tian, but she also didn’t want him to despise her. Thus, she wanted to keep alive the possibility so that she could feel better about herself.
Lao Dao could see that she was lying to herself, but he wanted to lie to himself, too. He told himself, I have no duty to Qin Tian. All he asked was for me to deliver his message to her, and I’ve done that. The money on the table now represents a new commission, a commitment to keep a secret.
He waited, and then told himself, Perhaps someday she really will get together with Qin Tian, and in that case I’ll have done a good deed by keeping silent. Besides, I need to think about Tangtang. Why should I get myself all worked up about strangers instead of thinking about Tangtang’s welfare? He felt calmer. He realized that his fingers were already touching the money.
“This is… too much.” He wanted to make himself feel better. “I can’t accept so much.”
“It’s no big deal.” She stuffed the bills into his hand. “I earn this much in a week. Don’t worry.”
“What… what do you want me to tell him?”
“Tell him that I can’t be with him now, but I truly like him. I’ll write you a note to bring him.” Yi Yan found a notepad in her purse; it had a picture of a peacock on the cover and the edges of the pages were golden. She ripped out a page and began to write. Her handwriting looked like a string of slanted gourds.
As Lao Dao left the restaurant, he glanced back. Yi Yan was sitting in the booth, gazing up at a painting on the wall. She looked so elegant and refined, as though she was never going to leave.
He squeezed the bills in his pocket. He despised himself, but he wanted to hold on to the money.