Lao Dao left Xidan and returned the way he had come. He felt exhausted. The pedestrian lane was lined with a row of weeping willows on one side and a row of Chinese parasol trees on the other side. It was late spring, and everything was a lush green. The afternoon sun warmed his stiff face, and brightened his empty heart.
He was back at the park from this morning. There were many people in the park now, and the two rows of gingkoes looked stately and luscious. Black cars entered the park from time to time, and most of the people in the park wore either well–fitted western suits made of quality fabric or dark–colored stylish Chinese suits, but everyone gave off a haughty air.
There were also some foreigners. Some of the people conversed in small groups; others greeted each other at a distance, and then laughed as they got close enough to shake hands and walk together.
Lao Dao hesitated, trying to decide where to go. There weren’t that many people in the street, and he would draw attention if he just stood here. But he would look out of place in any public area. He wanted to go back into the park, get close to the fissure, and hide in some corner to take a nap. He felt very sleepy, but he dared not sleep on the street.
He noticed that the cars entering the park didn’t seem to need to stop, and so he tried to walk into the park as well. Only when he was close to the park gate did he notice that two robots were patrolling the area. While cars and other pedestrians passed their sentry line with no problems, the robots beeped as soon as Lao Dao approached and turned on their wheels to head for him. In the tranquil afternoon, the noise they made seemed especially loud. The eyes of everyone nearby turned to him.
He panicked, uncertain if it was his shabby clothes that alerted the robots. He tried to whisper to the robots, claiming that his suit was left inside the park, but the robots ignored him while they continued to beep and to flash the red lights over their heads.
People strolling inside the park stopped and looked at him as though looking at a thief or eccentric person. Soon, three men emerged from a nearby building and ran over. Lao Dao’s heart was in his throat. He wanted to run, but it was too late.
“What’s going on?” the man in the lead asked loudly.
Lao Dao couldn’t think of anything to say, and he rubbed his pants compulsively.
The man in the front was in his thirties. He came up to Lao Dao and scanned him with a silver disk about the size of a button, moving his hand around Lao Dao’s person. He looked at Lao Dao suspiciously, as though trying to pry open his shell with a can opener.
“There’s no record of this man.” The man gestured at the older man behind him. “Bring him in.”
Lao Dao started to run away from the park.
The two robots silently dashed ahead of him and grabbed onto his legs. Their arms were cuffs and locked easily about his ankles. He tripped and almost fell, but the robots held him up. His arms swung through the air helplessly.
“Why are you trying to run?” The younger man stepped up and glared at him. His tone was now severe.
“I…” Lao Dao’s head felt like a droning beehive. He couldn’t think.
The two robots lifted Lao Dao by the legs and deposited his feet onto platforms next to their wheels. Then they drove toward the nearest building in parallel, carrying Lao Dao. Their movements were so steady, so smooth, so synchronized, that from a distance, it appeared as if Lao Dao was skating along on a pair of rollerblades, like Nezha riding on his Wind Fire Wheels. Lao Dao felt utterly helpless.
He was angry with himself for being so careless. How could he think such a crowded place would be without security measures? He berated himself for being so drowsy that he could commit such a stupid mistake. It’s all over now, he thought. Not only am I not going to get my money, I’m also going to jail.
The robots followed a narrow path and reached the backdoor of the building, where they stopped. The three men followed behind. The younger man seemed to be arguing with the older man over what to do with Lao Dao, but they spoke so softly that Lao Dao couldn’t hear the details.
After a while, the older man came up and unlocked the robots from Lao Dao’s legs. Then he grabbed him by the arm and took him upstairs.
Lao Dao sighed. He resigned himself to his fate.
The man brought him into a room. It looked like a hotel room, very spacious, bigger even than the living room in Qin Tian’s apartment, and about twice the size of his own rental unit.
The room was decorated in a dark shade of golden brown, with a king–sized bed in the middle. The wall at the head of the bed showed abstract patterns of shifting colors. Translucent, white curtains covered the French window, and in front of the window sat a small circular table and two comfortable chairs. Lao Dao was anxious, unsure of who the older man was and what he wanted.
“Sit, sit!” The older man clapped him on the shoulder and smiled. “Everything’s fine.”
Lao Dao looked at him suspiciously.
“You’re from Third Space, aren’t you?” The older man pulled him over to the chairs, and gestured for him to sit.
“How do you know that?” Lao Dao couldn’t lie.
“From your pants.” The older man pointed at the waist of his pants. “You never even cut off the label. This brand is only sold in Third Space; I remember my mother buying them for my father when I was little.”
“You don’t need to ‘Sir’ me. I don’t think I’m much older than you are. How old are you? I’m fifty–two.” “Forty–eight.” “See, just older by four years.” He paused, and then added, “My name is Ge Daping. Why don’t you just call me Lao Ge?”
Lao Dao relaxed a little. Lao Ge took off his jacket and moved his arms about to stretch out the stiff muscles. Then he filled a glass with hot water from a spigot in the wall and handed it to Lao Dao.
He had a long face, and the corners of his eyes, the ends of his eyebrows, and his cheeks drooped. Even his glasses seemed about to fall off the end of his nose. His hair was naturally a bit curly and piled loosely on top of his head. As he spoke, his eyebrows bounced up and down comically. He made some tea for himself and asked Lao Dao if he wanted any. Lao Dao shook his head.
“I was originally from Third Space as well,” said Lao Ge. “We’re practically from the same hometown! So, you don’t need to be so careful with me. I still have a bit of authority, and I won’t give you up.”
Lao Dao let out a long sigh, congratulating himself silently for his good luck. He recounted for Lao Ge his experiencing of going to Second Space and then coming to First Space, but omitted the details of what Yi Yan had said. He simply told Lao Ge that he had successfully delivered the message and was just waiting for the Change to head home.
Lao Ge also shared his own story with Lao Dao. He had grown up in Third Space, and his parents had worked as deliverymen. When he was fifteen, he entered a military school, and then joined the army. He worked as a radar technician in the army, and because he worked hard, demonstrated good technical skills, and had some good opportunities, he was eventually promoted to an administrative position in the radar department with the rank of brigadier general. Since he didn’t come from a prominent family, that rank was about as high as he could go in the army. He then retired from the army and joined an agency in First Space responsible for logistical support for government enterprises, organizing meetings, arranging travel, and coordinating various social events. The job was blue collar in nature, but since his work involved government officials and he had to coordinate and manage, he was allowed to live in First Space.
There were a considerable number of people in First Space like him—chefs, doctors, secretaries, housekeepers—skilled blue–collar workers needed to support the lifestyle of First Space. His agency had run many important social events and functions, and Lao Ge was its director.
Lao Ge might have been self–deprecating in describing himself as a “blue collar,” but Lao Dao understood that anyone who could work and live in First Space had extraordinary skills. Even a chef here was likely a master of his art. Lao Ge must be very talented to have risen here from Third Space after a technical career in the army.
“You might as well take a nap,” Lao Ge said. “I’ll take you to get something to eat this evening.”
Lao Dao still couldn’t believe his good luck, and he felt a bit uneasy. However, he couldn’t resist the call of the white sheets and stuffed pillows, and he fell asleep almost right away.
When he woke up, it was dark outside. Lao Ge was combing his hair in front of the mirror. He showed Lao Dao a suit lying on the sofa and told him to change. Then he pinned a tiny badge with a faint red glow to Lao Dao’s lapel—a new identity.
The large open lobby downstairs was crowded. Some kind of presentation seemed to have just finished, and attendees conversed in small groups. At one end of the lobby were the open doors leading to the banquet hall; the thick doors were lined with burgundy leather. The lobby was filled with small standing tables. Each table was covered by a white tablecloth tied around the bottom with a golden bow, and the vase in the middle of each table held a lily. Crackers and dried fruits were set out next to the vases for snacking, and a long table to the side offered wine and coffee. Guests mingled and conversed among the tables while small robots holding serving trays shuttled between their legs, collecting empty glasses.
Forcing himself to be calm, Lao Dao followed Lao Ge and walked through the convivial scene into the banquet hall. He saw a large hanging banner: The Folding City at Fifty.
“What is this?” Lao Dao asked.
“A celebration!” Lao Ge was walking about and examining the set up. “Xiao Zhao, come here a minute. I want you to check the table signs one more time. I don’t trust robots for things like this. Sometimes they don’t know how to be flexible.”
Lao Dao saw that the banquet hall was filled with large round tables with fresh flower centerpieces.
The scene seemed unreal to him. He stood in a corner and gazed up at the giant chandelier as though some dazzling reality was hanging over him, and he was but an insignificant presence at its periphery. There was a lectern set up on the dais at the front, and, behind it, the background was an ever–shifting series of images of Beijing.
The photographs were perhaps taken from an airplane and captured the entirety of the city: The soft light of dawn and dusk; the dark purple and deep blue sky; clouds racing across the sky; the moon rising from a corner; the sun setting behind a roof. The aerial shots revealed the magnificence of Beijing’s ancient symmetry; the modern expanse of brick courtyards and large green parks that had extended to the Sixth Ring Road; Chinese style theatres; Japanese style museums; minimalist concert halls.
And then there were shots of the city as a whole, shots that included both faces of the city during the Change: The earth flipping, revealing the other side studded with skyscrapers with sharp, straight contours; men and women energetically rushing to work; neon signs lighting up the night, blotting out the stars; towering apartment buildings, cinemas, nightclubs full of beautiful people.
But there were no shots of where Lao Dao worked.
He stared at the screen intently, uncertain if they might show pictures during the construction of the folding city. He hoped to get a glimpse of his father’s era. When he was little, his father had often pointed to buildings outside the window and told him stories that started with “Back then, we…”
An old photograph had hung on the wall of their cramped home, and in the picture his father was laying bricks, a task his father had performed thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands of times. He had seen that picture so many times that he thought he was sick of it, and yet, at this moment, he hoped to see a scene of workers laying bricks, even if for just a few seconds.
He was lost in his thoughts. This was also the first time he had seen what the Change looked like from a distance. He didn’t remember sitting down, and he didn’t know when others had sat down next to him. A man began to speak at the lectern, but Lao Dao wasn’t even listening for the first few minutes.
“… advantageous for the development of the service sector. The service economy is dependent on population size and density. Currently, the service industry of our city is responsible for more than 85 percent of our GDP, in line with the general characteristics of world-class metropolises. The other important sectors are the green economy and the recycling economy.”
Lao Dao was paying full attention now. “Green economy” and “recycling economy” were often mentioned at the waste processing station, and the phrases were painted on the walls in characters taller than a man. He looked closer at the speaker on the dais: An old man with silvery hair, though he appeared hale and energetic. “… all trash is now sorted and processed, and we’ve achieved our goals for energy conservation and pollution reduction ahead of schedule. We’ve developed a systematic, large–scale recycling economy in which all the rare-earth and precious metals extracted from e–waste are reused in manufacturing, and even the plastics recycling rate exceeds eighty percent. The recycling stations are directly connected to the reprocessing plants…”
Lao Dao knew of a distant relative who worked at a reprocessing plant in the technopark far from the city. The technopark was just acres and acres of industrial buildings, and he heard that all the plants over there were very similar: The machines pretty much ran on their own, and there were very few workers. At night, when the workers got together, they felt like the last survivors of some dwindling tribe in a desolate wilderness.
He drifted off again. Only the wild applause at the end of the speech pulled him out of his chaotic thoughts and back to reality. He also applauded, though he didn’t know what for. He watched the speaker descend the dais and return to his place of honor at the head table. Everyone’s eyes were on him.