Tuesday Fiction: “The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong (Part One)
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Ma Boyong from China. Ma Boyong (in accordance with Chinese custom, Mr. Ma’s name is given in the order of surname followed by given name) is a popular Beijing-based writer of short stories and novels. His work fuses Western convention with traditional Chinese elements. His satire is well known in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. His work has previously appeared in English in TRSF. “The City of Silence” was translated by Ken Liu.
Besides writing and translating speculative fiction, Ken Liu also practices law and develops software for iOS and Android devices. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, TRSF, and Panverse 3, among other places. He lives near Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife, artist Lisa Tang Liu, and they are collaborating on their first novel.
The City of Silence
translated by Ken Liu
The year was 2046; the place, the Capital of the State.
The State needed no name because, other than it, there were no states. It was just like the Department of Propaganda kept on emphasizing: there are no other states besides the State, and It is who It is, It has always been and always will be.
When the phone rang, Arvardan was sleeping with his face on the desk in front of the computer. The ringing was insistent, sharp. He rubbed his dry eyes and got up unwillingly. His brain felt heavy and slow.
The room was cramped, the air stagnant. The only window was shut tight. Even if the window were open it would not have helped—the air outside was even murkier. The room was only about thirty meters square. An old army-green cot was in the corner, the serial number painted in white on one leg. Right next to the cot was a computer desk made from thin wooden boards, on top of which sat a pale white computer.
The phone continued, now on its seventh ring. Arvardan realized that he had no choice but to take the call.
“Your Web Access Serial, please.” The voice on the other end was not in any hurry. Indeed, it contained no emotional content whatsoever because it was generated by a computer.
Arvardan automatically recited the string of numerals and letters. At the same time, he felt his chest grow even more congested. He did not like these empty electronic voices. Sometimes he thought, wouldn’t it be nice if the voice on the phone belonged to a real woman, smooth and mellow? Arvardan knew this was an unrealistic fantasy. But a fantasy like that still relaxed his body for a few seconds.
“Your application dated October 4th for an account to participate in the BBS discussion forums has been processed. The appropriate authorities have verified that the information you provided was in order. Please come to the processing center within three days with your Personal Identification Card, your Web Access Permit, your Web Access Serial Card, and other relevant documentation. You will receive your account user name and password then.”
“Understood. Thank, you.” Arvardan carefully chose his words, pausing between each.
It was time to get some work done. Arvardan sat down in front of the computer and moved the mouse. With a faint electronic pop the screen came alive: “Please enter your Web Access Serial and name.” Arvardan entered the requested information. Immediately the indicator LEDs on the front of the computer case began to blink rapidly, accompanied by the low hum of spinning fans.
Every Web user had a Web Access Serial, without which it was impossible to access the Web. This was the only representation of a user on the Web: it could not be changed or deleted. There was a homomorphism between the Web Access Serials and the names on the Personal Identification Cards that everyone carried. Thus, ARVARDAN19842015BNKF was Arvardan and Arvardan was ARVARDAN19842015BNKF. Arvardan knew that some people with poor memories would print their Web Access Serials on the backs of their shirts.
The appropriate authorities explained that the Real ID Web Access System was designed to make administration of the Web more convenient and rational, and eliminate the serious problems caused by anonymity on the Web. Arvardan was unsure what these “serious problems” were. He had never personally used the Web anonymously, and he knew no one who had—indeed, from a technical perspective, it was impossible for anyone to disguise himself on the Web. The appropriate authorities had given this careful thought.
“The appropriate authorities” was a semantically vague phrase that nonetheless was full of authority and the power to intimidate. It was simultaneously general and specific, and included within its meaning a broad range of references. Sometimes, it referred to the State Web Administration Committee, which had issued the Web Access Serial to Arvardan. Other times, it referred to the server that emailed Arvardan the latest Web access announcements and regulations. Yet other times, it referred to the Web Investigation Section of the Department of Public Security. Still other times, it referred to the State News Agency. The “appropriate authorities” were everywhere and responsible for everything. They would always appear at the appropriate time to guide, supervise, or warn.
Now that the Web was almost equivalent to daily life, it was necessary to be ever vigilant and not allow the Web to become a tool for conspirators seeking to destabilize the State—so said the appropriate authorities.
The computer continued to hum. Arvardan knew this was going to take some time. The computer was issued to him by the appropriate authorities, and he was uncertain about its technical specs and hardware configuration. The case was welded shut and could not be opened.
While waiting, Arvardan ferreted out a plastic cup from the mountain of trash at his feet and filled it with distilled water from the drinking spigot at his side. He swallowed a painkiller with the water. The distilled water went down his throat and settled into his stomach. The empty taste nauseated him.
The speakers on the computer suddenly began to play the national anthem. Arvardan put down the cup and refocused his eyes on the computer screen. This meant that he had signed on to the Web. The screen first displayed a notice from the appropriate authorities: plain white background, black text, 14-point font. The notice described the meaning of using the Web and the latest regulations concerning such use.
The notice quickly disappeared. What followed was a desktop background emblazoned with the slogan: “Let us build a healthy and stable Web!” Another window slowly floated up, containing several links: work, entertainment, email, and BBS discussion forums. The BBS link was grayed out, indicating that choice was not yet available to him.
The operating system was simple and clear. The browser had no place to enter an URL. Only the bookmarks menu, which was uneditable, contained the addresses for a few Web sites. The reason for this was simple: all of these Web sites were healthy and positive. If other Web sites had the same content as these, then, logically, having access to these Web sites alone was sufficient. On the other hand, if other sites had different content, then, logically, those other sites must be unhealthy and vulgar and should not be accessed.
Some said that outside the borders of the State there were other Web sites, but those were only urban legends.
Arvardan first clicked “work.” The screen displayed a menu of Web sites and software related to his work.
As a programmer, Arvardan’s daily duty consisted of writing programs in accordance with instructions from his superiors. The work was boring, but it guaranteed a steady income. He did not know what the source code he wrote would be used for. His superiors never gave him such information.
He tried to continue the work left over from yesterday, but he soon felt he couldn’t concentrate. He tried to entertain himself, but the “entertainment” link only contained Solitaire and Minesweeper. According to the appropriate authorities, these two games were healthy: there was no violence and no sex, and they would not give players criminal desires.
A system alert popped up: “You have new mail.” Arvardan had finally found a reason to pause in his work. He quickly moved the cursor onto the “email” link, clicked, and soon a new window appeared on the screen.
Subject: Module/Already/Complete, Start/Current/Project?
WANGHENG10045687XHDI was the Serial of a colleague. The body of the email was written with a series of individual words and certain fixed expressions separated by slashes. This was a format suggested by the appropriate authorities. Although modern mainframe computers could now process natural-language digital texts easily, this style of writing was a gesture on the part of the citizen to indicate that he possessed the proper attitude.
Arvardan sighed. Every time he received a new piece of email, he hoped there would be some fresh stimulus to jolt his nervous system, which was growing duller by the day. On some level, he knew that he would be disappointed each time, but he felt that keeping hope alive at least yielded a few seconds of excitement. It was like his wishing that the voice on the phone would be the smooth and mellow voice of a real woman. If he didn’t keep for himself bits of remote, hopeless hope, Arvardan thought he would go mad sooner or later.
Arvardan clicked “reply,” and then opened a text file with the name “List of Healthy Words” in another window. This file contained the words and fixed expressions that the appropriate authorities required every Web user to use. When they wanted to compose emails or use the discussion forums, they must find the appropriate words from this list with which to express themselves. If the filtering software found any Web user using a word not on this list, then the word would be automatically shielded and replaced with the phrase “Please use healthy language.”
“Shielded” was a technical term. A shielded word was forbidden in writing or in speech. Ironically, “shielded” itself was a shielded word.
The list was updated constantly. Every revision meant that a few more words disappeared from the list. This forced Arvardan to exercise his brain to come up with other words to substitute for the words that were shielded. For example, “movement” used to be allowed, but then the appropriate authorities decided that this was a sensitive word, so Arvardan had to use “change of position” to express the same idea.
He referred to the list and quickly composed a response similar in style to the email he had received. The List of Healthy Words forced people to compress as much information as possible into the fewest words, and to eliminate all unnecessary flourishes and figures of speech. The resulting compositions were like that cup of distilled water: flavorless. Arvardan sometimes thought that one day he would become as bleached out as the emails and distilled water because he wrote such emails and drank such water.
Arvardan sent the email but could not save a copy for himself. His computer had no hard drive, and no slots for floppy disks or CDs or even a USB port. Broadband technology had advanced to the point where software applications could be hosted on remote servers, and individual users needed not suffer any speed issues related to remote access. Thus, there was no need for end users to have hard drives or local storage. Every document or program a user wrote, even every movement of the mouse or keystroke, would be automatically transmitted to the public server of the appropriate authorities. This made administration easier.
After completing the email, Arvardan once again fell back into his anxious, listless mood, which he could not express because “tired,” “annoyed,” and other negative words were all dangerous words. If someone wrote an email to others to complain about such feelings, the recipients would only get an email full of “Please use healthy language.”
This was Arvardan’s life. Today was a little worse than yesterday, but should be a little better than tomorrow. But even this description was imprecise, because Arvardan himself was unclear what constituted “a little better” and what constituted “a little worse.” “Better” and “worse” were variables, but his life was a constant, the value of which was “repression.”
Arvardan set aside the mouse, tilted his head back, and gave a long sigh. (At least “sigh” had not yet been shielded.) He wanted to hum a song, but he couldn’t remember any songs. Instead, he whistled a few times, but it sounded like a dog with tuberculosis barking, and he had to stop. The appropriate authorities were like specters that filled the whole room, giving him no space. He was like a man stuck in a quagmire: as soon as he opened his mouth, mud flowed in, so that he could not even scream for help.
He shook his head restlessly a few times, and his eyes happened to fall on the phone. Suddenly, he remembered that he still had to go to the appropriate authorities to finish the application for the BBS permit. He was glad of an opportunity to be temporarily free of the Web. On the Web he was nothing more than the sum of a series of dry numbers and “healthy words.”
Arvardan put on his coat and covered his mouth with a filtering mask. He hesitated for a moment, and then picked up the Listener and put it over his ears. Then he left his room.
The Capital’s streets had few pedestrians. Now that the Web was everywhere, most chores could be done there. Unlike in the primitive past, people no longer needed to go outside the home for the necessities of daily life. The appropriate authorities did not recommend too many outdoor activities, as they caused people to make physical contact with each other, and what happened after that was difficult to control.
The Listener, a portable language-filtering machine, was designed specifically to prevent that sort of thing. When the wearer said or heard some sensitive word, the Listener automatically gave a warning. Every citizen, before leaving home, must put on this device so they could review and critique their own speech and conversation. When people realized that the Listener was present, they often chose silence. The appropriate authorities were attempting to gradually unify life on the Web and life in the physical world, so that they would be equally healthy.
It was November, and the icy wind drove clouds across a leaden, oppressive sky. Along both sides of the street, utility poles stretched out in two rows like dead trees. Pedestrians wrapped themselves tightly in black or grey coats, shrinking into themselves so that they appeared as quick-moving black dots. A thin miasma covered the whole Capital. Breathing this air without a filtering mask would be a challenge.
Has it already been two months since I last left my room? Arvardan thought, as he stood next to the sign for the bus stop.
A tall man in a blue uniform stood next to Arvardan. He looked suspiciously at Arvardan, wrapped in his black coat. Gradually, he shuffled closer, and, with pretended casualness, said to Arvardan:
“You, have, a, cigarette?”
The man enunciated each word, and paused half a second between them. The Listener was not yet sufficiently advanced to adjust to the unique rhythm and intonation of each person. In response, the appropriate authorities required that all citizens speak in this manner, so that it would be more convenient to check if anyone used words outside the regulations.
Arvardan gave him a quick glance, licked his own dry lips, and replied:
The man was disappointed. Unwilling to give up, he opened his mouth again:
“You, have, a, drink?”
It had been a long time since Arvardan had had any cigarettes or liquor. Perhaps it was due to the shortages, a common problem. But something was amiss: Arvardan’s Listener had not issued a warning. In Arvardan’s experience, whenever supplies of cigarettes, liquor, or other necessities suffered shortages, these words would temporarily become sensitive words that had to be shielded until the supply could be restored.
The man seemed exhausted. His puffy red eyes were a common sight these days, a result of long hours spent on the Web. His hair was a mess, and a few days’ growth of stubble surrounded his mouth. A strong moldy smell dissipated from the collar of the shirt under his uniform. It was obvious that he had not been outside for days.
It was only now that Arvardan realized that the man’s ears were unadorned. The space where the silver-grey Listener should have been was empty. Arvardan was stunned, and for a moment he did not know whether to remind the man or pretend that he hadn’t noticed. He thought, perhaps it would be better to report this to the appropriate authorities.
Now the man inched even closer, and desire and yearning radiated from his eyes. Arvardan’s heart squeezed tight, and unconsciously he took a step back. Was he going to get mugged? Or maybe this man was a sex maniac who had repressed his desires for too long? The man suddenly grabbed his sleeve. Arvardan struggled awkwardly but could not pull himself free. The man did not make another move, but gave a loud yelp, and began to speak to Arvardan in a rapid manner that Arvardan was no longer accustomed to.
“I just want to talk to you, just a few sentences. I haven’t spoken in so long. My name is Hiroshi Watanabe. I’m thirty-two years old. Remember, thirty-two. I’ve always dreamed of having a house by a lake, with a small boat and a fishing pole. I hate the Web. Down with the Web Regulators! My wife has been poisoned by the Web. She only calls me by my Web Access Serial. This whole city is an asylum, and in it the stronger inmates govern the weaker inmates, and turn all the sane people into madmen like themselves. Fuck ‘sensitive words.’ I’ve fucking had it….”
The man’s words poured out of him like soda from a bottle that had been shaken and the cap then popped. Arvardan’s Listener beeped continuously. He stared in amazement but had no idea how to respond. Even more worrisome, he discovered in himself a sense of sympathy for the man, the sort of sympathy people who suffered from the same disease had for each other. The man had now gone from complaining to simply cursing, the most raw, direct kind of curses that had long been shielded. It had been five or six years since Arvardan himself had last cursed, and even the last time he had heard such language was four years ago.
But now this man was swearing at him in public, as though he wanted to say every single shielded sensitive word in a single breath. Arvardan’s eardrums began to throb with pain from the decibel level and the constant beeping from the Listener.
Just then, two police vehicles appeared at the end of the street, and, lights flashing all the way, rushed towards the bus stop.
The man was still swearing when five or six officers in full riot gear rushed over and pushed him to the ground, beating him with their batons. The man kicked with his legs, and words poured out of his mouth even faster, and the curses grew even coarser. One of the officers pulled out a roll of tape, and with a sharp “pa” tore off a piece which he stuck over the man’s mouth. Immediately before his mouth was taped, the man raised his voice, and heartily yelled at the policeman, “Fuck you, you sonovabitch!” Arvardan watched as his expression turned from madness to a contented smile, as though he was intoxicated with the pleasure and release brought about by the swearwords.
The police scrambled to push the man into one of the cars. One of the officers came to Arvardan. “Is, he, your, friend?”
“I, do, not, know, him,” Arvardan responded in the same way.
The policeman stared at him. He took down Arvardan’s Listener and checked its records. There was no record of Arvardan using any sensitive words. He put the Listener back on Arvardan’s ears and warned Arvardan that everything the man had said was extremely reactionary, and he must immediately forget it. Then the officer turned around, and the police left with the arrested man.
Arvardan sighed with relief. Just now he had, for a second, an impulse to scream at the top of his lungs on this empty street, “Fuck you, you sonovabitch!”
The street quickly returned to its customary quiescence. Ten minutes later, a bus slowly arrived at the station. The rusty doors opened with a clang, and an electronic female voice filled the empty space inside the bus:
“Passengers, please pay attention and use civilized language. Adhere strictly to the List of Healthy Words as you speak.”
Arvardan wrapped his coat even tighter around himself.
About an hour later, the bus arrived at his destination. The cold wind blew in through the broken windows of the bus, frosting Arvardan’s breath. The coal dust and sand in the wind stabbed at his face. He got up, shook the dust off himself like a wet dog shaking off water, and left the bus.
Arvardan needed to go to the appropriate authorities, the Department of Web Security in this case, responsible for processing BBS permit applications. Located across the street from the bus stop, this was a five-story building, cube-shaped, completely covered in grey concrete. If it weren’t for the few windows, the building would be indistinguishable from a solid block of concrete: hard and dead. Even mosquitoes and bats stayed away.
It was also very difficult to obtain a permit to use the BBS forums. An applicant must go through close to twenty procedures and endure a long investigation process before being granted permission to browse the forums. Only after having had permission to browse the forums for three months could one be granted permission to post in designated forums. As for starting your own BBS, that was impossible.
Despite these obstacles, many used the BBS forums because this was the only place on the Web where one could have some limited conversation. Arvardan had decided to apply for a BBS permit simply out of a vague yet stubborn sense of nostalgia. He didn’t know why he wanted to cause so much trouble for himself. Maybe it was just to bring a sense of excitement to his life. Maybe it was to emphasize the bits of connection between himself and the old times. Maybe it was both.
Arvardan vaguely remembered that when he was a kid, the Web was very different. Not that the technology was different, but the culture. He hoped to remember some of the things from that era through the BBS forums.
Arvardan walked into the building. Inside it was just as cold as outside, and even darker. There were no lights in the hallways. The walls, painted in a bluish white, were pasted over with Web-related regulations, policies, and slogans. Sucking the cold air into his lungs, Arvardan shuddered. Only the crack round the door at the end of the hall let in a sliver of light. On the door was a sign: “Department of Web Security, BBS Section.”
Arvardan did not dwell on the irony that in order to use some virtual functionality of the Web, one had to physically come here to apply.
Once he was behind the door, Arvardan immediately felt a blast of hot air. The heat in this room was turned way up, and Arvardan’s hands, feet, and face, all frozen numb, now tingled and began to itch. He wanted to reach out and scratch himself.
An electronic female voice suddenly burst out of the speakers in the ceiling: “Citizen, please remain still as you wait in line.”
Arvardan put down his hand as though he had been given an electric shock, and respectfully waited where he was. He observed the room he was in: a long and narrow lobby, divided in half by a marble counter that rose in the middle like the Great Wall. A fence made of silver-white poles connected the top of the counter to the ceiling.
“Please proceed to window number eight.”
The counter was so tall that Arvardan could not even look over it to see what was on the other side. But he could hear the sound of someone approaching on the other side then sitting down.
“Please place your application documents in the tray.”
The speaker on top of the counter issued the order. Unexpectedly, the voice this time was different. Even though it was still dry and cold, Arvardan could tell that the voice did not belong to a computer—this was the voice of a real woman. He tried to lift his head even higher, but he could see nothing. The counter was just too tall.
“Please put the documents in the tray.”
There was some impatience in the tone when the voice repeated the order.
Yes, this is the voice of a real woman, Arvardan thought. The electronic female voice was always polite and never had any emotion in it. He put his Personal Identification Card, Web Access Permit, Web Access Serial Card, the record of sensitive word violations, and other similar documentation into a small metallic tray, slid the tray into a slot in the side of the counter, and closed the flap over the slot. Immediately he heard a faint whoosh. He guessed that the person on the other side of the counter—perhaps a woman—had pulled the tray out on her side.
“What is the purpose for your application for BBS service?”
The woman’s voice from the speaker was business-like and professional.
“To, increase, Web, related, work, efficiency; to, create, a, healthy, and, stable, Web, environment; to, better, contribute, to, the, motherland.”
Arvardan paused between each word, knowing that this was only a formality. All he had to do was to give the standard answer.
The other side sank into silence. After about two minutes, the speaker came on again.
“The final procedure has been completed. You now have permission to use the BBS forums.”
With a bang, the metallic tray bounced back out of the slot. In it, a few more pieces of paper had been added to the documents Arvardan had provided.
“The appropriate authorities have issued you a user name and password for the BBS service, an index of available forums, a user guide, a copy of the applicable regulations, and the latest List of Healthy Words. Please also check your email inbox.”
Arvardan stepped forward, took out all the things in the tray, and examined them. He was disappointed to see that his BBS user name was identical to his Web Access Serial. He remembered that when he was little it was possible to pick your own BBS forum user name.
Memories of childhood often were mingled with fairy tales and fantasies, however, and might not match reality. The reality now was that you could only use the user name and password issued by the appropriate authorities. The reason was simple: user names and passwords also could contain sensitive words.
He shoved the papers in his coat pocket. The pieces of paper were actually meaningless, as the electronic copies have been sent to his email already. But the appropriate authorities felt that formal documents on paper were helpful in inducing in users the proper feelings of fear and respect.
He hoped that the speaker in the counter would speak a bit more. But he was disappointed by the sound of someone getting up and leaving. Based on the rhythm of the steps, Arvardan was even more certain that the person on the other side was a woman.
The empty electronic female voice again came from the ceiling: “You have completed the necessary procedures. Please leave the Department of Web Security and return to your work.”
Arvardan wrinkled his nose in disgust, and turned to leave the warm lobby and return to the freezing cold hallway.
On the way home, Arvardan curled up in his seat on the bus without moving. The success of obtaining permission to use the BBS service gave him an illusory sense of excitement. His right hand fingered the documents in his pocket as he tried to remember the sound of that mysterious woman’s voice.
It would be so nice to hear that voice again. At the same time he rubbed his thumb lightly over the piece of paper on top of the stack in his pocket, imagining that this document had been touched also by her slender, graceful, ivory-like fingers. He was so excited that he wanted to yell, “Fuck you, you sonovabitch!” The sound of that man cursing was stuck in his mind, and again and again the curse rose to the tip of his tongue.
Suddenly, his finger felt something out of place on the back of the document. Arvardan looked around him, ascertained that there were no other passengers, and carefully took the document out and flipped it over. He examined it carefully in the light from the bus window.
Arvardan realized that the top right corner of the document had been lightly creased by a fingernail. The crease was so light that if Arvardan hadn’t been fingering it so closely he never would have noticed it. The crease was unusual: it was a straight line, but at the end of the line, not far from it, was another very short crease, as though the person had meant to make a dot. The whole thing looked like an exclamation point, or, if you looked at it from the opposite direction, the letter “i.”
He looked through the other papers, and soon discovered that the other four documents also had similar creases. They were shaped differently, but all seemed to be symbols of some sort. Arvardan recalled the order in which the woman from the speaker had mentioned the documents, and began to write the symbols found on each document in order on the steamed-up bus window:
The bus stopped, and a few passengers got on. Arvardan moved his body to cover the writing on the window. Then, pretending to yawn, he lifted his sleeve and erased the letters.
Arriving home, Arvardan took off his coat and filtering mask, and threw the Listener on the cot. Then he fell onto the cot and buried his head in the pillows. Every time he left home to go outside he felt so exhausted afterward, in part because his weakened physique was no longer used to being outside and in part due to the stress of being with the Listener.
When he woke up, he checked his email. His inbox contained two work-related emails from colleagues and five emails containing the electronic copies of the BBS documents from the Department of Web Security.
Arvardan opened the index of BBS forums. All the forums were officially sanctioned. The forums had different subjects, but all basically revolved around how to better cooperate and respond to State directives and how to build a healthy Web. For example, on one of the computer technology forums, the main topic was how to improve the technology for shielding sensitive words.
Amazingly, one of the forums was about games. In it, the main topic of discussion was an online game about how to help others use healthy words. The player could control a little boy to patrol the streets and see if anyone was using sensitive words. If so, the little boy could choose to go up and criticize the offender or report the offender to the police. The more offenders the little boy caught, the higher the score and the better the rewards.
Arvardan opened a few other random forums. Everyone in them was polite, and spoke very healthy language, just like people outside on the streets. No, it was even worse than on the streets. People on the streets at least had opportunities to perform a few private gestures, like how Arvardan had written “title” on the bus window in secret. But on the BBS forums, even the last bits of privacy of the individual were stripped away. The appropriate authorities could examine every mouse movement, every keystroke, every bit that passed through your computer, and there was nowhere to hide.
Disappointment and a sense of loss overwhelmed Arvardan. He closed his eyes and lay back. He had been so naive to think that the BBS forums might be a little more open, but now it was clear that it was even more suffocating than real life. He was stuck in an electronic quagmire, and he couldn’t breathe. “Fuck you, you sonovabitch” once again rose to the tip of his tongue. The urge to shout was so strong that he struggled to contain himself.
Suddenly, he thought of the mysterious “title.” What did that really mean? Five documents, five emails. Maybe the emails had something hidden in them? Perhaps they had something to do with “title”?
Arvardan turned back to the screen and carefully examined the five emails from the Department of Web Security. He opened the emails and saw that each one had a title in larger font at the top. He arranged the titles in the order indicated by the letters in the word “title,” taking each creased letter as indicating the position its corresponding email’s title should be in.
The first word from each title, when put together, formed a sentence: “Navigate To User Education Forum.”
Arvardan remembered that just now he had indeed seen a forum with the name “User Education Forum.” He clicked the link for that forum, hoping that this was not just some coincidence.
The User Education Forum was an administrative forum. All the posts in it were suggestions or complaints about BBS management. The forum moderator was someone named MICHEAL19387465LLKQ. There were few posts and responses, and the forum had little traffic. Arvardan opened the index of all posts in the forum and clicked open each one. The posts seemed completely random, and he could see no pattern.
Arvardan was disappointed. He seemed to have hit another dead end. But he had not been this excited for so long. He stubbornly kept on staring at the screen, trying to hold onto the sense of discovery and excitement, even if illusory, for just a little while longer.
Suddenly, his eyes focused on the user name of the forum administrator. MICHEAL was not the usual spelling for MICHAEL.
He clicked through the posts in the forum again, and noticed that some of the posts were also posted by user names containing unusual spellings for common names.
Following the pattern from before, he took the initial words from the titles of posts by users with unusually spelled names and arranged them in the order of the number portion of the authors’ user names to form a new sentence:
“Every Sunday at the Simpson Tower, fifth floor, suite B.”
There must be some meaning in this. The documents, the emails, and now the forum posts: three times in a row he had put clues together that led to more clues. This was no mere coincidence. Who had hidden these messages in the official documents from the appropriate authorities? What happened every Sunday at the Simpson Tower, fifth floor, suite B?
Arvardan had finally found the excitement long absent from his life. The novelty of the unknown stimulated his long-numbed nerves. More important, these word games, planted in the middle of official documents from the appropriate authorities, gave him the satisfaction of breathing freely, as though a solid iron mask had been punched through with a few air holes.
Let us build a healthy and stable Web!
Fuck you, you sonovabitch!
Arvardan stared at the desktop background on the computer screen, mouthed the curse silently, and lifted his middle finger to the screen.
For the next few days, Arvardan lived in a state of constant, barely subdued excitement. He was like a kid who was trying to hide a mouthful of candy with an innocent smile, and who, after the adults had turned away, broke into a sly grin, enjoying the feeling of having a secret.
Day after day passed; the List of Healthy Words continued to shrink; the air outside the window grew even murkier. This was the way life was. Arvardan had begun to use the List of Healthy Words as a calendar. If three words had been deleted, that meant three days had passed. When seven words had been deleted, Arvardan knew it was Sunday.
Arvardan arrived at the Simpson Tower at noon. The clue that had brought him there did not mention a specific time. Arvardan thought it probably made sense to show up around noon. As he arrived, wearing his dark green army coat, the filtering mask, and the Listener, his heart began to beat irregularly. He had imagined all kinds of possibilities for this moment, and now that the secret to the mystery was about to be revealed, he was nervous. No matter what happens here, it can’t be worse than my life now, Arvardan thought.
He walked into the building, and noticed that there were very few people here as well. The empty halls were filled only with his steps and their echo. An old elevator car had advertisements for “Let’s build a beautiful home on the Web,” and a poster with a man whose face was imbued with truth and justice. The background of the poster was the Flag, and the man pointed at the viewer with his right index finger. Above him was the slogan: “Citizen, I need you to use healthy language.” Arvardan turned away, and saw that the other wall of the elevator car had the exact same poster. There was nowhere to hide.
Luckily, by then he had arrived at the fifth floor. The elevator doors opened, and opposite was the door to suite B. The door was green, the paint chipped, and splats of ink covered the door frame.
Arvardan took a deep breath, and pressed the doorbell.
Arvardan thought the rhythm of the steps within the door sounded familiar, as though he had heard it somewhere. The door cracked open halfway, and a young woman held onto the doorknob as she filled the doorway, leaning forward to stare at Arvardan. She said, suspiciously:
“Who, are, you, looking, for?”
It was the voice behind the counter at the Department of Web Security, BBS Section. She looked beautiful: hunter-green wool sweater, hair worn short in a tight bun in the typical style, skin so fair it was pale, and lips glowing with the flush of health.
Looking into the woman’s eyes, Arvardan hesitated, and then raised his right hand: “Title.”
Arvardan stared at the woman tensely. If the woman reported his strange behavior to the police, then he would be arrested and interrogated as to why he had gone to a stranger’s home. The crime of “willfully lolling about” was only slightly less serious than the crime of “using sensitive words.”
The woman nodded, barely perceptibly, and carefully gestured with her right hand for him to come in. Arvardan was about to speak, but the woman glared at him, and he swallowed and obediently followed her into the apartment.
Once they were in, the woman shut the door immediately, and then pulled a lead-grey curtain over the doorway. Arvardan blinked anxiously, and looked about him. The apartment had two bedrooms and a living room. The living room had a couch and a coffee table, on top of which there were a few bunches of red and purple plastic flowers. Next to one of the walls was a desk with a computer. A common white wall calendar hung on the wall, but the owner had taken care to decorate its edges with pink paper, giving it a homier feel. Arvardan noticed that the shoe rack next to the door held four pairs of shoes, all of different sizes. This meant that he wasn’t the only guest here today.
Arvardan was still uneasy. Suddenly the woman clapped him lightly on the back, indicating that he should continue inside. The two of them went across the living room, through a short hallway, and arrived at a bedroom. The bedroom door was curtained by the same kind of lead-grey curtain. The woman lifted the curtain and pushed open the bedroom door.
Arvardan saw three smiling individuals in a room decorated with real, fresh flowers. The room was also full of many other antiques that existed only in Arvardan’s memory: an Impressionist painting, a wooden sculpture from Uganda, and a silver candelabra. But there was no computer.
As he hesitated, the woman entered the room. She carefully pulled the curtain closed and shut the door. She turned around:
“Welcome to the Talking Club!”
The Talking Club?
END OF PART ONE
Part Two of “The City of Silence” will appear on Tuesday December 6th.
First published in Chinese in a slightly different form in the December 2005 issue of Science Fiction World.
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