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Tuesday Fiction: “The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong (Part Two)

Today’s Tuesday Fiction is the continuation of ‘The City of Silence’ by Ma Boyong from China. You can read Part One of this story here. 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

Ma Boyong

translated by Ken Liu

Out of habit, Arvardan did not say the words aloud. He wasn’t certain if the words were healthy, and so asked his question only with his eyes.

“You can speak as freely as you like in here. This damned device won’t work here.” The woman pointed to his Listener. There was no warning beep. It didn’t seem to hear the two sensitive words in her speech: “freely” and “damned.”

Arvardan remembered the man he had seen a week ago at the bus stop. If he took off his Listener, would what happened to that man also happen to him? The woman saw that he was hesitant. She pointed to the lead-grey curtain at the door: “Don’t worry. This can shield off the signal for the Listener. No one will know.”

“Who, are, you? What, is, this, place?”

Arvardan took off the Listener. He spoke in a low voice. It was still too difficult for him to shift out of the manner of speech demanded by the appropriate authorities.

“This is the Talking Club. Here, you may speak as you like,” said another man as he got up. He was tall and thin, the glasses over his nose particularly thick.

Arvardan mumbled, but could not speak out loud. He was embarrassed by the stares of the four others, and his face flushed bright red. The woman who had opened the door for him gave him a sympathetic look: “You poor thing. Don’t be so tense. Everyone is like this when they first arrive. Over time you’ll get used to it.”

She put a hand on Arvardan’s shoulder: “Actually, we’ve met. At least I’ve seen you, but you haven’t seen me.” As she spoke, she reached up and let down her hair. The black tresses fell to her shoulders, and in that moment Arvardan thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

Arvardan finally spoke a whole sentence, though the words still did not flow smoothly. “I…remember you, remember your voice.”

“Really?” The woman laughed. She sat him on a couch, and handed him a glass of water. Arvardan noticed that this was an old-fashioned glass, etched with a flowery pattern. The water inside the glass gave off a faint fragrance. Arvardan tried a sip. The sweet taste was particularly stimulating for a tongue that had grown used to distilled water.

“This wasn’t easy to obtain. Even we can’t get it every week.” The woman sat next to him, looking intently at him with her dark eyes. “How did you find out about us?”

Arvardan explained the process by which he had discovered the sequence of clues. The other four nodded in approval.

“Smart man. Your brain hasn’t become mush,” said a thirty-something man with a few extra pounds. His voice was very loud.

The middle-aged man with glasses put his hands together in a gesture of agreement. “You are a natural for membership in the Talking Club.”

“Alright,” the fat man said, “let’s give a round of applause to formally welcome the new member.”

The other four applauded, and the sound of their clapping filled the small bedroom. Arvardan lifted the glass to them, embarrassed. When the applause died down, he timidly lifted his head, and asked, “Can I ask a question? What exactly is the Talking Club?”

The woman who had brought him in responded:

“The Talking Club is a gathering where we can say anything we want. There are no sensitive words here, and no healthy Web. This is a space to release your soul and stretch out your body.”

“Our principle is just this: talk,” added the middle-aged man, and he adjusted his glasses.

“But, what can I talk about?”

“Anything. You can talk about anything in your heart.” The middle-aged man smiled.

This is an audacious gathering. It’s clearly criminal, Arvardan thought. But he found himself attracted to the idea of being a criminal in this way.

“Of course, we need to make certain things clear,” the woman said. “Talking is dangerous. Every member faces the danger of arrest by the appropriate authorities. State agents may break through the door at any moment, and capture us under the charges of illegal assembly and using illegal language. You have the right to refuse to join us, and leave immediately.”

Arvardan listened to the woman’s warning. He hesitated. But he thought that if he left now, then he would go back to his life, suffocating in a quagmire. Arvardan had not known he had such a strong yearning to talk.

“I will not leave. I will join you, talking.”

“Perfect! Oh, why don’t we start with self-introductions?” The woman was delighted. She stood up. “Let’s start with me. My name is Artemis. As for my Web Access Serial? To hell with it. Who cares? I have my own name.”

Her words made everyone, including Arvardan, laugh. Then she continued. “Still, Artemis is just a pseudonym. She’s a goddess from Greek mythology.”


“Right. It’s not the same as the name on my Personal Identification Card.”

“But, why?”

“Aren’t you sick of the name they have for you in their files? I want to give myself a name that I like, even if there’s just one place to use it. In the Talking Club we each have picked a name for ourselves. That’s how we address one another.”

Arvardan nodded thoughtfully. He understood Artemis’s feeling. When using the BBS forums, he had hoped to pick a name that he liked, and not be assigned a user name.

Through Artemis’s self-introduction, Arvardan learned that she was a staffer at the Department of Web Security, BBS Section. She was twenty-three, single, and hated cockroaches and spiders. Her hobbies included sewing and gardening, and the flowers in the bedroom were secretly cut and brought back by her from outside the Capital.

Next was the middle-aged man. His name was Lancelot. He was forty-one, an engineer at the Capital Electric Plant. The name “Lancelot” came from the Arthurian legends, and belonged to a faithful knight. Lancelot was married and had two children: a boy (aged three) and a girl (aged four). They liked lemon-flavored candy the most. Lancelot hoped he would be able to bring the kids to the next gathering of the Club. The children were still learning to talk, and he wanted them to learn real speech.

The thirty-something overweight man was a Web Regulator for the Department of Web Security, named Wagner. This surprised Arvardan. He had had the impression that Web Regulators were all cold, expressionless men, but the man before Arvardan was corpuscular, oily, and his mustache curled up spiritedly at the ends. He loved cigars and the opera, and took advantage of the special privileges available to Web Regulators to obtain them.

“Wagner got us the curtains that can shield the signals from the Listener,” Artemis added. Wagner tipped an imaginary hat and bowed to her.

The fourth member of the Talking Club was a woman in a black uniform. She had just turned thirty. Her name was Duras, and she worked as an editor at the Capital Daily Times. She was even thinner than Artemis, and her high cheeks contrasted with her sunken eyes. Her thin lips didn’t part much from each other even when she spoke, and never revealed her teeth. She liked cats and dogs, even though she had no pets now.

“It’s you next,” Artemis said to Arvardan. Arvardan took a minute to think, and then introduced himself to the group, stammering many times. When he tried to describe his hobbies, for a moment he couldn’t think of any. He had never had to think about hobbies before.

Artemis put her hand on his shoulder again, and tried to help him. “Well, what’s the one thing you really want to do?”

“I can really say anything?”

“Anything. There are no restrictions here.”

Arvardan thought that he had finally found an opportunity. He cleared his throat, scratched his head, and broke into a loud, crisp shout: “Fuck you, you sonovabitch!”

All the others were stunned. Wagner was the first to recover. He held onto his cigar with his teeth and applauded vigorously. Then he took the cigar in his hand, and loudly exclaimed: “Fantastic! This should be our formal membership oath.”

Artemis and Duras both giggled. Arvardan thought that, beyond the novelty of speaking with the Club, he really enjoyed the sense of contempt for the appropriate authorities in voicing the string of swearwords.

Artemis tilted her head and asked him, “What do you wish to name yourself?”

“Ummm…Wang Er,” Arvardan said. This was a Chinese name. He had once had a Chinese friend who loved to tell stories. In all his stories, the main character was named Wang Er.

The mood in the bedroom was now friendly and easy, and conversation became more natural. Everyone got into a comfortable position, and Artemis refilled everyone’s cup from a kettle from time to time. Arvardan gradually let go of his tension, and felt that his brain had never been so relaxed.

Artemis filled his cup with sweet water again, “It’s impossible to speak freely in our daily lives. We need this space. But we can’t openly advertise for membership, and it’s far too risky to try to find new members through physical contact. So Lancelot designed a system of clues and hints, and Wagner and I used our system access privileges to leave the clues in places. Only those who discovered and solved the clues would find the Club.”

“My system wasn’t designed just for safety,” Lancelot said. He took off his glasses and carefully polished them. “It’s also a qualifying exam for potential new members. Members of the Talking Club must be in possession of intelligence and wisdom, passionate, and full of yearning for freedom.”

Wagner held his cigar between two fingers, flicked the ash into an ashtray, then said loudly, “In my experience, most applicants for permission to use the BBS service are nostalgic for the past or desire something new and fresh in their lives. They think that the BBS forums will show them something different from daily life—of course, reality is far otherwise since the State’s control over the BBS forums is even stricter than the regulation of email—but their desire indicates that they want to be free. Thus, we hide our clues in the BBS documents so that only applicants for BBS service can find them. And only those who are smart and observant can find all the hints and follow their trail to find this place.”

“You are the second person to find the Talking Club. The first was Miss Duras,” Artemis said to Arvardan. Arvardan gazed at Duras in admiration. Duras lightly said, “It’s no big deal. My job is all about playing with words.”

Arvardan remembered the crazy man he had met at the bus stop a week ago. He told the others his story. When he was finished, Lancelot shook his head, and sighed.

“I’ve seen this sort of thing too. It happened to a colleague of mine. This shows the necessity for something like the Talking Club as a pressure-release valve. Living constantly under the restrictions imposed by sensitive words will drive people crazy because they can neither think nor express themselves.”

Wagner moved his heavy body to the side. “This is exactly what the appropriate authorities want to see. Then only the stupid will survive. A society full of stupid men is a stable one.”

“You are also a member of the appropriate authorities, Mr. Wagner,” Artemis said lightly as she refilled Wagner’s cup.

“Miss Artemis, I’m an ordinary man just like any other, with the sole distinction that I’m allowed to use a few more sensitive words.”

Everyone laughed. Arvardan had never seen so many people speak so much. He found, to his own surprise, that he quickly felt at home among these people. The distance and sense of unfamiliarity between them melted away quickly. Also, his dizziness and congested chest, problems that had become habits, disappeared.

Quickly the topic of conversation turned from the Talking Club itself to broader interests. Artemis sang a song; Lancelot told a few jokes; Duras told everyone about the customs of the southern provinces of the State; Wagner even sang an aria from an opera. Even though Arvardan couldn’t understand a word of this last contribution, he did not hold back his applause. In a shielded corner of the Capital, five individuals unwilling to sink into silence were enjoying a most precious luxury—talking.

“Wang Er, do you know Nineteen Eighty-Four?” Artemis asked. She sat down next to Arvardan.

Arvardan shook his head. “I only know that nineteen eighty-four is part of my Web Access Serial.”

“It’s a book.”

“Book?” This was an old word. Now that computer technology had advanced to the point that all information was contained by the Web, anyone could go to the online library to get the digital editions of published material. The appropriate authorities considered physical books to be an unnecessary waste, and they had gradually disappeared.

Wagner said, “It is understandable that the appropriate authorities prefer electronic books. With electronic books, all you need is FIND and REPLACE to eliminate all unhealthy words in a book and decontaminate it. But to correct and edit physical books would take forever.”

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a great book. It’s what an old philosopher predicted about our modern world,” Artemis said earnestly. “Long ago, the book perceived the struggle between restraint and freedom over the flesh and over the soul. It’s the foundation of the Talking Club.”

“How can one read this book?” Arvardan asked, staring into Artemis’s dark eyes.

“We can’t find a paper copy, and of course the online library won’t have it.” Lancelot shook his head, and then broke into another smile. He gestured with his left hand at Duras. “Our Miss Duras should be proud of her memory. When she was young, she was fortunate enough to have read this book, and could recall most of it.”

“Wonderful! Then she wrote it out, right?”

“That would be far too dangerous. Right now, owning physical books is a great crime, and would risk exposing the Talking Club. Instead, every time the Talking Club meets, we ask Miss Duras to recite some of it.”

Everyone quieted. Duras stood up and walked to the middle of the room. Arvardan casually put his arm around Artemis’s shoulders, and she leaned towards him, her hair drifting between them. A faint feminine fragrance found its way to his nose and caused his heart to skip a few beats.

Duras’s voice was not loud, but clear and forceful. Her memory was indeed amazing: not only did she remember the plot, but she could even recount many of the details and recite entire passages verbatim. Duras got to the part where Julia pretended to fall and secretly handed a note with the words “I love you” to Winston. Duras’s retelling was so lively that she captivated everyone. Artemis was especially absorbed in the story, and didn’t notice Arvardan’s eyes, which never left her.

“The author of Nineteen Eighty-Four predicted the progress of totalitarianism, but could not predict the progress of technology.” Wagner gave his opinion as Duras paused for a drink. Arvardan thought that Wagner’s appearance belied his quickness: he was a very perceptive technocrat.

“In Oceania, it was still possible to pass secret notes to each other and express one’s hidden thoughts. But now things are different. The appropriate authorities have forced all of us to live on the Web, where even if we wanted to pass secret notes to each other the Web Regulators would see everything. There is no place to hide. And in real life? We still have to contend with the Listener.” Wagner knocked his cigar against his thighs. “To put it simply: technology is neutral. But the progress of technology will cause a free world to become ever freer, and a totalitarian world to become ever more repressive.”

“This seems like the pronouncement of some philosopher,” Artemis said, winking at Arvardan. She retrieved some cookies from a drawer and handed them to everyone.

“Isn’t this just like how the bits are just 1’s and 0’s, but some will make them into useful tools, while others will make them into malicious viruses?” Arvardan said. Wagner snapped his fingers happily. “Very good, Wang Er. That’s exactly it. You are a credit to programmers.”

Duras looked at the clock hanging on the wall, and reminded the other four that time was up. The Talking Club could not meet for too long each time. The longer their Listeners remained shielded and off the grid, the greater the risk of exposure.

“All right. Let’s take the final half-hour to complete today’s activities.”

Artemis cleaned away the empty cups on the table, and Lancelot and Wagner both got up to stretch out their shoulders and backs, a bit sore from sitting for so long. Only Duras remained seated without moving.

“Activities? What activities?” Arvardan asked. What would the Talking Club do other than talk?

“Oh, right. We do have other activities.” Artemis moved her bangs out of the way, and gave him a seductive smile. “We still have to have frank exchanges with each other.”

“Frank exchanges?”

“Yes, fucking, to speak plainly.”

Arvardan’s face turned white, and his breathing quickened. His stomach felt as if it had just been injected with air chilled to thirty degrees below zero. He couldn’t believe his ears.

Of course, the appropriate authorities did permit sexual activities, but only between married couples. And there was a complex set of algorithms that computed the legally permitted frequency and lengths of their couplings based on the couple’s age, physical health, income level, professions, environment, climate, and record of rule-violations. As for unmarried individuals such as Arvardan, it was completely illegal to engage in any sexual activity whatsoever (including masturbation) or to read or view any material related to sex—all immoral words having been eliminated from the List of Healthy Words in any case.

“The Talking Club has freedom of speech, as well as the freedom to go to bed with anyone,” Artemis said without any embarrassment. “We talk to each other, and then choose whoever we like to make love with, just as we choose to speak the words that we like.”

Lancelot saw the awkward expression on Arvardan’s face. He walked over and lightly clapped Arvardan’s shoulders. He said, gently, “Of course, we won’t force anyone. This is all built on the foundation of consenting adults. I still have to leave early to pick up my kids. You have just the right number without me.”

Arvardan’s face flushed bright red. He felt hot, like the CPU in his computer during the summer. He couldn’t even lift his eyes to look at Artemis. He had desired female company for so long, but this was the first time he had been so close to that goal.

Lancelot said his goodbyes to everyone. Artemis left the bedroom to Wagner and Duras, and took the hand of Arvardan, who was close to panicking, and led him to another bedroom. This one clearly belonged to Artemis herself. The room was appointed simply, very neat and clean.

Artemis took the initiative. Under her seductive ministrations, Arvardan gradually let himself go, and allowed the primitive desires hidden deep within his heart to come out. He had yearned for any kind of release from his dry, boxed-in life by imagining the smooth, mellow voice of a real woman, and now his dreams were finally coming true. Arvardan did not know if there was a distinction between his desire for her and his desire to say “Fuck you, you sonovabitch,” but now was not the time for analysis.

When he woke up, he saw that Artemis was lying beside him, her naked body like a white jade statue. Even in sleep, her pose was beautiful. He lifted himself, yawned, and then Artemis opened her eyes.

“Feels good, doesn’t it?” she asked.

“Yes….” Arvardan didn’t know what else to say. He paused, then said hesitantly, “Before, with Lancelot and Wagner, did you also…ummm, what I mean is, like we did just now?”

“Yes,” Artemis said, gently. She sat up, her hair hanging over her shoulder to cover her chest. Her forthrightness confused Arvardan. There was an uncomfortable lull in the room, and then Artemis broke the silence: “You remember the story today? The woman in the story handed the man a note that said, ‘I love you.'”

“Yes,” Arvardan said.

“The word ‘love’ does not exist in the List of Healthy Words promulgated by the appropriate authorities.” Artemis’s eyes were filled with regret and loss.

“I love you,” Arvardan said, without thinking. He knew that it was possible to say anything he wanted in this room.

“Thank you.” Artemis gave him a perfunctory smile. She put on her clothes and hurried Arvardan to do the same. Arvardan was a bit disappointed. She had not responded as enthusiastically as he had wished, but as though what he had just said was not all that important.

By now Duras and Wagner had already left. Artemis walked him to the door, handed him his Listener, and then reminded him, “Once outside, remember not to mention anything about the Talking Club or anyone here. Outside of the Talking Club, we are strangers.”

“I understand,” Arvardan said. He turned to leave.

“Wang Er.”

Arvardan turned at her words. Before he knew what was happening, two soft lips covered his lips, then a low voice sounded by his ear. “Thank you. I love you too.”

Arvardan felt his eyes grow wet. He put on the Listener, opened the door, and walked back into the suffocating world. But now he was in a very different mood from when he had first showed up.

After this, Arvardan’s mental condition clearly improved. He carefully treasured the joy of having a secret club. Every week or two weeks, the five members met. They talked, sang, or listened to Duras tell the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Arvardan enjoyed frank exchanges with Artemis a few more times, and occasionally did the same with Duras. Now he had two personas: one was Arvardan, who existed in real life and on the Web, and the other was Wang Er, member of the Talking Club.

At one meeting, Arvardan asked, “Are we the only ones who gather to talk in private in the whole State?”

“It is said that there are some places in the State, far from the Capital and deeply hidden in the mountains, where the truly radical not only gather to talk, but organize for violence. They shout as they rush at the State’s agents, and even curse at the firing squads as they are executed,” Wagner said.

“Can we join them?” Arvardan asked.

“Only if you are willing to give up your safe and still-comfortable life. The radicals live in places so desolate that except for free speech there is nothing else, not even enough clean water,” Wagner said, a little coldly.

Arvardan flinched and did not pursue the topic further. He certainly desired talk, but not to the point where he was willing to give up all that he had, little though it was. Distilled water was still better than no water. The Talking Club provided sufficient nourishment to sustain the dried husk of his spirit. Bottom line: he was easily satisfied.

At another meeting, the topic of conversation turned to sensitive words. Arvardan remembered that long ago—his memory was growing hazy—the appropriate authorities had actually issued a List of Sensitive Words. People who ran the various Web sites were told to refer to it secretly in administering the sites. He was not sure how that system had evolved into the present one. That day, Wagner brought a bottle of wine for the occasion and was in good spirits. He explained to them the history of the “shielding” system. As a Web Regulator, he had access to the historical records for this process.

Initially, the State only shielded certain sensitive words, but the State quickly discovered that this was essentially useless. Many simply mixed in special characters or numbers or misspelled words to get around the inspection system. The appropriate authorities had to respond by trying to shield these variant spellings. But, as everyone knew, the combinations of different characters to approximate the appearance of different words were virtually limitless. Provided you had some imagination, it was always possible to come up with a novel combination and get your meaning across. For example, the word “politics” could be written as “polit/cs,” “政itics,” “pol/itic$,” etc., etc.

After the appropriate authorities finally caught on to the problem, they took a new tack. Since it was not possible to filter out all possible combinations of characters that might spell out a word, the solution was to forbid the use of anything except real dictionary words. This procedure was initially very successful. The number of rule-violators went down significantly. But very soon people discovered it was possible to use puns, homonyms, or rhyming slang to continue to express the same dangerous ideas. Even if the appropriate authorities filtered out all sensitive words and all possible puns and homonyms with those words, it was useless. Imaginative citizens gave their creativity free rein, and used metaphor, metonymy, analogy, etymology, rhyming slang, and other rhetorical tricks to substitute non-sensitive words for sensitive ones. The human mind was far more creative than the computer. The computer might shield off one path, but the people had many more paths to choose from.

This contest, under the surface, seemed to go the way of the people. But then, a man who could think outside the box appeared. It was unclear who he really was: some said that he was the chief administrator at the appropriate authorities; others said that he was a dangerous man who had been arrested for using too many sensitive words. He was the cause of the turn in the tide of the battle between the State and the people.

He suggested to the appropriate authorities that the regulations should no longer explain what was forbidden. Instead, the regulations should set forth what could be said, and how to say it. The appropriate authorities immediately took this advice, and issued new regulations. The List of Sensitive Words was eliminated, and in its place was the List of Healthy Words.

This time, the people were on the losing side. In the past, they had delighted in playing cat-and-mouse games with the appropriate authorities on the Web and in daily life. But now the appropriate authorities had them by the throat, since the entire framework and building blocks of language were now under their control.

Nonetheless, the people refused to give up. They began to select words from the List of Healthy Words and use them in novel combinations to express illegal meanings. For example, writing “stabilize” twice in a row meant “topple,” “stabilize” plus “prosperity” meant “shield.” The appropriate authorities had to keep an eye on this sort of trend, and, day after day, eliminate more and more words from the List of Healthy Words to prevent their use in these new roles.

“So long as the world even contained two words or even two letters, then it would be possible to continue the free exchange of ideas—you know Morse code?”

Wagner paused, drained his cup, and gave a satisfied burp.

“But, the price for this war is the loss of language. Our ability to express ourselves continues to get poorer, and more dry and banal. More and more, people will choose silence. But this is a good thing as far as the appropriate authorities are concerned.” Lancelot had a worried expression on his face, and rhythmically knocked against the desk. “If you think about it, isn’t it the people’s desire for freedom the very thing that’s pushing language to the edge of death? Ironic, isn’t it? The appropriate authorities will have the last laugh.”

“No, no. They will not understand the emotion behind laughter,” Wagner said.

“Actually, I think the appropriate authorities have always operated in a state of fear. They are terrified that people will have the use of too many words, and express too many thoughts, making their control difficult,” Artemis put on the stiff, cold expression she wore for work, and imitated the common speech pattern: “Let us build a healthy and stable Web!”

Duras, Lancelot, and Wagner all burst into laughter. The only one who didn’t laugh was Arvardan. He was stuck on the last thing Lancelot had said: in the war between the people and the appropriate authorities, the final conclusion was the death of language. Then the Talking Club was nothing more than a chance to enjoy the brief, final quiet moment that came from pulling shut the curtains on the windows of a train speeding toward the edge of a cliff.

Duras could not attend the frank exchange phase of the Talking Club that time because it was her time of the month, and she left early. Artemis washed the cups and smiled at the three men: “Should we try a three-on-one?”

Lancelot patted Arvardan on the shoulder. “I have some things I want to discuss with Wang Er. We’ll stay here a bit.” Artemis took Wagner to the other bedroom. Arvardan was confused, unsure of what Lancelot wanted.

Lancelot sat back on the couch. The engineer’s expression became serious. “Wagner has told you about the radical organizations?”

Arvardan nodded.

“What do you think of them?”

“I admire them. But I’m not sure if it’s necessary to go that far. Men cannot live on words alone.” Although Arvardan had never been to the mountains, he had heard plenty about their desolation.

Lancelot laughed bitterly and drained the coffee cup in front of him. “I was once a member of the radicals. But now I’m a deserter.”

Arvardan stared at him.

“In the beginning, I had lots of ideals. I went to the mountains and joined them. But when the rush of freedom had passed, what followed was only constant deprivation and suffering. I wavered and finally abandoned my friends, snuck back to the Capital, and now I hide in a girl’s bedroom, chat, fuck, and drink coffee, and say I’m satisfied with my life.”

“You regret leaving?”

“My regret is not what’s important.” Lancelot handed a piece of paper to him. The paper was thin, light, and had a single address written on it.

“Memorize it and swallow the paper,” Lancelot said. “This is how you get to the mountains and get in touch with them. If you change your mind about your life, you can go any time.”

“Have you given this to the others too?”

“No. The Talking Club is enough for the rest of us. But something is different about you. You remind me a lot of the younger me. Though you look quiet, inside you there is a dangerous spark. I have lost the ambition and the will to change the world, but I do not want to see everyone become like me.”

“But I—”

“You don’t need to promise me anything. This is only an option, that’s all.”

After returning home from the Talking Club, Arvardan lay on his cot with his hands under his head, and sank into thought. He was infatuated with Artemis and could not help himself. Arvardan envied Winston from Duras’s telling of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He and Julia had their own room, a world that belonged only to the two of them.

(He also thought about what Lancelot had said to him about the radicals, but soon he put it out of his mind—the image of radicals hiding in the mountains was simply not as alluring as the body of Artemis.)

Once, when he was engaging in a “frank exchange” with Artemis, he had revealed his thoughts to her. She didn’t answer him directly, but only said that the relationship between them could not go beyond what they had—the limit of what was possible. The appropriate authorities would not be napping forever. “We can only compress our emotional lives into the weekly meetings of the Talking Club. It’s already a great luxury,” she said, as she gently stroked his chest. “In the Talking Club, we are Artemis and Wang Er. But any other time, you are ARVARDAN19842015BNKF, and I am ALICE19387465BJHD.”

Arvardan could only sigh in response. He really shouldn’t have asked for more.

Along with his emotions, the Web also changed. Ever since he had joined the Talking Club, Arvardan had gradually begun noticing some of the hidden aspects of the Web. Just as Wagner had said, the war between the people and the appropriate authorities never ended. Always, thought and speech leaked from the cracks.

Arvardan noticed that within the formulaic emails and BBS forum posts were hidden many details that were worth paying attention to, just like his “title.” There were all kinds of codes and hidden meanings. These puzzles came from different individuals, and the format and decoding technique differed for each. Arvardan didn’t know what was hidden behind some of the codes, but one thing was certain: the Talking Club was not the only underground gathering. Wagner was right: always, individuals were attempting to use “healthy” words to express “unhealthy” thoughts.

In the past, Arvardan had only vaguely felt that he was being constrained, but now he could see clearly the pulsing arteries and veins of this system, and the various tricks played on him by the appropriate authorities. The freedom that he enjoyed at the Talking Club only made him even more aware of the lack of freedom in his life.

“Fuck you, you sonovabitch!”

At every meeting, the three male members would shout this curse out loud. They understood very well that this had no effect on the appropriate authorities, but they loved the feeling the curse brought them.

One week, Arvardan was particularly busy. His colleague, for unknown reasons, had been shielded. This meant that the whole project fell on his shoulders. The project involved designing a piece of software, for the appropriate authorities, which would be used to control the energy distribution for a new, high-powered, active Listener. (It was unusual for Arvardan to be told this much, but since his colleague was gone, his superiors had to give him the bigger picture.) The software was complex, and he had to spend more than twelve hours a day working in front of the computer, only pausing to eat, take a drink of distilled water, or nap briefly on his cot when his body could no longer take the abuse. His room was filled with the stench of sweaty socks and shirts.

Coincidentally, the heating system in his room failed. The grey radiators became ice cold and no longer circulated hot water. Arvardan checked them and realized the problem wasn’t with the pipes. Since his neighbors were suffering the same fate, it meant that the heating system was failing as a whole. The one positive effect of this failure was that it reduced the stench in his room. The negative effect, however, was that his room turned into an ice cellar. The low temperature covered everything in the already-uncomfortable room with an additional layer of frost. The only source of warmth in the room was the computer. Arvardan put on all his winter clothes, crawled into bed, and pointed the exhaust fans of the computer towards him.

The appropriate authorities decided that “heat” and “furnace” and other similar words were also temporarily sensitive words, so Arvardan had no way of drafting a complaint to the heating supply agencies. All he could do was to wait quietly. Other than his fingers moving over the keyboard, he tried to remain very still, so as to conserve body heat. On the fourth day after the heating system failed, the radiators finally began to clatter and rattle with the sound of hot water flowing through them. The room warmed up again, and “heat” and “furnace” and similar words returned to the List of Healthy Words. So emails and BBS forum posts were filled with sentiments like “We congratulate the appropriate authorities for restoring heat so quickly to bring warmth to the people in need!” and “The people’s government loves the people!” etc.

But this was too late for Arvardan. He fell sick with a cold, a terrible cold. His head hurt as though someone had shot a dumdum bullet into his skull. All he could do was to lie on his bed and wait for the doctor. The doctor arrived at his home, put him on an IV, gave him some nameless pills, and told him to rest. This sickness lasted several days, and he had to give up that week’s Talking Club meeting. His body just wasn’t up for it, and Arvardan thought he was going to die.

Arvardan lay on his bed, filled with regret. The Talking Club was his only joy in life, and now he couldn’t even go. He covered his head with his blanket and thought, Would Wagner bring something special to the meeting this time? Would Lancelot bring his two children? And Artemis…. If Arvardan weren’t there, who would she have a “frank exchange” with? Wagner or Lancelot? He also thought about Duras. At the last meeting, Duras had reached the point in the story where Winston told Julia, in their secret meeting room, “We are the dead.” Julia also said, “We are the dead.” And a third voice then said, “You are the dead.”

Duras had stopped when she got to this point. Arvardan had desperately wanted to know that happened next. Who was the third voice? Was it the Party? Would Winston and Julia be arrested? What was going to happen to them?

“Let it be a cliffhanger,” Artemis said to him. “Then the whole next week our lives will be spent in the joy of anticipation.” And then the two went back to the joy of frankly exchanging.
Arvardan’s sickness lasted ten days before he recovered. The first thing he did after he felt well enough was to get up and look at the calendar on the wall. Today was Sunday, a Talking Club meeting day. Arvardan had missed one meeting, and he felt like a man dying of starvation. Even in his sleep he dreamed of talking at the Talking Club.

Arvardan washed his face and carefully shaved off his thick stubble with a rusty razor. He brushed his teeth and smoothed down his bed hair with a towel and some warm water. Due to his sickness, the appropriate authorities had issued him some extra supplies, including two croissants, two ginger beers, and a packet of fine sugar. He wrapped these carefully in a plastic bag, and put the package inside his coat pocket to bring to the Talking Club to share with everyone.

Arvardan got off the bus, felt for the package hidden inside his coat, and walked towards the Simpson Tower. Halfway there, he lifted his head, and an icy chill seized his heart, forcing him to stop in his tracks.

Something was very wrong.

He looked up to the fifth floor. Before, the window from Artemis’s apartment that faced the street had been covered by pink curtains, but now the curtains were pulled to the sides, and the window was wide open. If there was a meeting of the Talking Club today, Artemis would never have left the shielding curtains open. And keeping the windows open was odd, period. In the Capital, the air outside was terribly murky. No one would have opened the windows to let in “fresh air.”

There was no Talking Club today. Something else was going on. Arvardan stared at the window, and his heart began to beat furiously. He took his hand out of his pocket, put a cigarette in his mouth, then leaned against a utility pole, and forced himself to be calm so as not to raise the suspicion of passing pedestrians. Suddenly he saw something that made him almost faint. A single idea filled his mind.

“There would be no meeting of the Talking Club this week. There will never be a meeting again,” he mumbled to himself, his face the color of ashes.

He saw a contraption that looked like a radar dish, hidden in a corner on this side of the street. Arvardan knew exactly what this was. It was what he had been designing the software for: the new, high-powered, active Listener. The device was capable of sending out active electromagnetic waves to capture vibrations made by voices against walls and windows from a distance, and examine such speech for sensitive words.

If such a device had been installed right near Artemis’s home, then that meant the Talking Club was completely exposed to the view of the appropriate authorities. The active Listener’s penetrating waves would easily pierce through the lead curtains, and transmit the Club members’ words verbatim to the ears of the appropriate authorities.

This invention defined a new era. The appropriate authorities no longer had to wait passively for warnings. Instead, they could at any time actively inspect any speech made by anyone. Arvardan could easily imagine what had happened next. Everything that Artemis and the others said was recorded by the appropriate authorities. Then the police broke into her apartment and arrested all the members of the Talking Club who were present. After they conducted a search, all that was left was the empty room and the empty windows.

Arvardan felt a knife was being twisted in his heart. He did not think that he was fortunate to have escaped capture. His stomach churned, and nausea rose from his stomach to his mouth. He wanted to vomit, but he couldn’t—”vomit” was itself a sensitive word. His body, only just recovered, could not take the hit. He began to shake as though he was suffering chills.

He dared not continue forward. He turned around, boarded another bus, and shut his mouth even tighter. When Arvardan returned to his own building, he saw that another active Listener was being installed nearby. The dark antenna extended into the sky, and along with the other antennas around the Capital, it wove an invisible, giant Web in the sky that covered everything.

He dared not stop to look. Keeping his head low, he walked past the active Listener, and returned home without stopping. Then he hid his face in the pillow, but dared not cry out loud. He couldn’t even say, “Fuck you, you sonovabitch.”

After that, Arvardan’s life returned to normal—just like before, it was stagnant, restrained, passionless, healthy, and without any vulgar joys. Lancelot had said that the result of the war was that the people’s desire for freedom would push language to the edge of death. The death of the Talking Club led to the deletion of “talking,” “opera,” “frank,” and “exchange” from the List of Healthy Words.

Although it was still possible to use numbers, the number “1984” was shielded. One morning, without any warning, Arvardan was simply assigned a new Web Access Serial that no longer contained that string of numerals. This also meant that programmers like Arvardan had to constantly ensure that their programs did not compute illegal numbers. This added greatly to the workload, and Arvardan was even more exhausted.

What happened later in Nineteen Eighty-Four Arvardan would never know. Duras, the only one who did know, had disappeared completely. So what happened to Winston and Julia would forever be a mystery: like the fate of Lancelot, Wagner, Duras, and Artemis.

He worried the most about Artemis. Every time he thought of that name, Arvardan could not control how depressed he became. What happened to her? Was she completely shielded? If that was the case, then the only trace she left in this world would be a pseudonym in the memory of a programmer.

Three weeks after the disappearance of the Talking Club, everything remained calm. No one came after Arvardan. He thought maybe it was because the others had refused to give up any information about him. Or maybe it was because they didn’t really know who he was—the person they knew was a programmer named Wang Er. In the Capital there were thousands of programmers, and Wang Er was just a pseudonym.

Life went on peacefully. No, to be precise, there was one bit of difference. That would be the List of Healthy Words: words disappeared from it at a faster and faster pace. Every hour, every minute, words vanished from it. As the pace of revision for the List quickened, emails and BBS forum posts became more and more vapid and banal. Since people had to use an extremely limited set of words to express an inexpressibly wide range of thoughts, everyone more and more preferred silence. Even the secret codes and hidden clues became fewer.

One day, Arvardan lifted his head from the computer. He stared at the grey, hazy sky outside the window, and his chest spasmed. He coughed in pain, and drained the distilled water from his cup. He threw the disposable plastic cup into the trashcan, also made of plastic. Listening to the dull sound of plastic hitting plastic, he thought his own brain was also filled with a pile of trash. He rapped his knuckles against his skull. Indeed, the same empty dull sound came out.

He put on his coat and filtering mask and walked out the door. He did not wear a portable Listener because it was no longer necessary. The Capital was filled with active Listeners, ever vigilant for the presence of sensitive words. The entire Capital now was just like the Web, healthy and stable.

Arvardan had a legitimate excuse for going outside. He had decided to turn in his permit for BBS service. It was no longer necessary to use this service. Email, BBS forums, Web sites—everything was now the same.

The calendar said it was spring, but outside it was still very cold. Tall, grey buildings stood like a forest of stone in absolute zero. Gusts of wind carrying yellow sand and polluting exhaust gas rushed between them and filled every available space, making it impossible for anyone to escape their suffocating presence. Arvardan put his hands in his pockets, shrank into his coat, and continued to the building for the Department of Web Security.

Suddenly, he stopped, his feet frozen in place, incapable of movement. He saw Artemis, standing under the street light before him and wearing a black uniform. But what a change had come over her! She seemed at least ten years older, her face full of wrinkles. There was none of the vitality of youth left in her. She heard his steps, turned around, and her dark eyes seemed especially empty. She stared past Arvardan into the distance, without focus.

Arvardan had never expected to meet her at this time in this place. His heart, long dormant, now was lit by a few sparks. But his dull and exhausted nerves were incapable of feeling the simple emotion of “excitement.” The two stared at each other for a while. He finally walked next to her, and tentatively moved his lips, as though he wanted to say something to her. But when he took out the latest edition of the List of Healthy Words distributed earlier that day, he found it was empty—even the last word had been shielded by the appropriate authorities.

An address flashed in his mind—luckily, it was not yet possible to shield the mind with technology. Perhaps it was now time to take a trip to the mountains. He had nothing more to lose.

Someone has to do this.

And so, Arvardan maintained his silence. He passed by the expressionless Artemis, and continued his forward progress. His silhouette eventually melted into the equally quiet, grey crowd.

The whole city seemed especially silent.


First published in Chinese in a slightly different form in the December 2005 issue of Science Fiction World.

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December 6, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

  1. Great story.

    Comment by Fight the Landlord | December 21, 2011

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