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City Lights

Translated by S. Qiouyi Lu

S. Qiouyi Lu writes, translates, and edits between two coasts of the Pacific. Ær debut biocyberpunk novella In the Watchful City is out now from Tordotcom Publishing, and ær other work has appeared in several award-winning venues. You can find out more about S. at ær website s.qiouyi.lu or on Twitter @sqiouyilu.

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Yilun Fan is a science fiction writer and researcher from Hong Kong. She grew up in a small port city by the Yangtze River and likes to think about floating boundaries and changes. Her work has appeared in Science Fiction World, Galaxy’s Edge Chinese Edition, Modern Chinese Literature Studies, and SFRA Review, among others. Her award-winning short stories have been translated into several languages, published by Upper Rubber Boot Books, Oxford University Press, and Future Fiction. She serves as the deputy secretary-general for the World Chinese Science Popularization Writer Association. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. degree in speculative fiction studies at the University of California, Riverside.
Content Warning(s):
Kidnapping and abduction

First Act

Nanfeng Industrial Building, Jade Mountain

River hesitated, her right index finger hovering over a large panel of buttons.

The elevator before her was atrocious. River had been to countless theaters of all sizes in Longgang City where the elevators had all been polished bright like mirrors. There were even labels under the buttons that read Disinfect every three hours. This elevator, however, was painted an outmoded shade of blue. In several places, the paint had flaked off, revealing mottled spots of rust that looked like abstract art. The buttons were greasy, the numbers indistinct. She furrowed her brow and took a step back to look at her surroundings again. She was in the basement of a large industrial building. Construction vehicles rumbled outside, making the basement hum with what sounded like thunder to her ears. She took another look at the pamphlet in her hand. It had taken her two hours to find the place. Was this really it?

Just as she was about to try the retina scan a fourth time, someone came up panting behind her and said, “Could you help me press the button for the 17th floor? Thank you!”

Nothing made her happier than hearing the number seventeen at that moment. River glanced back, only to see a pair of arms holding on to a stack of cardboard boxes several feet high.

“No problem. I’m also headed there.” She paused, then decided to confirm, “Is that where the City Lights dance troupe is?”

“You’re here early! The performance isn’t starting for another hour.” With effort, the person stuck his head out from behind the cardboard boxes. Even in the dim light, River could tell that the smiling face was made of gleaming metal.

“I’m Nick. I’m in charge of the props for City Lights. The button for the 17th floor is on the right side.” As he watched her finger circle around, he added, “It’s the third one on the second row.”

Relieved, she pressed the button and turned back to give Nick a thankful smile. She was about to say her name when the door clattered open, startling her. Her smile froze into an awkward expression. As if used to such a reaction, Nick said reassuringly, “It’s all right. It looks old, but the elevator is reliable.” He patted the cardboard boxes. “These are all filled with foam, anyway. It’s no big deal if the elevator falls.”

River flushed. Silently, she walked in and stood in one corner, leaving a good amount of space for Nick. The doors rattled shut. The sudden weightlessness made her feel dizzy. In midair, her curiosity and anticipation sprang forth again: What kind of dance troupe would choose this location as its theater? Would there be cyborg performers?

Act Two

Nanfeng Industrial Building, Jade Mountain

“I like cotton tree flowers. They look like flames.” Nick compared the two sketches. Dancers dressed in black meditated under a sea of flowering trees. The one on the left had cotton trees that were red like a sunset, whereas the one on the right had pillars of blue jacaranda. “If you burn a tree, it’s not blue like a gas stove’s fire.”

“Mmm.” River turned off the computer screen and leaned back in her seat. She rubbed her eyes, which were dry from her all-nighter. It had taken her five nights to finish the playbills for the performance, which was scheduled for four months from now. Although River had only been there for three months, Tao Yiye had given the important task to her. Feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility, River took care to be extra conscientious as she worked. She hadn’t been sure what color to select for the flowers, so she’d come up with two sketches for Tao Yiye to decide on. Nick’s reasoning went with her own. As for the expenses for the set … she forced a smile.

River turned toward Nick and said, “You’d better be sure. You’re the one responsible for getting them. If you overspend, Bess will sort you out.”

Nick couldn’t help but laugh. “Wood is expensive, but we could also use …”

A loud and clear voice interrupted him.

“Real wood is fine. You don’t need to use artificial wood. Bess won’t complain about this.” Tao Yiye strode through the open door, imitation linen robe trailing on the floor behind him, two envelopes in hand. “All the advance tickets for the autumn performance have sold out. Even after paying out your wages, there’s still a good amount left over to buy wood, and then some.” As he spoke, he handed the two envelopes over to River and Nick.

Tao Yiye’s Yusheng eau de parfum wafted up from the envelopes. The sandalwood note had already faded. The Tokyo citrus that made up the original top note had gone extinct in 2189 and been replaced with a California citrus; the sillage of tuberose fragrance covered the weak scent. River didn’t actually like perfume, but she loved all kinds of plants. Now that everything could be artificially synthesized, the scent of plants remained one of the few real things left. She tried to remember if Tao Yiye had assigned the poster design for Spirit of the Trees to her when they’d been teasing him about the ingredients of his Yusheng perfume. Whether because she was getting paid or because she found the thought amusing, River’s lips parted into a smile as she took the envelope.

The top-right corner of the City Lights Dance Lab envelopes was stamped with their logo: Coruscating lights streamed down from the city’s skyline onto two small dancing figures, one a fully assembled cyborg. Three months ago, after she’d watched one of their performances, every cell in River’s body had come to a boil. Never before had a dance performance impressed on her in such a profound way. The performers were tall and short, fat and thin, some with artificial skin and metal limbs. They danced freely to the melody, working in concert with a tacit understanding between them. It was an entirely new level of performance. Only afterward did she find out that none of the dancers had been classically trained. When she returned to the academy, River’s mind wandered back to the performance for several days before she couldn’t take it anymore and ran over to watch two more showings. After the last curtain call, she’d gathered the courage to ask Bess about whether there were any volunteering or moonlighting opportunities. Bess and Tao Yiye had been particularly interested in the “experienced illustrator” part of her résumé. During the interview, they were piqued by her frank honesty: When asked why she’d majored in computer engineering and not illustration or design, River had shrugged and said, “I don’t like the methods being used in schools today to train artists.”

Tao Yiye and Bess had glanced at each other. They couldn’t help but laugh. If they’d liked the training methods, City Lights wouldn’t exist. From illustration to composition to vocal music to dance, all arts training now happened in municipal schools that followed the same curriculum to churn out standardized “artists” who would pander to the city’s tastes, which had homogenized eighty years ago during the cyborg refugee crisis. With Twin Rivers to the east, Qingtai to the west, and Luosong Harbor to the south, Longgang was the economic center of the entire Guzhou area and had a high demand for laborers. Twin Rivers and Qingtai were the manufacturing bases for cyborgs and provided a year-round, endless supply of laborers to Longgang. When competition between Twin Rivers and Qingtai reached a breaking point eighty years ago, nonstop upgrades left thousands of cyborgs saddled with recall notices right as they stepped off the assembly line. Facing destruction, many cyborgs had no choice but to flee across the border into Longgang and become the city’s underground black market labor supply. As the influx of cyborg refugees mounted, the city of Longgang had first issued blockade orders, then purged the borders of the city, where local art had been flourishing.

The purge had become a footnote in the annals of Longgang’s history. Towering skyscrapers that reached the clouds replaced the workers’ shanties that had once formed a city within a city. When they were still students at the municipal dance academy, Tao Yiye and Bess had gone up to a vantage point high enough in one of the skyscrapers to survey the river separating them from Twin Rivers. They imagined the grim sight of countless cyborg refugees running for their lives as they crossed the border in secret.

In the end, they both dropped out of school to found City Lights. They had a simple creed: Anyone can dance, regardless of whether you’re an organic human or a cyborg.

River wasn’t the only person moonlighting there. Nick was a nurse at a rehabilitation center by day and could only work for City Lights on evenings and weekends. Several medical centers in Longgang preferred to hire cyborgs like him. Compared to traditional robot nurses, the half-humans, half-machines could better care for people’s needs and tend to their suffering.

City Lights currently had fourteen members. Over half of them were cyborgs. Five of them were also working a second job. Four years ago, when they’d just established the dance troupe, Tao Yiye and Bess had been concerned about how a penniless, no-name independent dance troupe would attract dancers. But the auditions had gone unexpectedly well. In two weeks, they’d recruited Carmen, Angie, and Brett. Everyone was passionate about the project, but their backgrounds varied widely, making things difficult for the choreographer. Carmen was a college student majoring in dance history who was interested in adding a practical component to her studies; Angie was a cyborg designed to be a dancer at a strip club; and Brett had originally been a student at the municipal dance academy, but he had been forced to drop out due to his vision impairment. But everyone had one thing in common: As soon as you mentioned dance, their eyes would light up.

Over four years, City Lights gradually created a solid foundation for itself. People came and went. Those who remained on the seventeenth floor never complained about things being lonely at the top—although Bess often ridiculed the sorry state of their finances. “It’s not that we’re highbrow. The reason for our ‘high culture’ is that we’re broke.”

River’s arrival breathed new life into City Lights. Designing the posters and flyers was nothing. The most impressive thing about River was her ability to advertise. She was a student assistant for Sha Tin University’s Friends of the Arts program and often recommended activities to teachers and students on behalf of the directors. After arranging a special performance for more than forty students, the name City Lights spread through Longgang’s student associations. Soon, they began to sell out their hundred-seat space regularly. Even a single ticket was hard to come by.

Tao Yiye and Bess had been surprised by the turn of events. Whether or not they were well-received wasn’t that important to them, but it was undoubtedly a good thing for City Lights. They’d had an occupancy rate of 80% or above over the last three months, making them eligible for subsidies from the Arts Development Council.

“River, can you do me a favor?” Tao Yiye took a brown folder out of his briefcase. “This is the application for next year’s subsidy. Can you stop by the Arts Development Council on the way back to campus and stick it in the drop box on the second floor?”

“Sure. I’ll go right away; it’s just around the corner.” River took the folder. It was heavy in her hands.

Nick leapt up to join her.

“I’ll go with you. I need to buy wood!”

Jiangjun Street, Shad Harbor

Summer was the worst season in Longgang. The heat and humidity from the sea were trapped in Longgang, which was surrounded on three sides by mountains. River and Nick made their way through the afternoon crowds of people. There was a small breeze, but it didn’t bring any relief and only carried the stink of the fish market with it.

“Have you ever touched your face under the sun?” River wiped away the sweat on her brow as she looked curiously at Nick, whose metal face gleamed.

It’d definitely be hot, she thought. But can he feel the heat?

“I don’t remember … but, after three months of the rainy season, don’t you feel that this City Light is lovely?” Nick said smugly, proud of his pun.

“It’s too bright. Speaking of, have you and Ol’ Tao ever discussed where the name City Lights comes from?”

“I thought you were familiar with our mission and vision. Weren’t you the one who set up the website?” Nick glanced over at River’s soaked handkerchief and laughed. “I know it’s a movie from centuries ago.”

River retorted, “Charlie Chaplin’s last silent movie. But what does that have to do with the dance troupe—ah! Sorry!”

A man wearing a dark, striped suit picked up the briefcase that had fallen beside River’s feet and returned it to her. Before River could react, he rushed off. River only saw a glint of his glasses before he disappeared into the crowd.

“Wearing a suit in this kind of heat. He definitely works in the Arts Development Council. We’re here.” Nick tugged at River’s sleeve. Before them was a huge elevator, polished bright like a mirror.

River could smell the disinfectant still lingering on the buttons.

Act Three

Shunada Recuperation Center, West Shore

Even though there was no way the patient could hear him, Nick still closed the door as softly as he could. He turned on the monitor.

Pulse: Normal

Respiration: Normal

Reflexes: Undetected

Muscular system: Undetected

Consciousness: Undetected

Nothing had changed.

He circled the patient’s bed and performed routine tactile tests on the patient’s limbs. As expected, there was no response.

The patient was the seventh Nick had cared for at the rehabilitation center. She had a beautiful name: Crane—like the long-extinct bird with white feathers and delicate red legs that had been widely renowned as a symbol of elegance. Nick had spent his childhood on a high-tech eco-farm, feeding turgid old hens and guiding adorable grey goslings into the water. He had far more knowledge of avians than the average person, but he still had a hard time imagining a crane spreading its wings in the wild like in the photos.

It was ironic that a patient with muscle memory loss had such a name. Deep in a coma, Crane lay still in the intensive care unit. Never had any family or friends visited her. If not for the age on her information card changing from thirty-one to thirty-three, no time seemed to have passed. Nick massaged her head. Her black hair swept past his fingertips, soft as down, a striking contrast against the pale white of her atrophied limbs.

Nick knew nothing about the patient other than her name and her age. She was different from the other patients he’d cared for. Crane was a puzzle. Two years ago, on a dark and stormy night, Nick had blearily answered a call from Dr. Pan, the director of the rehabilitation center. By the time he’d rushed over, Dr. Pan was already waiting for him on the patio. Before Nick could put away his umbrella, Dr. Pan had motioned for him to follow. Nick didn’t remember how long he’d walked. All he remembered were the sickrooms retreating away on both sides, four windows becoming two, then one … When the windows disappeared entirely, Dr. Pan had stopped and opened a door guarded with a combination lock. He had pointed to the unconscious girl and spoke, breaking the silence: “Take good care of her until she wakes up.”

Nick’s metal skin guarded him from the negative effects of the high-intensity growth-stimulating rays. He was sure that that was why Dr. Pan had selected him for the task. Every day, he monitored the patient for ten hours, spending the whole time in silence. Gradually, the silence became unbearable. He started to miss the days when he could listen to music, chat with Mrs. Hua about whether or not she should plant a fruit tree in her garden, choose a name for the kitten that Judy had just adopted—even reading the newspaper for “evil” Mr. De became a joyous task. If only he could return to the general ward.

It was from then on that Nick started moonlighting for City Lights. Otherwise, he would have forgotten how to laugh. But that was only part of the reason why he’d gotten involved. Nick had wanted to be a dancer since childhood, but the owner of the farm had shattered his dreams when he’d caught him secretly practicing: “Who would want to see a cyborg dance?”

The comment had been a cruel awakening. When it came to cyborgs, no matter how hard they worked or how talented they were, only their identities mattered.

Although time passed slowly, Nick never complained about the patient. After completing his inspections, he sat down. He felt close to her—or rather, close to her story. Perhaps “story” wasn’t the best word, but in his excessive idle time, he felt a secret pleasure speculating about her identity: Who was she? What was her past like? How did she come down with her condition?

No need to use words to tell a story—that was the reason why Nick liked to dance and the reason why Tao Yiye devoted himself to City Lights.

Does River understand?

Nick couldn’t help but laugh. He eased Crane’s foot into the medical light. That night, when Dr. Pan opened the door, the first thing Nick had seen was Crane’s foot: layer after layer of bandages cocooning deep wounds and a bruised, red-green swelling incongruous with her dainty body—as if a lily had grown twisted, tangled roots.

Perhaps she was once a dancer, too.

Deep in thought, Nick didn’t notice Crane’s eyelid twitch.

Act Four

Nanfeng Industrial Building, Jade Mountain

River had no choice but to bang her fist on the door.

“Ol’ Tao, they’re about to have the curtain call!”

No reply.

Cheers and applause were already coming from the stage next door. River kept knocking.

“Ol’ Tao, is something wrong? Everyone’s waiting for the choreographer to take the stage. You have to go …”

“Let me open the door.”

River glanced back to see Bess jogging over, keychain in hand.

The key slotted into the lock with a crisp click. Bess and River gasped at the sight of the room. Files were scattered on the floor; several of the playbills on the walls were askew and one was upside down. Tao Yiye sat stiffly before the window, cigarette ash dusting his robe.

“We’ve been denied again, the second time in six months,” Tao Yiye murmured to himself, as if unaware of Bess and River’s presence.

Bess picked up a glass that had fallen to the floor.

“Ol’ Tao, we’re very aware of the Arts Development Council’s preferences. If we could get a subsidy, that would be great, but we don’t need it.” She paused, her gaze steady on Tao Yiye. “I’m clear on how far we can take this, believe me.”

Still, River sensed hesitation in Bess’s voice—she wasn’t as staunch as she appeared to be. She always left the door to her office open, and even if she was drowning in bills and forms, she still made it a point to smile and greet everyone who passed by. She kept her worries to herself. River and the others in the dance troupe appreciated how capable Bess was. She constantly looked on the positive side for Tao Yiye. The two of them made for an efficient husband and wife team.

“Don’t focus on the evaluation. Right now, your concern should be our audience.”

Bess’s words stabbed Tao Yiye in the heart. She was right.

Tao Yiye stood and brushed off the ash on his robe.

“I’ll go now.”

As she took questionnaires from the audience at the door, River would always feel a hint of sadness in her joy. Although they performed every program several times, every experience was different. For most people, their fates crossed only once. But there were also familiar strangers, such as the man who always wore a blue scarf. River had been aware of him for a long time now. He always sat in a corner of the second to last row. As soon as the lights came on, he would pull out a notebook and begin scribbling. Only when the curtain call came did he look up. He seemed familiar, but she couldn’t recall where she’d run into him before, giving her a strange sense of déjà vu.

Just beyond the door, Tao Yiye and Bess stood on the stage discussing something. Bess pointed at the ceiling as Tao Yiye fell silent, chin in one hand.

It must be something about the lighting, River thought.

Longgang had just had its rainiest spring season in the last thirty years. A week ago, by chance, Tao Yiye had found a piece of mold that had fallen from the ceiling onto the stage. Now, it seemed that the mold was interfering with the lighting, and the repairs would be out of their budget.

“Where did Nick go?” River gathered all the questionnaires, suddenly aware that she hadn’t seen Nick since the curtain call.

“We have a guest today.” Nick’s voice floated over from the door. Everyone turned to see him wheeling in a person in a wheelchair. The woman in the chair was dainty, her hair in a short bob, her face pale. Even though she had a blanket covering her, River could still make out the twisted shape of her body.

“Long time no see, Ol’ Tao, Bess.”

She nodded at the two people on the stage. Maybe she imagined it, or maybe it was because the lights being adjusted were too bright, but River saw her eyes glittering.

“Crane?! Is … is it really you?” Tao Yiye cried out.

“It’s me.” Crane nodded. “I was in the back and watched the whole performance. It was marvelous. You’ve really done it.”

Crane’s Monologue

Nowadays, all professional dancers graduate from the municipal art school’s “Dream Dancer” program. Students train during the day. At night, electronic pulses run through them as they sleep. The pulses encode the muscle memories of several celebrated dancers in history. Top-performing students have the privilege of receiving the most prestigious of pulses. Competition within the Dream Dancer program is intense, leading some people to castigate the process. But without the program, how would Longgang, and all of Guzhou, produce the highest quality of dancers?

Bess, Ol’ Tao, and I enrolled in the same year. We had the same passion for dance, and the three of us soon became friends. We attended classes and ate together, and we even tried out for the Dream Dancer program—but we failed. Words can’t express the experience. The more we tried to recall it, the less we could remember.

I practiced hard every day and would often lock myself into a dance room for six or seven hours. After a few semesters, I became the most outstanding student in my cohort, and I won every dance competition. So I had the privilege to access the best signals from the database. Ol’ Tao and Bess were also among the top—don’t deny it. You nearly defeated me with your couple’s dance.

As the days passed, I noticed that Ol’ Tao showed up less and less for drills. Bess would become agitated like a little bird during practice—I’d even joked with you over the comparison, do you remember? Then, a rumor began to circulate that Tao Yiye was going to drop out. I couldn’t bear it any longer and skipped practice one day to go to the café we often went to. Ol’ Tao was there, holding Pina Bausch’s autobiography.

Ol’ Tao wasn’t surprised by my questions and concerns. But his response startled me. Resolute, he said, “Yes, I’m going to drop out.”

He said, “This isn’t even dancing. All we’re doing is replicating other people’s performances! I’ve had enough of these endless competitions. Why turn the dance floor into a Colosseum?”

Do you still remember what you said, Ol’ Tao? I wish I’d listened to you, but back then, I was too stubborn, too ambitious, and bent on becoming Guzhou’s best dancer. If I’d dropped out with you, maybe I would be dancing here now.

§

Crane paused for a moment and glanced around, her vision hazy, her neck stiff. Her eyes flashed with pain.

“Then what happened?” River asked, unable to contain her curiosity, her heart pounding.

§

I’m guessing you’re all familiar with Li Yue, a dancer who was extremely popular for a while. That was me.

I changed my name and underwent plastic surgery, all for my first performance before a crowd of thousands of people. I was successful as Li Yue. That was my most glorious time. From Longgang to all of Guzhou, everyone in the dance world knew my name. When I look back, I still see that time as wonderful, but only with regards to dance and not my life.

The pain started when I performed a solo dance for Queen Charlotte’s welcome dinner. My legs twitched the whole night. At first, I thought it was from fatigue and didn’t pay much attention to it. But a month later, I could no longer control my legs.

I didn’t tell anyone. Everyone knew what this meant for a dancer. I went to an underground hospital and began taking medication to control my muscles—until a year later when I collapsed on stage.

§

“I knew you were Li Yue from the first media reports, Crane. I recognized you. A face can be easily changed, but, when it comes to dancers, the body doesn’t lie. You couldn’t hide from people who’d practiced with you for two years.” Tao Yiye knelt and held Crane’s hand in his. Her fingers were trembling. Every joint, every callus was familiar, but her hand lacked the warmth it used to have.

“I’m happy you’re back. Ol’ Tao and I have been looking for you.” Bess also knelt down and took Crane’s other hand in hers.

“Did the two of you get married?” Crane looked at the ring on Bess’s ring finger, then at the one Tao Yiye wore. Before Tao Yiye and Bess could reply, Crane laughed. “Congratulations.”

Nick spoke then. “Crane still isn’t fully recovered. The muscle memory dysfunction she’s suffering from is rare. I’ve been trying to find the root of her illness over the past couple years, but the people at the recuperation center won’t say a word. I wanted to find someone to intervene, perhaps from the upper levels of the municipal dance academy. I think her illness has something to do with an overload of electrical pulses.”

As the others looked on with surprise, Nick glanced at the clock on the wall.

“It’s getting late,” he said. “I need to take Crane back. The closed-circuit monitors will be back on in an hour. But I have a plan.”

Act Five

Arts Development Council, Jiangjun Road, Shad Harbor

Desmond put down his pen and took a sip of his black coffee. The warm steam fogged up his glasses.

A drop of coffee splashed onto his blue tie, forming a stain like dried blood. He didn’t think that his hands would be shaking this badly. Between the municipal dance academy and the Arts Development Council, he’d personally rejected hundreds of applications over the last three years. From the seal to the signature, he did everything in one go and never hesitated.

But the application from City Lights Dance Lab made him hesitate. The independent dance troupe had caught his attention the moment it had been established. To his surprise, it had cyborg members. City Lights hadn’t been anything special in its first two years, but in the past half-year, the troupe had taken off and often put on sold-out performances. Although the theater only had about a hundred seats, the fact that so many people were willing to pay money to watch cyborgs perform was astonishing. From Jesse’s clandestine photos and on-site recordings, it seemed that the cyborgs truly had an uncommon knack for dancing, and the audience’s response was rhapsodic.

If cyborgs were as attractive to audiences as human dancers, and mass-production wasn’t an issue, then why go through all the effort to train humans? As the head of the Dream Dancer program, he couldn’t accept what he was seeing.

Desmond flipped through the application materials. His gaze fell upon the applicants’ names.

“Tao Yiye … Bess …” He read the names of his former students, a complicated expression on his face. Tao Yiye’s rebellious nature was clear from the first day of class. And Bess … He drummed his fingers against the table.

Then, his secretary poked her head out from behind the door.

“Director, you have a guest. Mr. Tao.”

Desmond sucked in a cold breath and covered the application with a newspaper. He straightened his dark pinstriped suit and nodded.

The door opened soundlessly. Tao Yiye stepped in, robe trailing behind him.

Before Desmond could say a word, Tao Yiye spoke, getting straight to the point: “Director Desmond, I wasn’t sure if you received City Lights’ application. Whether it’s the number of works in City Lights’ repertoire, the attendance figures, or the finances, they all meet the requirements for the subsidy. So I’d like to know why the Arts Development Council continues to reject our applications.”

Desmond regarded his former student. His every gesture was still as elegant as a crane gliding through a cloud, and he was as impulsive as always. Could two conflicting traits truly coexist in the same body? He would either fail miserably or win beautifully.

Did he really want to let him win?

Act Six

Nanfeng Industrial Building, Jade Mountain

The lights went out as the curtain rose.

Angie’s entrance was perfect. She wore a close-fitting outfit the color of rice. Her legs crossed en pointe as she held her arms out in a circle before her chest, her face half-shadowed like an ancient Greek statue. A woman beside River gasped. A few steps over, Crane and Tao Yiye sat together with Nick behind them, the three of them staring at the stage. Crane’s seat had been modified so she could sit upright. River noticed the sweat on her brow as her chest rose and fell. She was unsure whether it was from pain or anxiety.

The sound system ticked like a clock. River sucked in a breath: “It’s starting.”

Angie’s tense body gradually relaxed. Her stripper design gave Angie unparalleled flexibility, but her flaws were obvious. Her lifespan was only thirty years. She twirled around, her ochre-red hair fanning out like a giant chrysanthemum that glittered under the lights. One twirl, two, three … The audience applauded enthusiastically.

Then, without any warning, Angie crashed to the floor.

The applause stopped abruptly as the audience cried out.

Angie was slumped over on the stage. As if she had recovered from the pain, she jerked her limbs and made her way upright. Before she regained her balance, though, she began to twirl again. Just as the audience was about to applaud with encouragement, she fell once more.

A deathly silence swept over the theater. The background music throbbed like a heartbeat. No one knew what would happen next.

Angie seemed to have lost control. She fell, stood, twirled, and fell again, repeating the cycle without regard for the rhythm of the music. She didn’t seem aware of the audience’s shock. It was as if she’d been put under a spell that submerged her into her own world, where she couldn’t feel pain.

The lighting shifted rapidly between bright and dark as more dancers entered the stage to join Angie. Brett knelt down and reached out with trembling hands, his baby face twisted with pain. Carmen lay on the stage and alternately tapped her feet on the floor, her whole body quivering. They all wore matching white form-fitting outfits, and their limbs were equally without order as if each of them were desperately struggling against a silkworm’s cocoon.

The audience grew increasingly restless. Some people began to whisper, while others stood to leave.

The time had come. River nodded at Nick. He bent over to adjust Crane’s seat. Crane bit her lip, her hands clenching the rising armrests as she made her way upright.

It must be painful, River thought as she watched anxiously.

The music faded as the lights went out. A spotlight fell on Crane. Everyone turned their attention to the single cold beam of light in the darkness.

Crane took a deep breath, then said, “Good evening. I am Li Yue.”

“Oh my god! Is it really Li Yue?” someone cried out with surprise.

“Yes, it really is me.” Crane paused for a moment, taking in the audience’s gaze: doubt, shock, bewilderment, confusion. It had been a couple years since she’d been so inundated with people’s attention. Back then, thousands of people had been enraptured by her presence.

“I want to tell you a story. You’ve already seen how it ends. But I want to tell you how it begins.”

River clasped her hands anxiously as she waited for Crane to continue speaking. But then, she smelled something burning. Before she could react, the spotlight on Crane went out. Several silhouettes that had been lined up against the wall darted out to make their move.

When the lights came back on, Crane was gone, and Nick had disappeared too.

Act Seven

Nanfeng Industrial Building, Jade Mountain

Bess looked out the window. The hazy drizzle enveloped the neon lights and colonial-era buildings of Jade Mountain in an illusory veil. Under the wavering lights, the everyday world seemed unreal.

Ever since Tao Yiye had shown her the message, Bess had kept trying to cast off the jittery unease in her heart, but it was futile. Disband City Lights, or forget about ever seeing her again. No signature—because it was from Desmond. That was how he did things: efficiently. He was even concise while blackmailing them. Crane had been his pride and joy when he was the chair of the municipal dance academy. He could make sure she never appeared again.

Desmond had been sending people to monitor their every movement. The man wearing a blue scarf that River had seen was one of them. No wonder they had been able to move so swiftly in the dark—they’d long since familiarized themselves with the layout of the small theater space.

“River …” Bess murmured. Then, as if she’d realized something, she ignored the creaking of the window in the wind and dashed out of the office.

§

River sat dumbstruck before the computer. Suddenly, she heard footsteps. When she turned to look, Bess was already braced against the doorframe, panting. River had never seen her so agitated.

“I need your help.” Although she panted as she spoke, Bess’s gaze was unusually steady. “I need you to break into the dance academy’s Dream Dancers database and tell all the students what Crane didn’t finish saying.”

Shocked, River stared at Bess, afraid to believe what she was hearing. Two days had passed since Crane and Nick’s disappearance. When she’d read the anonymous letter, River’s eyes were red-rimmed. Just a few lines of text and none of them had mentioned Nick.

Would it be brash to call the police? Or should they submit and disband City Lights? It had to be an unbelievably difficult decision for Tao Yiye. Everyone was on edge. Angie, Brett, and the other dancers kept asking about Crane and Nick’s whereabouts. They kept vigil over the computer, refreshing the inbox over and over again, hoping against hope that someone had seen the missing person flyers and would respond.

Still, breaking into the Dream Dancers database … Had Bess gone mad?

But River’s answer surprised even herself.

“I can try. But … the signals are muscle memories and might not translate to words so easily. How will I broadcast what Crane said?”

Bess smiled. “You don’t need to speak. Remember? Dance tells a story without saying a word.”

River looked at Bess incredulously.

“Don’t worry. I’ll help you with the choreography.”

“But … to do that, I’d need a powerful port to connect to the database. I don’t have one.”

“I do.”

Bess traced an elegant finger along her forehead to her dark hair. With a clack, her brain appeared. Or rather, not her brain, but countless circuits and microchips forming … a city. A city dazzling with light.

“Bess, you’re …”

“A cyborg,” Bess said calmly, the other half of her “brain” in her hand. “I’m a walking, talking monitoring unit, so I look just like other people. I’m sorry to have kept this from you, but … even Ol’ Tao doesn’t know. He’s never wanted children, anyway.”

River blushed.

“There’s something Crane didn’t tell everyone.” Bess’s voice remained calm. “Back at the dance academy, she and Ol’ Tao had been together.”

“Ah … I thought you and Ol’ Tao were always …”

Bess shook her head. “That came after he and I left the dance academy. By then, they’d been in a cold war for a while. Ol’ Tao was no longer able to tolerate her ambition, so he left. After Li Yue disappeared, Ol’ Tao stayed up all night. He’d long since guessed that she was Crane. City Lights almost disbanded then. Ol’ Tao had never let go of her—City Lights is her favorite movie.”

River wasn’t sure how to reply. Bess was tranquil as she discussed the past as if it had nothing to do with her. She almost wished that Bess would cry as that would have been easier for her to understand.

When she spoke again, Bess’s tone was determined once more.

“Moving on … let’s begin.”

§

Muscles have a life of their own. They can remember everything: the first time you touched your mother’s face; the waves in a pool during summer; the warmth of a lover’s lips; the weight pressing down on the tips of your toes on stage … River felt as if she were about to explode. She was drowning in powerful memories. She doubted that she could tell Crane’s story, which she had only heard once.

But now, she knew more.

River heard the gramophone of Crane’s youth playing old music—maybe Bach, or possibly Mendelssohn. Her room smelled of sandalwood. Several paintings hung on the wall. If you touched them, you could feel the grain on the surface. Eighteen years old, Crane wore red dance shoes and went down the hall to the exam room. People began to whisper, but she stood tall.

There wasn’t any suspense until a boy called Tao Yiye appeared. Her chest fluttered as her palms began to sweat. It was the first time she felt as though she had a rival.

River also saw another girl’s story. Her name was Bess. Ever since birth, she’d been surrounded by the smell of gasoline and cheap detergent. Day after day, she walked among booming machines. She heard their monstrous roars as music and saw the moving steel as dancing limbs. She’d thought that she’d spend the rest of her life there. But one day, she saw an announcement about the new students enrolling in the municipal dance academy. Over those couple of years, after she was off work, she would practice like mad. There was a beast inside her howling to be let out of its cage.

She succeeded as well. Every member of the evaluation committee had applauded. But all she remembered was a boy wearing a robe and a girl wearing red shoes. When they danced, their figures illuminated everything around them.

It was the first time that River viscerally understood that words paled in comparison to the body. She could see, hear, smell, touch, and even taste every memory. Yet she had no words to express the experience.

But why would Crane’s childhood story, which she’d never told anyone, be in Bess’s memory? River sensed a moment of unease, but she didn’t have time to linger on it. Bess’s artificial skin was already darkening with the overload.

“I know this is difficult for you,” Bess said to River. “You can directly access my mind—the database in my CPU. Muscle memories are already written into my programming. You should be able to convert Crane’s story.”

“But you’re already overloaded! If we do it this way, your CPU will freeze. For cyborgs … for you, that means death.” River began to cry.

“No. My muscles’ memories will live on in another body.”

“You don’t understand the consequences! I’m not saying …” But River had no choice to continue. Bess had already started exporting data.

Thirty kilometers away, in the dormitories of the municipal dance academy, young dancers awoke with a cry from a nightmare. They didn’t know what had happened, but the pain in their bodies was real.

Final Act

Nanfeng Industrial Building, Jade Mountain

Desmond was fired and arrested for kidnapping. The Dream Dancer program was suspended pending further investigation. Crane and Nick were found in a basement room of the dance academy. Although they’d been several buildings away, Nick had still heard the screams from the dormitories as River hacked into the central database.

According to the reports from the dancers, they’d all seen the same thing in their dream: a figure wrapped in translucent tubes turning endlessly. They couldn’t see the figure’s face. Every tube shone with electrical pulses that carried painful memories. But they didn’t know how those memories had linked up with their own bodies, just that they’d felt the pain.

After countless revolutions, the figure could no longer bear the pain. Crashing to the stage, the figure turned into a white crane with broken legs.

When it lifted its head, they saw their own faces.

§

After receiving a subsidy from the Arts Development Council, City Lights could finally leave behind the tiny theater on the seventeenth floor.

“Bess will regret her joke,” River said to herself as she chuckled. It was the day of Bess’s funeral, but she didn’t go. She wanted to stay in Bess’s office and sit in the chair she’d once sat in for the last time before they moved.

River didn’t tell anyone what she’d seen within Bess’s memories.

Eight years ago, through her own efforts, a girl had touched all the judges on the evaluation committee. She was a cyborg. Although she didn’t look any different from humans, she couldn’t deceive the head of the department, Desmond. In the same cohort was a human girl who was beautiful and full of ambition. Thinking that no one would be willing to support a cyborg, the head of the department had made a decision: he would accept the cyborg girl for an experiment. Using the Dream Dancer program, he would secretly swap the muscle memories of the cyborg and the human girl. That way, the human girl could become the best.

The top-secret experiment went smoothly. But there was one thing Desmond didn’t anticipate—that the cyborg girl knew what had happened to her body. She chose to remain silent. If the news broke out, she’d have to leave the academy and would never be able to see that boy again.

Bess became Crane, and Crane became Bess.

So Bess hadn’t actually left. Her muscle memories forever lived on in Crane’s body.

If Bess were still Bess, would City Lights still exist?

River looked out the window at the view Bess had seen every day for the past four years. In the silence, in the warm light of sunrise, the slumbering city awoke from its dreams.

© Yilun Fan
© S. Qiouyi Lu