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Translated by Ken Liu
Mom said to Tongtong, "In a couple of days, Grandpa is moving in with us."
After Grandma died, Grandpa lived by himself. Mom told Tongtong that because Grandpa had been working for the revolution all his life, he just couldn't be idle. Even though he was in his eighties, he still insisted on going to the clinic every day to see patients. A few days earlier, because it was raining, he had slipped on the way back from the clinic and hurt his leg.
Luckily, he had been rushed to the hospital, where they put a plaster cast on him. With a few more days of rest and recovery, he'd be ready to be discharged.
Emphasizing her words, Mom said, "Tongtong, your grandfather is old, and he's not always in a good mood. You're old enough to be considerate. Try not to add to his unhappiness, all right?"
Tongtong nodded, thinking, But haven't I always been considerate?
Grandpa's wheelchair was like a miniature electric car with a tiny joystick by the armrest. Grandpa just had to give it a light push, and the wheelchair would glide smoothly in that direction. Tongtong thought it tremendous fun.
Ever since she could remember, Tongtong had been a bit afraid of Grandpa. He had a square face with long, white, bushy eyebrows that stuck out like stiff pine needles. She had never seen anyone with eyebrows that long.
She also had some trouble understanding him. Grandpa spoke Mandarin with a heavy accent from his native topolect. During dinner, when Mom explained to Grandpa that they needed to hire a caretaker for him, Grandpa kept on shaking his head emphatically and repeating: "Don't worry, eh!" Now Tongtong did understand that bit.
Back when Grandma had been ill, they had also hired a caretaker for her. The caretaker had been a lady from the countryside. She was short and small, but really strong. All by herself, she could lift Grandma — who had put on some weight — out of the bed, bathe her, put her on the toilet, and change her clothes. Tongtong had seen the caretaker lady accomplish these feats of strength with her own eyes. Later, after Grandma died, the lady didn't come anymore.
After dinner, Tongtong turned on the video wall to play some games. The world in the game is so different from the world around me, she thought. In the game a person just died. They didn't get sick, and they didn't sit in a wheelchair. Behind her, Mom and Grandpa continued to argue about the caretaker.
Dad walked over and said, "Tongtong, shut that off now, please. You've been playing too much. It'll ruin your eyes."
Imitating Grandpa, Tongtong shook her head and said, "Don't worry, eh!"
Mom and Dad both burst out laughing, but Grandpa didn't laugh at all. He sat stone-faced with not even a hint of a smile.
A few days later, Dad came home with a stupid-looking robot. The robot had a round head, long arms, and two white hands. Instead of feet, it had a pair of wheels so that it could move forward and backward and spin around.
Dad pushed something in the back of the robot's head. The blank, smooth, egg-like orb blinked three times with a bluish light, and a young man's face appeared on the surface. The resolution was so good that it looked just like a real person.
"Wow," Tongtong said. "You are a robot?"
The face smiled. "Hello, there! Ah Fu is my name."
"Can I touch you?"
Tongtong put her hand against the smooth face, and then she felt the robot's arms and hands. Ah Fu's body was covered by a layer of soft silicone, which felt as warm as real skin.
Dad told Tongtong that Ah Fu was made by Guokr Technologies, Inc., and it was a prototype. Its biggest advantage was that it was as smart as a person: it knew how to peel an apple, how to pour a cup of tea, even how to cook, wash the dishes, embroider, write, play the piano ... Anyway, having Ah Fu around meant that Grandpa would be given good care.
Grandpa sat there, still stone-faced, still saying nothing.
After lunch, Grandpa sat on the balcony to read the newspaper. He dozed off after a while. Ah Fu came over noiselessly, picked up Grandpa with his strong arms, carried him into the bedroom, set him down gently in bed, covered him with a blanket, pulled the curtains shut, and came out and shut the door, still not making any noise.
Tongtong followed Ah Fu and watched everything.
Ah Fu gave Tongtong's head a light pat. "Why don't you take a nap, too?"
Tongtong tilted her head and asked, "Are you really a robot?"
Ah Fu smiled. "Oh, you don't think so?"
Tongtong gazed at Ah Fu carefully. Then she said, very seriously,
"I'm sure you are not."
"A robot wouldn't smile like that."
"You've never seen a smiling robot?"
"When a robot smiles, it looks scary. But your smile isn't scary. So you're definitely not a robot."
Ah Fu laughed. "Do you want to see what I really look like?"
Tongtong nodded. But her heart was pounding.
Ah Fu moved over by the video wall. From on top of his head, a beam of light shot out and projected a picture onto the wall. In the picture Tongtong saw a man sitting in a messy room.
The man in the picture waved at Tongtong. Simultaneously, Ah Fu also waved in the exact same way. Tongtong examined the man in the picture: he wore a thin, grey, long-sleeved bodysuit, and a pair of grey gloves. The gloves were covered by many tiny lights. He also wore a set of huge goggles. The face behind the goggles was pale and thin and looked just like Ah Fu's face.
Tongtong was stunned. "Oh, so you're the real Ah Fu!"
The man in the picture awkwardly scratched his head and said, a little embarrassed, "Ah Fu is just the name we gave the robot. My real name is Wang. Why don't you call me Uncle Wang, since I'm a bit older?"
Uncle Wang told Tongtong that he was a fourth-year university student doing an internship at Guokr Technologies' R&D department. His group developed Ah Fu.
He explained that the aging population brought about serious social problems: many elders could not live independently, but their children had no time to devote to their care. Nursing homes made them feel lonely and cut off from society, and there was a lot of demand for trained, professional caretakers.
But if a home had an Ah Fu, things were a lot better. When not in use, Ah Fu could just sit there out of the way. When it was needed, a request could be given, and an operator would come online to help the elder. This saved the time and cost of having caretakers commute to homes and increased the efficiency and quality of care.
The Ah Fu they were looking at was a first-generation prototype. There were only three thousand of them in the whole country, being tested by three thousand families.
Uncle Wang told Tongtong that his own grandmother had also been ill and had to go to the hospital for an extended stay so he had some experience with elder care. That was why he volunteered to come to her home to take care of Grandpa. As luck would have it, he was from the same region of the country as Grandpa and could understand his topolect. A regular robot probably wouldn't be able to.
Uncle Wang laced his explanation with many technical words, and Tongtong wasn't sure she understood everything. But she thought the idea of Ah Fu splendid, almost like a science fiction story.
"So, does Grandpa know who you really are?"
"Your mom and dad know, but Grandpa doesn't know yet. Let's not tell him for now. We'll let him know in a few days, after he's more used to Ah Fu."
Tongtong solemnly promised, "Don't worry, eh!"
She and Uncle Wang laughed together.
Grandpa really couldn't just stay home and be idle. He insisted that Ah Fu take him out walking. But after just one walk, he complained that it was too hot outside and refused to go anymore.
Ah Fu told Tongtong in secret that it was because Grandpa felt self-conscious having someone push him around in a wheelchair. He thought everyone in the street stared at him.
But Tongtong thought, Maybe they were all staring at Ah Fu.
Since Grandpa couldn't go out, being cooped up at home made his mood worse. His expression grew more depressed, and from time to time he burst out in temper tantrums. There were a few times when he screamed and yelled at Mom and Dad, but neither said anything. They just stood there and quietly bore his shouting.
But one time, Tongtong went to the kitchen and caught Mom hiding behind the door, crying.
Grandpa was now nothing like the Grandpa she remembered. It would have been so much better if he hadn't slipped and got hurt. Tongtong hated staying at home. The tension made her feel like she was suffocating. Every morning, she ran out the door and would stay out until it was time for dinner.
Dad came up with a solution. He brought back another gadget made by Guokr Technologies: a pair of glasses. He handed the glasses to Tongtong and told her to put them on and walk around the house. Whatever she saw and heard was shown on the video wall.
"Tongtong, would you like to act as Grandpa's eyes?"
Tongtong agreed. She was curious about anything new.
Summer was Tongtong's favorite season. She could wear a skirt, eat watermelon and popsicles, go swimming, find cicada shells in the grass, splash through rain puddles in sandals, chase rainbows after a thunderstorm, get a cold shower after running around and working up a sweat, drink iced sour plum soup, catch tadpoles in ponds, pick grapes and figs, sit out in the backyard in the evenings and gaze at stars, hunt for crickets after dark with a flashlight ... In a word: everything was wonderful in summer.
Tongtong put on her new glasses and went to play outside. The glasses were heavy and kept on slipping off her nose. She was afraid of dropping it.
Since the beginning of summer vacation, she and more than a dozen friends, both boys and girls, had been playing together every day. At their age, play had infinite variety. Having exhausted old games, they would invent new ones. If they were tired or too hot, they would go by the river and jump in like a plate of dumplings going into the pot. The sun blazed overhead, but the water in the river was refreshing and cool. This was heaven!
Someone suggested that they climb trees. There was a lofty pagoda tree by the river shore, whose trunk was so tall and thick that it resembled a dragon rising into the blue sky.
But Tongtong heard Grandpa's urgent voice by her ear: "Don't climb that tree! Too dangerous!"
Huh, so the glasses also act as a phone. Joyfully, she shouted back, "Grandpa, don't worry, eh!" Tongtong excelled at climbing trees. Even her father said that in a previous life she must have been a monkey.
But Grandpa would not let her alone. He kept on buzzing in her ear, and she couldn't understand a thing he was saying. It was getting on her nerves so she took off the glasses and dropped them in the grass at the foot of the tree. She took off her sandals and began to climb, rising into the sky like a cloud. This tree was easy. The dense branches reached out to her like hands, pulling her up. She went higher and higher and soon left her companions behind. She was about to reach the very top. The breeze whistled through the leaves, and sunlight dappled through the canopy. The world was so quiet.
She paused to take a breath, but then she heard her father's voice coming from a distance: "Tongtong, get ... down ... here ..."
She poked her head out to look down. A little ant-like figure appeared far below. It really was Dad.
On the way back home, Dad really let her have it.
"How could you have been so foolish?! You climbed all the way up there by yourself. Don't you understand the risk?"
She knew that Grandpa told on her. Who else knew what she was doing?
She was livid. He can't climb trees any more, and now he won't let others climb trees either? So lame! And it was so embarrassing to have Dad show up and yell like that.
The next morning, she left home super early again. But this time, she didn't wear the glasses.
"Grandpa was just worried about you," said Ah Fu. "If you fell and broke your leg, wouldn't you have to sit in a wheelchair just like him?"
Tongtong pouted and refused to speak.
Ah Fu told her that, through the glasses left at the foot of the tree, Grandpa could see that Tongtong was really high up. He was so worried that he screamed himself hoarse and almost tumbled from his wheelchair.
But Tongtong remained angry with Grandpa. What was there to worry about? She had climbed plenty of trees taller than that one, and she had never once been hurt.
Since the glasses weren't being put to use, Dad packed them up and sent them back to Guokr. Grandpa was once again stuck at home with nothing to do. He somehow found an old Chinese Chess set and demanded Ah Fu play with him. Tongtong didn't know how to play so she pulled up a stool and sat next to the board just to check it out. She enjoyed watching Ah Fu pick up the old wooden pieces, their colors faded from age, with its slender, pale white fingers; she enjoyed watching it tap its fingers lightly on the table as it considered its moves. The robot's hand was so pretty, almost like it was carved out of ivory.
But after a few games, even she could tell that Ah Fu posed no challenge to Grandpa at all. A few moves later, Grandpa once again captured one of Ah Fu's pieces with a loud snap on the board.
"Oh, you suck at this," Grandpa muttered.
To be helpful, Tongtong also said, "You suck!"
"A real robot would have played better," Grandpa added. He had already found out the truth about Ah Fu and its operator.
Grandpa kept on winning, and after a few games, his mood improved. Not only did his face glow, but he was also moving his head about and humming folk tunes. Tongtong also felt happy, and her earlier anger at Grandpa dissipated.
Only Ah Fu wasn't so happy. "I think I need to find you a more challenging opponent," he said.
When Tongtong returned home, she almost jumped out of her skin. Grandpa had turned into a monster!
He was now dressed in a thin, grey, long-sleeved bodysuit and a pair of grey gloves. Many tiny lights shone all over the gloves. He wore a set of huge goggles over his face, and he waved his hands about and gestured in the air.
On the video wall in front of him appeared another man, but not Uncle Wang. This man was as old as Grandpa with a full head of silver-white hair. He wasn't wearing any goggles. In front of him was a Chinese Chess board.
"Tongtong, come say hi," said Grandpa. "This is Grandpa Zhao."
Grandpa Zhao was Grandpa's friend from back when they were in the army together. He had just had a heart stent put in. Like Grandpa, he was bored, and his family also got their own Ah Fu. He was also a Chinese Chess enthusiast and complained about the skill level of his Ah Fu all day.
Uncle Wang had the inspiration of mailing telepresence equipment to Grandpa and then teaching him how to use it. And within a few days, Grandpa was proficient enough to be able to remotely control Grandpa Zhao's Ah Fu to play chess with him.
Not only could they play chess, but the two old men also got to chat with each other in their own native topolect. Grandpa became so joyous and excited that he seemed to Tongtong like a little kid.
"Watch this," said Grandpa.
He waved his hands in the air gently, and through the video wall, Grandpa Zhao's Ah Fu picked up the wooden chessboard, steady as you please, dexterously spun it around in the air, and set it back down without disturbing a piece.
Tongtong watched Grandpa's hands without blinking. Are these the same unsteady, jerky hands that always made it hard for Grandpa to do anything? It was even more amazing than magic.
"Can I try?" she asked.
Grandpa took off the gloves and helped Tongtong put them on. The gloves were stretchy and weren't too loose on Tongtong's small hands. Tongtong tried to wiggle her fingers, and the Ah Fu in the video wall wiggled its fingers, too. The gloves provided internal resistance that steadied and smoothed out Tongtong's movements and thus also the movements of Ah Fu.
Grandpa said, "Come, try shaking hands with Grandpa Zhao."
In the video, a smiling Grandpa Zhao extended his hand. Tongtong carefully reached out and shook hands. She could feel the subtle, immediate pressure changes within the glove as if she were really shaking a person's hand — it even felt warm! This is fantastic!
Using the gloves, she directed Ah Fu to touch the chessboard, the pieces, and the steaming cup of tea next to them. Her fingertips felt the sudden heat from the cup. Startled, her fingers let go, and the cup fell to the ground and broke. The chessboard was flipped over, and chess pieces rolled all over the place.
"Aiya! Careful, Tongtong!"
"No worries! No worries!" Grandpa Zhao tried to get up to retrieve the broom and dustpan, but Grandpa told him to remain seated. "Careful about your hands!" Grandpa said. "I'll take care of it." He put on the gloves and directed Grandpa Zhao's Ah Fu to pick up the chess pieces one by one and then swept the floor clean.
Grandpa wasn't mad at Tongtong and didn't threaten to tell Dad about the accident she caused.
"She's just a kid, a bit impatient," he said to Grandpa Zhao. The two old men laughed.
Tongtong felt both relieved and a bit misunderstood.
Excerpted from "Future Fiction"
Copyright © 2018 Rosarium Publishing.
Excerpted by permission of Rosarium Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Bill Campbell,
Introduction Francesco Verso,
Xia Jia Tongtong's Summer,
Michalis Manolios The Quantum Mommy,
Nina Munteanu The Way of Water,
Liz Williams Loosestrife,
Swapna Kishore What Lies Dormant,
T.L. Huchu HOSTBODS,
James Patrick Kelly Bernardo's House,
Carlos Hernandez The International Studbook of the Giant Panda,
Clelia Farris Creative Surgery,
Ekaterina Sedia Citizen Komarova Finds Love,
Pepe Rojo Grey Noise,
Efe Tokunbo Proposition 23,
About the Editors,
About the Writers,