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Anna Wu is a rising new voice in the Chinese SFF scene. She was nominated for the Chinese Nebula Award for Best New Writer in 2014, her fiction has been published in various Chinese venues, and she currently works as a screenwriter in Suzhou. This is her first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE
by
Anna Wu
Translated by Carmen Yiling Yan and Ken Liu

At the end of the universe far away, there was a restaurant, and its name was The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. From a distance, it looked like a conch shell spinning silently in the void of space.

The restaurant was sometimes big, and sometimes small. The furnishings inside its walls changed often, as did the view outside its windows. It had a refrigerator that was always full of fresh ingredients; a cooking box that fried, baked, seared, steamed, and everything else; a clock that could regulate the flow of time within a modest area; and a melancholic android waiter named Marvin. A red lantern shone perpetually at the center of the restaurant.

Two people, father and daughter, ran it. They came from a place called China on a planet called Earth. Going by the Traveler's Guide to the Milky Way, the father was an exemplary specimen of the middle-aged Earthling male—perhaps even a few deciles handsomer than the median. He was black-haired and thin, and there was a scar on his left wrist. He didn't talk much, but was well-versed in Earth cuisine. If a customer could name it, he could make it. The daughter, Mo, looked to be eleven or twelve years old. She had black hair too, and big, round eyes.

The nearest space-time hub was a small cargo station, a singularity primarily used for Earth shipping. Of course, as a singularity, only organisms with a civilization rating above 3A—capable of uploading their physical bodies into the network—could use it.

Few guests came. Most hailed from Earth, but there were the matchbox-sized three-body people of Alpha Centauri, too; Titanians with their vast balloon forms, adapted to the atmosphere of Saturn; even dazzling silver Suoyas from the center of the Milky Way, fifty thousand light years from Earth. Intelligent beings of every shape and size might be seen in this restaurant’s blurred concept of time and space: waving their antennae, dribbling their mucus, crackling and sparking their energy fields.

Virtual reality may hold infinities, but wander long enough in it and your soul feels a little lost. Every once in a while, people still want to put on a real body, eat a real meal, and reminisce.

There was a rule for everyone who ate here. You could choose to tell the owner a story; as long as it was interesting enough, your meal was on the house, and the owner would personally cook you a special dish. And you could eat while you thought of the countless civilizations rising and falling, falling and rising, at every instant and in every corner of the universe outside this restaurant, like the births and deaths of the sextillion stars.

*

Laba Porridge

He's not a regular, Mo thought. This is probably his first time here.

Today, the restaurant was furnished for a Chinese winter's night. There were five little tables made of rough-hewn wood and three guests sitting at them. The kitchen station was tucked into a corner. A man and a woman sat at the table under the red lantern. The woman looked to be from Earth, maybe a second-generation clone—her legs were unusually long and slim. The man was probably from Venus, with his bulky cranium and deep purple irises.

And there was an Earth man sitting by himself in a corner, mechanically turning the wine cup in his hand. His pale face was devoid of expression, and his temples were gray. The smell of alcohol poured off of him. Today was the Chinese Laba Festival, and the restaurant had accordingly prepared sweet Laba porridge, whose fragrance filled the room. Yet the man hadn't ordered it.

Mo had never seen eyes like his before: empty and dark as a dry well, they reminded her of the eyes of a dead insect.

While the business was still slow, Mo stuffed the menu into Marvin's hand. She waited.

Marvin took the menu and gazed at the falling snow outside the window, sighing. His eyes glimmered blue to indicate melancholy. “They've been dead for centuries. Why do they bother eating anyway?” he muttered, even as he ambled over to the Venusian's table on his short legs.

“Dad, that Earth man should have a good story.” Mo slipped into the kitchen station, grinning. It might count as a gift of sorts—give her a group of people, and she could always pick out the one with the best stories at a glance.

Her father paused in his tasks. He stared at a pile of dishes, silent.

His expression was odd: interest, worry, disgust, perhaps even a little fear?

Time went by. The din of the restaurant floated around them as lightly as the snowflakes outside the window.

“Mo, I think you've heard of the Agency of Mysteries.”

“All laws are one; all things are eternal,” Mo said without thinking. The organization's motto—one Earth language version of it, at least. It was renowned in many eras and many planets. It ignored all interstellar laws and regulations and could provide any service imaginable—but only if your request was entertaining enough to catch its interest. And you couldn't buy its services with money; you had to...trade. What you needed to trade was a secret that no client had ever revealed. No one knew who the boss was, either—he was too clever to be caught by the space-time police.

“His name is Ah Chen. He was a client of the Agency of Mysteries.”

Slowly, the father began to tell Ah Chen's story.

Ah Chen wrote novels, and he was twenty when his debut, a romance novel, shot him to overnight fame. At the celebratory banquet, his literary peers greeted him with ingratiating praise and admiration well-laced with envy. He was dazzled and drunk by it all the same.

But achieving fame at a young age is not always a good thing. That night, he met an admirer—his future wife, Ci.

Ci came from a renowned family of scholars. She was pretty and frail, but fiercely stubborn. Against her family's protests, she married the penniless Ah Chen. By day, she worked as a maid, washing and scrubbing until her hands were red from the dishwater. By night, she proofread Ah Chen's drafts and helped him with research.

Three years later, the luster of the awards had long since faded, but the muses had not visited Ah Chen again in the duration. Writing was long, hard work, like a marathon run alone in the night, stumbling by touch and three inches of vision. Moods swooped and plunged, joy clawing into sorrow, as if to torment him with rain and snow.

As editors rejected his manuscripts again and again, Ah Chen came to discover his many weaknesses: he lacked the endurance to carry out plots fully, he wanted sufficient delicacy of touch, he was unable to draw from the strengths of other works and unite them in his own. Some of these weaknesses were real; others were only the specters of Ah Chen's insecurity.

He was young and idealistic. He couldn't endure the publishers' contempt; more than that, he couldn't face his own inadequacy. He began to drink, and every bottle of cheap alcohol was bought with Ci's long days and nights of labor.

One winter night, on Laba Festival, Ah Chen came home with the snow falling outside. He saw Ci smiling warmly at him. There was a pot of mixed grain porridge on the table, steaming.

“They say that Laba porridge originated when a rat stole many kinds of grain and hid them in its hole. Then poor people found the store and made it into porridge...”

Suddenly, Ah Chen's ears were ringing as if a clap of thunder had gone off in his head. Ci went on talking, but he was no longer listening. He heard nothing of her gentle sympathy, her willingness to live in poverty, her resolute lack of regret.

He rushed into the night, toward the Agency of Mysteries.

For a long time, Ci sat in the lamplight, alone. Her tears fell into that pot of Laba porridge, slowly cooling.

Ah Chen wanted five abilities from five Earth authors. The agency told him that as the universe conserved energy; abilities couldn't be “copied”, only “transferred.” Perhaps out of his last vestiges of conscience, or out of fear of disrupting his own universe's timeline, Ah Chen requested that his powers be taken from five other universes parallel to his own.

These five people were all the literary stars of their era.

A, a playwright. His output was great in both quality and quantity, and without equal for the next hundred years. Ah Chen wanted his mastery over plot structure.

B, a poet. The beauty and craftsmanship of his verses had won him acclaim as the greatest of poets. Ah Chen wanted his ear for language.

C, a suspense novelist and psychologist. At his peak, his works had triggered heart attacks in his readers. Ah Chen wanted his grasp of human psychology.

D, a science fiction author. His stories were strange, clever things, well-known throughout the galaxies. Ah Chen wanted his imagination.

E, a scholar of the classics and Buddhist. Weighty and thoughtful, his pen laid out the workings of history and the patterns of the world with the clarity of a black ink brush delineating white cloudscapes. Ah Chen wanted his powerful insight.

“Was Ah Chen a friend of yours?” Mo asked.

Her father smiled cryptically. “One of Ah Chen's targets was an alternate universe version of me. But that version of me found out and stopped him.”

Mo wanted to ask further, but in the end, she didn't say anything.

Unlike most people, her memories began from only five years ago. She had opened her eyes to find herself lying in a spaceship with a middle-aged man and a big-headed android, fleeing for the ends of the universe. Before that... her memories cut off in an explosion of light.

Afterward, she considered the man her father. But he never told Mo what happened before the start of her memories. He never said anything he didn't want to say.

“Still, four abilities is a lot!”

“The universe obeys the laws of conservation. To get something, you have to give in return.”

The Agency of Mysteries delivered A's ability first.

That night, Ah Chen felt as if his brain had been ripped out and forced through a red-hot wire mesh. His head seemed to split open. He howled and howled with pain.

Ci, whom he'd kept in the dark, quaked at his screams hard enough to nearly tumble off the bed. That entire night, wrapped in a thin sleeping robe, she kept Ah Chen's forehead and hands covered with hot towels. Watching him clench his hands into the bedsheets and refuse to go to the hospital, she could only stand helplessly at his bedside. Every time Ah Chen screamed, Ci shivered too. She gripped his hands as hard as she could, terrified that he'd hurt himself as he thrashed and struggled.

By the time the sky began to brighten, Ah Chen's face was as pale as paper, and Ci had wept herself empty of tears. Her mind held only one thought: If this man did not survive, she feared that she would not either.

When Ah Chen awoke in the morning, he found that the world in front of his eyes had taken on a sudden, perfect clarity.

Every piece of furniture, every drawer, every item of clothing, every pair of socks in the bedroom—abruptly, he knew where they were, how big, what color, for what purpose. He looked out the window. A group of neighbors were taking a walk in the commons. Behind every face was an identity, an age, and a list of relationships. Yesterday, Ah Chen couldn't even remember their names.

Her husband had awoken, but Ci saw on his face an eerie expression. Half delighted and half worried, she hurriedly put a hand to his forehead to check his temperature. Ah Chen impatiently brushed her hand away and herded her out of the room without a word.

He snatched up a book at random and started reading at the table of contents. His reading speed had increased five or six times. When he was done, he only needed to glance at the table of contents again, and the events of the book seemed to arrange themselves neatly into twigs and branches growing out of a few main trunks. Every knot, every joint was so clear. When Ah Chen closed his eyes, a few inharmonious branches stood out in sharp relief on the tree, and it seemed to only take him a second to realize how to fix these branches, how to fix this book—this book, which had been so praised and so successful in its sales.

Every edit Ah Chen noticed left him a little more breathless, a little more dizzy. Suspicion, amazement, and overpowering joy drove into him like waves in a tempest. He couldn't even wait long enough to boot up his computer. He grabbed a sheaf of paper and started to write.

With his front door locked tightly, he wrote more than a hundred beautiful plot outlines within the week. The beginnings were stunning, the middles fluid, the climaxes brilliantly fitting, the plot arcs graceful. Every one of them could be called a classic. He shook as he stroked his drafts. Now and then he broke into hysterical laughter.

However, in the course of this week, Ah Chen seemed to have caught some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He rearranged all the furniture in his room, measuring each item's location to the millimeter; he sorted his clothes by color and thickness; he stuck a label onto every drawer. Everything had to be perfectly ordered. A single stain or misplaced scrap of paper was enough to scrape his nerves raw.

That week, Ci was forced to sleep in the living room. She would make three meals a day and bring them to the bedroom. One day, as she tiptoed in, she decided she would clean the room. The moment she opened the wardrobe, Ah Chen flew into a rage and slapped her.

A month later, the Agency of Mysteries brought B's ability. Ah Chen's ears became peculiarly sensitive to sounds; they left indelible marks in his mind. When he heard wind, music, thunder, or even the barking of dogs, every syllable seemed imbued with new significance. Poems, essays, haikus, and colorful slang rose from the pages as if given life, linking their hands and dancing, endlessly dancing, passing before his eyes one after the other like little fairies.

He wrote one beautiful poem after the next, but the sublime melody of his verses gave him no peace, not when A's powers of organization and structure howled at him from the darkness, “Order! Order!” while B's power insisted that the beauty of language came from ineffable spontaneity and inspiration. The two masters' mental states fought like storm and tempest, neither willing to bow to the other. Ah Chen felt as if his body had become a gladiatorial arena for his mind. He couldn't sleep; he shivered despite himself.

C's ability followed. What an abyss that was: a million faces, a million personalities, a million stories, a million different kinds of despair. Ah Chen finally understood the price C had paid to be able to write about those twisted souls and those unimaginable plots, the hell he had made of his own spirit. Ah Chen trembled, navigating through the blood, the tears, the white bones and black graves, as if he walked on thin ice; he very nearly fell. Without C's psychological tenacity, Ah Chen approached the precipice of suicide multiple times. Only through hard liquor, which temporarily numbed his brain, could he seek the smallest scrap of solace.

Day after day, tears washed Ci's face, and she soon fell ill. She couldn't understand how the handsome, scholarly, gentle man she loved could turn into a different person in the space of a night. Truth be told, Ci understood from history that the majority of authors’ spouses led unhappy lives, enduring both material poverty and their partners’ sensitivity, moodiness, and even unfaithfulness. She had understood it even before she married him.

Unfortunately, for many like her, knowledge and reason had never stood a chance before love.

This was all irrelevant. Ci lay in bed, weakly gasping for air. Remembering the slap, she closed her eyes. A tear slowly wended its way into her hair.

One day at dusk, Ah Chen was awoken by a strange voice.

“You thief.”

Ah Chen's eyes snapped open. A man's face appeared in his mind, thin and long, its expression not quite a smile.

The face hadn't materialized in front of his eyes, and it wasn't projected onto anything. It had simply floated to the surface of his mind, clear and blurry at the same time. That's hard to explain. It was as if he had one good eye and one injured eye, and was trying to look at the world with both at the same time.

“Steal my imagination? Who do they think they are?” The man laughed.

Ah Chen grabbed wildly in front of his eyes, but caught only air.

“All laws are one; all things are eternal.” The man looked at Ah Chen pityingly, slowly blurring into nothingness.

Ah Chen at last woke from his drunken stupor, and found that his vomit had already been cleared away by Ci, and that his blankets were aired and sweet-smelling. The setting sun shone into the room, and clarity seemed to flow into Ah Chen's heart. That was E's ability.

Humanity always reenacts the same bildungsroman. All the principles you learn through your struggles today had been written down by the ancients thousands of years ago.

There is nothing new under the sun.

“You went to such lengths to steal these things, and all for what?”

What have I done? Ah Chen watched countless motes of dust dance in the setting sun's light.

He seemed to see the history of literature slowly distorting in those four parallel universes as the butterfly effect rippled through space-time. Countless chains of causality broke apart, then joined again; countless people's fates altered with them.

He felt as if he was looking into each world: publishers' contempt as A seemed to run out of talent; readers mocking B for his clumsy language; E's wife yelling at him for his uselessness. C flogged himself in the dark of night, sobbing in agony.

He'd stolen each of their most precious possessions, and, drowned in alcohol, he'd trampled them into the dirt.

At this point, Ah Chen noticed something strange. E's wise, reasonable voice asked him, “Why do you feel no guilt? Why does your heart hold only regret, and not the pain brought on by your sense of responsibility? Why have you lost the ability to love another?”

Love? Ah Chen thought dazedly. What's love?

Oh. He'd traded love away at the Agency of Mysteries.

“Love was the most important thing of them all,” E said tranquilly. “Technique and intelligence will let you see through the world, explain it, look down upon it, but they'll never make you a true master of literature. You have to let go of yourself, join yourself to the world without resistance or hate; use love, admiration, and respect to observe all living things, including humanity. This is the true secret of literature.”

Ah Chen stood and opened the door to the dining room. Ci sat at the table, watching over a pot of steaming Laba porridge.

Ah Chen sat down stiffly across from her, like a puppet.

“You should eat a little.” For the first time in many days, her eyes held the light and peace of knowledge.

Ah Chen took a mouthful. It was salty, not sweet. He raised his head, looking at Ci's pale face.

“Ah Chen, I don't know where you went the evening of Laba Festival. I don't know why you changed so much. But you must have a good reason for what you did.

“I waited for you the entire night. The porridge from that day, like today's, was salty.” Ci forced a smile.

I should say something, Ah Chen thought. In the end, he didn't say anything.

“Ah Chen, I read your manuscripts yesterday, when you weren't looking. They're wonderful. I'm so happy.” Ci finally looked as if she were about to cry. Slowly, she took Ah Chen's hand in hers.

“Promise me, you'll keep writing.”

Ah Chen was silent for a long time. “For you, I'll keep writing.”

Ci slowly smiled. Her eyes shone with the same sweetness as they'd held just after the wedding, but it couldn't hide the grief at the corners of her eyes. The setting sun shone on her pale face, coloring it with a flush for the last time.

Her hand is so cold, Ah Chen thought.

“Ci...did she...” Mo's heart sank.

Her father continued to operate the cooking box slowly.

“Yes, Ci died the next day. Perhaps she saw that the last spark of light in her life—Ah Chen's love for her—was gone.

“Ah Chen lived alone after that, in the constant clash and torment of the powers in his head. You can't go back on a bargain, no matter how much you regret it. He sporadically wrote many bestsellers, won many awards, but he never remarried, never moved out of the house, and never read his own works. The books piled up in the corner of his study and gathered dust.”

So her father was a science fiction author. Mo looked at him, her brow furrowed. How do you know all this? How do you know a version of yourself from another universe? How many things are you hiding from me?

The cooking box dinged. It was a bowl of Laba porridge.

Maybe it was just the chill from a snowy night, but when her father carried the porridge past her, it seemed to tinge the air with the cool, faint smell of salt.

At the other end of the restaurant, Ah Chen lifted his head. He saw the owner's long, thin face, and his eyes widened.

They conversed.

Mo hurried over to eavesdrop, but heard only their last words: “All laws are one; all things are eternal.” She couldn't help but feel disappointed.

Her father turned and made his way back to the kitchen, leaving Ah Chen sitting stunned at the table. His gaze followed her father's retreating back for a while, and then slowly shifted back.

Gradually, a small smile surfaced on his face. There was a hint of desolation in it, as if he were reliving some memory.

In front of him was the bowl of deep reddish-violet Laba porridge, in which black glutinous rice, kidney beans, adzuki beans, peanuts, longan, jujubes, lotus seeds, and walnuts had been cooked until they'd turned slippery and soft, squeezed together like a family. The cool, faint smell of salt wafted from the bowl.

Ah Chen sat like that until the other guests had left one by one. The porridge had finally cooled.

He got up slowly. Mo hurried to open the door for him.

The smile was like the transient flash of a sparkler in the night sky. His eyes were empty again.

Without a glance for Mo, Ah Chen disappeared into the wind and snow.

The clock struck midnight; a gust of cold wind blew in, carrying powdery snow with it.

“Don’t you want to know what we talked about?” her father asked slowly, as he wiped a plate dry.

“Yeah!” Mo thought of the look in Ah Chen's eyes and shivered despite herself.

“I told him that, a few days later, a certain book will win an award on Earth. It tells the story of a woman's undying love for a man, and the author's name is Zhang Ci. Ah Chen had written the book based on Ci's diary. I fear it's the last and only work he can write in this lifetime that will give him satisfaction.”

Copyright © 2015 by Anna Wu

 

THE ARM OF THE STONE
by Victoria Stauss

“Treated with unusual depth.”—Locus
“An intelligent, fascinating novel"—SF Site

TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME

The Editor's Word

FICTION
Field Defects:
Memo From a Cyborg

by Robert A. Heinlein
Shore Leave

by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks
Hi, Clonic
by Harry Turtledove

Luck of the Chieftain's Arrow
by C. Stuart Hardwick
The Angst, I Kid You Not, of God
by Michael Bishop

The Dark Matters
by Sean Williams

Margin of Error
by Nancy Kress
The Restaurant at the End
of the Universe

by Anna Wu
And All Our Donkeys Were in Vain

by Tom Gerencer
We Three Kings

by Alan Dean Foster
Closing Sale (Draco Tavern)

by Larry Niven
 

INTERVIEW
David Brin
by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
Melodies of the Heart (Part 3)
by Michael Flynn

COLUMNS
From the Heart's Basement
by Barry Malzberg
Science Column
by Greg Benford

Book Reviews
by Jody Lynn Nye & Bill Fawcett

 

 

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Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2015. All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.