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.
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
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
“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
“His name is Ah Chen. He was a client of the Agency of
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
stood and opened the door to the dining room. Ci sat at the table, watching
over a pot of steaming Laba porridge.
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.
took a mouthful. It was salty, not sweet. He raised his head, looking at Ci's
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.
say something, Ah Chen thought. In the end,
he didn't say anything.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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.
sat like that until the other guests had left one by one. The porridge had
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