The residential district hugged the shore of the lake, and by the light of the setting sun the buildings cast long reflections on the lake's surface.
“Our residences can't compare with those in the Administrative District, but our houses, which are made out of synthetic materials, have their good pointsâthey look a little more alive.”
On both sides of the wide street stood neat rows of colorful two-story houses, each with a small lawn and a few bushes in front.
“There are several thousand residences here in the Factory District,” said the assistant director. “Everyone is allocated a house, but the higher your position, the bigger the house and the better the facilities.”
“These two-story houses look plenty comfortable,” commented Xi De. “Sometimes I don't like to take the elevator.”
“We're almost there. It's still early. Let's go get a drink first.”
“Do you live alone?”
“No. I have a wife. We've been married for twenty years. She works in the commissary.”
“Do you have any kids?”
“No. We've never been authorized.”
They chatted as they walked. The street was full of people who had just gotten off work. Some, arms around each other's shoulders, sang.
A pretty girl approached from the opposite direction. They both fixed their eyes on her at the same time.
“It'll be even livelier later; just wait and see,” said the assistant director. “Ah, here's the bar.”
The bar was filled with workers just off work. The assistant director frowned and pushed his way toward the bar with Xi De.
“My wife and I really hope to live in the Administrative District,” said the assistant director, raising a glass.
Xi De took a sip. It was a bitter, low-quality wine.
“Is there any green liquor?”
“Goodness!” said the assistant director. “I've only had that a few times in my life, and that was at the factory director's house.”
“What are those people doing?”
“They're playing computer games. Lousy punks, I can't stand âem. Let's finish our drinks and get out of here.”
As they were leaving, a worker started singing that popular song in a loud voice:
There is no past, there is no future,
There is nothing but the present for us.
There is no sadness, there is no happiness,
There is nothing but indifference for us.
There is no argument, there is no splitting,
There is nothing but work for us.
At the assistant director's lovely acrylic table, Xi De sat chewing a steak.
“The steak is from New Zealand. Have some more,” said the hostess in all politeness. She was a plump, middle-aged woman with small eyes.
“Hemei is very happy,” said the host. “We so rarely have the opportunity to entertain a guest from the Administrative District.”
After dinner, his host took Xi De out. His wife begged off, claiming a headache.
Night had already fallen, but the streets were lit as bright as day as people came and went. Filled with curiosity, Xi De stared wide-eyed, taking in everything around him.
To him, the lives of the lowest stratum of people in the new society were so true that they seemed almost unreal. Although he had seen snippets from news broadcasts on television about a celebration or something, he had never seen life firsthand for himself. The impression was quite differentâthe infectious excitement, the hubbub or an unexpected shout, seemed to have a physicality all their own that struck you, willing or not.
“These people don't know how to use their heads,” said the assistant director, dodging a young fellow who tried to butt him with his shoulder. “All they know how to do is cause trouble.”
“Do they just roam the streets when they get off work?”
“Yes! What else are they supposed to do?”
This made sense to Xi De. The life of a worker had been so simplified that it consisted of only two important parts (the life of a farmer was a different story).
The first part consisted of professional training. As children, they had been assigned by the Ministry of Education to study at one of the many vocational schools until they grew up. These schools imparted a single, limited curriculum; the training received by the students amounted to nothing more than the continuing of a technical skill. For a newly graduated electrician from one of these schools, a comprehensive knowledge of all the electronic devices in the new world was sufficient to occupy him for a lifetime. Of course, there was no way to acquire the knowledge of any other field, if he had the will to do so. The second part consisted of private life after work. The most important thing here was the indulgence of one's instincts. The workers could amuse themselves in satisfying their desires and hopes in a richly varied material life. As to spiritual life, the workers lacked the basic concepts and vocabulary to be aware of their emptiness. They were allowed to paint and perform music, but they were limited to the simple smearing of pigments and strumming an instrument. The workers could not partake of a higher artistic realm, nor did they have the least interest in doing so.
Xi De and his host stood listening to a street performance. The four musicians played simple quartets. The many spectators applauded at each pause in the music.
“Their greatest hope is to be able to perform on television in Central City,” said the assistant director to Xi De. “We hold a musical competition every year.”
“Do they write their own songs?”
“No, the music is distributed by the Ministry of Education.”
As they exited the crowd, several people eyed the pass on Xi De's lapel with curiosity, but that was as far as it went. They entered another bar for a drink and played a pinball-like computer game, but because of Xi De's lack of skill, they only played half a game, the assistant director finding it boring.
“Let's go someplace else,” said the assistant director, already a bit tipsy. “You have to experience everything to the fullest.”
“What sort of place?”
“It's a high-class place, a real high-class place.”
As they turned down a different street, a huge neon sign suddenly appeared before them.
“Ke Ke's Bar?”
“Ke Ke is the name of the owner. He is one of the wealthy people here.”
Xi De found the word “wealthy” very strange. Perhaps only such a place produced such people. In Central City, money conferred very little special power. And after the elimination of the currency system, the most a person could buy with it were articles of daily use, none of which would be lacking to a high-ranking administrator.
“Wealthy?” he couldn't help but ask.
“The guy has more money than you can shake a stick at. His house is fixed up like a palace, and he always has five or six mistresses.”
“How'd he get so much money?”
“By opening bars and casinos, among other things.”
“Oh.” So such places still existed in the Industrial District.
It was a luxurious bar with thick carpet. Next to the bar was a small dance floor on which several women in hot pants were bumping and grinding. They found a seat near the dance floor. The assistant director tossed a small copper onto the floor and the girls twisted even more vigorously.
“Tart,” he muttered.
“Why are you still using money here?”
“Can you gamble without it?” asked the assistant director. “The committee had to okay it, but only in the Factory District and not in the Administrative District.”
At that moment a heavy-set fellow in a bright red shirt approached. His laughter could be heard at some distance.
“Assistant Director, you haven't forgotten me, have you?
“Nonsense, Ke Ke. This is Xi De from the Administrative District.”
“A rare visitor, a rare visitor,” said the portly fellow, stretching out his hand. “Welcome.”
He sat down as he spoke.
“Brother Xi, in which department do you work?”
“Don't be scheming now,” said the assistant director.
“I work in resource analysis.”
“That's a good place. I have some friends in the commodities section,” said Ke Ke. “Jin Qi, Li Shilin â¦”
“I don't know them,” replied Xi De. “I haven't been in the Administrative District long.”
“That's okay,” said Ke Ke, a bit disappointed, “that's okay.”
“Ke Ke,” said the assistant director, “this is Mr. Xi's first visit here. What have you got to show him?”
“You needn't say more,” said the portly fellow. “Let's go to the box.”
The curtain to the box moved and Ke Ke entered, holding a bottle of wine, with two women in revealing dress.
“This is Qing Qing, this is Lu Lu, and this is a bottle of red liquor I got from the Administrative District,” he said. “I have some business to attend to so I can't stay.”
After Ke Ke left, the box became quite boisterous. At first Xi De was at a loss, but he soon came around.
“Assistant Director,” said Xi De, “how did he get his hands on a bottle of this?”
“He is very resourceful and can bring things in from the Administrative District,” said the assistant director, holding Lu Lu. “Don't worry about it, Xi De. Let's drink. Lu Lu, offer him a toast.”
After half a round they became aware of a disturbance on the other side of the curtain, following which the curtain parted and a drunk and angry young man forced his way in. Ke Ke hurriedly rushed in to block him.
“Oh! So here you are.”
“We can talk things over, Xu,” said the stout fellow, becoming somewhat anxious.
“So it's you,” said Xu, looking at the man sitting next to Lu Lu. “Assistant Director, what a pal!”
“We can talk things over, we can talk things over, we're all friends here,” Ke Ke kept repeating.
“Who is he?” Xi De couldn't help but ask.
“He's an officer from the police affairs section,” said the assistant director, frowning, “and he's drunk. What a pain!”
The police officer continued to cause a scene for a while before deciding to focus his attention on one of the young ladies right before him. He reached to grab Qing Qing, who was behind Xi De.
“What are you doing?” asked Xi De, preventing him.
“Who are you?” The police officer seemed to sober up and paused before pressing his face close to Xi De.
“He is an official from the Administrative District,” interjected Ke Ke.
“I don't care what district he's from. This is the Factory District, not the Administrative District,” he said, steeling his heart. “Hold out your hand, I want to check your ID.”
from the Administrative District,” said the assistant director, becoming angry. “You must not have noticed his pass. There is a limit to such jokes.”
“I don't care. Hold out your hand. I don't trust passes.”
He's raising hell just to raise hell,
thought Xi De. He did stretch out his hand and place it before the young man's eyes.
“AH5481,” read the police officer. By the time he reached the last number, he was entirely sober.
“Good Lord!” shouted the stout fellow.
“A â¦” muttered the police officer, frightened. “You're a central official?”
Silent, Xi De stood up. He never expected that the ID number on the back of his hand could have such an impact here.
“It's okay. There's been a mistake,” said the assistant director, patting the police officer on the shoulder, all smiles. “Old Xu, I told you that you had too much to drink, but you wouldn't listen to me. Hurry up and apologize to his honor.”
The police officer stood stunned for a while before stammering:
“S-sorry, S-sir â¦”
A profoundly unfathomable smile appeared on Xi De's face.
The following day, Xi De said good-bye to the assistant director and his wife, boarded a boat, crossed the lake, which was mirror-smooth, and returned to the Administrative District on the opposite shore. He stopped by the office, exchanged a few words with his colleagues, and then returned to the dormitory.
It was a row of five-story buildings closely neighboring the administrative buildings. He lived on the fourth floor and could see a corner of the lake from his window, as well as the swimming pool and tennis court below. There was no one in the swimming pool at the moment; a life preserver floated on the blue water. Similarly, the tennis court was empty save for someone apparently repairing the net. Xi De's gaze rested on the man for a moment. Stepping away from the window, he took off his jacket. It was a bright spring morning and his room was a little stuffy. He turned on the air conditioner, opened the refrigerator, and poured himself a glass of juice. He sat down on the sofa to quietly wait for dusk to arrive.
People in the Administrative District got off work at three, by which time the public facilities would be crowded, the sound of laughter echoing amid the horseshoe-shaped buildings and floating in through his window.
Xi De shifted his position on the couch till he was almost horizontal. His head still ached from the revelries of the previous night. What was the Factory District really like? What kind of people really lived there? He thought of stout Ke Ke, the police officer, the dancing girls, and the street musicians and wondered what they were really doing. They were certainly not the well-behaved, obedient citizens who arrived at work on time like in books or as reported by the Central News. They fought, schemed, gambled, and engaged in shady business. Perhaps that was what Lin Xing meant by “the world outside.” He wondered how Lin Xing was doing. Then he thought of Zhen and his previous pain began to subside. Time was a strange thing. Zhen had gradually receded behind the gauze curtain of a dream and now, standing on this side of the curtain, he saw a whole, sharply different world appear before him. He was no longer that docile, knock-kneed graduate of Central Academy sitting at his desk, but rather a mature and worldly adult. More precisely, he had begun to understand the world outside of textbooks and television. But what was the nature of his understanding?