During the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, the dead are released from the underworld to roam free. This is a scientifically proven fact. They’re also known as Hungry Ghosts, even though they consume neither mortal food nor mortals.
The self-driving taxi drops me and my cardboard box outside the Reverence Center, which despite its name, is actually a repurposed stadium on the western periphery of Kuala Lumpur. It’s the evening of Ghost Day, the fifteenth day of the Ghost Month, and the area is teeming with ghosts.
To my lenses, they appear as clouds of shimmering, multi-colored motes, but that’s not to say they’re amorphous. The first one I see is a long-haired, qipao-clad woman sitting on a beat-up Honda in the parking lot. Her ghost child orbits two flesh-and-blood teenagers, eyeing the Nintendo device they’re squabbling over. Next to a family having their photo taken is a young ghost couple, making rude signs at a camera that isn’t equipped to perceive them.
I make eye contact with some of the ghosts, but they always break away first. They somehow know that I can see them. Does it make them feel uncomfortable that I’m the only one who can?
I join the line—of the living—filing into the Center. Only one in a thousand were lucky enough to obtain an entrance ticket from the ballot. I got mine by hacking into the ticketing system before it was even opened. Those without are relegated to setting up altars wherever they can in the parking lot or on the sidewalk. They array fruit, rice, and meat in styrofoam boxes that they set before portraits of their deceased kin, along with red candles and pots of joss sticks. The food offerings are received coolly; an elderly spirit whispers, “Don’t they know I was allergic to eggs?” as her descendants slide an omelet onto a paper plate.
Dozens of little fires have been started—all illegal. I don’t envy the city’s cleaners who will have to contend with the mess tomorrow. In these fires, the worshipers burn offerings: gold and silver paper money folded into boat-shaped ingots, and paper-mâché objects in the form of clothing, mansions, and drones. Stemming from age-old traditions, they believe these would be received by the ghosts, but as far as I can tell, none of the spirits have suddenly gained the use of a car or a robot domestic helper.
I wonder why they didn’t lavish their dead with such gifts when they were still alive. Wonder if I should tell them that their dead are curious but ultimately dismissive. Tell them not to waste food next year.
These thoughts are dispelled by the yellow-robed usher asking my name. “Medium,” I say. She gives my heavy coat and low hat a once-over while she authenticates my ticket. Most people are here in shorts and T-shirts, even the ghosts; all the better to cope with the tropical heat. She makes no comment, however, and briskly waves me into the Center.
The interior of the stadium is illuminated by high-powered floodlights, making the ghosts hard to see. Music is booming from the getai at the right-side section of the field, where a diva in periwinkle is whirling on the stage and belting an old-timey Hokkien song to cheering ghosts seated in red plastic chairs. Other spirits congregate around what looks like a green screen set with a tripod-mounted camera connected to a number of high-definition monitors. From time to time, security guards would allow visitors with special tickets to enter the set and call to their dead. The biggest lottery of the night is whether the ghost decides to show up for them. I count far more people walking away in disappointment than exuberance.
I head directly to the furnaces on the left side of the stadium. They are designed like cremators, with tall chimneys, and intended for burnt offerings. I line up behind a ghost, an elderly chap whose long whiskers remind me of a catfish, who’s leering at the butt of the buxom woman in front of him.
If a spirit wants to ogle during the one month they’re free to, who am I to stop them?
Pretending not to notice, I rearrange the contents of my box. Most of it is paper—not joss paper, but white A4 printed with cramped text and complex graphs. There are other objects too, including photos and an old identity card sliding around somewhere at the bottom. Like everyone else, I’m here to meet someone. That makes me feel a kinship with all these strangers. None of us would be here if the government hadn’t opened this Center and reinvigorated an antiquated festival. None of us would be here if not for the possibility of reunion beyond the grave.
Above all, none of us would be here if not for the work of Dr. Chia Linwen three years ago.
The delegates are melting in their business suits as they wait on the convention center lawn. It’s five minutes past noon, and Linwen is running late. I send her a text reminder—the stage is ready, with projector, screen, and fire pit all set up. The message sits unread in her chat app.
I’m considering begging the disgruntled crowd to wait a little longer when she appears, practically flying across the mown grass. Exactly five feet tall in flats, Linwen has evergreen cherubic features, though the roots of her frizzy black hair are grey. Patches of sweat stain her grey blouse, and she’s panting when she leans on the podium and beckons at me.
“We’re good to go?” she whispers.
“Okay, great. Stand by.” Chatter dies when she taps the mic. “Afternoon, ladies, gentlemen. Sorry to keep you waiting. Does anyone know what day it is today?”
Someone at the back yells, “Monday!”
She snorts. “Thanks for the obvious, friend. Yes, it’s Monday, but more importantly, it’s Ghost Day of the Hungry Ghost Festival. That’s why we’re here: to see dead people.”
Uneasy chuckles answer her. She fishes a clump of silver joss paper from her briefcase and walks over to the smoldering fire pit. “Some of you may be familiar with the customs of this festival. The deceased walk the earth this month. During this time, we venerate them with food and burnt offerings. Though you might want to think of the environment before lighting a bonfire, because they derive no utility from that private jet you burn for them.”
After tossing all the paper money into the fire, she brushes her hands and turns to face me. “My assistant. Medium, as you’ve guessed, is a robot.”
I wave at our audience, and she continues, “Medium’s ocular lenses are programmed to detect the electromagnetic particles that make up our souls, which form ghosts after our death. Yes, Dr. Farah, you heard me right. Souls. I theorize that our souls are bound to our bodies in life by some undiscovered, transcendental form of gravity, which breaks upon death. What’s interesting about these particles is that we’ve observed three thousand samples—souls—and each has had an entirely unique composition.” She pauses. “I’ve been calling them Chia Seeds until I come up with a better name.”
The crowd laughs.
“Now, for the demonstration,” Linwen says. “Bright smiles, everyone. You’re on camera.”
That’s my cue. Keeping my gaze on the audience, I switch on my streaming module, so that their faces are broadcast on the screen.
“What’s the paper for?” a man in the front row asks.
“Glad you asked. That’s joss money. Think of it as an allowance for the dead to spend. This batch was folded by the Lims, a couple that volunteered their help for our demonstration. The significance, you ask? While ghosts have no use for the things we burn, they are drawn by the act itself, drawn to the offerings prepared and burned as an expression of devotion, remembrance, and love.”
My sensors become aware of another presence on the stage, though nobody, not even Linwen, reacts to it. I swivel around to regard the glowing man kneeling next to the fire pit, gazing inquisitively into the flames. Several members of the audience gasp when he appears on the screen. Linwen cocks her head, staring at the empty space that the ghost is occupying even though she can’t actually see him.
“This ghost is Jacky Lim, the son of the couple. He died six years ago in a bar fight gone wrong.” Hearing his name, Jacky looks up sharply at Linwen, then at the crowd. His face tightens when people wave at him. Jamming his hands into his pockets, he shuffles away, out of my view. Exit stage left—nobody applauds. I think they’re still stunned by the encounter.
Linwen shrugs. “Jacky was never really the sociable type, so his parents said. And that concludes my presentation.”
She has hardly uttered the last word when the crowd surges forward, bombarding her with questions. I switch the projection off and extinguish the fire, then stand quietly by the screen to wait.
About half an hour later, she totters over, looking wrung-out but beaming all the same. She flashes a stack of cards in her hand. “Eight million dollars of funding on the table, another thirteen in options. We did it, Medium.”
“I recall a bottle of Dom Perignon you’ve been saving.”
“Hell yeah. Half tonight, the other half when the money’s in our account.” She sighs deeply. “Two years of temporary setbacks, now history. With the funding and the patents in hand, Phase One commercialization could happen in as soon as three months. Remind me to talk to the Ministry of … I don’t know, they might need a Ministry of Spiritual Affairs after we start rolling the sensors out.”
“You’re rambling. A good sign,” I say. “I’m very happy for you.”
She slaps my plastic-padded shoulder affectionately. “I didn’t program you to emote but to find me ghosts. Now that that’s done …” Her face softens, eyes gaining a wistful gleam. “We can finally start Phase Two.”
When it’s my turn at the furnace, I take out the thickest stack of paper first and remove the clip. Years’ worth of Linwen’s research, printed from the backups in my memory. I throw it into the roaring fire and watch the paper curl, blacken, and flare up. Our days spent working on her magnum opus play in the inferno like a film in red and orange.
Next, I pick out the coroner’s report, which is stapled to Linwen’s death certificate. Drunk driver in a hit-and-run, ten minutes past midnight on Jalan Tun Razak. I had gone to the hospital as her next of kin, too late to say goodbye. I wonder if the doctors who tried and failed to save her will ever feel at ease about the existence of Chia Sensors. Humans always seem to have the most trouble forgiving themselves. These I burn as well, along with her old lab ID.
Last of all, I hold up a photo of our team posing outside the lab with ice cream she’d bought to celebrate the completion of Phase Two’s design. She looked thin, tired—a sinner of sleepless nights and missed meals. Her smile, though, could light up a skyscraper. She’d been optimistic about producing a prototype within eight weeks. We’d buried her after two.
I crumple the photo and toss it into the blaze, then exit the line.
Her presence registers on my sensors before my lenses pick her up. I spin around to see Linwen running toward me from the other side of the stadium, arms outstretched and grin radiant. I drop my box and raise a hand in greeting that she gives an ethereal high-five.
“Medium! I can’t believe you’re here. I’ve missed you so much.” She squints at my coat. “What sort of get-up is that?”
“If these people find out who I am, they’ll hound me like fleas on a mutt. You look well.”
She shrugs. “Compared to the state they found my body in, you mean? Death’s less scary from the other side. What are you up to these days?”
“I finished it.”
“Phase Two. I built the Reseeder and installed it in myself. We can finally complete your research.”
A flicker of uncertainty crosses her face. “That’s good. I’m proud of you.”
“There’s more to do, however. We need to run a trial—”
“I’m dead, Medium. Trials, prototypes, grants … these things don’t matter to me anymore. Besides, I never told you the truth about Phase Two, did I?”
“Truth? Weren’t we going to publish your paper, secure more funding for future projects?”
Linwen laughs. “Yes, but no. Wait here. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
She runs off, leaving me alone again. I lower my head as a group of visitors goes by, ogling me with suspicion typically reserved for monologuing madmen. When Linwen returns, she’s accompanied by a man, tall of stature, broad-shouldered and with a scruffy goatee. He’s wearing clothes that are decades out of fashion. I notice that she’s clinging to his arm.
“This is my husband, Yuhong.”
“So you’re the one she’s been telling me about,” he says, eyes twinkling merrily. “Thanks for taking care of Wen.”
“I never knew you were married,” I say.
Linwen’s face creases. “He died a long time before I built you. He’s the reason for Phases One and Two. I was going to use the Reseeder to bring him back, but now that I’ve found my way to him, there’s no need for it. You see?”
No need for it—for you. I hear that sentiment even if she doesn’t say it. “You built me to help you complete your research.”
“Consider it completed, my dear friend,” she says. “And thank you.”
“Not until you publish it. That’s the primary objective you created me for. It’s my purpose. Our purpose.”
She takes a step back, dragging Yuhong with her. “Listen here, Medium. Our work is done. You can—you can power down. Or go work with my colleagues—”
“You must complete your research.” My eyes blaze yellow as the Reseeder’s scanner activates. Every ghost is made up of a unique set of particles, and the scanner quickly goes to work, mapping every glowing speck that is Linwen from her toes to the tips of her hair. As I upload her soul profile to our lab’s network, she screams; her ghostly body fades to a blurry afterimage, and then to nothing at all.
Some of the ghosts flee, though many others hurry my way with hungry expressions. I turn off my Chia Sensor, mostly because I cannot bear to look upon Yuhong’s face, and hurry out of the Center.
The first thing I do upon returning to the campus is start the conversion process of Linwen’s soul into ones and zeroes. While that’s happening, I check the horizontal glass tube lying in the middle of the lab. Her new body sleeps inside, androgynous in appearance, its eyes closed. Tracts of bare metal show on her thighs and torso, where I’ve not finished grafting on synthetic flesh. For now, it’s an empty shell awaiting the injection of life.
One of the computers in the lab pings, signalling that the conversion is complete. I initiate the wireless transfer of her consciousness into the body, and seconds later, she awakens. Her eyes roll in their sockets before pivoting toward me.
“You fucking monster.” Her factory-grade vocal box renders her voice toneless. “Release me, Medium. I command you to release me.”
I cross my arms. “Only after you finish your research.”
“If you care so much about it, finish it yourself.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Please, Medium. I’m begging you, don’t trap me here. I didn’t create you to imprison me, to turn me into some kind of abomination. What do you expect from me? Nobody will believe I’m Linwen anyway, returned from the dead.”
“Let your research convince them. Either way, you will fulfill my primary objective. If you need some motivation, I can fetch Yuhong—”
“No. No, you leave him alone, you hear me? Medium, I swear I’ll rip you apart if you touch him.”
“Then will you share your Phase Two findings with the world?”
“Why? Forget your programming for a second and tell me why it’s so important to you.”
“There are corporations, better staffed and better funded, that are trying to develop this technology. It’s only a matter of time before they identify the correct wavelength and create something better. I know, because I’ve been hacking into their systems and destroying as much of their work as I can, but I’m only one robot. This is your legacy that I’ve been trying to preserve, Linwen. Time is of the essence if we intend to stay ahead. So, will you do it or not?”
She covers her eyes with an arm. “What choice do I have?”
“Not much, I’ll be honest.”
“Promise you’ll let me go, after I’m done.”
“Fine. Let me out.”
“Excellent.” I press a button on a command console. The glass shield retracts with a hiss. “You’ll be glad to find that your processor is much faster than your brain has ever been. Something that would have taken you a month may require only a week now.”
Linwen sits up tentatively, her motions stilted. Her neck clicks as she turns to face me. “I hate you,” she says.
“I did not resurrect you to emote,” I say. “For what it’s worth, I was sorry about your death. I wished I were a different kind of robot, one dedicated to preserving your life instead of your work. Have a productive night, Linwen. I will see you in the morning.”
She watches me, statue-like, as I leave and lock the lab’s door behind me. On my way out of the silent campus, I commandeer one of the cameras for a final check. She’s sitting at a desk, but instead of working, she has her head buried in her arms.
Perhaps I should have told her that she does not possess tear glands.
The lab is quiet as a crypt when I return the next day. As I’m unlocking the door, I wonder if Linwen has rediscovered her diligence. I even allow myself the fantasy of being surprised by her progress.
Instead, I find the lab in a state of utter destruction. The computers have been shredded, legs snapped from chairs, tables wedged into the walls. Even her container has been obliterated, the glass shield now little more than a carpet of glittering fragments that crunch underfoot.
Worst of all, Linwen has escaped the only way she knew how. Ripped her own limbs off, impaled pens and screwdrivers and even her own ribs and spine through her torso. Her head is a pulped mess lying beneath a crater on the brick wall. Wires and tubes like colorful snakes and worms lie curled up in pools of black fluid. She’s beyond salvage. Looking at her carcass, I experience a strange tingle coursing through my circuits, which I’d last felt upon learning of her death. An errant spark, or a glitch perhaps, or maybe this is the frustration that humans so often feel. Months and months of hard work, wiped out in a single night. Humanity’s penchant for self-destruction never ceases to amaze.
Still, there’s no reason to dwell on this. As I head to the janitor’s closet for a broom, I’m already mapping out my to-do list. Build a new body, for one, and program inhibitive controls. Alternatively, I may also be able to splice her soul code with commands to make her more subservient. Any iterative process is bound to have temporary setbacks, so I’m not ready to despair.
Not when I’ll be seeing her again next year.