What happens when a Martian woman discovers scientific anomalies in a Tibetan lamasery? Find out in our exclusive story from the recently-released Apex Book of World SF, edited by Lavie Tidhar.
The anthology is packed with terrific stories from science fiction writers all over the world, including S.P. Somtow and Zoran Zivkovic, many of them translated for the first time. This is a complete version of one of those stories. Want more? Check out a complete table of contents and order the anthology via Apex Books.
The Wheel of Samsara
By Han Song
Han Song is a Chinese science fiction writer of some note, and works as a journalist for the Xinhua News Agency. He won China's Galaxy Award four times for short fiction and is the author of several novels, the most recent being Red Ocean (2004).
She traveled in Tibet and one day arrived at Doji lamasery. It was a small temple of Tibetan Buddhism now in a bleak, half-ruined state. What Caught her eye was a string of bronze wheels hung around the wall of the temple. They were called the Wheels of Samsara.
There was a total of one hundred and eight wheels, moving in the wind; they symbolized the eternal cycle of life and death; of everything. She quickly noticed that one of them was a strange colour of dark green, singling itself out from the others, which were yellow.
It was the thirty-sixth wheel when counted clockwise.
She touched the wheels one by one, and made a vow to Sakyamuni, the Great Buddha. Midway through a sudden gale began to blow and a heavy mist fell. She was scared and she ran back to the temple.
She stayed in the lamasery that night.
The gale continued and became a rainstorm. Thunder and flashes of lightning were splitting the mountains and the sky.
She could not fall asleep on such a night, and at midnight she thought she could hear of the sob of the Tibetan plateau, which reminded her of her dead mother and her lonely father on Mars.
Suddenly, she heard a cry.
It was a miserable sound, weak as a hairspring and harsh as a woman's weeping, and it made her think of a ghost.
Fear stopped her own cry.
Though she knew lamas were sleeping in the next room, she didn't dare to go out or shout for help.
Winds and rain died out the next day and it became sunny. She told the lamas what she had heard the previous night.
They grinned, telling her it was not a ghost. "It was the howl of the wheel of Samsara," they said.
The howl of the Wheel of Samsara? She was surprised.
The lamas explained that it was one of the wheels. To be exact, it was the thirty-sixth clockwise.
According to the lamas, Doji lamasery had been destroyed several times in the past five hundred years. Each time the wheels were lost, but only the thirty-sixth one had been well-preserved to date.
Though it disappeared in a number of landslides and floods, it was finally re-discovered.
When gales and rain approached, it gave out unexplainable sounds.
So she looked at it carefully, but it simply kept silent. She touched it with her forefinger, and it emitted a sense of bleak dread, which flooded directly into her heart.
It was hard to imagine that it was the wheel that cried the previous night.
"It was a wheel of soul," a lama murmured.
The lama's face was dark, his expression cryptic.
So it was an unusual wheel which had encountered so much rain, so many winds, but now it had to join such a string of ordinary wheels. Realizing the fact, she could not hold back her tears.
* * *
She returned to Mars and told her father about her finding in Tibet.
Father laughed and said: "Could that be called strange? The phenomenon was simply caused by static electricity on that remote blue planet."
Her father, a scientist, knew a lot of cases like that.
For instance, some valleys would emit the sounds of horses and dead soldiers in rainstorms, and some lakes would play music in the evenings. Documents even recorded a bronze bell in an ancient temple that could ring without anybody striking it.
"Once the air accumulates too much static electricity, it would trigger the strange sounds. All this can happen at any moment on Earth. Never be scared, my daughter."
She felt relieved, but also dull, and lost. Father's explanation expelled her fear, but also cheated her of the mystery she craved.
In her mind: there should be some sort of ghost in Tibet, who would frighten her, perhaps, but won't disappoint her.
She went back to her own room and shut the door. Without any reason, she was out of sorts. She turned a cold shoulder to her father when he called her to dinner.
The next year she went to Tibet again and made her way directly to Doji lamasery.
"You came for the wheel, right?" the lamas said, grinning, and winked their pearl-like eyes which could see through everything.
She felt a little timid, and told them about the static electricity theory.
However, she was afraid that they would be unhappy with the explanation.
So she added: "That was just my father's view."
The lamas did not feel unhappy. They smiled. "Last time you stayed here for only one night. So you could hear just one sort of sound. The wheel can send out thousands of different sounds. How can static electricity do that?"
"Is it true?"
Her heart jumped to her throat again, and she felt a mysterious shadow following her closely. She quickly forgot her father's words. She did not feel scared this time, and decided to stay in the temple.
The wheel cried again on a dismal night. This time it was not a ghost cry, but the sound of a man. Then it became the zigzag of vehicles, then the roaring of machines in a factory. After a while, a string of explosions were heard.
For several consecutive nights, she heard many different sounds.
One night it was a piece of music, but the tune was strange, of a kind she had never heard before.
She felt joy mixed with a bit of fear. One month passed.
The lamas saw it with equanimity. And they explained no more to her.
The day she left Doji lamasery, she carried back with her a bag of tapes.
* * *
Three months later she returned to Doji lamasery, with her father and one of her father's postgraduate students.
It was the sounds she had recorded that made her father serious, and he decided to look for himself.
"Now I realize that the sounds truly were unusual. Can it really be static electricity? Anyhow, it is worth studying," he said.
Upon arriving at Doji lamasery, father and the student walked around the wheels of Samsara six times, but they saw nothing strange. The three of them stayed that night at the lamasery. At midnight, the wheel cried again.
Her father and his student put on clothes and rushed out, seeing that the wheel was quivering slightly, and its body was covered with a circle of red light. The sound came out of the body of the wheel. Her father raised his head toward the sky and discovered that it had turned red and all the stars had gathered together, listening to the sound with fixed attention.
The sound of the wheel changed tune, from happiness to grief. Then there were a lot of sounds her father had never heard before.
Suddenly he felt that something was behind him. He turned and saw it was a lama. The lama's face was indigo and hung with a tricky, secret smile.
Father ran back to the temple. Seeing his daughter sit on the bed in safety, he felt relieved. However, the girl herself was uneasy.
The next day her father told the student:
"It was monstrous. I thought it was a magic tape recorder. Maybe it was not a product of nature."
"Yes, a bizarre tape recorder left by human history. Maybe it had something to do with an extinct civilization. It contains some strange sounds of ancient times."
"But, does not a universe hide inside the wheel?" The postgraduate student suddenly shouted out.
"A universe?" Father was startled. Young people always had different ideas, he thought.
"That is what I believe. Inside the wheel there is a universe, the same as the one we are living in."
For many years people had been searching for a mini universe but the attempts had all failed. However, the student was still obsessed with the notion.
Father's face lost colour, and he shook his head again and again.
"That was what I strongly felt last night. A sound seemed to have been emitted by a circumvolving black hole, and another seemed to have been created by a dropping asteroid. And there were more sounds, reminding me of the explosion of a supernova and the birth of a galaxy," said the student, with a trembling voice.
Father thought it over and admitted the possibility. However, he was reluctant to believe the conclusion. He was a stubborn academician who held that there was only one universe.
"Are you my student?" he said. "How dare you talk about things this way! I am ashamed for you."
The student realized that he had spoken too much and violated the dignity of his teacher. He apologized for his abruptness; however, he refused to take back his words.
For several days they were lethargic. There was a dead silence between her father and his student. Nevertheless, the snowy mountains behind the lamasery turned ever more brilliant and graceful.
Only his daughter felt that the student got it right. He did raise a wonderful hypothesis, she thought.
When on Mars the young man often visited her home. The student usually launched a dispute with her father on the unexplainable universe. When the two men's faces turned red owing to the quarrel, she sat aside quietly, listening to and watching them with a curious expression. How lovely the men were.
Now she wondered if the student could take her to the mini universe in the wheel. That would be the most exciting journey of her life.
She'd always take the student's side. It was the side of unorthodoxy.
"The universe is trapped in the wheel. It can neither move nor evolve, and it can not be observed with eyes or telescopes. It can only give out some poor sounds to tell about its past and attract passer-bys' attention. How innocent it is. It does not even know that the era out of the wheel is against its own," She said, red-eyed.
"How do you know that it can not move or evolve? How do you know that it needs our pity? Maybe the truth is the other way around," said the boy, looking at the girl with a tender expression.
Being aware that his daughter might like the bothersome student, her father felt unhappy.
His sight became ferocious when it fixed on the wheel. He began to regard it as a tumour growing on the planet, and it was threatening the order and intellect of the human world.
He should cut it off.
One day he told the lama that he would carry the wheel to Mars for the purpose of scientific research.
His daughter and the student were shocked upon hearing the request.
"Professor, you cannot do that. The wheel of Samsara only belongs to the lamasery, and it only belongs to Tibet!"
"Father, you can not take it away, it can only give out its voice here. It will die if you take it to a different place!"
Father just sneered, and gazed at the lamas, waiting for a reply. The lamas seemed to have no clear idea about her father's request, and they were all at a loss. Her father thought that they would not agree with him, but he said: "Let's make a deal. How much is it?"
The lamas gathered and murmured for a while. Then an old lama, possibly the living Buddha of the lamasery, stepped forward and said to father: "My benefactor, if you really want it, just take it away. Is there anything in the world that we can not give up? And it is the wheel's fate."
The reply went beyond father's expectations.
Watching the lama's peaceful face, the daughter and the student were also stunned.
* * *
Father picked the wheel up. The wheel was so heavy that he could hardly hold it.
At that moment, all the lamas walked out of the temple. They lowered their heads and began reciting sutras.
Father removed the wheel to the ground in front of the temple, placing it well, and stared at it with a thoughtful expression.
The daughter and student did not know what he was going to do next.
Suddenly, father burst into a bewildering laughter, just like an owl, and he pulled out his laser cutter, waving it toward the wheel.
"Let's see the real face of the so-called hidden universe!" he cried.
The daughter and student were frightened. They stepped forward to stop her father but it was too late. The wheel was cut into two pieces down the middle, falling apart to the solid ground.
It was empty. Nothing was inside.
The lamas suddenly fell silent. So did the mountains and the sky. She felt extremely uncomfortable.
After a while, the sky became dark, and stars were just inches away from people's heads.
Everybody looked upward in astonishment.
At that moment, a silent, bright white light flashed across the sky, splitting the sky into two pieces, just like the laser cutter had cleaved the wheel.
Millions of wheels appeared in the sky, just like flocks of birds. They were spaceships she had never seen before. They were escaping something, in haste.
The lamas kneeled down and began to pray.
Then the split sky began to fold along the white light in the middle of the universe.
And so did the vast land. The shadows of mountains rushed to an unnamed centre, just like fighting beasts, and their bodies huddled together.
She lowered her head and saw the shadow of her body begin to bend, just like a tree eaten away by insects, and it finally broke from her waist.
Then all the shadows folded together from opposite directions, swallowing all the people, all the mountains and rivers, and all the oceans and stars.
The lamas' smile flashed as an arc at the last second.
Nobody could see how the Big Bang started – it was quite different from all of humanity's previous hypotheses.