Shanghai, Chinese Democratic Republic: March 2nd 2026
All human life is here.
It is almost midnight, yet dozens of barges still plough
the black waters of the Huangpu Jiang, hazard lights winking
red and green, passing either side of streamlined robot cargo
clippers that swing at anchor in the midstream channel. The
tall white cylinders of the clippers' rotary sails are
fitfully illuminated by fireworks bursting above a rock
concert in an amphitheatre on the Pudong shore, close to the
minaret of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. Nets of white laser
light flex against the dark sky. The howl of massed guitars
and the throaty roar of the audience carries over the river to
Shanghai, where, along the waterfront avenue of the Bund,
beneath tiers of neon, crowds swirl past stalled lines of
Most of the old colonial department stores and banks have
been torn down, replaced by skyscrapers with organic facings
like muscle fibres or wood grain seen under a microscope's
lens, or coralline skins fretted with porous knots and hollows
and veins. The human crowds at their feet are like columns of
ants scurrying around the buttress roots of forest giants.
People stream out of the Cathay Theatre. Waiters in starched
white shirts move amongst the crowded tables of terrace caf‚s
where roaring gas heaters keep out the night's chill. Teenage
police officers lounge sullenly at intersections, tugging at
their white gloves as they watch opposing streams of vehicles
inch past with blaring horns and glaring headlights. Huge
signs are flooded with new advertisements every twenty
seconds. Corporate logos burn sleeplessly inside glass-walled
malls piled with electronics, silks, and exotic biotech.
Behind the Bund and the commercial sector, the gridded
streets are narrower but no less crowded. Traffic is jammed
in a complex one-way system. Pedestrians and cyclists pour
around little three-wheeled trucks, bubble cars, the limos of
high-ranking government officials or entrepreneurs or
gangsters. Electric scooters tow trailers piled high with
flat TV sets or melons or cartons of cigarettes. Bars and
clubs flaunt their wares in video loops cut to the hectic beat
of slash funk. Hawkers thrust animated adsheets into the
hands of passers-by. Stalls sell ramen or noodle soups,
spices, tacky souvenirs, bootleg spikes, cages of live birds,
exotic tweaks. Here's an old woman tipping a handful of fish
heads into sesame oil smoking in a blackened wok. Here's a
beggar with an extra head that lolls idiotically on his left
shoulder. Here's a crowd of shopgirls tripping along under a
bouquet of coloured paper umbrellas. Tucked away in narrow
alleyways are chop-shops for stolen motorcycles, the offices
of grey biosurgeons and baby farmers, workshops where
customised chips are hand-etched, traditional medicine shops
with dusty glass jars of bark or twigs or dried berries, a
shop selling cloned tiger penis and vat-grown ivory.
Anything that can be bought can be bought here, in
Pan and scan the restless crowds.
Here's a man ambling along with a slouch hat angled over
his face. An American, a business man -- peacock blue suit,
rouged cheeks, blue eye shadow. He plunges down reeking steps
into a cellar bar and orders a beer he does not drink,
watching the reflection of the bar's entrance in the mirror
behind the pairs and trios of naked dancers who, in cones of
smoky red laser light, mime fucking with the dazed compliance
of sleepwalkers. After an hour, the American checks his
discreet Patek-Philippe tattoo and moves on, anonymous in the
crowds. There are many business people and tourists here,
many gwailos. He passes a Cuban bar, a German bar, an
Icelandic bar where customers are handed fur-lined parkas as
they enter -- the inside's all ice. Another bar, this one a
shack so small its half dozen customers sit side by side,
serves only whisky; more than a hundred bottles are racked up
behind the bamboo and rattan counter. The American waits
until a stool is free and sits and orders a Braveheart on the
rocks -- despite the name, it is made in Kenya. He doesn't
drink but turns the tumbler around and around in his long,
manicured fingers. Three drunken salarymen are watching a
postcard-sized TV that shows baseball live from Tokyo, betting
on each pitch in a flurry of fingers and coins.
The bar squats under a sign advertising the Peking
This is the American century.
A young, skinny Chinese man sits beside the American and
orders a Rob Roy. They don't talk, but when the American
stands up and leaves the other man gulps down his shot of
whisky and follows him into an alley, where the American
suddenly turns and embraces and kisses him.
The Chinese man is startled and angry and tries to push
away, but the American holds him tight. "They might be
watching, so make it real," he says, and kisses the man again,
tasting the whisky on his breath.
They hire a room in a short-time hotel and go up the
rickety stairs, stepping between the sleeping bodies of an
entire family, from shrunken grandmother to fretful baby.
The room is tiny and overheated, smells of disinfectant,
mould, and sex. It is almost entirely filled by a gel slab
bed covered in purple, vat-grown fur.
The young Chinese man sits down and strokes the coarse
fur and says, "My company makes this." His long black hair is
brushed back from his round face; his skin is sallow and shiny
with sweat. The width of his smile is a precise index of his
The American tosses his hat on to the bed and says
impatiently, "Let's do it."
The Chinese man, his eyes fixed on the American, slowly
pulls a pair of flat-ended tweezers from the inside pocket of
his snakeskin jacket. He uses them to lift up the nail of his
left thumb, picks a glass capillary tube from the pink bed of
artificial flesh, and drops it into the American's palm.
The American stares at the sliver of glass. "What's this
"It is in there. Alive."
"I wanted the code."
"That is not possible. I tell you already it is not
possible. This is the second generation, but it has the
essential property of the Chi. It is alive. You can sequence
it yourself. Your people can. I do not cheat you."
"If you're fucking with me."
"I have no access to the sequence libraries. I tell you
that already. Not the sequence libraries, not the Chi itself.
I get you the second generation lab prototype. I smuggle it
past the sniffers. Very hard to do, very difficult. But I do
it. I bring it to you."
The American's hand closes over the capillary tube. "I
can verify nucleotide sequences right here. I can't verify
The Chinese man's smile is very wide now. "You sequence
it. You see I do not lie. It is the essence of the Chi."
"And also a prototype."
"It is fully tested. It splices genes, self-selects at a
very high rate. Evolution with a fast-forward button."
The American stares hard into the Chinese man's fixed
smile and says again, "If you're fucking with me."
"No, sir. I do not. This is for my family -- "
"Yeah, yeah." The American knows the story -- dissidents
exiled to a mining village in Antarctica, a massive bribe
needed to release them, blah blah blah. He says, "Before your
family can wave bye-bye to penguin land, we'll have to check
Now the Chinese man allows a hardness to show in his
face. "Perhaps you fuck with me."
"Here, we shake on the deal. Okay? It's an American
The Chinese man doesn't look at the American's hand. He
says, "No. No, I don't think so."
The American scratches his nose. He's amused. "Suit
yourself, Charlie. Maybe you want to fuck instead. We have
the room another twenty minutes. Plenty of time for a quick
in and out."
The Chinese man stands. "You will sequence the organism
and you will pay."
"You've already been paid."
"You will pay the rest."
"Yeah, sure. We done here? Fuck off then."
The American lies back on the fur-covered bed after the
Chinese man has gone. The handshake doesn't matter because
the kiss did it; his saliva contains a toxin derived from
puffer fish liver, a toxin to which he has been made immune.
It will shut down his victim's nervous system in about twenty
minutes: clonic seizures, suffocation, heart failure.
The American leaves the room when the ayah taps on the
door to indicate that the hour is up. He strolls through the
crowded streets, brushing off touts and pimps and beggars,
towards the Bund. He sits at a table in a terrace caf‚ and
drinks a latte, watching the crowds from beneath the brim of
his hat. Waiters begin to stack chairs on the empty tables
around his, but he takes his time, and it is four in the
morning when he takes a taxi several blocks, enters an
infobooth in an all-night mall noisy with rock music, and
sends a dozen ecards, all but one to random addresses. He
spends an hour in a games arcade, moving restlessly from
machine to machine, then, as the day's first measure of light
pours into the sky, hails another taxi and goes to the
Shanty towns full of displaced peasants slope away on
either side of the ten-lane freeway. Palms planted along the
centre divider have died from a viral infection. Under a
floodlit advertisement for the floating pleasure palaces of
the South China Seas, a ragged boy is beating a water buffalo
with a stick.
The American meets the government courier in the American
Airlines first class lounge. Two minutes, in and out. He's
on the way back to Shanghai when the cherry lights of half a
dozen police cruisers begin to flash behind his taxi and he
realizes who has been fucking who.
The government courier carries only a diplomatic pouch,
its lock sealed with a roundel of security plastic embossed
with the eagle and shield of the US government. There's a
slight delay after he has boarded the scramjet, something to
do with a baggage count. In dawn light, on the wet concrete
beneath the courier's oval window, men with white gloves sign
each other's slates while a truck with a flashing amber light
When it happens, the scramjet is climbing high above the
Pacific. The courier has settled into his calf-hide first
class seat, is trying not to stare at the TV anchorwoman
across the aisle. Stewards are taking back glasses in
readiness for the interval of free fall at the top of the
scramjet's sub-orbital arc.
And in the hold, the device planted by one of the baggage
inspectors fires a single microwave pulse that fries every
processor in the scramjet's neural net. All power goes out.
Cabin power, power to the fuel pumps of the air-breather
motors, power to the control surfaces. The scramjet tumbles
in an uncontrolled dive, the spine of its overstressed
airframe shattering, the pressurised cabin exploding along
welding seams, breaking up a kilometre above the Pacific.
Over the next three days, US Navy ships gather from the
ocean's heaving skin luggage and life-vests and seats and
clothing, carbon fibre shards from the scramjet's wings and
fragments of its titanium hull, and bodies and pieces of
The tiny glass capillary tube, its seal broken, drifts
more than twenty kilometres north before it finally sinks.
Copyright © 2001 Paul J. McAuley
All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from
the author. This excerpt has been provided by HarperCollins Voyager and printed with their permission.
The winners have been chosen. All were sent a copy of The Secret of Life,
courtesy of HarperCollins Voyager.
The questions are:
What's the name of Shanghai's TV tower? A: The Oriental Pearl TV Tower.
What generation of Chi is involved in the deal? A: Second generation
What brand of whisky does the American drink? A: Braveheart
In order to win a copy of The Secret of Life, you must send an email
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