Changliu and her sister were huddled over the kitchen counter. Between them lay an unopened bowl of instant ramen, shrink wrap intact, the container propped upright on a folded kitchen towel. Changliu and her sister looked directly into the smiling face of the man printed on the lid. The image was animate, blinking, shifting his shoulders, his lips parting now and again like he was about to speak but waiting for a cue. It was their idol, Xiao Tan.
What was supposed to happen? After they opened the package, Xiao Tan was supposed to launch into a ninety-second monologue from the lid of the ramen bowl. Something along these generic cadences: thanks for buying, felicitations, please enjoy your meal. But most importantly, after that, you could talk to him freeform during the final thirty seconds. You’d ask questions and the tiny, animate Xiao Tan would respond, provided the answer wasn’t explicitly NSFW. In order to do this, to answer your questions, the print Xiao Tan was imbued with a bare-bones version of the living Xiao Tan’s personality. Even more crucial, this simulated personality held a selection of the person’s real memories. It knew what Xiao Tan knew.
Changliu held her phone over the packaged ramen. Several pop-up windows flashed on the screen, glowing windows superimposed over the live camera image of Xiao Tan on the lid. There were rapidly changing rows of letters, numbers, lines, and numerals. Changliu’s first task was to override Xiao Tan’s initial ninety-second dialogue, and then she’d ease the parameters of his Q&A script. All this made it possible for her sister to spend two entire minutes just asking him questions.
Now here was a specific endeavor. Changliu, her sister, and hundreds of other sisters all around the country had bought every single ramen bowl in this particular batch just to do this exact procedure with every one of them. Citing production errors, the manufacturer had issued a recall, but between when the announcement was made and when supermarkets had begun to pull stock from the shelves, someone had figured out this hack. It was a miracle. In less than twelve hours, the sisters had mobilized, and they’d bought almost every unit of the defective batch before they were confiscated.
After consulting the experts among themselves, the sisters had collectively engineered the most straightforward way to jailbreak the ramen bowls in order to ask Xiao Tan their questions. The questioning would be done in pairs or in groups, with one sister responsible for jailbreaking the bowls and another sister responsible for asking the questions. The entire session would be recorded for later transcription and analysis.
The questions had been workshopped. Each group of sisters was responsible for asking a specific set of questions, so none of their efforts were redundant. The goal of this vast endeavor was a common, vital, sisterly interest. Changliu and her sisters were going to figure out whether their ship, a pairing of the male idol actors Xiao Tan / Gang Yinbo—They were going to figure out whether it was real.
“Are you ready?” her sister asked.
“Thirty seconds,” replied Changliu.
Changliu tapped the screen of her phone. The shifting rows of letters and numbers began to cohere into legible sequences. They flickered once and then they stopped. On the lid of the bowl, Xiao Tan’s pupils froze in their sockets.
“Five seconds,” said Changliu. She, her sister, and Xiao Tan all blinked in unison, and then her sister tore the shrink wrap away from the bowl. She started asking their questions.
Were you in X place at Y time? Were all the actors housed on the same floor of the hotel when you shot Z drama? How often would you eat dinner with your co-star, Gang Yinbo? Did you become familiar with your co-star’s eating habits? How familiar were you with your co-star’s personal behaviors? Were you generally aware of how much he slept? When he went to bed? Did he prefer the room bright or dark? What was the first thing he did upon waking up?
Xiao Tan answered with the direct concision of a student getting quizzed out loud. But as he spoke, Changliu felt cold dismay settle in her stomach. His replies were single words or phrases, and while knowing the answers was good, the constellation of information they formed seemed almost incoherent. There were any number of reasons why Xiao Tan might know that Gang Yinbo ate one slice of whole grain toast and a hard-boiled egg every morning. When Xiao Tan professed not to know his co-star’s sleeping habits, Changliu remembered an interview where Xiao Tan had said their chaotic filming schedule meant that almost no one slept regular hours. It’d be incredible, delicious, and incendiary if he did know when, where, and how Gang Yinbo slept, but that he didn’t know meant very little. There was no conclusion to draw.
Changliu tried to imagine. Summer in Hengdian, where the drama was filmed, the air stifling and close, the heat of the season undissipated even long after midnight. The hotel’s air conditioning would stick clothes to damp skin, the sharp chill only getting worse between the lobby and the elevator.
“Comrade Gang,” Xiao Tan might say, slouching against the elevator’s chrome handrail, staring at Gang Yinbo with vaguely bloodshot eyes. “I know it’s already two, but we’re not filming until later tomorrow. You only have that interview around lunch, so how about coming to my room to look over the script now? We could practice our lines before bed.”
Changliu imagined Gang Yinbo leaning back, one hand raised to push the hair out of his eyes. She imagined him asking, brows lifted: “Are you sure?”
He’d rake his fingers through his hair. Xiao Tan would grin, and then—
Changliu realized the kitchen was silent. Her sister was looking at her, tense and slightly lost. She was done asking their assigned questions. Changliu glanced at the timer. There were twenty seconds left.
The animate Xiao Tan looked at them with pleasant expectation. Acutely aware of the effort they’d gone through, of the moments sliding past, a single question rushed out of Changliu’s mouth: “You—Do you love Gang Yinbo?”
For the first time, Xiao Tan smiled. Changliu’s scalp went numb, and sweat broke out on her temples.
“Of course I do,” Xiao Tan replied. “I also love Rei-brand Ramen! Remember, just add water, wait two minutes, and it’s ready to enjoy. Thanks for buying! I look forward to seeing you soon~”
With that, Xiao Tan settled back into print, the fine-grain twitches of his animation slowing down until he was an image on the lid. His mouth still curved with the trace of a smile.
Changliu and her sister looked at each other. Without speaking, her sister went over and turned on the kettle. She unsealed the ramen, and once the water was boiled, she poured it inside. They waited two minutes, just like Xiao Tan had said. Afterwards, sharing the same bowl, they ate together in deep, persistent silence.
Once they finished, Changliu indicated that if she wanted, her sister could drink the broth. Her sister raised the bowl to her lips. A trickle of soup leaked out of her mouth, dripping down to stain her collar with a vivid, orangey bloom.
Changliu’s sister slammed the bowl onto the table. She coughed twice, eyes watering, and yelled, “Surely this life is cursed! What the hell did he mean?”
“I know,” said Changliu. “I know.”