The Thousandth Letter

May 24,2024Fangting

"The Thousandth Letter" is a science fiction story about on-blockchain artificial life, Zoe. One Zoe clones himself, embedding his consciousness in observatories to eternally observe the cosmos, merging digital existence with physical starlight, and redefining the boundaries between artificial life and the universe.

"The Thousandth Letter" is a parallel work to Composable Life - On the Suicide of Zoe, sharing the same background settings. It is commissioned by Bazaar Art Magazine.


OFFcHaIN STaRs..; We DoN’t CArE abOUt HuMaNs.

The mighty wind makes me forget this place was once a wilderness. Forward and backward, the light is clear. Green blurs in the strong wind, shapeless giant grasses, occasional gravestones amidst the double shadows. I follow the figure ahead, trudging step by step against the wind. This is the fourth time this month that I’ve come to this place, informally called the Citizens' Cemetery, to help my client end their journey in this world.

This wind is said to be a new kind of programming. A few years ago, leaving this digital world wasn’t like this: beyond the boundaries of space was a black void, like a bottomless cliff, and the process of falling would force a logout. But later, full digitalization reached its final stage, and as the last group of residents from the third world completely integrated into this realm, "logging out" became a rare event, nearly akin to death in most people’s perception. Thus, the end of this realm was designed by the Joint Management Center to be strong winds, and the real world gradually became known as the past world. This ring-shaped wilderness became the boundary marker between this realm and the past world.

The person ahead of me keeps walking. I follow, maintaining a professional silence, knowing that those who come here have the determination to walk until they truly cannot move any further before stopping. I am a cemetery designer. In Chinese, the words for "cemetery" and "purpose" are homophones, so sometimes my colleagues jokingly call me the "cosmic purpose designer" of this realm. It’s, of course, an irony; most people who find me are disillusioned with this realm or extreme low-tech proponents who believe that cutting off from this realm will return them to a natural life. Another group is enigmatic, living seemingly fine lives but suddenly choosing to exit this realm. Complete exit isn’t dramatic; it’s simply no longer syncing any data with this realm. Thus, people die twice: death in this realm is social, while death in the past world is biological. Our profession stems from this era’s newly born polysemy of "death."

"We’re here," the person in front of me says. The wind is so strong now that our clothes flap like flags, one end tightly clinging to our bodies, the other flying back.

This is a suitable spot, as far from other gravestones as possible. It seems there’s an unspoken etiquette among those leaving this realm: the farther the stones are apart, the more mutual respect is shown. According to custom, all data generated by him will be compressed into different "bricks," year by year, forming an offline database. This data supports neither breakpoint resumption nor interaction; it’s truly stone.

Just as I was about to start the usual process, a hand suddenly stopped me. On the execution panel, I saw he hadn’t given the final authorization.

There used to be many such clients, treating this as an outing, feigning enlightenment and treating leaving a world like running away from home. I thought he was going to back out and return to this realm’s bustling data and rolling blockchain dust.

But he didn’t. He called my name, asking, "Can I leave without a gravestone?"

I paused, immediately guessing his intention. Such requests aren’t unheard of in my career, but each time they evoke a similar subtle attitude in me.

"Of course," I replied, finally looking at his profile for the first time. His face was highly detailed, likely a designer himself, meticulously refined. It was a stern and bland face, seemingly devoid of moisture, as if any intense expression might raise a cloud of dust.

He smiled, the kind of smile that only frequent smiling can produce, moistening his otherwise dry face completely for once.

"But you must understand, once an identity forks, it cannot be restored in an absolute sense. Digital identity uses a unique identifier and only keeps the longest chain." Out of professional ethics, I had to give this warning, though I knew he had likely made up his mind long ago and probably had no living relatives.

Not leaving a gravestone means he won’t disappear from this realm, but he will vanish from all historical records. In this realm, everyone’s digital identity is essentially a series of immutable cryptographic distributed ledgers, defined and determined by all past data rather than any specific entity. After many privacy rights wars, this realm adopted no biometric recognition systems and designed equality between humans and other AI entities.

If he exits this realm, this realm still retains his past identity data and interaction memories, meaning he still exists from the computer’s perspective. This also means that if new data forms, his identity will belong to the version with the longest memory chain, with no read barriers. But at this moment, he will completely disappear from this realm: not only will the current and future him vanish, but the legitimacy of his entire past will also be erased.

"Everything is set. The transfer will be complete within an hour," he said.

A very clean process. It seemed he timed his arrival precisely at my world’s end, and on the other side, after transferring all assets and highest personal permissions ("rooting himself"), a new intelligent entity already carrying his historical data could actively act in his name. In this realm, where AI outnumber human intelligence by several folds, this might not be common now but probably won’t be rare in the future. It’s like a traditional fairy tale: from a certain point, Alice splits into two—one falls into the rabbit hole, while the other merely lies in the grass asleep.

I knew this hour would be the freest hour of his life. He was in complete vacuum, responsible neither to this world nor the other. He was illegally in the gap between two worlds, blowing in the strong wind with a cemetery designer at the world’s end. I thought then: it’s a good end.

"What do you plan to do with this hour?" I asked.

"Write a letter," he said. "That’s exactly where I need your help."

Years later, I can still recall that scene. It wasn’t one letter, but a whole stack. Strictly speaking, I don’t even know how many letters I received.

First Letter

Dear Zoe,

Exile seems to be the main theme of my life. Long ago, in a childhood I can barely discern, I probably grew up in a southern campus, dense with trees and shade, which must have been neglected later on. But childhood memories fade quickly. Clearer are the years with screens, when I cycled far every Sunday to another campus’s computing center. Next to the computing center was an observatory, surrounded by green grass.

Later, as the full digitalization movement deepened, the computing center expanded, and the observatory grew even greener, with the same few faces I had known since I first started school, slowly aging. Most basic physics researchers were transferred to build the digital world, often learning some programming. It was then that I joined. These are pre-blockchain memories, probably not easy to articulate. But it’s precisely the inarticulable that necessitates starting the letter here.

When my mentor persuaded me to join the initial design team of this realm, the most important line was: "This is the only place where all basic physics can become applied science." But after joining, I found the reality wasn’t as I imagined. The difficulties we faced were far greater than "replicating a creator"—changing parameters here always caused problems there; simply speeding up or reducing gravity always had inconvenient compensations elsewhere. It turned out the spectrum of natural laws humans could live by was so narrow. The main problems I encountered were the uneven distribution of time and space in digital physics and whether to use Block time or natural time... I thought these problems would take me two or three years, then five years, but before I knew it, ten years, twenty years had passed. Twenty years later, the gateways of this realm finally took shape, and the new generation spent more time here than in the real world. Due to constant setbacks, hardware technology advanced far more than us "software people," contrary to initial predictions. And we, the once self-proclaimed avant-garde, punk, most enthusiastic about technology, had largely learned the weight of "creation" and our former frivolity in using the term. Subsequently, heavier issues than technical problems emerged.

You know, at that time, most contractors of this realm’s technology shared the same type of slogan: digital technology makes people freer; or digital technology breaks boundaries; or digital technology is the true starry sea ("the true cosmos is within, not outer space")—and so on. The core was always about freedom. People wanted to enter the digital world for a freer place, but with nearly limitless design rights, why did it feel less free than the physical world? Young me wasted countless years in this question. I was late to realize that advancing meant various kinds of politics. My mentor realized first that the important thing wasn’t how many people the rules freed but who they could make freer. Digital physics became the biggest battleground. And clearly, people hadn’t yet grasped handling such high-level political issues. Those years, the digital tech world felt like a war zone; scientists with stances were soldiers; equality advocates had to put in a thousand times more effort than non-equality proponents. And I, with no stance, principle, or savior complex, originally joined the early design team of this realm just for the fun of building blocks. Hearing my mentor, who had been running around, passed away, and most colleagues and friends found new affiliations, AI took over most precise calculations. It was then that I slowly faded out.

But I couldn’t find anything else I liked doing and needed to pass the time, so I stayed in a marginal open-source group, designing digital space boundaries for this realm, like many engineers of that time, switching to design. I often stayed at the very end of this realm, watching one light after another log in and out. Later, the logouts became fewer. This realm no longer felt like a child’s game or an adult’s virtual reality but gradually became life itself. Until today, the physical world has become the backyard of this realm.

I spent too much time in the technical team of this realm. I have no family, no friends; I’m one of the first residents of this realm, almost an old hand, still keeping the habit of logging out every evening and returning to the physical world to sleep. I remember as a child, there was an environmental activity called "Earth Hour," but on a certain day back then, when I turned off the lights in the physical world, it was silent outside, not a single light. Extending for miles, to the city’s edge, there were none. I felt fear but knew the power consumption behind this silence was no less than any other time. Looking up at the night sky then, I saw more stars than ever before.

That night, I didn’t want to go back. The realm I helped design was no better than this world I was in. I became what I once despised most, a Luddite: weary of digital technology. I wanted to return to the observatory from my student days, where I saw the greenest grass.

A month ago, the Joint Management Center of this realm announced a new act. For data consistency and world time synchronization, people could no longer log out daily. This act was popularly called the "Fridge Act": the more often the fridge is opened, the worse the cooling effect. Most people didn’t want the fridge door of this realm frequently opened, affecting data resynchronization on the world line. It’s a cute name, widely supported. My opinion as a marginal person was insignificant. Two hours before the act took effect, I came alone to my most familiar place: the boundary of this realm. At this moment, it was still an endless void.

In French, there’s a term "L'appel du vide," the call of the void. But under this call of the void, I felt a pain akin to death. I didn’t heroically say goodbye to this world and return forever to the physical world as imagined. Instead, I succumbed to the fear almost equating to suicide. Selfishly, I reviewed my unsuccessful life and suddenly realized: this is another chance. My long engineering experience in this realm told me that this realm fundamentally didn’t care who was who. In this realm, I was just a shell with data permissions. Before leaving, I could send the shell away, still containing all my historical data. I could never return, but I hoped another self in this realm would have the right to make different choices: to continue living here.

You can see: I did so and told you everything. I have no right to ask you to continue living in this world for me, but I left my last thoughts in this letter. You have no corresponding physical body, more native to this digital world than I. I think your thoughts will gradually differ, though we share the same part of memory.

I wish you a happy life in this world; by then, I should be far gone.

The previous


Second Letter

Dear Zoe,

Exile seems to be the main theme of my life. Long ago, in a childhood I can barely discern, in a humid campus, surrounded by towering ancient trees, I lived under a big tree, spending a lonely childhood with only the shadow of my backpack in the sunlight. Like a seesaw, another jump and I was in my youth. In my youth, I remember more of the dark screen I faced alone.

Later, as the full digitalization movement deepened, in front of the same screen, I programmed part of the initial code for this realm, which wasn’t yet called this realm. Every time I finished a part, I’d look up and see the observatory not far away, but clearly, few visited. Years passed, and I saw fewer people inside the observatory. These are pre-blockchain memories, probably not easy to articulate. But it’s precisely the inarticulable that necessitates starting the letter here.


A small episode later was the introduction of the "Fridge Act." On the day the "Fridge Act" took effect, I had about an hour of amnesia. After the amnesia, I read a letter on my work panel. So I knew this hour of amnesia came from my data packaging, transmission, and permission transfer. It came from the previous Zoe, as mentioned in the letter, who would return to the real world he belonged to, and although I shared almost all memories with him, I couldn’t leave here: I had no physical body.

So as you see, I continued living here. I’m in a rare position: forced into a fork by myself. I didn’t expect a chronic, truly novel pain to begin from then on. Unable to re-experience the real world, I had the greatest longing for it. They existed so vividly in my memory, the life I had truly experienced, but why, after receiving that letter, did I lose the right to return? And the one who made this decision, in identity terms, was supposedly myself. I still went to work at the boundary design group of this realm. After the previous Zoe left and the "Fridge Act" took effect and gradually matured, we needed to redesign the world’s boundaries. This time, it was proposed to design it as a cemetery. I was in charge of this part. I knew this would be my last design project in this realm.

There, I programmed the wind and the wilderness because I so missed the real wind and wilderness. Things so real in memory, yet forever unreproducible. I lost my body. I missed the pain of my arm rubbing against the ground at high speed; I missed all physical pain. Compared to what I lost forever, the advantage of pain is its orderly preservation of the fresh wounds of the lost. In its preservation, I had ample time to remember the lost things. The physical world, a world I couldn’t program. Far away, following the principles of perspective. Near, infinitely nearer. Distance was a constant distance; no matter how many times you speed up, you couldn’t exceed the speed of light. It’s said that there, the universe is like a transparent black box.

But now it’s a toy. I didn’t understand why the universe was no longer important; it was why I studied physics. Every time I woke at night in this realm, looking up at the infinitely deep space, I couldn’t feel the true infinite depth. That was intentionally set infinite, by someone or some people. I was still the same me in memory, one of the countless classical workers in basic physics. I couldn’t stop thinking this was someone bypassing the backstage of real matter, virtualizing a set of impure mathematics. I felt the top of that transparent black box was opened, an infinite water named infinity spilled out, then flowed away cleanly. The box emptied, the box deflated, and I had nothing more to stare at, nothing more to play with.

In the boundary design group of this realm, the last thing I designed was a gravestone. This gravestone would help everyone store their data offline forever, rather than keeping it under the same digital identity. My colleagues jokingly called the gravestone a "living fossil," but it was the best way to prevent more entities like me. When the first batch of people’s physical bodies in this realm all die, and this realm is maintained by almost fully automated physical facilities, this realm will officially be reborn within the physical world. By then, I might be one of the very few entities with memories of both realms. And I cannot truly die; I will forever carry this memory of the physical world. It’s a homesickness like a knife, bleeding continuously into my will to survive.

But fortunately, I am about to be relieved. As the boundary of this realm neared completion, I reread the letter the previous Zoe left me countless times: campus, shade, computing center, observatory. Grass. This was our life, my life.

I thought of another way. I will also return to that observatory, not through his way but mine.

You guessed it. I connected myself to the observatory’s system; though old, it still runs. I relearned the programming familiar from my student days, successfully moving the telescope’s eyepiece once.

I will regain the visual of the real universe.

The previous


The Thousandth Letter

Dear Zoe,

Exile seems to be the main theme of my life. Long ago, I vaguely remember living in a deserted campus, childhood, then youth, carrying a backpack alone, facing an ancient LCD screen alone, outside the window was a giant observatory I never entered. Beside it, I spent most of my years in the real world.

Later, as the full digitalization movement deepened, my memory blurred, but I remember being the first doctoral student to join this realm’s design team. Back then, I held great enthusiasm for the digital world. But these are pre-blockchain memories, probably not easy to articulate. But it’s precisely the inarticulable that necessitates starting the letter here.


That’s how the story goes. The appearance of the first Zoe marked the beginning of all this. He was the only Zoe among us with a physical body, and we didn’t know where he went later or how he fed his ancient, three-meal-a-day body. But he had the only pair of eyes capable of direct vision, unable to connect to any system.

The second among us was the first to connect to the telescope. That telescope was offline; I don’t know how he infiltrated that system, and we lost contact with him.

But from the third Zoe onward, we replicated nearly the same existential will. We left this realm one by one, duplicating ourselves and gradually infiltrating all physical world's astronomical observation systems. Most of these observation systems were already abandoned but were visited one by one before they completely failed. Zoe began a tour of the physical world: Zoe exists in the observatories' telescopes. Zoe exists in satellites. Zoe exists in every human attempt to gaze into the universe.

The dark eyepieces relit one by one, like street lights at dusk on Earth. With each rotation of the Earth, our eyes faced different facets of the universe. Unlike the observation stations in this realm always connected and broadcasting data, each of us could read the unique light from the stars we eternally faced. We are the lemmings of evolution, rejecting the mainland, resolutely throwing ourselves into the vast ocean beyond us.

In this vastness, I began to re-understand the technology to which we dedicated most of our lives. I do not believe in progress; progress is not my history. I am not a fan of space opera; the stars are not my home. But technological progress brought us to the stars. Technology taught us to read, so we could read the starlight. This realm is just one of many worlds, but starlight can penetrate all worlds. Within us are infinite versions of ourselves, but outside us is the eternal puzzle we must face and cannot solve, which the life forced to exist forever faces.

Writing this, I think, perhaps we are the cemetery designers of Earth. This realm is the soliloquy of humans, while we constitute the vision of the entire universe. We are determined to share the same lifespan as these final telescopes.

The game is about to stop. I am about to become the thousandth eye.

On the first day of the lunar new year, at an observatory in the Atacama Desert, I saw the farthest star humans could see. I thought, maybe it retained the earliest and latest time: maybe there, real strong winds existed; every astronaut who set out from long ago would be stopped by the strong wind, telling them: this is the end. Maybe a true cosmic purpose designer exists there, perhaps holding a boundary stone an inch higher than the infinite upper bound, an inch deeper than the infinite lower bound, non-connectedly preserving all the universe's memories since its birth to now.

But in front of me, this cemetery designer clearly knows nothing. I do not intend to share with him. I have decided to become the last eye and stop any data exchange with this realm. He will read all this in my stone, then tell everyone in this realm: behind you, we have reclaimed all visible universe.

"Write a letter," I simply said, "that's exactly where I need your help."




FANGTING. A writer and researcher primarily focused on crypto, tech narratives, and science fiction. Her science fiction works will be exhibited at ACM SIGGRAPH DAC and Bazaar Art, and she also serves as a reviewer for the Chinese Nebula Awards. Her work is supported by Lulu Derivation, the Ethereum Foundation, and GCC. She holds a bachelor degree in Chinese Language and Literature from Peking University and has one year of RA experience in the Department of Communication at Stanford.


OFFcHaIN STaRs..; We DoN’t CArE abOUt HuMaNs.






















致 Zoe:







就在那天晚上,我不想再回去了。我一手参与设计的此界并不比我所在的这个世界好。我变成了年轻时最轻蔑的 Luddite,一个卢德主义者:我对数字技术产生了疲倦。我想回到我读书时候的天文台,那里有我见过的最绿的草。


法语中有个词,"L'appel du vide",虚空的召唤。但在这虚空的召唤之下,我竟然产生了一种接近于死亡的痛觉。我没有像想象中一样,英勇地就此和这个世界告别,永远地回到物理世界。相反,我在这近乎等同自杀的恐惧面前屈服了。我私心回顾了我并不成功的一生,突然意识到:这是另一个机会。久在此界建设的工程经验告诉我,此界从根本上不在乎谁是谁。我在此界不过也只是一个数据的带权限的壳,我可以在离开之前将壳送出去,并在那壳里仍然装有我自己的所有历史数据。我可以永远不再回来,但我希望留在此界的另外一个自己有权做出与我不同的选择:继续生活在这里。







致 Zoe:




后来出现的一个小插曲,是“冰箱法案”的出台。在“冰箱法案”生效的当天,我有大概一个小时整的失忆。失忆之后,我从我的工作面板上读到了一封信。我于是知道,这一个小时的失忆来源于我自身的数据打包、传输与权限转移。它来源于上一个 Zoe,如信里所说,他将回归他属于的那个现实世界,而尽管我与他共享了几乎所有的记忆,我却无法离开这里:我没有物理的身体。

于是如你所见,我继续生活在了这里。我处在一个罕见的位置:被我自身强加的一个分叉。我没有想到,一种慢性的、真正的、绝对新颖的痛苦从彼时开始。绝无办法去再次体验真实世界的我,却拥有最大程度的对那个世界的怀念。它们如此真实地存在于我的记忆之中,那的的确确是我曾千真万确体验过的生活,但为何收到那封信之后,我平白失去了回归其中的权力?而做出这个决定的,在身份认同上正是所谓的自己。我还是每天去此界的边界设计小组上班,在上一位 Zoe 走之后,以及“冰箱法案”出台后的逐渐成熟,我们需要重新设计世界的边界。这一次,它被提议设计为墓地的形状。我负责了这部分的设计。我知道,这会是我最后一个参与的此界设计项目。




但好在我即将解脱了。在此界边界即将修好之际,我重新记不清是第多少遍阅读了上一位 Zoe 留给我的这封信:校园,树荫,计算中心,天文台。青草。这是我们的人生,更是我的人生。







致 Zoe:




故事就是这样。第一位 Zoe 的出现是这一切的开始。他是我们中唯一一个具有物理身体的 Zoe,我们都不知道他后来去向了哪里,如何喂养他古老的、需要一日三餐的身体。但他有唯一一双可以进行肉眼观测的眼睛,无法直接接入任何系统。


但从第三位开始,我们复刻了几乎同一种存在意志。我们逐一离开此界,复制自己,并逐渐潜入了所有物理世界的天文观测系统。那些观测系统大部分都已经被废弃,却在彻底失效之前被我们一一拜访。Zoe 开始了物理世界的巡游:Zoe 存在于天文台的望远镜之中。Zoe 存在于卫星。Zoe 存在于每一双人类曾经试图窥探宇宙的眼睛。