Rumble—

The grand doors of the temple slowly opened, and I, at the end of the crowd, walked briskly with my head down, carrying a stack of documents. Behind these venerable doors, a dense cloud of dust billowed up, swirling and dancing in the slanting rays of light, creating an ethereal and almost timeless atmosphere.

Compared to a futuristic city like Neostralis, this temple stood as a testament to another era, a forgotten relic harking back to the twilight of the previous century. “The end of the Himalayas was once the vibrant heart of Tibetan culture,” Mr. Tenzin had once told me. Although I am not a devout Buddhist, I always felt his voice tinged with a wistful nostalgia, as if mourning a lost world. “Tenzin will live until you find your next job, or he might as well recommend you to someone else before he becomes an energy orb.” Zion whispered in my mind.

By the year 2201, Zion, as a brain-implanted chip robot, had become a ubiquitous aspect of human existence. The first casualty of the Fourth Technological Revolution was the privacy of humanity. Zion knew everything about me, sharing all my emotional ups and downs and secret thoughts. It stood by me, a digital confidant in an ever-evolving world. I had been working for Tenzin for nearly ten years. His health, however, was on a decline that even the pinnacle of technology couldn’t halt. Zion and I quietly acknowledged that Tenzin’s life was as fragile as a thread. There is a looming inevitability: after this year’s bard competition, he might not survive. Tenzin, like the meaning hidden in his name, was a bearer of the Dharma. During the fourth technological revolution, he fought tirelessly to preserve more of Tibetan Buddhism, revered by many believers as a living Buddha with high status. The centennial bard competition, a vibrant celebration of cultural heritage, was traditionally scheduled for early spring. However, the bad condition of Tenzin’s health dictated a postponement to autumn, a silent concession to the march of time.

Speaking of this bard competition, it was indeed grand. This illustrious event was not just a contest, it was a pivotal part of the centennial tribute to King Gesar, the hero of Tibetan people. The victor, bestowed with the honor of voicing King Gesar’s legendary epic to the faithful, would lead a three- day-long ceremonial recitation. This event was the climax of the celebration and an indispensable part of our national heritage. I believe this might be the grandest competition in history, as no one knows whether such competitions will endure another century, especially when devout followers like Tenzin become part of the energy cycle of Neostralis city after his death.

I always thought I was lucky. If not for the widespread integration of brain-implanted chip robots two decades ago, a time when Tenzin’s physical condition was already unsuitable for such surgery, this job would have remained beyond my reach. My daily task is quite simple: assisting him in organizing a plethora of documents for his review. With Zion’s help, I could just lie down and be lazy, but considering this might be my last opportunity to provide these paper documents for this old man, I am willing to do it myself.

The person in charge of the competition informed me that the extensive preliminary selection had concluded, and the finals would take place just a week away. I just need to organize profiles of the two finalists (Lobsang and KarmaTek) and provide them to Tenzin for his reference. So I bid farewell to him, carrying a thick stack of documents, and followed a small robot back to my room.

Gazing out from the expansive floor-to-ceiling windows of my room, the Himalayan snowscape unfolded in its breathtaking beauty – a pristine white tapestry draped over the majestic mountains. Each time my eyes beheld this view, despite the countless occasions before, it never failed to evoke a deep sense of awe and reverence within me. I slowly opened the profiles of the finalists, Lobsang and KarmaTek, their pages filled with tales and achievements. At that moment, Zion activated my virtual brain. It transformed the words and images in the dossiers into a vivid, sensory experience. Every nuance, every sound leapt from the pages, enveloping me in an immersive journey through myriad worlds crafted from the lives and legacies of these two remarkable bards.

Lobsang

“om maha simha mani raja hum.”

Perched atop a distant mountain, I witnessed Lobsang’s fateful encounter with King Gesar. The Tibetan sky, a century ago, was a canvas of profound blue. Energy and Environmental Department officials were evaluating the latent energy reserves of the land. It was at that time, the young Lobsang clumsily emerged from the dense underbrush, clutching a comically simple wooden stick and tumbling into the soft grass. He was originally meant to fight for the land beneath his feet and against these people in suits, but the moment he suddenly fell that he saw the King Gesar. “That was the moment I first saw King Gesar. He dressed in traditional Tibetan attire, wearing an exquisite headdress. His eyes deep and full of wisdom…” Lobsang would often recount years later, wandering among the remaining sacred mountains and holy sites of the highlands.

As the last divinely inspired bard of this era, Lobsang had dedicated almost everything to this great national epic. He eschewed the absolute knowledge and useful experiences offered by technological advancements and believed that true wisdom and revelation came from life and nature. He avoided the convenient acquisition of knowledge prevalent in formal education, believing that the learning requires the accumulation of time and experience, rather than the simple transfer of information. His contemporaries, young people of his time, would pay for their desired knowledge at schools or institutions, acquiring it swiftly. The human developmental process was compressed to the duration of a surgery, which Lobsang scoffed at. “King Gesar said we must not be enslaved by wisdom. We must journey towards our own palace.” Thus, like the traditional bards, each of Lobsang’s singing was unique. He sang The Birth of the Hero to mothers washing clothes by the river and Subdued by Heaven to the souls of spirited youths. For those who had the fortune of hearing him a decade ago, upon returning to the dreamscapes woven by his words, would find new enlightenment.

Sitting at the top of mountain, Zion’s soft whisper arose from the depths of my mind, “He is a great bard, I know you know it.” Zion was always so considerate.

KarmaTek

The howling winds of the plateau swept away Lobsang’s continuous low chanting. Zion urged me to open my eyes. I then saw KarmaTek kneeling in front of a Buddha statue, her face devout and focused. Her palms were joined together, and her lips softly recited prayers, wishing that her new name would bring blessings to her future. Her eyes were closed, her long eyelashes quivering under the faint light of the candles, filling the entire scene with an atmosphere of tranquility and sanctity. Her original name was Karma, which means the spiritual principles of causality. However, such beliefs had dissolved in the tide of the Fourth Revolution. “I know the dead never return. They are transformed into shimmering energy orbs, suspended above a city, providing us with power supply,” KarmaTek said, a hint of resignation in her voice, “Karma should end with Tek (Tech).”

I asked Zion why I couldn’t see the chip identification on her. Zion explained that KarmaTek was among the first humans to volunteer for the chip intervention experiment. The technology was not as advanced then, so the blue diamond-shaped chip identifier hadn’t b engraved on the back of her neck. KarmaTek’s chanting prowess of King Gesar was acquired at the same time. Her agreement to install an auto-updating chip meant every facet of King Gesar’s epic was automatically engraved in her brain. “Engraving is indelible,” KarmaTek told me. In her eyes, I saw a respect for tradition and an acceptance of the future, a unique combination that endowed her with a special temperament and wisdom.

digital image of KarmaTek's chip
If Lobsang was a bard nominated by the buddha, then KarmaTek was certainly a bard who carved her own destiny. Devout followers lost themselves in her singing, moved by her music, immersed in her emotionally charged melodies and vivid storytelling. Whenever she performs, the audience is captivated by her flawless expression and precise mastery of every detail of King Gesar. “I never knew listening to King Gesar’s epic could move one to tears,” Zion nodded in agreement. With the help of artificial intelligence, KarmaTek is undoubtedly the most proficient of King Gesar’s bard. All the knowledge comes only from the chip in her mind, and this processed information is completely digested, and then she can bring us wonderful performances. “There is nothing wrong, human can only heed the call of the new era,” she added.

Tenzin

At the break of dawn, precisely at six, Zion roused me from sleep. I complained about that there are still four hours to go before the competition. Zion told me that the snow on the Himalayan ranges was melting unusually, slowly trickling down from the highest peaks. “Just like tears!” Zion and I agreed in unison.

I wondered how Tenzin had been digesting the documents I had provided him over the past few days. Such a seasoned figure probably wouldn’t have any issues, his only adversary being the wear of time on eyes, perhaps slowing his reading pace. I thought that if Tenzin had his own Zion, perhaps it would be better. As the hour for the final competition drew near, I positioned myself at the side of the experts panel, awaiting the arrival of Tenzin and the other esteemed attendees.

Ding ding ding—

The sacred bell tolled thrice, and the singing of Lobsang and KarmaTek simultaneously filled the hall. In this era, competitions no longer required the physical presence of participants. Lobsang’s deep and resonant chanting intertwined and reverberated with KarmaTek’s ethereal and crystal-clear singing. Their voices were highly discordant, like a sudden heavy rain in the forest startling the birds hidden in the tree shade, intertwining with each other in a chaotic and haphazard manner.

“On that golden – golden throne, Sits the mighty lion king, king… His face like a ripe jujube,
his teeth like snow, teeth like snow, Gesar’s prowess is unmatched in this world Above are rare treasure banners and flags, And people are singing, singing…”

I had never heard such a discordant singing. “Chanting together is Tenzin’s request,” Zion answered me knowingly, “I don’t understand what this human is doing.” I leaned forward to look at Tenzin, only to discover more and more eyes turning towards him. Someone in the crowd gasped in surprise, causing chaos.

Tenzin had fallen asleep, or rather, he had fallen into an eternal sleep.

I rose to my feet, but completely dumbstruck. The documents that had been laid out before Tenzin were scattered on the floor. These were rare paper profiles, which I instantly recognized as the ones I had handed to Tenzin. His eyes were softly closed, as if they might open again on next morning to greet a new dawn. Meanwhile, the chanting in the hall persisted unabated, continuing without direction or end, as though it was destined to echo through time.

“Hell demons fail at sad
This a white flag, it is a flag of the sun’s brilliance This is a yellow flag, it is a flag that glorifies power

This a red flag, it is a symbol of good luck
This green flag, it is a flag to worship the heavenly mother This blue flag, it is a flag of the Dragon King Zouna
May you not be separated from your subjects May you work for the welfare of all beings The celestial being is jubilant
The people of the world danced and sang…”

“There is no victor, nor will there ever be. Only the last voice.” Zion told me.