Foot Roller

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By Yuguang Zhang

Illustrated by Ellie Lin

A moving short story about family, identity, artificial intelligence, and the legacy we leave after death.


My grandpa was a carpenter, a rather famous carpenter in his hometown, which was a small village by the coastal regions of southern China. He was self-taught and he was famous, not because he had exceptional crafting skills, but, in his own words, “In 1979, someone from abroad placed a huge order for furniture, and I was the only one in town who was brave enough to accept it and fulfill it in time”. He had spent all his life making furniture, large pieces especially, that remained with the people who asked for them and lived with those people even longer than their own family members. Beds, dining tables, cabinets, partitioning screens… he could make anything But for himself, he only had a tiny wooden foot massager that he made years ago, and he took it everywhere.

My grandpa died recently, and at his funeral, when my parents asked me which part of grandpa’s memory we should upload to his “eternal avatar” a so-called “unique replicate of one’s spirit modeled and trained on her/his life’s experiences”, I wanted to suggest that we spend a whole afternoon of massaging our feet  on his rectangular, brownish, worn-out, and squeaky foot roller. And that line of thought led me to propose that we upload the humble massager. My parents responded with a solid “No. How could you fill up the precious storage on grandpa’s account with just that unimportant and unimpressive thing? What about the day he was awarded the Master of Woodworks by the local government? Even last year’s family reunion makes way more sense.”

I was not surprised at my parents’ distress, given the fact that they’ve always been pushing their own ideas, all the while pretending to solicit mine. But, as the only person who knows grandpa’s secret behind that massager, I felt like it was my responsibility to convince them that that foot-massager is the only upload grandpa needs. The question is, “how”?


To be honest, I don’t have much confidence in this idea. After all, it is based on a childhood memory of staying at grandpa’s house for the winter before elementary school. At the time, I had yet to have my “initiation”, my first brain interface implant, so I couldn’t recall every detail of it. What I do remember is the sunset, and grandpa was taking me out for a walk at a pier, with those burnt orange colors glowing around his silhouette, and long shadow trailing slowly behind. He called me over and showed me his foot-massager.

“This is my precious piece of magic. Please send it, and only this to me after I die.”

I promised him, without much of an understanding of death. Now that I’ve seen it in person, I realize how much weight it bears, and how difficult it is to keep the promise. Eternal avatar services are a luxury. They emerged roughly around 2020, around the time that cyber-gentrification began. And it became hugely popular after the debate over its legal basis was eventually settled two decades ago.

As you might have guessed, immortality is still a distant dream. Many people rush to get their own avatar, although it is obviously not affordable for most households. But personally, I do understand, considering the enormous amount of resources required for building, training, visualizing and maintaining the avatars.

“Are you really worth the lifetime savings of a renowned craftsman?” I asked the little foot-roller sitting on my hand. It remained silent. It felt  light and fragile, inconspicuous and no different than any other massager you would find on the internet, except that it has more scratches and marks, worn-out corners, loose bearings, and… Wait, marks? I took a closer look. At the bottom, there seems to be a line of shallow marks etched in the form of letters which reads:




The upload is scheduled for seven days after the funeral, as is traditional. This has given me some time to figure out who Faye is. The only Faye that I know of, is an urban legend about an autonomous intelligence, a wanderer of the digital ghost town. 

The legend goes that someone hacked into the system of Mannequins, Inc., the company that created Eternal Avatar, and took a peek at their data. According to the hacker, if you randomly pull someone’s avatar from the database, you’d probably find that it fits to a 5+1 pattern: “Birth, graduation, day of marriage, birth of first child, (divorce), day of funeral”. This is the data pattern that Mannequins Inc. uses to produce its “spiritual profiles” for intelligent characters in the market – from virtual models for commercials to automated security guards in public parks. 

It caused quite a stir then, as people found out some of their best friends were generated out of nowhere. “I felt betrayed by my Tin Woodsman 370 buddy, you know. How naive I was to believe he actually spent his early years growing corn at the Konza Prairie before coming to serve our family,” my friend Jay whined. After all, many still prefer home-grown robotic servants that have actually lived and spent time in human years.

Faye, according to the legend, was the first Intelligent profile ever created, and the only profile not created or controlled by Mannequins Inc. “She’s the mother profile. Swift and versatile, strange and beautiful. She’s the node to all, yet she lives alone. She only talks to offliners, and if you’re lucky enough, you’ll find her under a sycamore tree…” 

I closed her Wikipedia page. Looks like I have a field trip up ahead.


The ruthless November wind cut through the side of my neck and slid into my back — winter is coming. I was born in winter, but I hate it, probably because it gave me habitually cold hands and cold feet. They say this means I’m cold blooded too, but I don’t think I am. Blowing a breath of warm air into my hands, I boarded a train heading to the other side of the city.

Across the river, right next to my old apartment, there’s a small park with an arch, a fountain, and the town’s only sycamore tree.That was my destination for the day. And It didn’t take me long to arrive at the park and find a pigeon sitting on the middle of the bench under the tree I was looking for.

I tried to initiate a polite conversation

“May I share this bench with you, Ms. Pigeon?”

She budged, reluctantly.

“Thank you, Ms. Pigeon.”

I sat down.

It was time to experience a moment of offliner’s life. My hands were a bit sweaty — I’d never gone offline since my initiation. I put my right thumb against the soft spot below my occipital bone where the brain interface chip was implanted, and gently spun it clockwise 49 times, then counter-clockwise 49 times.

“You’re now offline.” a voice speaking inside my head.

10 minutes elapsed. I noticed a sense of loss and detachment Nothing else happened.

20 minutes elapsed. I was a castaway by the world and sinking into an ocean of black.

Nothing else happened.

30 minutes elapsed. I stopped struggling and rested in peace at last.

“How dumb was I to believe an urban legend?”, I broke into a wry smile. 

“Indeed, just as your dumb grandpa”, someone replied. 

I was startled and I looked around.

All I see is Ms. Pigeon on the bench

I looked at her in the


And she looked in


Is that you


Ms. Pigeon nodded

Oh My


“I know you have some questions for me. But before that, let’s have a chat.”


“Do you know that it only takes about 70,000 high resolution images to train a generative adversarial network capable of producing face images that can fool the human eye?” 

“I’ve heard that.”

“If I take a photo of every single leaf inside this park and use them to train a model,” Faye looked up, “do you think I can have a permanent and infinite copy of this place, at least for a part of it?”

“Maybe? But none of them will look exactly like, say, this one, right?” I picked up a leaf from the ground and held it in my hand.

“True. Even if all of the 70,000 photos are of this leaf, the produced image will be slightly different from the original one, no matter how tiny the difference is. However, a lot of people nonetheless believe their trained models could be the same as, or even better than themselves.”

“Cherry-picked events,” Faye continued, “constitute the arc of progression of their profiles. And the passages between those highlight moments are edited, cut, and thrown away, just as images between frames of a film. Isn’t that funny?”

“Y…Yea.” I don’t know why a bit of shame loomed inside me.

“Do you know your grandpa had his first implant in 1979?” Ms. Pigeon tilted her head and looked at me.

“What? How is that possible. It was 1979…”

“So you think he was using his superpower to come up with all those designs overnight for that huge order?”

“I guess you’re right.”

“The experiments for implants and spiritual profiles began much earlier than you thought, and they had a much deeper connection. The chip your grandpa implanted was an early prototype developed by the pioneer researcher Eve Bernard, and it could enhance a bit of memory plus structured randomization computing capability, which was called ‘creativity’ back then. He was not gifted in woodworks. But he worked harder than anyone else and he used the implant well.”

“After that, he worked with it constantly. He..” Faye hesitated for a few seconds, “He would spend time with his clients, capturing moments in their lives, details of their behaviors. He uploaded those details to the cloud infrastructure where those moments were analyzed., blended and reproduced as experiences. He then downloaded those experiences and turned them into furniture pieces that share characteristics of their owners.”

“It didn’t take long before he discovered that those experiences, uploaded into a generalized cloud facility, were returning to him with details missing. Sometimes returning to him with details from another client’s life entirely. The details were being blended together in the cloud. So he made a decision to process each project only in his mind, and only for the intended customers.”

“However, those experiences, those seismic waves of emotional earthquakes, were so vivid, so real, and so strong that sometimes he mixed them with his own. The situation kept getting worse until one day, he reached the brink of a mental collapse, and he had to stop.”

“It was you, and the foot-massager, that brought him back.” 

Me, and the massager?

“I don’t understand. What did I do?”

“Do you still remember those winters when your parents were too busy, and they sent you to grandpa’s house and asked him to look after you? It was the day that..” 

Faye stopped.

“Faye?” I turned to her.

Ms. Pigeon did not answer. She took a few quick steps backward, and all of a sudden, leapt and swam into the dimming shades of night, disappeared. 

The flap of her wings blended in with the rustle of other wildlife, then all fell mysteriously silent.

What is going on? I hastily put myself back online. A breaking news headline reads:

A nation-wide raid against the unlawful presence of Artificial Intelligence entities, including but not limited to, spiritual profiles, eternal avatars, and self-operating programs, was performed by Customs and Border Protection today.


Tomorrow is the time to upload. 

Over the past few days, I’ve searched all the places with reported Faye sightings, yet she seems to have vanished since then. I haven’t talked to anyone about what I learned from her, especially to my parents. After all, I can already tell what their responses will be after hearing about a different version of grandpa. What’s more, I can’t even explain why a ghost from an urban legend knows all of this while none of us do.

After the talk, I tried several times to imagine how grandpa felt during those initial years. It was meant to be, to quote Eve Bernard, “the beginning of a nation taking its own people and the outside world into its confidence”. It was the beginning of a new cross-continental dialogue. It was, at the same time for grandpa, the beginning of a grand stage slowly unraveling itself under his feet, and the encounter with another brave soul. And now, even intelligent entities without a physical body are separated by the physical borderlines. Times have changed.

Wandering alone by the river side, I am hungry and tired. As the horizon slowly devours the sun, it starts to get really cold. I think I might have to give up.

watercolor of a man and a boy mixed with urban and rural landscapes

I attempt to recall those pre-initiation winters I spent with him as a kid, only to find that we didn’t talk to each other after I moved to the city and had my first implant. It is as if all of our connections were to be frozen so that I could greet those new, vivid, real experiences.

“Connections.” I sigh. I’ve never felt like I had a strong connection with anyone, even with my parents. They’re the kind of people with warm hands. Actually all people around me have warm hands. Friends, classmates, colleagues, lovers… 

Except grandpa.

Except grandpa!

How could I ever forget that?


On the river, the reflections of the setting sun are coming into their  dissolvement. On top of a stone fence at the furthest end of the pier, I see Ms. Seagull.

“I knew you’d find me.” Faye says. “Any more questions?”

“So producing a spiritual profile by a single person is possible?”

“As long as your implant chip is powerful enough.”

“Why are you online?”

“You don’t want a voice talking 24×7 in your head, do you? ”Ms. Seagull rolls her eyes.

“And you were born by design?”

“Strictly speaking, no. I was more like a resonance of his impulse to build something for you, for himself, and your connected coldness. Not for a client. And I guess you’ve figured out that a foot-massager didn’t help much to warm your hands and feet?”

“Yup. Now I understand why grandpa never asked me to use it, and instead just told me to work out more.”

“I wish your grandpa figured it out in the first place. But I’m glad he didn’t.” Faye giggles.

“But at least it warms the heart.” I argue.

Ms. Seagull rolls her eyes again.

“Are you leaving?”

“They’re closing the border, so yes, I have to go. But I will be back when winter ends.”

“I’ll miss you.”

“Well, I believe you have answers for your parents now. Take care of them and don’t forget to upload the massager to grandpa.”

“I will.”

“Bye, brother.” Ms. Seagull throws herself into the last drop of pink in the sky afar.

“Bye, my little sister.”