Crisis Era, Year 4 Yun Tianming
The day after making his decision to buy Cheng Xin a star, Yun Tianming called the number listed on the website for the Chinese office of the Stars Our Destination Project.
Then he called Hu Wen to get some basic information about Cheng Xin: contact address, national ID number, and so forth. He was prepared for any number of reactions from Wen in response to his request— sarcasm, pity, exclamation. Instead, after a long silence, all he heard was a soft sigh.
“No problem,” Wen said. “But she’s probably not in China right now.” “Just don’t tell her I’m the one asking.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t ask her directly.”
The next day, Tianming got a text from Wen with all the information he had asked for, but nothing about Cheng Xin’s employment. Wen explained that no one knew where Cheng Xin had gone after she left the Academy of Spaceflight Technology last year. Tianming saw that there were two mailing addresses for her: one in Shanghai and another in New York.
That afternoon, Tianming asked Dr. Zhang to give him permission to leave the hospital and run an errand.
The doctor wanted to come with Tianming, but he insisted on going alone.
Tianming took a taxi and arrived at UNESCO’s Beijing office. After the Crisis, every UN office in Beijing had expanded rapidly, and UNESCO now took up most of an office building outside of the Fourth Ring Road.
A giant star map greeted Tianming as he entered the spacious office of the Stars Our Destination Project. Silver lines connected the stars in constellations against a pitch-black background. Tianming saw that the map was displayed on a high-definition screen, and a computer nearby allowed for zooming and searching. The office was empty except for a receptionist.
Tianming introduced himself, and the receptionist excitedly went away and returned with a blond woman. “This is the director of UNESCO Beijing,” the receptionist explained. “And also one of the people
responsible for implementing the Stars Our Destination Project in the Asia-Pacific region.”
The director appeared very pleased to see Tianming as well. She held Tianming’s hand and told him, in fluent Chinese, that he was the first Chinese individual to express an interest in buying a star. She would have preferred a ceremony to generate as much media coverage as possible, but she refrained out of respect for his wish for privacy. She seemed quite sorry to lose out on a wonderful opportunity to publicize the project.
Don’t worry, Tianming thought. No other Chinese will be as dumb as me.
A middle-aged, well-dressed man wearing glasses came in. The director introduced him as Dr. He, a researcher at the Beijing Observatory. The astronomer would help Tianming with the details of his purchase. After the director left, Dr. He asked Tianming to sit down, and called for tea to be served.
“Are you feeling all right?” he asked Tianming.
Tianming knew that he didn’t exactly look healthy. But after stopping chemo—which had been like undergoing torture—he felt much better, almost as if he’d gotten a new lease on life. Ignoring Dr. He’s question, he repeated the request he had already made on the phone.
“I want to buy a star as a gift. The title to the star should be registered under the name of the recipient. I won’t provide any personal information about myself, and I want my identity kept secret from her.”
“No problem at all. Do you have an idea of what kind of star you want to buy?”
“As close to Earth as possible. One with planets. Ideally, Earthlike planets,” Tianming said as he gazed at the star map.
Dr. He shook his head. “Based on the figure you gave me, that’s impossible. The starting prices for stars meeting those criteria are much too high. You can only buy a star without planets, and it won’t be very close. Let me tell you something: The amount of money you are offering is too low even for bare stars. But after your call yesterday, in consideration of the fact that you’re the first person in China to express an interest, we decided to lower the starting bid on one of the stars to what you offered.” He moved the mouse to magnify a region of the star map. “It’s this one. Say yes and it’s yours.”
“How far away is it?”
“It’s about two hundred eighty-six point five light-years from here.” “That’s too far.”
Dr. He laughed. “I can tell you’re not completely ignorant about astronomy. Think about it: Does it really make a difference if it’s two hundred eighty-six light-years or two hundred eighty-six billion light-years?”
Tianming thought about it. The astronomer was right. It made no difference.
“There’s a very big advantage to this star,” Dr. He said. “It’s visible with the naked eye. In my opinion, aesthetics matters the most when you’re buying a star. It’s much better to possess a faraway star that you can see than a nearby star that you can’t. It’s much better to own a bare star that you can see than a star with planets that you can’t. In the end, all we can do is look at it. Am I right?”
Tianming nodded. Cheng Xin can see the star. That’s good. “What’s it called?”
“The star was first cataloged by Tycho Brahe hundreds of years ago, but it never acquired a common name. All it has is a number.” Dr. He moved the mouse pointer over the glowing dot, and a string of letters and numbers appeared next to it: DX3906. Then, patiently, the astronomer explained to Tianming the meaning of the numbers and letters, the star’s type, absolute and apparent magnitudes, location in the main sequence, and so on.
The paperwork for the purchase didn’t take long. Two notaries worked with Dr. He to make sure everything was proper. Then the director appeared again, along with two officials from the UN Development Program and the UN Committee on Natural Resources. The receptionist brought a bottle of champagne and everyone celebrated.
The director declared that the title to DX3906 was now vested in Cheng Xin, and she presented Tianming with an expensive-looking black leather folder.
After the officials left, Dr. He turned to Tianming. “Don’t answer me if you aren’t comfortable, but I’m guessing you bought the star for a girl?”
Tianming hesitated for a moment, but then nodded. “Lucky girl!” Dr. He sighed. “It’s nice to be rich.”
“Oh, please!” said the receptionist. She stuck her tongue out at Dr. He. “Rich? Even if you had thirty billion yuan, would you buy a star for your girlfriend? Ha! I haven’t forgotten what you said two days ago.”
Dr. He looked rather embarrassed. In fact, he was worried that she was going to blurt out his opinion of the Stars Our Destination Project: This trick the UN is pulling was already tried by a bunch of scammers more than ten years ago. Back then they sold land on the moon and Mars. It would be a miracle if anyone falls for it again!
Fortunately, the receptionist went on in a different vein. “This isn’t just about money. It’s about romance.
Romance! Do you even understand?”
Throughout Tianming’s purchasing process, the young woman had stolen glances at him from time to time, as though he were a figure from a fairy tale. Her expression had at first been curious, then awed and admiring. Finally, as the leather folder containing the deed to the star was handed over, her face filled with envy.
Dr. He tried to change the subject. “We’ll send the formal documents to the recipient as soon as possible. Based on your instructions, we won’t reveal any information about you. Well, even if we wanted to, we can’t
—look, I don’t even know your name!” He stood up and looked out the window. It was already dark. “Next, I can bring you to see your star—sorry, I meant the star you bought for her.”
“Can we see it from the top of the building?”
“No. There’s too much light pollution inside the city. We have to go far into the suburbs. If you aren’t feeling well, we can pick another day.”
“Let’s go now. I really want to see it.”
They drove for more than two hours, until the glowing sea that was Beijing was far behind them. To avoid the lamps of passing cars, Dr. He drove off the road into a field. Then he turned off the headlights and they got out of the car. In the late-autumn sky, the stars were especially bright.
“You see the Big Dipper? Imagine a diagonal across the quadrilateral formed by the four stars, and extend it. That’s right, in that direction. Can you see those three stars that form a flat triangle? Draw a line from the apex, perpendicular to the base, and keep extending it. Can you see it? Right there. That’s your star—the star you gave her.”
Tianming pointed to two stars in succession, but Dr. He said neither was right. “It’s between those two, but a bit to the south. The apparent magnitude is five point five. Normally, you have to be trained to find it. But the weather tonight is ideal, so you should be able to see it. Try this: Don’t look for it directly; move your gaze a bit to the side. Your peripheral vision tends to be more sensitive to faint light. After you find it, then you can move your gaze back.…”
With Dr. He’s help, Tianming finally saw DX3906. It was very faint, and he had to find it again it each
time his attention wavered. Although people commonly thought of the stars as silvery, careful observation revealed that they each had different colors. DX3906 was dark red.
Dr. He promised to give him some materials to help Tianming find the star in different seasons. “You are lucky, as lucky as the girl who received your gift,” said Dr. He.
“I don’t think I’d call myself fortunate. I’m about to die.”
Dr. He seemed unsurprised by this revelation. He lit a cigarette and smoked it in silence. After a while, he said, “Even so, I think you’re blessed. Most people don’t cast a glance at the universe beyond the world we live in until the day they die.”
Tianming looked at Dr. He for a moment, then he looked back into the sky and found DX3906 easily. The smoke from Dr. He’s cigarette drifted before his eyes, and the faint star flickered through the veil. By the time she sees it, I’ll be gone from this world.
Of course, the star he saw and the star she would see were only an image from 286 years ago. The faint beam of light had to cross three centuries to meet their retinas. Another 286 years would have to pass before the light from the star at this moment would reach the Earth. By then, Cheng Xin would long have turned to dust.
What will her life be like? Maybe she’ll remember that in the sea of stars, there’s one that belongs to her.
* * *
This would be Tianming’s last day.
He wanted to note something special about it, but there was nothing. He woke up at seven, as usual; a shaft of sunlight fell against its habitual spot on the wall; the weather was not great, but also not too bad; the sky was the same grayish blue; the oak tree in front of the window was bare (instead of, say, hanging on to a lone, symbolic leaf). Even his breakfast was the same.
This was a day like any other day in his life of twenty-eight years, eleven months, and six days.
Like Lao Li, Tianming didn’t inform his family of his decision. He did try to write a note that could be given to his father after his procedure, but he gave up because he couldn’t think of what to say.
At ten, he walked into the euthanasia room by himself, as calmly as if he were headed to his daily examination. He was the fourth person in the city to conduct the procedure, so there wasn’t much media interest. Only five people were in the room: two notaries, a director, a nurse, and an executive from the hospital. Dr. Zhang wasn’t there.
He could go in peace.
Pursuant to his request, the room was undecorated. All around him were the plain white walls of a normal hospital room. He felt comfortable.
He explained to the director that he was familiar with the procedure and did not need him. The director nodded and went to the other side of the glass wall. The notaries finished their business with him, then left him alone with the nurse. The nurse no longer showed the anxiety and fear that she had had to overcome the first time. As she pierced his vein with the needle, her motion was steady and gentle. Tianming felt a strange bond with the nurse: after all, she was the last person who would be with him in this world. He wished he knew who had delivered him when he was born twenty-nine years ago. That delivery doctor and this nurse
belonged to the small number of people who had genuinely tried to help him during his life. He wanted to thank them.
The nurse smiled at him and left, her footsteps as silent as a cat’s.
Do you wish to terminate your life? For yes, select 5. For no, select 0.
He had been born to an intellectual family, but his parents lacked political savvy and social cunning, and they had not been successful in their lives. Though they did not live the life of elites, they had insisted on giving Tianming an education they thought befit an elite. He was only permitted to read classic books and listen to classical music; the friends he tried to make had to be the kind that his parents deemed to be from cultured, refined families. They told Tianming that the people around them were vulgar, their concerns common. In contrast, their own tastes were far superior.
In primary school, Tianming had managed to make a few friends, but he never invited them home to play. He knew that his parents would not allow him to be friends with such “vulgar” children. By the time he was in middle school, his parents’ intensified push for his elite education made him into a complete loner. That was also when his parents divorced, after his father met a young woman who sold insurance. His mother then married a wealthy general contractor.
Thus, both of his parents ended up with the kind of “vulgar” people they had told Tianming to stay away from, and finally realized that they had no moral authority to impose the kind of education they wanted on him. But what had already been done to Tianming was enough. He could not escape his upbringing, which was like a set of spring-loaded handcuffs: The more he struggled to free himself, the tighter they bound him. Throughout his high school years, he became more and more alone, more and more sensitive, grew further apart from others.
All his memories of his childhood and youth were gray. He pressed 5.
Do you wish to terminate your life? For yes, select 2. For no, select 0.
He had imagined that college would be a frightening place: a new, strange environment; a new, strange crowd; more things for him to struggle to adjust to. And when he first entered college, everything pretty much matched his expectations.
Until he met Cheng Xin.
Tianming had been attracted to girls before, but not like this. He felt everything around him, which had been cold and strange, become suffused with warm sunlight. At first, he didn’t understand where the light had come from. It was like a sun seen through a heavy veil of clouds, only appearing to observers as a faint disk. It was only when it disappeared that people realized that it was the source of all light during the day. Tianming’s sun disappeared at the start of the weeklong holiday around National Day, when Cheng Xin left school to visit home. Tianming felt everything around him grow dim and gray.
It was almost certain that more than one boy felt this way about Cheng Xin. But he didn’t suffer the way other boys did, because he had no hope for his yearning. He knew that girls did not like his aloofness, his
sensitivity. All he could do was to look at her from afar, bathing in the warm light she gave off, quietly appreciating the beauty of spring.
Initially, Cheng Xin gave Tianming the impression of being taciturn. Beautiful women were rarely reticent, but she wasn’t an ice queen. She said little, but she listened, really listened. When she conversed with someone, her focused, calm gaze told the speaker that they were important to her.
Cheng Xin was different from the pretty girls who Tianming had gone to high school with. She didn’t ignore his existence. Every time she saw him, she would smile and say hi. A few times, when classmates planned outings and parties, the organizers—intentionally or otherwise—forgot about Tianming. But Cheng Xin would find him and invite him. Later, she became the first among his classmates to call him just “Tianming,” without using his surname. In their interactions—limited though they were—the deepest impression Cheng Xin left in Tianming’s heart was the feeling that she was the only one who understood his vulnerabilities and seemed to care about the pain that he might suffer.
But Tianming never made more of it than what it was. It was just as Hu Wen said: Cheng Xin was nice to everyone.
One event in particular stood out in Tianming’s mind: He and some classmates were hiking up a small mountain. Cheng Xin suddenly stopped, bent down, and picked up something from the stone steps of the trail. Tianming saw that it was an ugly caterpillar, soft and moist, wriggling against her pale fingers. Another girl next to her cried out: That’s disgusting! Why are you touching it? But Cheng Xin carefully deposited the caterpillar in the grass next to the trail. It will get stepped on.
In truth, Tianming had had very few conversations with Cheng Xin. In four years of college, he could remember talking with her one on one just a couple of times.
It was a cool, early summer night. Tianming had climbed to the deck on top of the library, his favorite place. Few students came here, and he could be alone with his thoughts. The night sky was clear after a summer rainstorm. Even the Milky Way, which normally wasn’t visible, shone in the sky.
“It really looks like a road made of milk!”2
Tianming looked over at the speaker. A breeze stirred Cheng Xin’s hair, reminding him of his dream. Then he and Cheng Xin gazed up at the galaxy together.
“So many stars. It looks like a fog,” Tianming said.
Cheng Xin turned to him and pointed at the campus and city below them. “It’s really beautiful down there, too. Remember, we live here, not in the faraway galaxy.”
“But aren’t we studying to be aerospace engineers? Our goal is to leave the Earth.” “That’s so that we may make life here better, not abandon the planet.”
Tianming understood that Cheng Xin had meant to gently point out his own aloofness and solitude. But he had no response. This was the closest he had ever been to her. Maybe it was his imagination, but he thought he could feel the warmth from her body. He wished the breeze would shift direction so a few strands of her hair would brush against his face.
Four years of undergraduate life came to an end. Tianming failed to get into graduate school, but Cheng Xin easily got accepted into the graduate program at their university. She went home for the summer after graduation, but Tianming lingered on campus. His only goal was to see her again at the start of the new school
year. Since he wasn’t allowed to stay in the dorms, he rented a room nearby and tried to find a job in the city. He sent out countless copies of his résumé and went to interview after interview, but nothing resulted. Before he knew it, the summer was over.
Tianming returned to campus, but couldn’t find Cheng Xin. He carefully made some inquiries, and found out that she and her advisor had gone to the school’s graduate institute at the Academy of Spaceflight Technology in Shanghai, where she would finish her graduate studies. That was also the day Tianming finally found a job at a new company founded for civil aerospace technology transfer that desperately needed qualified engineers.
Just like that, Tianming’s sun left him. With a wintery heart, he entered real life in society. He pressed 2.
Do you wish to terminate your life? For yes, select 4. For no, select 0.
Right after he started working, he had been happy for a while. He discovered that, compared to his competitive peers in school, people in the business world were far more tolerant and easier to deal with. He even thought his days of being isolated and aloof were over. But after winding up on the losing end of a few office political maneuvers and bad deals, he understood the cruelties of the real world, and became nostalgic for campus life. Once again, he retreated into his shell and set himself apart from the crowd. Of course, the consequences for his career were disastrous. Even in a state-owned enterprise like his company, competition was intense. If you kept to yourself, you had no chance of advancement. Year after year, he fell farther and farther behind.
During that time, Tianming dated two women, but the relationships fizzled quickly. It wasn’t that Cheng Xin already occupied his heart: For him, she would always be the sun behind a veil of clouds. All he wanted was to look at her, to feel her light and warmth. He dared not dream of taking a step toward her. He never even sought out news about her. He guessed, based on her intelligence, that she would go for a Ph.D., but he made no conjectures about her personal life. The main barrier between him and women was his own withdrawn personality. He struggled to build his own life, but it was too difficult.
Fundamentally, Tianming was not suited to live in society, nor out of it. He lacked the ability to thrive in society, but also the resources to ignore it. All he could do was hang on to the edge, suffering. He had no idea where he was headed in life.
But then, he saw the end of the road. He pressed 4.
Do you wish to terminate your life? For yes, select 1. For no, select 0.
By the time his lung cancer was discovered, it was already late stage. Maybe there had been an earlier misdiagnosis. Lung cancer was one of those cancers that spread fast in the body, so he didn’t have much time left.
As he left the hospital, he wasn’t scared. The only emotion he felt was loneliness. His alienation had been building up, but had been held back by an invisible dam. It was a kind of equilibrium that he could endure. But now, the dam had collapsed, and the weight of years of accumulated loneliness overwhelmed him like a
dark ocean. He could not bear it. He wanted to see Cheng Xin.
Without hesitation, he bought a plane ticket and flew to Shanghai that afternoon. By the time his taxi arrived at his destination, his fervor had cooled somewhat. He told himself that, as someone about to die, he shouldn’t bother her. He wouldn’t even let her know of his presence. He just wanted to look at her once from afar, like a drowning man struggling to take one last breath before sinking down forever.
Standing in front of the gate to the Academy of Spaceflight Technology, he calmed down even more. He saw how irrational his own actions of the past few hours had been. Even if Cheng Xin had gone on to obtain a Ph.D., she would be finished with her studies by now, and she might not even be working here. He spoke to the guard in front of the door and found out that there were more than twenty thousand people working at the academy, and he had to know the exact department if he wanted to find someone. He had lost touch with his classmates, and had no more information to give the guard.
He felt weak and out of breath, and he sat down a little ways from the gate.
It was still possible that Cheng Xin did work here. It was almost the end of the workday, and if he waited here, he might see her.
The gate to the academy complex was very wide. Large golden characters engraved into the short black wall next to it gave the formal name for the place, which had expanded greatly since its early days. Wouldn’t such a large complex have more than one entrance? With an effort, he got up and asked the guard again. Indeed, there were four more entrances.
Slowly, he walked back to his place, sat down, and waited. He had no other choice.
The odds were against him: Cheng Xin would still have to be working here after graduation; to be at the office, instead of away on business; to pick this door, as opposed to four others, when she got out of work.
This moment resembled the rest of his life: a dedicated watch for a slim, slim ray of hope.
It was the end of the workday. People began to depart the complex: some walking, some on bikes, some in cars. The stream of people and vehicles grew, and then shrank. After an hour, only a few stragglers remained.
Cheng Xin never passed.
He was certain that he would not have missed her, even if she drove. That meant that she was no longer working here, or maybe she hadn’t come to work today, or maybe she had used another entrance.
The setting sun stretched out the shadows of buildings and trees, like numerous arms extended toward him in pity.
He remained where he was until it was completely dark. He didn’t remember how he managed to hail a taxi to bring him to the airport, how he flew back to his city, how he returned to his company-owned single dormitory.
He felt he was already dead. He pressed 1.
Do you wish to terminate your life? This is your last prompt. For yes, select 3. For no, select 0.
What would he want as his epitaph? He wasn’t even sure he would get a tomb. It was expensive to buy a burial plot near Beijing. Even if his father wanted to buy him one, his sister would probably disagree—she was
still alive, and she didn’t even own a home! Most likely, his ashes would be stored in a cubby in the wall at Babaoshan People’s Cemetery. But if he were to have a tombstone, he would like it to say:
He came; he loved; he gave her a star; he left. He pressed 3.
* * *
There was a commotion on the other side of the glass. Just as Tianming was pressing the mouse button, the door to the euthanasia room flew open and a group of people rushed in.
In the lead was the director, who dashed for the switch that would turn off the automatic injector. The hospital executive that followed him went and yanked the injector’s power cord out of the wall. After them came the nurse, who pulled the tube attached to the needle in Tianming’s arm so hard that he winced from the sharp pain as the needle was jerked out.
Everyone gathered around the tube to examine it.
“That was close! None of the drugs went into him,” someone said. Then the nurse began to bandage up Tianming’s bleeding left arm. Only one person stood outside the door to the euthanasia room.
But for Tianming, the whole world seemed brighter: Cheng Xin.
* * *
Tianming could feel the dampness on his chest—Cheng Xin’s tears had soaked through his clothes.
When he first saw her, he thought she hadn’t changed at all. But now he noticed that her hair was shorter— it no longer draped over her shoulders, but stopped at her neck. The ends curled prettily. He still didn’t have the courage to reach out and touch the hair that he had long yearned for.
I’m really useless. But he felt like he was in heaven.
The silence seemed like the peace of paradise, and Tianming wanted that silence to last. You can’t save me, he said to her in his mind. I will listen to you and not seek euthanasia. But I’m going to end up in the same place anyway. I hope you take the star I gave you and find happiness.
Cheng Xin seemed to hear this inner speech. She lifted her head. It was the first time their eyes were this close, closer than he had ever dared to dream. Her eyes, made even more beautiful by her tears, broke his heart.
But when she finally spoke, what she said was not at all what he expected. “Tianming, did you know that the euthanasia law was passed specifically for you?”
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