When Chen’s parents are incinerated before his eyes by a blast of ball lightning, he devotes his life to cracking the secret of this mysterious natural phenomenon.His search takes him to stormy mountaintops, an experimental military weapons lab, and an old Soviet science station.
The more he learns, the more he comes to realize that ball lightning is just the tip of an entirely new frontier. While Chen’s quest for answers gives purpose to his lonely life, it also pits him against soldiers and scientists with motives of their own: a beautiful army major with an obsession with dangerous weaponry, and a physicist who has no place for ethical considerations in his single-minded pursuit of knowledge.
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I only remembered that it was my birthday because Mom and Dad lit the candles on the cake and we sat down around fourteen small tongues of flame.
The storm that night made it seem as if the whole universe held nothing but rapid flashes of lightning surrounding our small dining room. Electric blue bursts froze the rain into solid drops for an instant, forming dense strands of glittering crystal beads suspended between heaven and earth. A thought struck me: the world would be a fascinating place if that instant were sustained. You could walk through streets hung with crystal, surrounded on all sides by the sound of chimes. But in such a dazzling world, the lightning would be unbearable.… I had always seen a different world from the one others saw. I wanted to transform the world: that was the one thing I knew about myself at that age.
The storm had started earlier in the evening, and the thunder and lightning had quickened their pace as it progressed. At first, after each flash, my mind retained an impression of the ephemeral crystalline world outside the window as I tensed in anticipation of the peal of thunder. But the lightning had grown so thick and fast that I could no longer distinguish which thunderclap belonged to which bolt.
On a stormy night, you get a sense of how precious family really is. The warm embrace of home is intoxicating when you imagine the terrors of the outside world. You feel for those souls without a home, out there in the open, shivering through the storm and lightning. You want to open a window so they can fly in, but the outside world is so frightening that you cannot let even the tiniest breath of cold air enter the warmth inside.
“Ah, life,” Dad said, and downed his drink. Then, staring intently at the cluster of candle flames, he said, “Life is so random, all probability and chance. Like a twig floating in a brook, caught on a stone or seized by an eddy—”
“He’s too young. He doesn’t understand this stuff,” Mom said.
“He’s not young!” said Dad. “He’s old enough to learn the truth about life!”
“And you know all about that,” Mom said, with a sarcastic laugh.
“I know. Of course I know!” Dad poured another glass and drank half, then turned to me. “Actually, son, it’s not hard to live a wonderful life. Listen to me. Choose a tough, world-class problem, one that requires only a sheet of paper and a pencil, like Goldbach’s Conjecture or Fermat’s Last Theorem, or a question in pure natural philosophy that doesn’t need pencil and paper at all, like the origin of the universe, and then throw yourself entirely into research. Think only of planting, not reaping, and as you concentrate, an entire lifetime will pass before you know it. That’s what people mean by settling down. Or do the opposite, and make earning money your only goal. Spend all of your time thinking about how to make money, not about what you’ll do with it when you make it, until you’re on your deathbed clutching a pile of gold coins like Monsieur Grandet, saying: ‘It warms me…’ The key to a wonderful life is a fascination with something. Me, for example—” Dad pointed to the watercolors lying all over the room. They were done in a very traditional style, properly composed, but lacking all vitality. The paintings reflected the lightning outside like a set of flickering screens. “I’m fascinated with painting even though I know I can’t be van Gogh.”
“That’s right. Idealists and cynics may pity each other, but they’re really both fortunate,” Mom mused.
Ordinarily all business, my mother and father had turned into philosophers, as if it were their own birthday we were celebrating.
“Mom, don’t move!” I plucked a white hair out of my mother’s thick, black mane. Only half of it was white. The other half was still black.
Dad held the hair up to the light and examined it. Against the lightning it shone like a lamp filament. “As far as I know, this is the first white hair your mother has had in her entire life. Or at least the first that’s been discovered.”
“What are you doing! Pluck one, and seven will grow back!” Mom said, giving her hair an exasperated toss.
“Really? Well, that’s life,” Dad said. He pointed to the candles on the cake: “Suppose you take one of these small candles and stick it into a desert dune. If there’s no wind you may be able to light it. Then: leave. What would it feel like to watch the flame from a distance? My boy, this is what life is, fragile and uncertain, unable to endure a puff of wind.”
The three of us sat in silence, looking at the cluster of flames as they shivered against the icy blue lightning that flashed through the window, as if they were a tiny life-form that we had painstakingly raised.
Outside, lightning flashed dramatically.
This time, though, the arc came in through the wall, emerging like a spirit from an oil painting of a carnival of the Greek gods. It was about the size of a basketball, and shone with a hazy red glow. It drifted gracefully over our heads, followed by a tail that gave off a dark red light. Its flight path was erratic, and its tail described a confusingly complicated figure above us. It whistled as it floated, a deep tone pierced with a sharp high whine, calling to mind a spirit blowing a flute in some ancient wasteland.
Mom clutched fearfully to Dad with both hands, an action I have looked back on in anguish my entire life. If she had not done that, I might have one relative left alive today.
The thing continued to drift like it was looking for something. It finally found and stopped, hanging about half a meter over my father’s head. Its whistle became deeper and intermittent, like bitter laughter.
I could see inside the translucent red blaze. It seemed infinitely deep, and a cluster of blue stars streamed out of the bottomless haze, like a star field seen by a spirit rocketing across space faster than the speed of light.
Later, I learned that the internal energy density of this mass could have reached twenty thousand to thirty thousand joules per cubic centimeter, compared to just two thousand joules per cubic centimeter for TNT. But while its internal temperature might have exceeded ten thousand degrees, its surface would be cool.
My father lifted his hand, more to protect his head than to try to touch the thing. Fully extended, his arm seemed to exert an attractive force that pulled the thing toward it like a leaf’s stomata absorbs a drop of dew.
With a blinding flash and a deafening boom, the world around me exploded.
What I saw after the flash blindness lifted from my eyes would stay with me for the rest of my life. It was like someone had switched the world to grayscale mode in an image editor: instantaneously, the bodies of my mom and dad had turned black and white. Or, rather, gray and white, because the black was the result of shadows cast by lamplight playing off the creases and folds of their bodies. The color of marble. Dad’s hand was raised, and Mom clutched at his other arm with both hands. There still seemed to be life in the two pairs of eyes that stared petrified out of the faces of these two statues.
A strange odor was in the air, which I later learned was the smell of ozone.
“Dad!” I shouted. No answer.
“Mom!” I shouted again. No answer.
Approaching the two statues was the most frightening moment in my life. In the past, my terrors had mostly been in dreams. I had been able to avoid a mental breakdown in the world of my nightmares because my subconscious was still awake, shouting to my consciousness from a remote corner, “This is a dream!” Now, it took that voice shouting with all its might to keep me moving toward my parents. I reached out a trembling hand to touch my father’s body. As I made contact with the gray-and-white surface of his shoulder, it felt like I was pushing through an extremely thin and extremely brittle shell. I heard a soft cracking, like a glass crackling when it is filled with boiling water in the winter. The two statues collapsed right before my eyes in a miniature avalanche.
Two piles of white ash settled on the carpet, and that’s all that was left of them.
The wooden stools they had been sitting on were still there, covered with a layer of ash. I brushed away the ash to reveal a surface that was perfectly unharmed and icy cold to the touch.
I knew that crematorium ovens must heat bodies at nearly two thousand degrees Fahrenheit for two hours to render them to ash, so this must be a dream.
As I looked vacantly around me, I saw smoke issuing from a bookcase. Behind the glass door, the bookcase was full of white smoke. I went over and opened the bookcase door, and the smoke dissipated. About a third of the books had turned to ash, the same color as the two piles on the carpet, but the bookcase itself showed no signs of fire. This was a dream.
I saw a puff of steam escape the half-opened refrigerator. I pulled back the door to find a frozen chicken, cooked through and smelling delicious, and shrimp and fish that were cooked as well. But the refrigerator, rattling as the compressor restarted, was completely unharmed. This was a dream.
I felt a little weird myself. I opened my jacket and ashes fell off my body. The undershirt I was wearing had been completely incinerated, but the outer jacket was perfectly fine, which was why I hadn’t noticed anything until now. I checked my pockets and burned my hand on an object that turned out to be my PDA, now a hunk of melted plastic. This had to be a dream, a most peculiar dream!
Woodenly, I returned to my seat. Although I could not see the two small piles of ash on the carpet on the other side of the table, I knew they were there. Outside, the thunder had let up and the lightning had slackened. Eventually the rain stopped. Later, the moon poked through a gap in the clouds, beaming an unearthly silvery light through the window. Still I sat numbly in a fog. In my mind, the world had ceased to exist and I was floating in a vast emptiness.
How much time passed before the rising sun outside the window woke me, I do not know, but when I got up mechanically to leave for school, I had to fumble around to find my book bag and open the door because I was still staring dumbly into that boundless emptiness.…
A week later, when my mind had mostly returned to normal, the first thing I remembered was that it had happened on the night of my birthday. There should have been only one candle on the cake—no, no candles at all, because on that night my life started anew. I was no longer the person I once was.
Like Dad had advised in the last moments of his life, I was now fascinated with something, and I wanted to experience the wonderful life he had described.
Copyright © 2018 by Cixin Liu
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