Ball Lightning

by Cixin Liu, Joel Martinsen (Translated by)

Clock Icon 4 minute read


Major courses: Higher Mathematics, Theoretical Mechanics, Fluid Mechanics, Principles and Applications of Computers, Languages and Programming, Dynamic Meteorology, Principles of Synoptic Meteorology, Chinese Meteorology, Statistical Forecasting, Long-Term Weather Forecasting, Numerical Forecasting.

Elective courses: Atmospheric Circulation, Meteorological Diagnostic Analysis, Storms and Mid-Scale Meteorology, Thunderstorm Prediction and Prevention, Tropical Meteorology, Climate Change and Short-Term Climate Prediction, Radar and Satellite Meteorology, Air Pollution and Urban Climatology, High-Altitude Meteorology, Atmosphere-Ocean Interactions.

Just five days before, I had taken care of everything in the house and set out for a southern city a thousand kilometers away to go to college. Shutting the door to a now-empty house, I knew that I was leaving my childhood behind forever. From now on, I would be a machine in pursuit of a single goal.

Looking over the list of courses that would occupy me for the next four years, I felt a little disappointed. Many of the things on it I had no need for, and some of the things that I did need—like Electricity and Magnetism and Plasma Physics—were not. I realized that I might have applied to the wrong major, and perhaps should have gone into physics instead of atmospheric science.

So I plunged into the library, spending most of my time on mathematics, E&M, and plasma physics, attending only the classes that involved those subjects and basically skipping all of the rest. Colorful collegiate life had nothing for me, and I had no interest in it. Returning to my dorm room at one or two in the morning and hearing a roommate mumble his girlfriend’s name in his sleep was the only reminder I had of that other mode of life.

One night, well after midnight, I lifted my head out of a thick partial differential equations text. I had assumed that at this time of night I would be the only student left in the nighttime reading room, as usual, but across from me I saw Dai Lin, a pretty girl from my class. She had no books in front of her. She was simply resting her head on her hands and looking at me. Her expression would not have been enchanting to her scads of admirers. It was the look of someone who has discovered a spy in camp, a look directed at something alien. I had no idea how long she had been looking at me.

“You’re a peculiar person. I can tell you’re not just a nerd because you’ve got a strong sense of purpose,” she said.

“Oh? Doesn’t everyone have goals?” I tossed off the question. I may have been the only male student in class who had never spoken to her.

“Our goals are vague. But you, you’re definitely looking for something very specific.”

“You’ve got a good eye for people,” I said blandly as I gathered my books and stood up. I was the one man who had no need to show off for her, and this gave me a sense of superiority.

When I reached the door, she called after me, “What are you looking for?”

“You wouldn’t be interested.” I left without looking back.

In the quiet autumn night outside, I looked up at a sky full of stars. My dad’s voice seemed to carry on the air: “The key to a wonderful life is a fascination with something.” Now I understood how right he was. My life was a speeding missile, and I had no other desire than to hear it explode as it hit its target. A goal with no practical purpose, but one that would make my life complete once I reached it. Why I was going to that particular place, I did not know. It was enough to simply want to go, an impulse that lay at the core of human nature. Oddly, I had never gone to look up any materials related to It. My fascination and I were two knights whose entire lives would be devoted to preparing for a single duel, and until I was ready I would neither think about it nor seek it out directly.

* * *

Three semesters passed in the blink of an eye, time that felt like one uninterrupted span, because without a home to return to, I spent all of my holidays at school. Living all by myself in a spacious dormitory, I had few feelings of loneliness. Only on the eve of the Spring Festival, when I heard the firecrackers going off outside, did I think about my life before It had appeared, but that life felt like it was a generation ago. As I spent those nights in a dorm room with the heat turned off, the cold made my dreams especially lifelike.

Although I had imagined as a child that my mom and dad would appear in my dreams, they had not. I remembered an Indian legend that told of a king who, when his beloved consort died, decided to build a luxurious tomb the likes of which had never before been seen. He spent the better part of his life working on that tomb. Finally, when construction was complete, he noticed his consort’s coffin lying right at the center and said: That doesn’t belong. Take it away.

My parents had long since departed, and It occupied every corner of my mind.

But what happened next complicated my simple world.


Copyright © 2005 by Cixin Liu

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