Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
The committee of Manchu princes chose Shunzhi, then still a child, to succeed his father, Hong Taiji, in September 1643. The general assembly of Jesuits in Beijing didn’t hesitate to change sides. But unlike the Old Astronomers, the Jesuits were only betting on one horse.
Luckily, it was the one winning at the time. The Uyghurs, the Muslim minority at the Imperial court, had been present since the Mongol invasions and the Chinese, well, they were old hands at this game. I suppose that their wide array of actions made no immediate sense to anyone involved, given that their position on the public relations was, so to speak, already complex and disoriented. At first, it seemed like a really bad planning when they were immediately stripped of their Mandarin status and relocated to some mordantly insignificant posts in 1644. The frustration of working for Jesuits slowly developed into flagrant inefficiency at their work, with many of them sending complaints to the Emperor on a weekly basis. But in the tense political situation it was difficult to actually envision what the long-term outcome would be. Not to mention the sheer strangeness of the fact that Jesuits were actually becoming a political force majeure in China.
“Don’t have any illusions about gossip and poppycock. It’s all real,” a prominent member of the assembly inserted from a few feet away, taking it a bit too seriously. The table was surrounded by black robes, their hats laid aside. The others quickly followed in the same lethargically apocalyptic vein.
“On the public level, we are as good as dead.”
Such were the internal resources at our disposal as we started to implement changes in astronomical research. With them, we were countering decades and centuries of pagan humbuggery.
But as is often the case with human minds spilling over with too much input and conversations dripping in bile, I couldn’t remember more than a handful of words and images.
“I think we should just remember the faith of St. Francis Xavier and push further. Just a stone’s throw away, stuck on that island, he died contemplating the existence of China, never crossing the narrows of the South China Sea. But we are here, reshaping it with our every move.”
And it was in on all of our minds how the arrival of a scant Jesuit generation in China coincided with the Defenestratio Pragensis and that our torturous progress in establishing a proper strategy was a superior lot to that of those not lucky enough to escape the wars in Europe by the skin of their teeth.
It seemed like ages ago that we were being tossed on the high seas for half a year. The journey was rife with seasickness, fear of pirates, and sail-lacerating storms. After an eight-week break in Mozambique, we sailed towards Macao, joined by cohorts of African slaves finely packed below the deck.
A strange sight occurred when I was bending over the rail as we lumbered towards landfall. A school of winged black entities was piercing the waves off the bow. I followed their path, sympathetically looking for a person to share the sight with. But no one spoke to me or even acknowledged my existence—although I did sense a human presence, gnarling from underneath the wooden flooring. Upon finally reaching the frontmost part of the ship, I saw the bodies of these creatures suddenly leap out of the water, flap their wings, and quickly disappear back underneath the tarblack surface. When they lost their momentum, their flat frames dropped from the highest peaks of their impetuous hops like the leaves of autumn days—leaving enough time for me to understand that the change in question was nothing like the pleasant sensation of going beyond the borders of their home provinces. The closer they were to the surface, the more unruffled and motionless their bodies were. The numerous breaches seemed to me as distant comets, taking a wrong turn. Outgrowths resembling wings precisely followed the mechanics of bird flight, but failed at actually doing that. So the poor animals dropped into the sea, gravity’s most wanted.
With this strange locomotion in mind, I set foot on Macao. The abstract patches and strips of land I saw from a distance quickly became a concrete mixture of disaster and fecklessness. There sure was greenery around the city and loamy mud on the streets, as the republic of letters that our Society maintained had taught me, but nobody told me about the fervent Chinese supervision and the flocks of illegitimate Cantonese children sired by lonely sailors. I still remember their faces: thick and red, only their round eyes hinting at European ancestry. It seemed like somebody’s dreams were becoming a reality—although with only a little of what was actually dreamt.
At the age of twenty-six and a half I had serious doubts. But you know, it wasn’t the fear of war that led us so far from our homes. It was the belief that we could serve the Lord here with greater efficiency. Just as the Jesuits back in Sa manca were making serious headway with their theory for pricing goods by supply and demand, it was here, it seemed, that the demand for our words was greatest.
It just wasn’t the Chinese who were driving the demand.
They still had to learn to do that.
We, the bearers of Light, the vanguard of Knowledge, were, at the bitter end of our lives, thrown in a cell devoid of any direct light. In our decades-long mission we served mollycoddles, ones easily put to rout. We mapped their country and their minds without much effort. We measured the length of the days in summer and we axiomatized their spurious beliefs. We sifted through the rough geographies of their thoughts as stones fall from the sky.
Was it Buglio and Magalhães, my nearest fellows but also my most vocal critics, who sold me out? For they've done more than just utter harsh words about my Mandarin status at Shunzhi’s court in the past. In private they had accused me of being a servant of a non-Christian emperor.
“You are instrumental in the dissemination of his idolatry,” a gangly man named Buglio said many times, always at the door of the Directorate, cracked open slightly.
It would be a lie to deny it. We’ve presented celestial patterns and forecast anomalies. We devised calendars and chose dates and sites suited to state rituals. Astronomical data provided with the help of xiyang yinfa, “A New Method from the Western Ocean”, was mainly used to establish the calendar of lucky and unlucky days for imperial ceremonies. All these calendar entries seemed so trivial now: sacrifices to Heaven and Earth, peasants dancing around bonfires, members of the imperial court fucking their wives or concubines, all of it carefully planned and designed well in advance, in complete accordance with our celestial time scheme.
I couldn’t remember what kind of day it was on this wheel of fortune when I occupied the cell along with three other Jesuits and five Chinese converts. The square space of our confinement was furnished with cruciform wooden pegs of various heights—our hands were tied to metal chains, three around the neck, three on the arms, and three on the feet. They pierced through the wood and served the same purpose on the other side. The regular meek movements of my fellow sufferer’s arms, whose slender body was as unequipped for the fusty manacles as mine, were in the service of some ancient method for telling time. In the darkness there were no Archimedean points onto which one might hook his sense of passing time: but Buglio’s short tugs (or was it Magalhães'?) imitated unknown ancient rhythms, as they appeared only when his body felt the urge to move. Buglio was conversing with Verbiest on potentially life-saving manoeuvres, mostly in the form of tepid sentences, citing The Book of Numbers. Magalhães was quick to reply with a shallow “not important.” I heard somebody say my name.
Adam Schall—often Schahr—the head of Qintianjian, the Directorate of Celestial Surveillance.
The words resounded eerily in my head, but I couldn’t bring myself to answer. Since the unreasonable accusations that led to my arraignment after the death of Shunzhi, my mouth refused to utter anything in my defense. Anything sensible, that is. The only thing that I was capable of doing at that moment was chanting in syllables, a string of repeated la’s or ta’s, but I was well aware that this kind of ribald scansion might corroborate further allegations at the court, providing new evidence for the fact—as they saw it—that I caused the premature death of Shunzhi, the first Emperor of the Qing Dynasty, by casting a spell on him. My mouth had become an orifice which could no longer preach. I looked up as the talk was becoming too distracting.
The negligible window on the southeast side was facing another wall. Its only purpose—but sadly to no avail—was to provide us with fresh air. The daily evacuation of our bowels was withheld in our thick robes. My fellow inmates’ round-collar robes, all black with a few grey stripes, grew paler in the past few days. Our wu sha maos, black cloth hats, were thrown away, stacked somewhere or burned. I was the only one stripped of my clothes. Violet and decorated in minutest detail, with a depiction of a white crane in a small square on the chest, they must have reminded the jailors of my Mandarin status. I was given an old grey cotton robe. The weight of the day was pressing me into sleep. That night I dreamt of the firmament.
“Lun,” I uttered quietly in a dream.
We must have been hundreds of parsecs from where I last said anything aloud.
Parsecs? The dream was boisterously playing games with me. I felt it as being far, but the distances were unrecognizable. The words poured into my speech, unrecognizable, alien, falling like tiny primordial debris from across the Kuiper Belt.
The Kuiper Belt? It was slowly becoming a language issue on a monstrously large scale. It was the same amount of parsecs from where I last saw anything with my eyes. Every time it felt as if I were reborn. Reborn more than once? But why would I want to be in a simulation of a Buddhist nightmare?
It has been more than fifty years … fifty? Certainly not measuring from where I was now, since our order in China changed its wardrobe from modest grey robes similar to those of Buddhist monks to ones resembling those worn by the literati, the Confucian scholars. We underestimated the power of the social ladder back then—we were talking to the wrong people. But I had a hunch that this setting was different from the one down there. And that the social ladder had other implications here. Or maybe not, on second thought.
“Lun,” I said again, this time with more strength, clearing my thoughts. I was expecting a “yee-ha!” or some similarly silly response. Lun was, after all, a shameless marketing manager in his Earthly life, and could turn just about anything into some kind of hip, up-to-date, often politically incorrect joke. But I felt that my greeting was itself strange: damp at the sides, it felt like a heavy lump in my throat.
There was no answer. I looked at the wide plasma screen which shared a constant influx of data about the inevitable outside.
“Are we stationary?” I was able to say somehow. No matter how surprised I was by the words and the meaning that came out of my mouth, there was still no answer. Stationary where? How? The doubts came flooding back. Lun was the name I overheard when the jailors were calling each other. He must have been one of them. Could it be the one with dark skin? Or the one with the club hand, brandishing a small scourge in his other hand?
But I wasn’t in the cell anymore. And my neck refused to rotate my head in any of the possible directions. Something was telling me that my body was different, but my eyes were still fixated on a certain point on the screen. It must have been just a million-light-year dream, in which we slowly passed the red dwarf stars, protoplanetary nebulae with approximately half the speed of light, stacked into a copyfile, auto-saved by a mute AI operator … a space where we were technically not able to dream or exist. Did any of the numerous, time-crystal-based measuring devices save any intel on that?
For fucks sake, I won’t even go into—
Being stationary. That must have been a joke. It was always the two of us up here and there was always an answer. A human voice filled the void and it served as a companion to my resurrection. Without it, it may well be that all my past memories were just a dream.
But whose dream? The one captured in a sterile box or the one trapped in the Chinese cell?
Crawling along the grid-like structure of these thoughts felt like cold winds blowing in a certain childhood, mine perhaps. The Rhine was shimmering and heaving beneath the brisk breeze. When my parents died, I went to live with my maternal uncle in a nearby city. Cologne was known for its faint jerks of wind, which I first noticed when they passed over the tiptoes of my bare feet and then rose to the height of the cathedral’s crane, sitting just above the belfry.
The slow embrace of the cold was akin to a momentary contagion of inapprehensible words. They came in muddled swarms, noticeably lacking leadership. The vocabulary was opulent, but in its arrogance beggarly at the same time, the structure uninnovative, in a weird conjunction with meaning. But the thing was—apart from the abstruseness of the language—that the joke was already a part of the question: we were never stationary. Forget the stories of populated stations in the Oort cloud. That’s proper bullshit as far as I am concerned.
We respawned in a cage, buttressed by space material, harvested on the way by swarms of nanogliders. Organic waste and other convenient particles were caught for later use. The Bubble, as me and Lun affectionately called it, had no windows and was the bitter fruit of an Earthly scientific revolution that left little or no space for emotions. The interior was dark, illuminated by a few invisible light sources. The walls were rough, as in a karst cave where rock was dissolved by acid. The Bubble seemed to be different with every completed Leap, but always similar in size and construction. As if some rough blueprints allowed for unforeseeable constructional improvisation.
The outside sounds, reminiscent of distant hail storms, were muffled by the Bubble’s thick walls. And there was a whole system of nanovehicles guarding the mothership. We never felt any of the impacts. We were sheep in a church and our shepherd was an AI-driven cathedral, laically referred to as the Bubble. The outside was dark and vast, with P- and C-type asteroids, sungrazers and icy comets, with supermassive black holes, where everything is an infinite mess, where everything is suffering. But inside the cathedral the reign of chaos stops, it is chastened and cut, made to fit. It is said that the medieval cathedral adopted the outside, with the squire’s vivid colored pants becoming gold and ruby stained glass, the jester’s jokes becoming the ringing of bells and the ogival arches the feet of children at play—but in the Bubble all is sublimated in the oversensitive curves of the pseudo-natural world: the cave, the womb, the anus. There are no flying buttresses caressing the link with the outside. Just a clear and visible cut between the outside and the inside. The silence here is as overwhelming as it ever was, you know? When we can sense it, that is. Most of the time our consciousness was just stored on a radiation-safe glass substrate.
I could not move my body straight away. Constituting a body during a Great Leap phase is different than just being born again. Where are the Buddhists when you need them, right? We are born anew every time: constructed, 3D bioprinted. All our muscles are in their adult shapes when composed. The sheer idea of moving exists, but it is just that—an idea. The body stays put and it takes eons for it to be able to budge. First there are convulsive, but rather conservative twitches. I think it’s our eyes that first become aware of the surroundings; as retinas react to light, saccadic movements occur. Then fingers, hands. It took some time for me to turn my head to my right.
I saw a condensed ball of … what? No organs, no real body. It was like a miniature coral reef which started to grow into itself because of a lack of space, the much needed principal condition of life. It grew modestly and its tentacles distorted into its mouths, it breathed through the outwardly wrenched stomach, which was so airy and transparent that one could easily see through it. But at the same time it filled the space up to the tiniest particle.
I saw it looking at me. But with a stiff mouth, as if it were filled with cotton balls, a reply was not as simple a proposition as it seemed.
Not so much as a grunt came my way.
“Lun,” I wanted to repeat, as in a dream, but my mouth refused to speak.
I woke up sore and stiff, with fluids circulating through my body like the insufficient yellow slugs that slowly gyrated around my legs. I envied their invertebracy: they twisted their figures like male dancers in a Beijing opera, swinging their ribbon bands with undulating gestures. The Chinese jailors must have been gobstruck by the exiguity of our postures, the at-first-sight-chaotic organization of our bodies in a tiny cell: we were Tycho Brahe’s comets, stuck in the first celestial sphere, among the planets. Like the birds in the air and the fish in the sea. And when I say gobstruck I mean this: they do not know a thing about geometry, how would they be able to distinguish between the theoretical possibility of a body in space and its particular emanation? And we were like asteroids, tearing down the old moral cosmology rooted in the old books and presuppositions.
Their eyes were carefully following our movements through the opening in the wooden doors. They weren’t studying us. But did they know that our times differed significantly? That we’ve lived in different time zones? That our lives passed through different time loops? That the Bubble was not assigned the same time zone as the outside? Reissner-Nordström geometry played no serious role here. What was that? Was I in another dream or was I back in the cell? I shook my head in dismay. The words once again became familiar.
It was a fact that the literati, the Confucians, treated calendars carefully, seeing an intimate connection between the astronomical, natural and socio-political orders. The Emperor was the great mediator between the three, the central figure connecting them all. Was that why the Muslim mathematicians played such a large role in the Imperial City? Could the Uyghurs be the ones that betrayed me? They were planning something and had been trying to undermine my data for a few years now. Recently, but well before the imprisonment, Abudukelimu, one of the senior Muslim astronomers from the Directorate, visited me at my home. His steps were flint-hard and his hands close to Guangxiang’s, almost contiguous with them.
With a touch of discomfort we all took a seat outside. Camellia flowers were dangling in the breeze. Abudukelimu had a distant look on his face.
“That spider,” he began by evoking the old Persian tradition, contra-Aristotle, “climbing up a shrub, will finish making that web.” I nodded. The brown spider with white stripes was tripping the light fantastic on the branchlet, producing a web which resembled the thick mists of Lake Baiyang. It had finished the horizontal threads and had started to construct a narrow funnel in the corner, semi-hidden beneath the leaves.
“But,” Abudukelimu continued, “its walks upon the leaves, its slow movements were never in its direct domain.” The spider’s sideways movement on the sheet of web was hectic and visibly confused. Obviously finished with the task, it hid in the murky funnel.
“On the contrary, its future was in the hands of God’s will.” Being a man of God myself, I wasn’t pleased with Abudukelimu’s reasoning. It wasn’t only religion that was tearing us apart. Our lives were strangely positioned in times of discrepancies, plagued by Brunos and Galileis, those same heretics who, unfortunately, would later become our teachers, depriving us of a straight line upon which our thoughts might freely reign. We have calculated, but we have not always understood. We couldn’t always indulge in that.
“You may have heard of a Croatian bishop and innovator,” I said as I turned my head toward my silent Chinese companion sitting squeezed between the table and the outer garden wall.
“His designs and ideas are presented in Schreck’s Qiqi Tushuo, published just twenty years ago: an attempt to present the Chinese with European mechanical knowledge.” Guangxiang gazed from under his eyebrows with doubt.
“Fausto Veranzio,” I nodded to my Uyghurian colleague, “designed a parachute and jumped with it from the campanile of St. Mark’s in Venice.” Abudukelimu’s eyes were gleaming with interest. The names, the places, the words. They all must have sounded so strange. Although I knew he came with different aims, solemnly trying to preserve his long-lost importance at the Imperial Court with the help of Guangxiang, his gaze inevitably revealed an infantile need for knowledge.
“He survived,” I added, hiding a smile. Nothing a fly, ensnared by the spider’s web, could hope for. It was pulling in several directions, trying to free itself from the silk threads, carefully placed horizontally and vertically. The cunning design made up for its lack of adhesiveness. This kind of web had to be transposed, in several mutations of the spider’s brain, from a normal two-dimensional adhesive trap to a spatial labyrinth akin to the Minotaur’s, but it was erected with much more elegance: the straight passageways from the ancient myth became tubes, the walls soft cushions. But the spider stood still. His master plan worked—but did he even notice? Was he trying to connect with God, but the lines were busy?
I wasn’t even trying to pretend that Abudukelimu might understand that. It was a far cry even from what I could decipher at that point.
“But did Veranzio actually jump without knowing what would happen to him?” I continued, literally gathering my previous thoughts. “Wouldn’t that make him, a devout man of the Church, a bishop even, a would-be-suicide, in the last instance a sinner? Wouldn’t even the tiniest sliver of the possibility that he might die by his own hand—wouldn’t that be enough to make him reconsider his actions? Or was he confident enough that his parachute would safely bring him to earth that he knew there was nothing that could make him fail?” Abudukelimu and Guangxiang tried to reply.
“That his landing was as sure as was his life?”
It took one second for the spider to grab the fly and take it back to its retreat. The web was generally still, only slightly shaking at the ends. The spider started to devour the poor thing. Or was it the web that had to do the dirty work, with the spider transformed into its prosthesis?
“The results were as certain as the existence of the Kuiper Belt beyond the first orb.” I recalled that word, but I couldn’t decipher the meaning. Unknown phrasings came like bolts of lightning, but the sentence was fine: that abyss, hanging in the middle of it, felt somehow natural.
“The Kuiper Belt?”
Not an echo of my thoughts, but the sound of Guangxiang going wild about it. Stretching out his hand, it seemed as if he wanted to stand up quickly. I leaned back slightly. Perplexed by my own words, I would be an easy target for the two. But how could he know about the Kuiper Belt? The mush of meaning slowly thickened: the circumstellar disc, primordial debris, far above the firmament.
Guangxiang’s face turned red. Only then did I understand the hostility: Guangxiang had a feeling he was under attack for his ignorance. Abudukelimu tried to shake it off with a slight nod of his head, the way people try to act blasé when they don’t know what’s being spoken of.
The spider’s web was swinging as the light breeze started to blow from behind the corner of the house. The conversation continued in an orderly manner. Both Guangxiang and Abudukelimu slowly left. But my mind went astray. Whose incompetence did I encounter? Mine or theirs?
The feeling was later mirrored in my imprisonment. Was there anything I could do, stuck in this cell, with no serious arguments to counter the death sentence?
The Chinese jailors were having a laugh at our sorry silhouettes. Little did they know about my dreams. Their debates were morose: Are they going to hang? Or will we butcher them until they bleed to death? Only later Verbiest, the closest of my associates, who was also nearest to me in the cell, assured me that they were trying to be friendly.
Friendly? We transferred our demons and fears into myths. Our myths into bedtime stories. Dreams followed suit. But these simple minds, holding the keys to our freedom, juggled death as they went along. Verbiest—my dear Verbiest—declared that they wanted us to know.
Oh, Lord, what were all these thoughts, thick as a spider’s web, devious as Theseus? What was I in this game? The spider or the fly? Was I either? What form would I occupy next?
I had to close my eyes.
The firmament was soon to emerge.
Emergency signals started to cram the space; their sounds were familiar, their warnings dull.
At this distance from Earth all we had was speech, that disfigured mechanism of mnemotechnics that let us down every time: on our death beds, listening to a bird’s song, fucking. It is never eloquent enough, let alone adequate. Lun and I have been around since forever. When we left, the Earth was as it had always been: teeming with politicians’ feuds and small-scale tactical wars, rapidly being depleted of natural resources, encircled by the same old philosophical debates.
And we’ve been losing the remnants of speech at an alarming rate. Did we ever possess speech, though? Was it ours to begin with? The terabytes of collected memory retained nothing of our former selves. The piles of reiterated thoughts and cul-de-sac conversations were flitting through us. We had been promised immortality: what we got was a void filled with blabber—at some point the differentiation stops. It doesn’t take much. Nothing more than a joke, to be honest.
I haven’t seen Lun like this before. And I’ve seen him a thousand times. Every time rebuilt and brilliant as ever. The jokes we were building from the last time remained stored in our storage devices. We believed they were still brains. But I knew the end was imminent. The lights were just a blank warning for us: the other, non-human part of the team was already abandoning its previous positions: nanogliders started changing course, the machines copying data from our memory.
The Great Leap this time was slow and degraded. Not what we, rudderless, long-distance-guinea-pigs, actually expected. But we’ve chosen immortality. We just didn’t know that it would be worse than death. A point of rupture always followed these procedures. It never felt like a clean cut. The Bubble was still on course, slowly losing the energy provided by the solar cells; the copying process halted, the storage devices were safe, the nanovehicles dispersed and went on to another mission.
The Great Leap was over. Consciousness, at least some part of it, was on its way to another destination, data from the mission stored in quantum computers. And my memories are, from now on, entirely my own. Particular and never to be thought again. Derived without any linkage, with no uncertain past and a doubtful future.
I might have felt cloistered before, but now—I was just … unplugged: from machines, from solar systems, from ideological premises. The feeling of losing that dangling Damocles’ sword was nothing short of spectacular.
But still only a spectacle, designed by some unspecified medium.
Was it the mind? But which one was the right one? The one that left or the one left to die?
Our ride in the Bubble grew rougher by the minute. The security system left us to our own devices. The pressure began to rise, as did the temperatures. I had to take him into my arms. It was the least I could do.
Lun, the unlucky one. His days must have been a mess down there. I remembered mine with a certain affection. The kittens I fondled. The people I will remember forever. Every Great Leap once again inscribed them—their actions, their disbeliefs—into my thoughts: never to be repressed, spilled all over with Freudian ink, but with no couches in sight … empowering the trauma to last until the end of the universe as we know it.
I still remember how people longed to occupy the first probes which left Earth with no designated purpose. The rows of faces queueing along the improvised metal railing at the Directorate. Many looked as blank as the faces on coins. Others were smiling through gritted teeth, even though no one was ordering them to launch. After hundreds of years this Kenyan safari got boring, I guess. The first space capsules headed into the unknown mostly plunged headlong into the sea. The space competition was fierce, but the technology lagged behind. The sheer need for capital convinced legislators to turn a blind eye. India and China were pumping out launch sites, converting old Soviet-designed, locally built ICBMs to carry people. But the first space travellers were flying directly into Žižek’s asshole of the Real. It must have been an act of irony from God that the initiator was none other than Žižek himself. You know, Žižek? He was the one who triggered the debate on space regulation. Back at the beginning of the 21st Century he wrote an article called “How the Right Deregulated Outer Space”. And some centrists took him seriously: space travel became regulated and space trajectories were nationalized. Only then did we go up. Lun ditched his wife, I left my marine laboratory, all for the glory of our nations.
Nobody knows what happened to those creeps who prophesied about our flights.
Lun’s exterior skin was like manta’s rough trunk, devoid of color. Sitting on my lap, I couldn’t really tell if he was alive or not. And frankly I had no intention of taking a closer look. Setting boundaries between life and death was getting nonsensical: my double was gliding her way through the universe and I was sitting here, slowly being devoured by the outside.
We have always thought of the outside in terms of spatial organization. It was this place behind the walls of a Bubble which was now shattering as its body succumbed to abrupt fissures.
A ball, a bulk, a Lun. It started falling apart too. Strains were getting wider. The inside was on the outside. Or was it the other way around? The outside infested the inside just to enable it to let go of any significant sutures. Its provisional excrescences reminded me of triangle-shaped fins. It was as if it were flapping in mid-air, seeking some support to prolong its acts. Thousands of relapses left me without my body. Or was it new, every time anew? I forgot about my monthlies. No stomach cramps. I was made a perfect unisex space traveller. The problem was that I was thousands of years old.
The joke this time is on me, right?
I wanted to say Lun, but only grunts came from my mouth.
I heard the name among vociferous shrieks. The walls of the cell were trembling and screams were heard from afar. They were joined by an emotionless collective fear, merged seamlessly with constant expectation of an end. Tepid cobwebs were trembling and the few imperceptible spiders hid in the obscure corners of the room. I couldn’t say if they anticipated the earth shaking before any of us did. The surrounding chambers were quickly emptied and in a short time the only sounds heard in the prison were those of the prisoners. The buds outside were hurrying to open. But we hadn’t seen any of that. We supposed it to be true. By then the seismic waves stopped.
The planed timber above was changing into the rough undulation of some coal-black material that reminded me of precious metals. Something was coming between us, like those dreadful creatures I saw breaching on my voyage to China. Few understood it as an error and their words followed suit. Verbiest was semi-hidden behind Chen, one of the converts. Fleming was trying to loosen the wooden pegs, but his muscles were tired from weeks of being in the intermediate position between standing and sitting. At first he reacted with ignorance, but his actions revealed an inveterate fear, which resulted in his attempts to break free, like a bad piece of software parsing through its programmed scripts, ignoring serious flaws and capturing itself in an endless loop.
I heard one of the Chinese prisoners a few cells away screaming for help. Then I heard the first footsteps since the shaking. The jailors started to mess with the wooden structure, I could hear the sobbing of the workers, and a few hours later the doors, which somehow stayed put during the earthquake, finally opened. I raised my head, but it wasn’t Lun. I wouldn’t even have recognized him. It was a Mandarin in a shiny robe who entered the dirty and smelly space of our confinement, only to find us scattered on the battered ground. Buglio and Magalhães were the first to hear out what the Mandarin had to say. He was enunciating accounts of an earthquake which destroyed a good part of the prison complex. Most importantly, the tract where the execution was to take place was levelled to the ground. The timberwork fell as if it were made of thatch. It would take months to build it again. It seemed as if he was apologizing to us. He silently added that there were some sightings of a strange meteor traversing the spring sky. Hands were slowly moving beneath the cell’s ceiling, legs were pattering as if in pain. He thought we already knew. He was sure we knew—we were just waiting for our secret computations to be executed.
Twenty years ago I presented the calculations of the true motion of the sun and the moon to the Imperial Court for the first time. Intercalary months occurred because there was a discontinuity in the motion of the sun across the Zodiac signs due to the use of a non-Gregorian calendar system. With every calculus they were fewer, but the people remained true to the old ways of telling time: 365 days to a year just wasn’t experienced the same way. And it wasn’t a question of superior or inferior instruments, or of detailed calculations and the arguments between the Old and the New Astronomers. Had we been too firm when we introduced the calendar system? How many generations does it take for people to change the time?
And then there was news of a fire, the final blow for the disheartened messenger. The scheme was almost perfect: the three rooms in the Imperial Palace which served as a courtroom and where our death sentence was read caught fire and nearly burned to the ground. The Mandarin signalled to one of his nearest jailors to free us from our fetters. The procedure was lengthy. Our bodies were laid on the floor as shards of broken mirrors, as motionless maritime animals, drifting the ocean. We gathered slowly, helping each other as if this were a common nuisance. The last sentence the Mandarin spoke was that we were to be exiled back to Macao. As we were walking out of the cells, we saw five Chinese converts being taken into the provisional strangulation cell. They were stripped naked and examined. The earthquake was a sign, that’s for sure. But we took the joke too far.
I took one last look as they were carrying my feeble body through the narrow passage. My heart started beating too fast and the mechanics of breathing couldn’t follow. I saw that familiar face, monstrously folded in pain, leaning on a clapped-out doorjamb. I must have seen it a thousand times.
It was Lun.