Death’s End: Yun Tianming

With The Three-Body Problem, English-speaking readers got their first chance to experience the multiple-award-winning and bestselling Three-Body Trilogy by China’s most beloved science fiction author, Cixin Liu. Now this epic trilogy concludes with Death’s End—translated by Ken Liu and available September 20th from Tor Books. Read an excerpt below, or head back to the beginning with Chapter One.

Half a century after the Doomsday Battle, the uneasy balance of Dark Forest Deterrence keeps the Trisolaran invaders at bay. Earth enjoys unprecedented prosperity due to the infusion of Trisolaran knowledge. With human science advancing daily and the Trisolarans adopting Earth culture, it seems that the two civilizations will soon be able to co-exist peacefully as equals without the terrible threat of mutually assured annihilation. But the peace has also made humanity complacent.

Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer from the early 21st century, awakens from hibernation in this new age. She brings with her knowledge of a long-forgotten program dating from the beginning of the Trisolar Crisis, and her very presence may upset the delicate balance between two worlds. Will humanity reach for the stars or die in its cradle?



Crisis Era, Year 4
Yun Tianming

After Dr. Zhang’s regular checkup on Yun Tianming, he left a newspaper with him, saying that since Tianming had been in the hospital for so long, he should be aware of what was happening in the world. There was a TV in Tianming’s room, so he was puzzled, wondering if perhaps the doctor had something else in mind.

Tianming read the newspaper and came to the following conclusion: Compared to the time before he was hospitalized, news about Trisolaris and the Earth-Trisolaris Or ganization (ETO) no longer dominated everything. There were at least some articles that had nothing to do with the crisis. Humanity’s tendency to focus on the here and now reasserted itself, and concern for events that would not take place for four centuries gave way to thoughts about life in the present.

This wasn’t surprising. He tried to remember what was happening four hundred years ago: China was under the Ming Dynasty, and he thought—he wasn’t sure—that Nurhaci had just founded the empire that would end up replacing the Ming, after slaughtering millions. The Dark Ages had just ended in the West; the steam engine wouldn’t make its appearance for another hundred-plus years; and, as for electricity, one would have to wait three hundred years. If anyone at the time had worried about life four hundred years later, they’d be a laughingstock. It was as ridiculous to worry about the future as to lament the past.

As for Tianming himself, based on the way his condition was developing, he wouldn’t even need to worry about next year.

But one item of news attracted his attention. It was on the front page:

The Special Session of the Third Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Passes Euthanasia Law

Tianming was confused. The special legislative session had been called to deal with the Trisolar Crisis, but this law seemed to have nothing to do with the crisis.

Why did Dr. Zhang want me to see this news?

A fit of coughing forced him to put down the newspaper and try to get some sleep.

The next day, the TV also showed some interviews and reports about the euthanasia law, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of public interest.

Tianming had trouble sleeping that night: He coughed; he struggled to breathe; he felt weak and nauseous from the chemo. The patient who had the bed next to his sat on the edge of Tianming’s bed and held the oxygen tube for him. His surname was Li, and everyone called him “Lao Li,” Old Li.

Lao Li looked around to be sure that the other two patients who shared the room with them were asleep, and then said, “Tianming, I’m going to leave early.”

“You’ve been discharged?”

“No. It’s that law.”

Tianming sat up. “But why? Your children are so solicitous and caring—”

“That is exactly why I’ve decided to do this. If this drags out much longer, they’d have to sell their houses. What for? In the end, there’s no cure. I have to be responsible for my children and their children.”

Lao Li sighed, lightly patted Tianming’s arm, and returned to his own bed.

Staring at the shadows cast against the window curtain by swaying trees, Tianming gradually fell asleep. For the first time since his illness, he had a peaceful dream.

He sat on a small origami boat drifting over placid water, oarless. The sky was a misty, dark gray. There was a cool drizzle, but the rain apparently did not reach the surface of the water, which remained as smooth as a mirror. The water, also gray, merged with the sky in every direction. There was no horizon, no shore.…

When Tianming awoke in the morning, he was baffled by how, in his dream, he was so certain that there, it would always be drizzling, the surface would always be smooth, and the sky always a misty, dark gray.

* * *

The hospital was about to conduct the procedure Lao Li had asked for.

It took a great deal of internal discussion before the news outlets settled on the verb “to conduct.” “To execute” was clearly inappropriate; “to carry out” sounded wrong as well; “to complete” seemed to suggest that death was already certain, which was not exactly accurate, either.

Dr. Zhang asked Tianming whether he felt strong enough to attend Lao Li’s euthanasia ceremony. The doctor hurried to add that since this was the first instance of euthanasia in the city, it would be better to have representatives from various interest groups present, including someone representing other patients. No other meaning was intended.

But Tianming couldn’t help feeling that the request did contain some hidden message. Still, since Dr. Zhang had always taken good care of him, he agreed.

Afterwards, he suddenly realized that Dr. Zhang’s face and name seemed familiar—did he know the doctor before his hospitalization?—he couldn’t recall exactly how. The fact that he hadn’t had this feeling of recognition earlier was because their interactions had been limited to discussions of his condition and treatment. The way a doctor acted and spoke while performing his job was different from when he spoke as just another person.

None of Lao Li’s family members were present for the procedure. He had kept his decision from them and requested that the city’s Civil Affairs Bureau—not the hospital—inform his family after the procedure was complete. The new law permitted him to conduct his affairs in this manner.

Many reporters showed up, but most were kept away from the scene. The euthanasia room was adapted from a room in the hospital’s emergency department. A one-way mirror made up one of the walls so that observers could see what was happening inside the room, but the patient would not be able to see them.

Tianming pushed his way through the crowd of observers until he was standing in front of the one-way glass window. As soon as he saw the interior of the euthanasia room, Tianming was seized by a wave of fear and disgust. He wanted to throw up.

Whoever was responsible for decorating this room had made quite an effort: There were new, pretty curtains on the windows, fresh flowers in vases, and numerous pink paper hearts on the walls. But their well-intentioned attempt to humanize the situation had achieved the exact opposite: The frightful pall cast by death was mixed with an eerie cheerfulness, as though they were trying to turn a tomb into a nuptial chamber.

Lao Li was lying on the bed in the middle of the room, and he appeared to be at peace. Tianming realized that they had never properly said good-bye, and his heart grew heavy. Two notaries were inside, finishing up the legal part of the procedure. After Lao Li signed the documents, the notaries came out.

Another man went inside to explain the specific steps of the procedure to Lao Li. The man was dressed in a white coat, though it was unclear whether he was really a doctor. The man first pointed to the large screen at the foot of the bed and asked Lao Li whether he could read everything on it. Lao Li nodded. Then the man asked Lao Li to try to use the mouse next to the bed to click the buttons on the screen, and explained that if he found the operation too difficult, other input methods were available. Lao Li tried the mouse and indicated that it worked fine.

Tianming recalled that Lao Li had once told him that he had never used a computer. When he needed cash, he had to go queue up at the counter at the bank. This must be the first time in Lao Li’s life that he used a mouse.

The man in the white coat then told Lao Li that a question was going to be displayed on the screen, and the same question would be asked five times. Each time the question was displayed, there would be six buttons underneath, numbered from zero to five. If Lao Li wished to answer in the affirmative, he had to click on the specific numbered button indicated in the on-screen instructions, which would change randomly each time the question was asked. If Lao Li wished to answer in the negative, he just had to press zero, and the procedure would stop immediately. There would be no “Yes” or “No” button.

The reason for the complicated procedure, the man explained, was to avoid a situation where the patient simply continued to press the same button over and over without thinking about his answers each time.

A nurse went inside and secured a needle into Lao Li’s left arm. The tube behind the needle was connected to an automatic injector about the size of a notebook computer. The man in the white coat took out a sealed package, unwrapped layers of protective film, and revealed a small glass vial filled with a yellowish liquid.

Carefully, he filled the injector with the contents of the vial, and left with the nurse.

Only Lao Li was left in the room.

The screen displayed the question, and a soft, gentle female voice read it aloud:

Do you wish to terminate your life? For yes, select 3. For no, select 0.

Lao Li selected 3.

Do you wish to terminate your life? For yes, select 5. For no, select 0.

Lao Li selected 5.

The process repeated twice more. And then:

Do you wish to terminate your life? This is your last prompt. For yes, select 4. For no, select 0.

A surge of sorrow made Tianming dizzy, and he almost fainted. Even when his mother died, he didn’t feel such extreme pain and anger. He wanted to scream at Lao Li to select 0, to break the glass window, to suffocate that voice.

But Lao Li selected 4.

Noiselessly, the injector came to life. Tianming could see the column of yellowish liquid in the glass tube shorten and then disappear. Lao Li never moved. He closed his eyes and went to sleep.

The crowd around Tianming dissipated, but he remained where he was, his hand pressed against the glass. He wasn’t looking at the lifeless body lying within. His eyes were open, but he wasn’t looking at all.

“There was no pain.” Dr. Zhang’s voice was so low that it sounded like the buzzing of a mosquito. Tianming felt a hand land on his left shoulder. “It’s a combination of a massive dose of barbitone, muscle relaxant, and potassium chloride. The barbitone takes effect first and puts the patient into a deep sleep, the muscle relaxant stops his breathing, and the potassium chloride stops the heart. The whole pro cess takes no more than twenty, thirty seconds.”

After a while, Dr. Zhang’s hand left Tianming’s shoulder, and Tianming heard his departing footsteps. Tianming never turned around.

He suddenly remembered how he knew the doctor. “Doctor,” Tianming called out softly. The footsteps stopped. Tianming still didn’t turn around. “You know my sister, don’t you?”

The reply came after a long pause. “Yes. We were high school classmates. When you were little, I remember seeing you a couple of times.”

Mechanically, Tianming left the main building of the hospital. Everything was clear now. Dr. Zhang was working for his sister; his sister wanted him dead. No, wanted him to “conduct the procedure.”

Although Tianming often recalled the happy childhood he had shared with his sister, they had grown apart as they grew up. There was no overt conflict between them, and neither had hurt the other. But they had come to see each other as completely different kinds of people, and each felt that the other held them in contempt.

His sister was shrewd but not smart, and she had married a man who was the same way. They were not successful in their careers, and even with grown children, the couple couldn’t afford to buy a home. Since her husband’s parents had no room for them, the family had ended up living with Tianming’s father.

Tianming, on the other hand, was a loner. In career and personal life, he wasn’t any more successful than his sister. He had always lived by himself in dormitories that belonged to his employer, and left the responsibility for taking care of his frail father entirely to his sister.

Tianming suddenly understood his sister’s thinking. The medical insurance was insufficient to cover the expenses for his hospitalization, and the longer it went on, the bigger the bill grew. Their father had been paying for it out of his life savings, but he had never offered to use that same money to help Tianming’s sister and her family to buy a house—a clear case of favoritism. From his sister’s point of view, their father was spending money that should be hers. Besides, the money was being wasted on treatments that could only prolong, but not cure, the illness. If Tianming chose euthanasia, his sister’s inheritance would be preserved, and he would suffer less.

The sky was filled with misty, gray clouds, just like in his dream. Looking up at this endless grayness, Tianming let out a long sigh.

All right. If you want me to die, I’ll die.

He thought of “The Judgment” by Franz Kafka, in which a father curses his son and sentences him to death. The son agrees, as easily as someone agreeing to take out the trash or to shut the door, and leaves the house, runs through the streets onto the bridge, and leaps over the balustrade to his death. Later, Kafka told his biographer that as he wrote the scene, he was thinking of “a violent ejaculation.”

Tianming now understood Kafka, the man with the bowler hat and briefcase, the man who walked silently through Prague’s dim streets more than a hundred years ago, the man who was as alone as he was.

* * *

Someone was waiting for Tianming when he returned to his hospital room: Hu Wen, a college classmate.

Wen was the closest thing to a friend from Tianming’s college days, but what they had wasn’t friendship, exactly. Wen was one of those people who got along with everyone and who knew everyone’s name; but even for him, Tianming was in the most peripheral ring of his social network. They had had no contact since graduation.

Wen didn’t bring a bouquet or anything similar; instead, he brought a card.board box full of canned beverages.

After a brief, awkward exchange of greetings, Wen asked a question that surprised Tianming. “Do you remember the outing back when we were first years? That first time we all went out as a group?”

Of course Tianming remembered. That was the first time Cheng Xin had ever sat next to him, had ever spoken to him.

If she hadn’t taken the initiative, he doubted if he ever would have gotten the courage to speak to her for the rest of their four years in college. At the outing, he had sat by himself, staring at the broad expanse of the Miyun Reservoir outside Beijing. She had sat down next to him and begun talking.

While they talked, she tossed pebbles into the reservoir. Their conversation meandered over usual topics for classmates who were becoming acquainted for the first time, but Tianming could still recall every word. Later, Cheng Xin had made a little origami boat out of a sheet of paper and deposited it on the water. A breeze carried the boat away slowly until it turned into a tiny dot in the distance.…

That most lovely day of his time in college held a golden glow in his mind. In reality, the weather that day hadn’t been ideal: There was a drizzle, and the surface of the reservoir was filled with ripples, and the pebbles they tossed felt wet in the hand. But from that day on, Tianming fell in love with drizzly days, fell in love with the smell of damp ground and wet pebbles, and from time to time he made origami boats and placed them on his nightstand.

With a start, he wondered if the world in his peaceful dream had been born from this memory.

But Wen wanted to talk about what had happened later in the outing—events that did not make much of an impression on Tianming. However, with prompts from Wen, Tianming managed to recall those faded memories.

A few of Cheng Xin’s friends had come by and called her away. Wen then sat down next to Tianming.

Don’t be too pleased with yourself. She’s nice to everyone.

Of course Tianming knew that. But then Wen saw the bottle of mineral water in Tianming’s hand and the conversation shifted.

What in the world are you drinking?!

The water in the bottle was a green color, and bits of grass and leaves floated in it.

I crumpled some weeds and added them to the water. It’s the most organic drink.

He was in a good mood and so he was more loquacious than usual.

Someday I may start a company to produce this drink. It will surely be popular.

It must taste awful.

Do you think cigarettes and liquor really taste that good? Even Coca-Cola probably tasted medicinal the first time you tried it. Anything addictive is like that.

“Buddy, that conversation changed my life!” Wen said. He opened the cardboard box and took out a can. The outside was deep green, and on it was a picture of a grassland. The trademark was “Green Tempest.”

Wen pulled the tab and handed the can to Tianming. Tianming took a sip: fragrant, herbal, with a trace of bitterness. He closed his eyes and was back at the shore of the drizzly reservoir, and Cheng Xin was next to him.…

“This is a special version. The mass market recipe is sweeter,” Wen said.

“Does it sell well?”

“Sells great! The main hurdle now is cost. You might think grass is cheap, but until I can scale up, it’s more expensive than fruits or nuts. Also, to make it safe, the ingredients have to be detoxified and processed, a complicated procedure. The prospects are fantastic, though. Lots of investors are interested, and Huiyuan Juice wants to buy my company. Fuck them.”

Tianming stared at Wen, not knowing what to say. Wen had graduated as an aerospace engineer, but now he had turned into a beverage entrepreneur. He was someone who did things, who got things done. Life belonged to people like that. But people like Tianming could only watch life pass them by, abandoned and left behind.

“I owe you,” Wen said. He handed three credit cards and a slip of paper to Tianming, looked around, leaned in, and whispered, “There’s three million yuan in the account. The password is on the note.”

“I never applied for a patent or anything like that,” Tianming said.

“But it’s your idea. Without you, there would be no Green Tempest. If you agree, we’ll just call it even, at least legally. But as a matter of our friendship, I’ll always owe you.”

“You don’t owe me anything, legally or otherwise.”

“You have to accept it. I know you need money.”

Tianming said no more. For him, the sum was astronomical, but he wasn’t excited. Money wasn’t going to save him.

Still, hope was a stubborn creature. After Hu Wen left, Tianming asked for a consultation with a doctor. He didn’t want Dr. Zhang; instead, after much effort, he got the assistant director of the hospital, a famous oncologist.

“If money were no issue, would there be a cure for me?”

The old doctor brought up Tianming’s case file on his computer, and after a while, he shook his head.

“The cancer has spread from your lungs throughout your body. Surgery is pointless; all you have are chemo and radiation, conservative techniques. Even with money…

“Young man, remember the saying: A physician can only cure diseases meant to be cured; the Buddha can only save those meant to be saved.”

The last bit of hope died in Tianming, and his heart was at peace. That afternoon, he filled out an application for euthanasia.

He handed the application to his attending physician, Dr. Zhang. Zhang seemed to suffer some internal, moral conflict, and did not meet Tianming’s gaze. He did say to Tianming that he might as well stop the chemo sessions; there was no point for him to continue to suffer.

The only matter that Tianming still had to take care of was deciding how to spend the money from Wen. The “right” thing to do would have been to give it to his father, and then let him distribute it to the rest of the family. But that was the same as handing the money to his sister, and Tianming didn’t want to do that. He was already going to die, just as she wanted; he didn’t feel he owed her any more.

He tried to see if he had any unfulfilled dreams. It would be nice to take a trip around the world on some luxury cruise ship… but his body wasn’t up for it, and he didn’t have much time left. That was too bad. He would have liked to lie on a sun-drenched deck and review his life as he gazed at the hypnotic sea. Or he could step onto the shores of some strange country on a drizzly day, sit next to a little lake and toss wet pebbles onto a surface full of ripples.…

Once again, he was thinking of Cheng Xin. These days, he thought of her more and more.

That night, Tianming saw a news report on TV:

The twelfth session of the UN Planetary Defense Council has adopted Resolution 479, initiating the Stars Our Destination Project. A committee formed from the UN Development Program, the UN Committee on Natural Resources, and UNESCO is authorized to implement the project immediately.

The official Chinese website for the Stars Our Destination Project begins operation this afternoon. According to an official at the UNDP resident representative office in Beijing, the Project will accept bids from individuals and enterprises, but will not consider bids from nongovernmental organizations.…

Tianming got up and told his nurse that he wanted to take a walk. But as it was already after lights out, the nurse refused to let him leave. He returned to his dark room, pulled open the curtains, and lifted the window. The new patient in Lao Li’s old bed grumbled.

Tianming looked out. The lights of the city cast a haze over the night sky, but it was still possible to pick out a few silvery specks.

He knew what he wanted to do with his money: He was going to buy Cheng Xin a star.

Excerpted from Death’s End © Cixin Liu


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