After entirely too long, I'm back with another entry for the Cavalcade. And speaking of which...
The Cavalcade of Rejection is free again, this time through January 7th. Remember, if you choose to download it, I do appreciate reviews - they really help get the word out.
Onto today's story, and this is another one without much of a background. I wrote it for a contest that, as far as I know, never concluded. It's another Taiyang story, placing it in the same universe as All the Stars Within Our Grasp, so there's that. Speaking of which, if you haven't been reading that one, I've been updating it on Inkitt, which should be easier for Chinese users to access.
The Blessing of Winter
Cong Xiansheng hadn't bothered observing his birthday since he was 180 years of age. It was, of course, a cursory event even then - dinner and drinks with remote family members, many of whom were clearly hoping that he was ready to step aside for good and all - but in the years that followed, he struggled to manage even this minimal level of frivolity. So he put that increasingly meaningless ritual into storage along with his other memories, quietly screened and deleted the labored well-wishes of his impatient loved ones, and it was just another day henceforth. All that remained to remind him of his first day on Earth was the simulated glee of those distressingly human-like interfaces that vexed him every morning, at least until he wiped their digital memories of his exact date of birth and they too fell silent. With time he forgot the exact date of his birth, and even his age receded into the shadows of his mind. Time meant nothing, and life was nothing more than an eternally sleepless now.
When people learned of Cong Xiansheng's odd treatment of his own birth, their response was always incredulous. Some of them rationalized an answer on their own, telling themselves that the old man who had eluded death for so long had at last evolved beyond the need for such petty rituals. On the other hand, the youngsters - the ones caught up in that rebirth of old ideas and traditional ways - were more perplexed. There was wisdom in age, they knew, but this man's wisdom was beyond their reckoning.
"You have been blessed far more than most," they would say. "Why wouldn't you celebrate such fortune? Why not applaud the gift that is your life?"
"What life?" he'd snap in response, and thus another conversation fell flat.
What was there to celebrate, anyway? The way the old man saw it, longevity was not an achievement but a matter of fate. It had always been this way - a blessing not of righteousness but of heredity, of genetics. This had become even more true since the Cinnibar Protocol, that gift of Taiyang science to its citizens. The blessing of longevity granted to those loyal enough to claim it - that was the promise, and the empire had fulfilled it. To most it granted an added decade of good health, while a select few gained a half-century, but Cong Xiansheng was a biological fluke dwelling in the tail of that distribution.
When he looked in the mirror, Cong Xiansheng saw only a fossil that was better preserved than most, but this was not the image he projected to the world. Other empires celebrated the young and vibrant, but the Taiyang honored their aged, and few were more worthy of that honor. Perhaps he was rude to those whose own spans fell well under a century and a half, but the questions grew so wearisome.
"What was it like to live through so many periods of turmoil, to witness such change?"
I don't know, ask someone who remembers. Everything fades in the second century, you know, and thank heavens for that. A good memory is another overrated blessing.
"You were born into a different world. Does modern society ever shock you?"
All my friends are over a hundred years in their graves, and the living expect me to answer their problems and are outraged when I can't. One could say that this is shocking, though I would choose other words.
"Do you ever wish you could return to the old days?"
The old days are polluted by nostalgia, and be glad that they are gone. The future, though, is no better, being twisted and bent by false promises. There are certain lessons that one only gains with time, and one of those lessons is that there is no golden age, only a sequence of myths.
"Aren't you afraid they'll make you retire from the Protocol soon?"
This was an especially stupid question, and one the younger fools would inevitably ask. No one has to retire from the Protocol - it was always a choice and remains a choice. The youngsters always make dark assumptions, thinking that there must be some pressure on those fortunate souls who beat the odds. They've all seen the propaganda films teaching them of the responsibility of those on the Protocol not to unbalance the empire with their advancing years, but children are governed more by fear than rationality, and there is no fear greater than the unknown. Surely existence, even in this imperfect place, is always preferable to whatever awaits beyond the veil?
Such were the thoughts of that rare breed of protester, gathered in thin packs before the Cinnibar Retirement Centers with their satchels of crude propaganda leaflets. Cong Xiansheng fancied himself a connoisseur of such articles and even found their slogans charming in an immature sort of way. "No to brainwashing, no to death." "Longevity is a blessing, not a disease." "Fight for forever." Cong Xiansheng had many of their flyers in his frozen fists over the years, all of them emblazoned with that obligatory blend of passion and ignorance, but such was the curse of youth.
There was a rare sort of honesty in the Cinnibar Retirement Centers, one lacking in the Cinnibar program more generally. The Cinnibar Protocol Administration Centers had become fixtures in cities across the Taiyang holdings, each one a triumph of design fit to complement the scientific wonders conducted within. The builders favored classical architecture with styles all but lost to the ravages of age, rising just high enough to challenge the heavens. No less attention was paid to their interiors, decorated in a style that synthesized the leading edge of psychology with the delicate touch of high art. Scrolls hand-inked by masters lined the walls of the grand entrance chambers, beautifully rendered pieces capturing the traditional blessings and the art of the seasons - winter conspicuously omitted. Everything was symbolism and polish and comfort, a place subtly speaking to the beginning of new life.
The Retirement Centers, by comparison, were exemplars of austerity and practicality - stumps of buildings in little-trafficked neighborhoods, their dull and clean facades an effective camouflage against the silent urban backdrops. Each center was staffed by earnest young workers who carried out their tasks with such bionic efficiency that one would be forgiven for questioning their humanity. They weren't cruel, and in fact many of them seemed as perplexed as the protesters, but a layer of essential professionalism masked that personal confusion. Cong Xiansheng could still catch this lack of understanding sometimes - quietly, hidden in a flick of an eyelid or a moment's tortured pause before speaking.
"Good afternoon, Cong Xiansheng. No need for an ID scan, sir, we certainly know who you are."
Closed lips greeted the peppy young man, a heavy silence that struck a blow as sure as a fist. The enthusiasm of youth, that strange tendency to race ahead so that they might waste time more quickly, had come to grate on Cong Xiansheng.
"...Yes, Cong Xiansheng never needs an ID here. You must be into your third century by now, yes? Sorry if I forget, my memory is not so sharp."
"Just bring out the counselor."
It was the young man's turn to fall silent. "...Sir? You want to...retire?"
"Yes. Bring him."
"Ah...They were doing the orientation when you began the Protocol, yes?"
"Yes, they were."
"I'm sorry, ah...we do encourage willing retirement for our more successful participants, but if a man as blessed as you opted to remain around for longer, there are few who would question or condemn."
"I know. Bring him."
"...Very well. Oh, we should do an ID check, just to be in full compliance."
The discussion had become mere ritual, one Cong Xiansheng had conducted with only a few variations on dozens of occasions in slightly different contexts. It was like this everywhere - respect the vessel for its durability but question the soul residing within. A trophy is to be admired for the achievement it represents, but does one enable it to speak? Does one listen to its complaints or allow it to seek its own path? To receive such treatment from a retirement counselor, though - it was a violation to aim to convince one to retire, but equal was the seldom mentioned trespass of aiming to persuade one to stay in the Protocol. For Cong Xiansheng, this one rule had proved highly flexible.
The counselors were men and women chosen less for specific skills than for a novel character - on the surface, the metered speech and patient warmth of a Castilian priest, and beneath it the skilfully utilitarian mindset of a mechanical engineer. Their job was not to encourage but to facilitate, not to shove a man into his grave but to lead him to the edge that he might step in of his own accord. Contrary to the words of the young fools, there was no brainwashing or even persuasion at play, merely a choice that people in past cohorts seldom made.
"Good morning, Cong Xiansheng." The counselor carried a folder - a relic of another time, turned to a transparent prop in a world of electronic memories - and made a show of glancing it as though he might forget the person to whom he spoke. His face was an image of reassurance, his plump, still-youthful features crowned by a contrasting head of thinning hair.
"And to you,” said Cong Xiansheng. “So? Let me take care of what I must and we can proceed."
"Now, Cong Xiansheng, there's no need to act with haste. A bit of friendly conversation goes a long way." The counselor flipped open his folder, miming a look of shock. "So you are THAT Cong Xiansheng! Enjoying your 267th year - very impressive!"
"This routine is wasted on me. I'm ready to retire."
The counselor set his prop aside. "...Of course, that is your right. A good thing, in fact! This was all part of what my forebears discussed with you some two hundred and twenty years ago-"
"It's bad for social harmony to have a master class of ancient people around, and a drain on critical resources besides."Cong Xiansheng sliced neatly into the counselor's speech. "It is deleterious to the great works of the Emperor for people to exceed their limits by too much. This much I can remember well."
"...Indeed. You must know that those guidelines were meant for an entire population, not one man. Your continued existence would hardly disrupt anything critical - quite the opposite, in fact! Some of the young people will be lost without your presence, and on a personal level..." The counselor leaned in close as though the usual monitors couldn't hear every word. "...We don't know the limits of the Protocol, its true potential. Certainly, I've been curious as to how long a man can live if he wishes. Three centuries? More? We simply don’t know, but you have defied even our best forecasts! For all we know, you could watch the sun rise on your five hundredth birthday if you so desired!"
"I don't desire it."
"I see. If you are having any problems-"
"I'm not, and my mind is closed. Do as you will, and do it now."
"Certainly, sir." The counselor's inner struggle over his joyless duty was reflected well in his face. "We can do the retirement immediately, but given the enormity of the event, there are certain considerations we should make. I am sure that the Emperor would like to bestow-"
"The Emeror is a fool and I'll see him in whatever hell awaits us," said Cong Xiansheng. "Is this sufficient? Has my blasphemy boiled your blood enough that you'll do your damn duty?"
"...I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean to upset you," said the counselor. "You can proceed to the Retirement Room any time you wish."
"At once, then. Now."
The newer staff members may have felt some urge to commemorate this moment, the death of the oldest man of all time, but the regulars had more wits and Cong Xiansheng certainly wouldn't have had it. There was neither courage nor tragedy in his choice - it was merely a choice, one of millions he had made, different only in the conclusion. There was no emotion as he walked to the Retirement Room nestled deep within the facility. Unlike the rest of the facility, this room had a trace of symbolic flair, though in its subtlety it went unseen by those who never had need to see it more than once. Cong Xiansheng, being more observant than most, could glean the designer's quiet intent - the odd angles of the walls, the nearly invisible lines running from each shallow corner to the next. This was a single snowflake. This was the start of winter.
There would be one last earthly sound playing on Cong Xiansheng's eardrums - a voice, prerecorded some seventy or eighty years prior, delivering a bloodless announcement. "As the river wears and smooths the stone, so does time act upon us all. Cinnibar has bestowed upon you a blessing, and it is time to pass that blessing on to generations unknown. Sleep now, and awaken in the place Heaven has planned for us all, a place without the burden of memory or pain."
The silence that followed was complete and perfect, leaving nothing save the sound of Cong Xiansheng's blood rushing through his aged veins as a reminder of life. There was perfect silence and perfect blackness and perfect coldness, and life itself blurred into oblivion. There was no death, no hard transition between states, but a slow drift into repose. There was the pulse and the blood, then it was quieter, and at last there was nothing.
Cong Xiansheng slept.