Han Li in Orbit
When a stranger, passing through, told Han Li about the “World Wide Web,” he thought the man was talking about a plague of spiders. The spiders will eat the same insects that eat our crops, Han thought hopefully. He worked on his family’s sugar beet farm in Tarim Basin, in far western China, a place as far from the ocean as any point on Earth, and surrounded by mountains. The Internet was new to most everyone there. “You can find anything on it,” the stranger said.
His life as he lived it in the Basin was simple. To make a purchase for the farm, he drove the truck. To relax, he played cards. To speak to someone, he leaned close – he had to, since his eardrum was damaged as an infant when a tractor backfired, five feet from where his father held him. To make a living, he sweated and plowed, and was out in the sun all day until his skin had become the color of the soil he was tilling. To buy something for himself, he relied on his mother, who paid him only after subtracting what it cost to feed and clothe him.
Whatever this Web really was, he had to find out. So on the night of his 20th birthday, Han took the 3,000 yuan he’d saved for four years, hopped on four different trains en route to Beijing, and two days later arrived on his cousin’s doorstep. There, the relative he’d never met gave him a laptop computer, and Han’s mind took to it like Mozart’s chubby little hands took to a piano. Words and images and sounds and colors and movements and ideas and the things that could be done and had – the entire world at his fingertips!
He surprised even himself at how quickly he picked it up. In Tarim Basin, Han was the best card player in town, beating all the adults with his photographic memory. He found the digital world no more difficult. In Beijing, he learned to write a programming language and his skill was such that he was making good money within a year. He got his own place. He ate at expensive restaurants, and bought nice clothes. He acquired credit cards.
One day he found an off-shore poker website, and started playing with 2,000 yuan. He didn’t stop playing until 4 a.m. three days later – his winnings multiplied by 57 times. Before he went to sleep that morning, he bought a new Lexus. He transferred more of his winnings to an online brokerage account, and he found playing the Hong Kong stock market pretty simple, too. With his new passion for shopping on the Internet, he bought leather furniture, a high-end sound system, Italian shoes and the best appliances money could buy. Han believed that “add to cart” were probably the most beautiful words in the Chinese language.
In Hong Kong, a 37th story apartment overlooking Victoria Harbour became his new home. Four monitors going at the same time – trading on the exchange, playing Texas Hold ‘Em, talking in chat rooms, and shopping, all day, and then all night, too. He was in paradise; he was in cyberspace. Soon, there was no reason to ever leave. He hired a chef to come in and prepare the rich Chinese dishes he loved back home. His formerly taut body became soft from sitting all day, so he ordered a masseuse, and had a steel bar installed on the ceiling for backwalks. When his new smartphone arrived, he often worked and shopped from the massage table.
The maid he hired tried to get him to leave his apartment for fresh air more often, but that idea didn’t appeal to him. The city was crowded and noisy. Besides, the money was pouring in; he could do what he wanted! His father had paid him the same amount of money for one year of back-breaking labor in the beet field, as he made in two hands of online poker. Before, if he had mistakenly dropped a 100 yuan note, he would have panicked; now it was the amount he typically tipped cab drivers.
On a whim, he bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle identical to one he saw in a movie, but couldn’t find the time to get a license. Still, he loved seeing the looks from his neighbors when they saw it parked in his condo’s garage. Also, silk underwear, a huge telescope to see the stars, and a time-saving work chair that also functioned as a toilet. It sucked the waste out of his body, and then cleaned him up with warm water and hot air, adding “bless you” in Michelle Yeoh’s voice. Gold for his fingers and neck; cashmere for his body. He sent money back home occasionally, but his parents didn’t spend it on visiting him. Then he met some new friends, McDonald’s and KFC, and they became his constant companions, delivered to his door after a few clicks. He grew quite overweight, and had Botox, even though he was only six months shy of thirty. But it made him feel better. So did prostitutes. “Ophelia. Blonde. Loves Rope.” Add to cart. “Elke. Blue Eyes. Belgian Surprise.” Add to cart!
Adventure – he could buy that too! On a message board for the “Transformer” movies, someone was talking about private flights into space. A guy named “mischa696” told him about a Russian company that was launching soon, and Han signed up and put a six-figure deposit down. It was possibly, okay probably, illegal, but the ride was for sale, and if it was for sale, Han would buy. He paid even more for a spacewalk, and a month later he traveled to the launch site in Omsk, in the middle south of Russia.
A gravelly, hard-faced woman named Vera introduced herself as the flight supervisor, and had Han sign a few releases and forms. She had to translate them into Chinese since they were written in Russian. The physical training was a challenge. Two days total, and Han, having once known hard physical labor, tried to enjoy it. Straining to lift a fifty pound barbell, his corpulent body remembered what sweat and pain felt like, and didn’t miss it. In Tarim Basin, he would have raised that amount of weight over his head several times, with one hand. Vera watched him closely, without expression, and she struck Han distinctly as a woman who did not enjoy her work.
Han had to climb three floors of squeaky metal stairs to get to the door of the rocket, a crude adaptation of a space shuttle. Encased in his suit, he was filthy with sweat by the time he got into his seat. The capsule smelled like stale bread. It was clearly something leftover, and refurbished, from the Soviet space program in the sixties. But the rocket got off the pad, its thrust pushed Han’s stomach in every direction, like ping-pong balls that determine winning lottery numbers. Oh boy! He smiled inside his helmet – if his parents could see him now, they’d say he was completely insane! Ha ha! But he was not insane, he told himself, because he was a private citizen, who had worked hard and with his earnings bought himself a ticket to leave the planet for a couple of hours. He was now a celebrity in Hong Kong, and there was a huge celebration planned in his honor upon his return. Within 20 minutes, Han had left the atmosphere, and was in space, circling the earth, and doing just fine.
After the flight stabilized, Vera became very quiet. She prepared Han for his space walk, hooked him up and, still expressionless, pushed him toward the hatch. Then – he was free! As he floated, looking down on the Pacific, he saw its vastness. The earth was a bright and beautiful light, spinning in the darkness, with greens and blues and copper browns – very similar to one of his favorite PlayStation games. He saw the west coast of the United States, and thought – there is where Amazon.com takes my orders.
When Han looked and saw the other end of the tether floating in space like a limp noodle, not bound to the ship, he didn’t think anything of it. He could be easily retrieved. Right? He drifted further away from the ship, and saw Vera crying through the glass at him. Or was she laughing? Had he signed something he shouldn’t have, in his excitement over the trip? Had he signed a life insurance policy over to the Russians? Was Vera’s translation of the forms he had signed false? How much air did he have left? The entire universe is laughing at me! What a great big fat fool I am, floating in space without any air supply! He made a mental note to be more conscious of such Internet scams in the future.
Han tried to think positive, and for the next 20 minutes he believed he would be rescued. They will fire their rockets and direct the ship to come and retrieve me. I will be back in Hong Kong tomorrow, and my masseuse will walk on my back, and I will be blessed by Michelle Yeoh, and life will go on. But nothing and no one came, and the ship soon became a speck in the distance. Positive thinking wasn’t working, so he changed tactics. Now he tried to think negative, so as to make his own situation better by comparison. There are worse ways to die. To be devoured by cannibals while still alive, or be to be injured and stranded alone in a field of beets, prostrate in the hot sun, without water or food, or mobile phone. As his air began to run out, he could see China, and then the small, smooth brown spot that was the desert of Tarim Basin. Home!
Han Li suffocated and died, and two years later he reentered the atmosphere and burned up. His ashes and a few pieces of him returned to the earth. Meteorologists have claimed that, according to wind patterns that day, one or two tiny fragments of Han’s bones may well have landed back on the sugar beet fields near Tarim Basin.
For more by Rob Garver: http://www.greenbeanshumor.com/