Margaret Boone Rappaport
Yang Weide gazed out into the clear black night and saw it. He stared, unbelieving.
A new Guest Star twinkled in the sky, as bright as Venus.It seems so much larger! This isn’t good news. Weren’t the stars ever wrong? he grumbled.
No, he answered himself, of course not.
He continued to observe for some minutes, just to assure himself that the Guest Star was not an apparition.
However, with the shock of the Guest Star’s appearance beginning to fade, Yang Weide found his mind fully alert, and his thoughts began to wander. It was true, the stars were always accurate, but there was something else, and since publication of his and other scholars’ “Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques,” his interests had turned elsewhere.
His imagination veered surely to his astronomical observations and the prognostications they required — that was his job — but also to natural history, to differences between people and why some people seemed always in alignment with the stars’ propitious movements, but others were not so lucky. He concluded that life, itself, was a military expedition, and while the stars foretold much, they could not foretell all. There was something else, deep within each man, woman, and child… factors that somehow created each person’s destiny.
He wondered about these matters, re-folding his long aristocratic robes to skirt his painful right ankle. His knew that his prognostications required a correct reading of the stars, but also an interpretation of their movement in light of the intrigues and personalities at court. This rankled him and made his gout worse.
He wrested his eyes from the new Guest Star for a few moments and regarded his swollen right ankle. Cursèd gout! At four o’clock in the morning, it was still cool and dark, but it was July 4, in the year A.D. 1054, and the heat would return in a few hours to worsen his pain. He heard a rustling behind him and guessed who it was.
Dong Zhi was the younger sister of a powerful imperial concubine who produced a brood of four healthy sons for Emperor Renzong of Song, at the court in Keifeng, China. Her position was assured, but not so for Dong Zhi, who carefully hid behind her older sister’s reproductive accomplishments and maneuvered her way into service for the prominent scholar, Yang Weide, who was now Chief of the Astronomical Bureau.
Dong Zhi became his maid, then his cook, and then, when Yang Weide allowed himself to believe that she might indeed be as bright as he, she became his assistant at the Astronomical Observatory – with no small amount of resulting court gossip!
Those silly fools, thought Yang Weide. They believe she’s already my mistress!
However, while they spent many hours together at night, Dong Zhi had not yet joined him in bed. He wasn’t surprised. He was an old man, nearly bent double with the discomfort of an increasingly curved spine.
Still, he wondered if the Guest Star could be a sign of a change in their relationship, and if so, what that might foretell for the balance of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire in the Cosmos. She had that much influence! He knew it! He believed without a doubt that he and Dong Zhi were somehow destined for greatness, but this knowledge, like his gout, rankled him while he waited for their thrice-told prophecy to bear fruit. Therefore, he would give her uncustomary license while he waited to discover their future. “Foolish woman!” he began as expected. “Why do you carry a parasol when there is no sun?”
With a mincing gait appropriate to her slowly growing status, she approached him. “Oh, celebrated Astrologer, I awoke to the sound of a nightingale who sang too loudly for this early hour of the morning. And lo!” she pointed to the Guest Star. “I see the cause of the bird’s misbehavior!” She bowed, “Forgive me for interrupting your celestial observations.”
He thought the bow was a bit low, but he’d play along. “Yes, the light! Look at it! See how bright it is! It is surely an omen, but of what, I do not yet know,” he finished on a note of genuine concern.
She heard it. “You are troubled, Yang Weide? Surely a star that shines so brightly can mean nothing but good fortune!”
He knew that just the opposite was true. “I must think carefully, woman, and I must act even more carefully! The Emperor’s enemies gather to the north and west, and his bribes to leave us in peace have not exactly worked.”
“I know the peasants are restive, Yang Weide, after a rise in taxes–”
“But what can you do, oh noble Astrologer, gifted with your special knowledge of the stars and able to foretell the future with your prognostications? How can you ease the Emperor’s burden?”
He ignored her puffery. “There are ways to handle such a man — a man whose arm is strong but whose enemies are stronger!”
“Oh wise Astrologer, be temperate in the advice you give. Do not make the nightingale’s mistake and sing out at the wrong time.”
His gaze dropped at the bold warning and he turned his bent frame to look up at the Guest Star once more. It was a stunning spectacle in the fading night sky. “The dawn comes, Dong Zhi. See how the Guest Star lingers in the sky, even in the day.”
She nodded carefully. “I will take my leave of you now and return to the palace, but do be careful, Yang Weide.” She turned and moved away with a steady step this time, and then she stopped and spoke over her shoulder, “I want you safe!”
Later, he thought that admonition had been her greatest impertinence – this notion that she could be concerned about his safety. However, when the Guest Star remained in the daytime sky as well as in the nighttime, for weeks on end, his anxieties rose and he weighed the possibility that she was right: He was in great danger.
With that realization, his gout ceased to pain him and he began to plan just how he would turn what was clearly the Guest Star’s ominous warning into a carefully worded prognostication that would ring true to the Emperor, who was, after all, no fool.
It took him almost two months to craft his report, and in that time, Dong Zhi became much more than his assistant in astronomy. The words she whispered in his ear while they lay together at night were more obsequious than he would have chosen, but in the end, they saved his life.
“Prostrating myself–” he began his report to the Emperor on the morning of August 27. “I report that I have observed the appearance of a Guest Star. I respectfully submit that the Prognostications in Respect of the Emperor read that the Guest Star had a slightly iridescent yellow color. Respectfully, I have divined, and the result is this. The Guest Star does not infringe upon the wrong astrological house. This shows that a Plentiful One is Lord. If the Guest Star does not trespass, an Abundantly Enlightened One is in office!” He held his breath for several seconds. “I request that this prognostication be given to the Bureau of Historiography.” He exhaled carefully.
The Emperor nodded, and after his acceptance of the report, all of the officials presented their congratulations to Yang Weide, and by Imperial Edict, it was ordered that his prognostication should be sent to the Bureau of Historiography.
The Guest Star stayed with them for two years, and during that time, he and Dong Zhi made careful observations and recorded them in maps, charts and documents, many of which were lost over the next thousand years.
But some of them survived, including his report of August 27 to Emperor Renzong of Song. The Chinese historical records of the Guest Star of A.D. 1054 became even more precious after the discovery of the telescope, and the eventual identification of the Guest Star with the stunningly beautiful Crab Nebula. It was the only remnant of the stellar explosion that reached Earth on the morning of July 4, 1054. A thousand years after Yang Weide, it was still expanding, and it would continue to do so until all of the energy of the original supernova was expended.
Lost forever was a family history that began near the date of the disappearance of the Guest Star, which had, as Yang Weide suspected, accurately foretold a change in his relationship with Dong Zhi. Two years after the appearance of the Guest Star, at the time of his son’s birth, he was over sixty years old. Yang Weide thought that the newborn boy was an appropriate replacement for the Guest Star. He knew that he, himself, was ugly, which made him cherish the beauty of Dong Zhi even more, but he stood in even greater awe of the striking health and beauty of their son.
The son of Yang Weide and Dong Zhi grew up strong and well protected in the group of boys who were his aunt’s and the Emperor’s sons. The boys were always faithful to each other and they founded a powerful clan.
In liege to this clan was a servant family who maintained no written records, but it was a matter of family lore that they were all descended from the “five brothers” whose clan protected them for hundreds of years, and one grandmother who was rumored to be the offspring of a powerful concubine from the court of Emperor Renzong of Song.
Therefore, in this way, there arose a substantial co-mingling of the genetic complements of Yang Weide and Dong Zhi, and an intensification of the same.
Henry Yang, an astronomer trained in the 2040s at the University of Cambridge, a half a world away from his natal city of Kaifeng, in Henan Province, migrated to North America from the People’s Republic of China after overstaying a student visa for a postdoc. As fortune would have it, Henry found employment with a company that became the most successful private venture in space colonization, which was then confined to rosy hopes for the Moon and Mars.
At the company’s behest, Henry was off to South America, to the Paranal Observatory on the Atacama Desert, to help in setting up a training program for the first few settlers to the Moon. On the high desert, a brand new European telescope allowed Henry, in his off-hours, to pursue his favorite topic of research: Supernovae! He was fascinated by the stellar explosions beyond any rational explanation. He knew it, but he didn’t care.
Henry had targeted several unstable star systems, which just might, if the stars were with him, so to speak, go supernova while he or his instrumentation were watching. His short list included Eta Carinae, which had two stars rather than just one, and both were shrouded by a peculiar, white, peanut-shaped nebula that had been dubbed by some nutty astronomer, “a homunculus”! It was a little man, bent over and misshapen as if he had arthritis, but a little man, to be sure.
The stars must have been aligned in a propitious manner, because on the morning of July 10, A.D. 2054, Eta Carinae blew, and Henry, seized by an attack of the gout that plagued the members of his family, was on watch, nursing his sore ankle.
In this manner, Henry Yang became the first astronomer to capture the few hours of data before the explosion of a major supernova, and later, after ten years of theoretical work that took him far away from the Atacama and nightly observations, he was able to develop the first formula for the prediction of supernovae.
The clue was found in the hours preceding the explosion, which, of course, no one had ever observed, except by accident, slightly more than a thousand years previously, and then, the observer had only his eyes to view it.
Margaret Boone Rappaport firstname.lastname@example.org
“Guest Star” won 2nd place in Short Story in the 2013 Writing Contest by the Society of Southwestern Authors. The story was first published in the SSA’s THE STORY TELLER 2013, A Publication of the Society of Southwestern Authors.
MARGARET BOONE RAPPAPORT, PhD. is a cultural anthropologist who works as a futurist, lecturer, and science fiction writer in Tucson, Arizona. As President, Policy Research Methods, Incorporated, Falls Church, Virginia, she was a contractor to federal and state agencies for over twenty years. She lectured in Sociology and Anthropology at Georgetown and George Washington Universities. She earned her doctorate at the Ohio State University in 1977. Her dissertation was on the adjustment of Cuban refugee women and families. Dr. Rappaport is a prize-winning short story and poetry writer, and the Co-Founder of The Human Sentience Project.