“Okay, let’s decide,” Peng Zhefei said, assigning seats to everyone. “I’ll sit on the far left, Ruirui sits next to me, Old Cui on Ruirui’s right, and Old Shi on the far right.”
“Alright, let’s rearrange it again,” Cui He said and placed his phone on the table. It rang for a moment, and he quickly picked it up to check. He hoped it wasn’t his boss calling.
“Hey, your friend Kong always had the most problems,” Shi Jie shook his head, then asked Peng Zhefei, “Can Zirui memorize the silly joke I told him? My sister told me girls really hate it.”
Before Peng Zhefei could answer, Cui He cursed, “What is this garbage?”
The other two were surprised since they had rarely heard Cui He curse. They leaned in to see what was on Cui He’s phone screen. It was the email he had just received, titled “Public Display of Affection: Recent Events of Ning Yiwei, a Modern Physics Student, Kissing Same-Sex Partner Behind the Library.”
The lengthy email criticized Ning Yiwei’s moral corruption, accusing him of “excluding classmates” and “plagiarizing papers.” It also mentioned how he used his relationship with a same-sex partner to gain entry into the youth program and the renowned research group.
At the bottom, there were five photos. Cui He opened one of them, a low-resolution candid photo that seemed to be taken with a phone zoomed in to the maximum. But anyone familiar with Ning Yiwei could easily recognize him.
“What on earth…” Shi Jie was so shocked that his jaw almost dropped. He asked Cui He, “What’s going on in your department?! It’s a shocking scandal!”
“Stop making a fuss,” Cui He furrowed his brow, pondered for a moment, and then clicked on the recipient. After a two-second pause, he said, “This was sent to everyone in our research group.”
He looked carefully again and added, “Except for the boss and Ning Yiwei.”
“So precise?” Peng Zhefei narrowed his eyes and said to Cui He, “Looks like there’s a mole in your group.”
Cui He remained silent, but opened the other pictures. It was clear that they were all of Ning Yiwei, but the sender’s mention of a “same-sex partner” wasn’t shown in the photos. All they could gather was that the person was taller than Ning Yiwei and wore a coat.
“Have I ever seen what Ning Yiwei looks like?” Shi Jie, confused and curious, asked gossipingly, “How did he manage to join your boss’s group? Did he really use connections?”
“Ning Yiwei didn’t use any connections to get in,” Cui He firmly asserted. “He entered with pure merit. This email sender is just making up lies with their eyes closed.”
Peng Zhefei leaned closer to Cui He, carefully examining the email and pointing to the domain in the recipient’s address. “They’re all edu addresses,” he said, then slowly turned to Shi Jie, observing his silent expression.
Cui He glanced at Peng Zhefei, realizing the situation. Together with Peng Zhefei, he turned his gaze towards Shi Jie.
Shi Jie felt uneasy under their scrutiny, leaning back in his chair, and cautiously asked, “Why are you both staring at me?!”
“You’re on duty today, and you have access to the information center, right?” said Peng Zhefei.
Cui He checked the time and said, “There are only eighty-one recipients. It’s not too many. First, shut down the email system for ten minutes, then we’ll delete it from the database and restart.”
“What?!” Shi Jie was shocked and panicked. “Are you guys crazy? Do you want to get me fired?! I haven’t even been officially hired yet! Besides, deleting it won’t help because there’s still cached copies. And even if I delete it, he can still send it again.”
“I know who sent it,” Cui He calmly stated. “I’ll contact the boss immediately. You just need to close your eyes and shut down the system.”
Shi Jie looked at Peng Zhefei, then at Cui He, and said with difficulty, “You’re not serious, are you…”
“We have to do something. I’m not trying to harm you,” said Peng Zhefei. “Let me give you some information. Ning Yiwei’s same-sex partner is Liang Chong. By shutting down the system, you’ll become Liang Chong’s savior.”
“Yeah,” Cui He immediately agreed. “And if you don’t shut it down, you’ll be seen as a culprit in the Modern Physics Department.”
“You’re trying to ruin my life,” Shi Jie complained.
“Alright, alright, Old Shi, just shut it down,” Peng Zhefei stood up, ran his fingers through his curly hair, looked at Shi Jie’s workstation, and casually pressed a button. Then he turned to Shi Jie and asked, “How do you shut it down?”
“Hey, don’t touch anything!” Shi Jie jumped up to stop him, waving his hands repeatedly, and said, “Let me think about it.”
“Don’t think about it,” Cui He decisively grabbed Shi Jie’s shoulder, pressing him in front of the computer screen. “Shut it down now!”
Shi Jie looked at the unwavering determination in both of their eyes and reluctantly glanced at them. “If I get expelled from the school, remember who caused it.” Then, with resignation, he opened the system and began the process of shutting it down.
Cui He and Peng Zhefei stood behind, unable to assist, just watching.
Leaning against Cui He, Peng Zhefei suddenly asked, “Do you really know who it is?”
Without directly answering, Cui He took a moment before saying, “I didn’t tell you before, but the boss’s son has been targeting Ning Yiwei since he joined our group. I was afraid of causing trouble, so I never spoke up for Ning Yiwei. The most severe incident almost led to Ning Yiwei and your brother leaving the group. I’ve regretted it ever since.”
“Stop regretting it. I still regret it,” Shi Jie turned around and said expressionlessly, “It’s shut down. Now delete the emails.”
Ning Yiwei finished asking his question and sat down, his hand holding the microphone feeling slightly sweaty.
“This student asked an excellent question,” Lin Zhengyuan said. “Based on your appearance, you’re a freshman, right?”
Professor Zhu sat beside them without using a microphone and casually answered for Ning Yiwei, “He’s a senior, part of the youth program.”
“Then we’re from the same class,” Lin Zhengyuan smiled and briefly summarized Ning Yiwei’s question.
Ning Yiwei glanced at his phone, not receiving any messages. He started recording, taking notes while also recording Lin Zhengyuan’s response. After finishing, he turned to look at Zhou Zirui and noticed a hint of panic in his expression, as if he was trying to appear calm.
“What’s wrong?” Ning Yiwei whispered to Zhou Zirui. “Did you receive something just now?”
Zhou Zirui shook his head. “N-nothing.”
Ning Yiwei sensed that the senior students sitting in front of them were not at ease. Although he didn’t turn around, it felt as if there were pins on his chair, constantly shifting. Moreover, there seemed to be several familiar faces from the research group nearby, watching him. It made Ning Yiwei feel somewhat restless, so he asked Zhou Zirui, “Why is everyone looking at me? Is our question not up to par?”
“N-no way,” Zhou Zirui said. “D-don’t overthink it.”
Then, another classmate asked a question that interested Ning Yiwei. Without further questioning, Ning Yiwei continued taking notes. After writing a few lines, he noticed that for some reason, the senior students from the research group and even Zhou Zirui, who was usually passionate about learning, were burying their heads in their phones, texting away instead of listening attentively like him.
“Zirui, this question is quite good,” Ning Yiwei said.
Zhou Zirui looked up, seemingly afraid that Ning Yiwei would notice something, and forcefully nodded a few times. He said, “There’s s-something urgent going on at m-my home.”
“Alright,” Ning Yiwei immediately responded considerately, “You can borrow my notes to copy.”
“Thank you!” Zhou Zirui said.
As the sixth question was answered, the lecture was coming to an end. Ning Yiwei paused in his note-taking, and the students who had been immersed in their phones lifted their heads. However, Lin Zhengyuan had not left the stage yet. He continued, “With so many students here who have a passion for Modern Physics, I feel deeply gratified. When we were in school, studying physics wasn’t as easy as it is now. Most of us in our department come from highly educated families, each with their own background, except for me and Shenfeng, who is Professor Kong Shenfeng of your Modern Physics Department.
“My ancestors were three generations of poor farmers. Professor Kong claims to be from a lost branch of the Kong family, but I don’t believe it. He says his ancestors were once landlords, but I don’t buy it. Back then, when Shenfeng and I told our families we were studying physics, they had no idea what we were actually studying. Every time my father asked me about the prospects of studying physics, I couldn’t tell him it was for the future of humanity. I had to come up with some random excuse, like missile development or machinery manufacturing, contributing to the country. In short, I had to boast and make grand promises to my family. And now, while drawing those false dreams, they have strangely become a reality.
“I came to give this lecture because Professor Kong, in the name of repaying our alma mater after thirty years of graduation, summoned me back. He even promised to invite me to dinner at his house. But recently, he’s been busy with affairs in Tokyo and couldn’t attend. That’s why I must share an interesting anecdote about Professor Kong with all of you, to bring a smile to your faces.”
Ning Yiwei put down his pen and listened attentively to Professor Lin’s speech.
“During his junior year, Professor Kong pursued his future wife, who was a young lady from a well-off family. On her birthday, he spent half a month in worry, eventually handcrafting a gift—an homemade model of a photon clock. Professor Kong usually looked down on diamonds, calling them a bourgeois conspiracy. To make it look more beautiful, he went to the neighboring College of Chemical Engineering and obtained a zircon stone to place inside the photon clock. It symbolized his wish for his wife to be happy every second of her life.
“On the night of his wife’s birthday, he returned dejectedly in the early morning, complaining to our dormitory mates. He lamented that modern girls didn’t appreciate science enough. Although she agreed to his request to enter into a relationship, she shut him up when he started explaining his diamond deception theory. Several years later, Professor Kong pursued his Ph.D. in the United States. With a meager stipend, after deducting rent and daily expenses, he barely had anything left. However, he saved and lived frugally for two years in order to propose to his wife. He often ate at my place, relying on my hospitality. Finally, he bought a one-carat diamond ring from Harry Winston and brought the beautiful lady home.
“Students, what does this story tell us? It shows that no matter how impressive and scientific physicists may seem on the outside, in the end, they have to accommodate their wife’s desires. In this regard, I have taken inspiration from Professor Kong’s photon clock, hoping that the young people present here will stay grounded and remain true to themselves every minute and every second.”
Applause resounded from the audience as Lin Zhengyuan bowed and walked off the stage.
The students began to disperse from the lecture hall, starting from the back. Ning Yiwei and his group sat in the front and stayed still, waiting for others to leave first.
Ning Yiwei was a little lost in thought. He couldn’t help but think that when he gave Liang Chong the photon clock, he used a genuine diamond. At that time, Liang Chong hadn’t even shown any interest in him yet, but he compromised on his desire to please the fashion-conscious Liang Chong.
Could this be considered surpassing the predecessor?
Lost in his thoughts for a while, Ning Yiwei noticed that the people around him were strangely silent. He remembered the synchronized buzzing sound of mobile phones when he asked his question earlier. Ning Yiwei couldn’t help but ask, “Did you all receive something when I asked the question?”
“Yes,” a senior student spoke up, “I received a mass-sent spam email, one of those money scams. It’s shameless.”
“I received it too. Information leaks are so rampant in today’s society. Even the school email accounts aren’t spared,” a senior student said indignantly. “Yiwei, didn’t you receive it?”
Seeing Ning Yiwei shake his head, he added, “Looks like your email address isn’t in the database of that junk scammer.”
“What kind of spam email is it?” Ning Yiwei asked curiously.
As the people in the back were almost gone, a senior student from the front row, having overheard their conversation, stood up and responded, “Is it that email about a mentally challenged child seeking crowdfunding for a brain surgery? I received it too!”
“Oh, there’s something like that!” Ning Yiwei exclaimed in surprise, then said disappointedly, “Why didn’t you send it to me? I also wanted to take a look. Do any of you still have it?”
“We deleted it long ago. What’s there to see?” a bold senior sister reached out and pinched Ning Yiwei’s face. “It’s a good thing we didn’t send it to you. You’re so naive, you might have actually been scammed into donating money.”
The senior student waved his hand. “Why keep such emails? I even reported it on the way.”
For some reason, Ning Yiwei felt that after the lecture ended, the students from Kong Shenfeng’s research group were walking unusually slowly. They waited until everyone else had left the room before walking out together from the empty lecture hall.
Their group had over eighty people, and more than seventy attended the lecture. It was like having the equivalent of one and a half classes from Ning Yiwei’s elementary school. Everyone walked out of the door, talking and laughing, happy and content.
A senior student who had always been quiet and rarely spoke to Ning Yiwei patted him on the shoulder and praised him, “Yiwei, you asked a profound question today. Impressive.”
Ning Yiwei was pleasantly surprised and thanked him.
Ning Yiwei felt that there was a natural understanding among everyone, whether it was the senior students who had helped smooth things over when he had arguments with Kong Zong, or the junior students who had just joined the group. Everyone was happily walking together, like one big family, slowly exiting the library.
Outside the Tropic of Cancer, winter was cold with short days and long nights. Professor Lin Zhengyuan came to give a lecture, but unexpectedly, he ran overtime. By the time he finished, it was already dark outside, and the chilling wind was blowing fiercely.
“I’m starving,” a senior sister said. “Let’s go eat together.”
The students from the research group surrounded Ning Yiwei and walked in a crowd towards the cafeteria, giving Ning Yiwei the illusion of being protected by the crowd and the collective.
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