The Wallfacers Eighth parts
“It’s my Hubble!” shouted Albert Ringier, clapping his palms together. The tears brimming in his eyes reflected the distant blazing ball of fire that rumbled for a few seconds before passing on. He and the cheering crowd of astronomers and physicists behind him ought to have been watching the launch from a VIP platform closer in, but a damn NASA official said they lacked proper qualifications for access, because the object being sent heavenward did not belong to them. Then the official had turned back to the group of uniformed, ramrod-straight generals and, groveling like a dog, had led them past the sentry post to the viewing platform. Ringier and his colleagues were forced to remain at this far-off spot where, in the previous century, a countdown clock had been built across a lake from the launch site. It was open to the public, but on this late night, there were no other observers apart from scientists.
Viewed from this distance, the blastoff looked like a sped-up sunrise. The floodlights did not follow the rocket as it lifted off, leaving its massive body indistinct except for the spurting flames. From its hiding place in the dark of night, the world burst forth into a magnificent light show, and golden waves whipped up on the inky black surface of the lake as if the flames had ignited the water itself. They watched the rocket ascend. When it passed through the clouds, it turned half the sky the kind of red only found in dreams before it disappeared into the Florida sky, the brief dawn once again swallowed up by the night.
The Hubble II Space Telescope was a second-generation model, its diameter enlarged to 21 meters from its predecessor’s 4.27 meters, which enhanced its observational capability by a factor of fifty. It used a
compound lens technology consisting of lens components manufactured on the ground and assembled in orbit. To put the whole lens into space required eleven launches, and this was the final one. The assembly of Hubble II in the vicinity of the International Space Station was nearing completion. In two months, it would be able to turn its gaze to the depths of the universe.
“You pack of thieves! You’ve stolen another thing of beauty,” Ringier said to the tall man beside him, the only one in the group unaffected by the sight before them. George Fitzroy had seen too many of the launches, and spent the entire process leaning against the countdown clock smoking a cigarette. He had become the military’s representative after Hubble II’s requisition, but since he wore civilian clothes most of the time, Ringier didn’t know his rank and never called him sir. Calling a thief by his name worked just fine.
“Doctor, in wartime the military has the right to requisition all civilian equipment. Besides, you people didn’t grind a single lens component or design a single screw of the Hubble II. You’re just there to enjoy its success, so it’s not your place to complain.” Fitzroy yawned, as if it was tiring work dealing with this pack of nerds.
“But without us, it wouldn’t have any reason to exist! Civilian equipment? It can see the edge of the universe, but you shortsighted types only want to use it to look at the nearest star!”
“Like I’ve said before, this is wartime. A war to defend all humanity. Even if you’ve forgotten that you’re an American, you at least remember you’re human, right?”
Ringier groaned and nodded, then shook his head with a sigh. “But what do you want Hubble II to see?
You’ve got to be aware that it won’t be able to see the Trisolaran planet.”
Fitzroy said with a sigh, “It’s worse than that. The public thinks that it will be able to see the Trisolaran Fleet.”
“Great,” Ringier said. Though his face was indistinct in the darkness, Fitzroy could sense the schadenfreude in Ringier’s expression, which made Fitzroy as uncomfortable as the acrid odor that now wafted over from the launch platform and filled the air.
“Doctor, you ought to know the consequences.”
“If the public has placed its hope in Hubble II, then they probably won’t believe the enemy really exists until they have seen the Trisolaran Fleet with their own eyes.”
“And you find this acceptable?”
“You’ve explained it to the public, right?”
“Of course we’ve explained it! We’ve held four press conferences, and I’ve repeatedly explained that although Hubble II is orders of magnitude more powerful than the largest telescopes currently available, there’s no way it can detect the Trisolaran Fleet. It’s too small! Detecting a planet in another star system from our Solar System is like detecting a mosquito on a lamp on the East Coast from the West Coast, but the Trisolaran Fleet is only as big as the bacteria on one of that mosquito’s legs. How much clearer can I be?”
“That’s pretty clear.”
“But what else can we do? The public will believe whatever it wants. I’ve been in this job for a while now, and I haven’t seen any major space project that they haven’t misinterpreted.”
“I said long ago that the military has lost all credibility as far as space projects are concerned.”
“But they’re willing to believe you. Don’t they call you a second Carl Sagan? You’ve made a mint off those
popular cosmology books of yours. Give us a hand. That’s what the military wants, and now I’m formally passing on their request.”
“Is this a private negotiation of terms?”
“There aren’t any terms! It’s your duty as an American. As a citizen of Earth.”
“Assign me a bit more observational time. I don’t need much. Bump me up to twenty percent, okay?” “You’re doing quite well at twelve point five percent right now, and no one can say if those allotments can
be guaranteed in the future.” Fitzroy waved a hand in the direction of the launch pad, where the dissipating smoke left by the rocket smeared a dirty patch across the night sky. Illuminated by the launch pad lights, it looked like a milk stain on a pair of jeans. The odor had grown more unpleasant. The rocket’s first stage was fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen and shouldn’t have had that odor, so something nearby had probably been burnt by the stream of flames diverted by the launch pad. Fitzroy said, “I’m telling you, all of this is definitely going to get worse.”
* * *
Luo Ji felt the weight of the slanted cliff face pressing down on him, and for a moment he was paralyzed. The hall was totally silent, until a voice behind him said softly, “Dr. Luo, if you please.” He stood up stiffly and walked with mechanical steps to the rostrum. On the short journey, it was like he had returned to a child’s sense of helplessness and wanted someone to hold his hand and guide him forward. But no one extended a hand. He ascended the platform and stood next to Hines, then turned to face the assembly and the hundreds of pairs of eyes focused on him, eyes that represented six billion people from more than two hundred countries on Earth.
As for what went on during the rest of the session, Luo Ji had absolutely no idea. All he knew was that after standing there for a while, he was led off to a seat in the middle of the first row alongside the other three Wallfacers. In a haze, he had missed the historic moment of the announcement of the launch of the Wallfacer Project.
Some time later, when the session seemed to have ended and people, including the three Wallfacers sitting to Luo Ji’s left, had begun to disperse, a man, perhaps Kent, whispered something into his ear before leaving. Then the hall was empty except for the secretary general, still standing on the rostrum, her petite figure in far- off opposition to his against the sloping cliff.
“Dr. Luo, I imagine you have some questions.” Say’s gentle feminine voice echoed in the empty hall like a spirit descending from the heavens.
“Has there been some mistake?” Luo Ji said. His voice, sounding similarly ethereal, didn’t feel like his own. From the rostrum, Say gave a laugh that clearly meant, Do you really think that’s possible?
“Why me?” he asked.
“You need to find your own answer to that,” she said. “I’m just an ordinary man.”
“In the face of this crisis, we are all ordinary people. But we all have our own responsibilities.” “No one solicited my opinion in advance. I was totally in the dark about this.”
Say laughed again. “Doesn’t your name mean ‘logic’ in Chinese?”
“Then you should be able to work out that it would have been impossible to solicit the opinions of the people undertaking this mission before it was handed to them.”
“I refuse,” he said firmly, without even thinking over what Say had just said. “You may.”
The swiftness of this reply, right on the heels of his refusal, left him at a loss for a moment. After a few seconds of silence, he said, “I reject the position of Wallfacer, I reject all the powers granted it, and I will not undertake any responsibility you force upon me.”
The simple, immediate reply to his statement, light as a dragonfly touching on the water, shut down his brain’s ability to think and made his mind a total blank.
“So am I free to leave?” was all he could ask. “You may, Dr. Luo. You are free to do anything.”
Luo Ji turned and walked out past the rows of empty seats. The ease with which he was able to discard the Wallfacer identity and its responsibilities did not give him the slightest shred of comfort or release. Filling his mind now was an absurd sense of unreality, as if all of this was part of some postmodern play devoid of all logic.
He looked back at the exit and saw Say watching him from the rostrum. She seemed small and helpless against the cliff, but when she saw him looking back, she nodded and smiled at him.
He continued onward, past the Foucault Pendulum at the entrance that showed the rotation of the Earth, and ran into Shi Qiang, Kent, and a group of black-suited security personnel who looked inquiringly at him. In their eyes he saw a new respect and awe. Even Shi Qiang and Kent, who had always behaved naturally toward him, made no attempt to mask their expressions. Luo Ji passed through their midst, saying nothing. He walked through the bare lobby, occupied as on his arrival only by black-clothed guards. As before, whenever he passed one, they spoke softly into a radio. When he came to the exit, Shi Qiang and Kent stopped him.
“It may be dangerous outside. Do you need security?” Shi Qiang asked.
“No, I don’t. Get out of my way,” Luo Ji said, keeping his eyes straight ahead.
“Very well. We can only do as you tell us,” Shi Qiang said as he moved aside. Kent did the same. Luo Ji went out the door.
The cool air hit him in the face. It was still nighttime, but the outside was clearly lit by the bright lamps. The delegates to the special session had driven off, and the few people left in the plaza were tourists or locals. The historic meeting had not yet made the news, so no one recognized him, and his presence did not attract any attention.
And so Luo Ji the Wallfacer walked as if sleepwalking through absurd fantastic reality. In his trance, he had lost the capacity for rational thought and was unaware of where he came from, much less where he was going. Unwittingly, he walked onto the lawn and came to a statue. When his gaze passed over it, he noticed that it was of a man hammering a sword: Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares. It had been a gift to the UN from the former Soviet Union, but to his mind the powerful composition formed by the hammer, the bulky man, and the sword being bent beneath him imbued the work with hints of violence.
And then the man with the hammer was smacking Luo Ji savagely in the chest with a fierce blow that sent him tumbling to the ground and knocked him out before he even hit the grass. But the shock passed quickly, and soon partial consciousness returned amid pain and dizziness. He had to shut his eyes against the blinding flashlights that were all around him. Then the rings of light receded and he could make out a circle of faces over him. In the black cloud of haze and agony he recognized Shi Qiang the moment he heard his voice:
“Do you need security protection? We can only do as you tell us!”
Luo Ji nodded weakly. Then everything happened in a flash. He felt himself lifted onto what seemed like a stretcher, and then the stretcher was hoisted up. He was surrounded by a tight clutch of people, as if he was in a narrow pit with walls formed by human bodies. The only thing visible out of the mouth of the pit was the black night sky, and it was only from the motion of the legs of the people surrounding him that he could tell he was being carried. Soon the pit vanished, as did the sky above him, replaced by the lit ceiling panels of an ambulance. He tasted blood in his mouth and then emptied his stomach in a bout of nausea. Someone beside him caught his vomit—blood and what he had eaten on the plane—in a plastic bag with a practiced hand. After he vomited, someone strapped an oxygen mask to his face. When he could breathe easier he felt a little better, although his chest still hurt. He felt his clothes getting cut off at the chest, and imagined in a panic that fresh blood was spurting from a wound, but that didn’t seem to be right, since no bandaging seemed to be taking place. He was covered in a blanket. Not long after that, the vehicle stopped. He was carried out, and the night sky and the lit ceilings of hospital corridors passed over him, then the ceiling of an emergency room, and then, moving slowly overhead, the glowing red slit of the CT scanner. Faces of doctors and nurses occasionally popped into view and caused him pain with their inspections and manipulation of his chest. Finally, when he could see the ceiling of the ward overhead, everything settled down.
“One broken rib and minor internal bleeding. It’s not serious. You’re not badly injured, but you need rest due to the bleeding,” the bespectacled doctor looking down at him said.
This time Luo Ji didn’t refuse sleeping pills, but took them with a nurse’s help and quickly fell asleep. Two scenes alternated in his dreams: the rostrum of the UN assembly hall looming above him, and the man from Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares swinging a hammer into him over and over. Later, he came to the quiet patch of snow deep in his heart and entered the simple, exquisite cabin. The Eve of his own creation stood up from the fireplace, her beautiful eyes brimming with tears.… Then he woke up and felt tears in his own eyes and a spot of wetness on the pillow. They had dimmed the lights for him, and since she didn’t
appear while he was awake, he fell back to sleep in the hope of returning to the cabin. But this time he slept without dreaming.
When he woke next, he knew that he had been asleep for a long time. He felt refreshed, and although there was still intermittent pain in his chest, he could believe now that his injuries weren’t serious. When he tried to sit up,
the blond nurse didn’t stop him, but simply adjusted his pillow for him to lean on. After a while, Shi
Qiang came in and sat down by his bed.
“How are you feeling? I’ve been shot three times while wearing a bulletproof vest. This shouldn’t be anything serious,” he said.
“Da Shi, you saved my life,” Luo Ji said weakly.
Shi Qiang waved a hand. “This happened because we fell down on the job. We didn’t take timely and effective protection measures. We have to do what you say. It’s over now, though.”
“And the other three?”
Shi Qiang knew immediately who he was referring to. “They’re fine. They weren’t as careless as you, walking out alone.”
“Does the ETO want to kill us?”
“Probably. The assailant has been detained. It’s a good thing we set up a snake-eye behind you.” “A what?”
“A precise radar system that can quickly determine the shooter’s position from the path of the bullet. The assailant’s identity has been confirmed. He’s a professional guerilla in the ETO militia. We never imagined he would dare to attack in a downtown area like this. His actions were practically suicidal.”
“I’d like to see him.” “Who? The assailant?” Luo Ji nodded.
“Sure. But that’s not within the scope of my authority. I’m only in charge of security protection. I’ll put in a request.” Having said this, Shi Qiang turned and left. He seemed more careful and cautious now, different from the lackadaisical image he used to project. Luo wasn’t used to it.
Shi Qiang quickly returned and said, “You may, either here or somewhere else. The doctor says walking isn’t an issue.”
Luo Ji wanted to tell him that he’d like to change venues. He even started to get up, but then the thought struck him that a sickly appearance better suited his purpose, so he lay back down again. “I’ll see him here.”
“They’re on their way over, so you’ll have to wait for a while. Why don’t you have something to eat? It’s been a day since you ate on the plane. I’ll set it up.” Then he went out again.
The assailant was brought in right after Luo Ji had finished eating. He had a handsome European face, but his most prominent feature was his slight smile, a smile that seemed so plastered on it never went away. He was not in cuffs, but when he entered, two people who looked like professional escorts sat down on chairs, and two others stood at the doorway. They were wearing badges that identified them as PDC officers.
He tried to look as close to death’s door as possible, but the assailant saw through him. “Doctor, surely it’s not as serious as all that?” He smiled as he said this, a different smile appearing over his permanent one like an ephemeral oil slick floating on water. “I’m very sorry.”
“You’re sorry for trying to kill me?” Luo Ji raised his head off the pillow to look at his attacker.
“Sorry I didn’t kill you, sir. I thought you wouldn’t be wearing a vest to a meeting like this. Never imagined you would be so scrupulous with protecting your life. Otherwise I’d have used armor-piercing bullets, or simply aimed for your head. Then I would have completed my mission, and you would be freed from yours, this unnatural mission no normal person can shoulder.”
“I’m already free of it. I submitted my refusal to the secretary general, rejecting the Wallfacer position and all of its rights and responsibilities, and she agreed on behalf of the UN. Of course, you didn’t know this when you were trying to kill me. The ETO wasted an assassin.”
The smile on the assailant’s face grew brighter, like a monitor whose brightness had been turned up. “You’re a funny man.”
“What do you mean? I’m telling you the honest truth. If you don’t believe me—”
“I believe you, but you’re still a funny man,” the assailant said, the bright smile still on his face. It was a smile that Luo Ji noted in passing but that would soon be imprinted on his consciousness as if by liquid metal, marking him for life.
He shook his head and, with a sigh, lay back down on the bed. He did not speak.
The assailant said, “Doctor, I don’t think we have much time. I presume you did not call me here purely to tell this infantile joke.”
“I still don’t understand what you mean.”
“If that’s the case, then your intelligence does not qualify you to be a Wallfacer, Dr. Luo Ji. You’re not as logical as your name suggests. My life really has been wasted, it appears.” The assailant looked at the two people standing on alert behind him and said, “Gentlemen, I think we can leave.”
The two cast an inquiring glance at Luo Ji, who waved a hand at them, and then the assailant was led out.
Luo Ji sat up in bed and thought over the assailant’s words. He had the odd feeling that something wasn’t right, but he didn’t know what it was. He got out of bed and took a couple of steps: no impediments apart from the dull pain in his chest. When he went to the door and looked out, the guards armed with rifles sitting beside it stood up immediately, and one of them spoke into the radio on his shoulder. Luo Ji saw a bright and clean hallway that was completely empty except for two more armed guards at the very end. He shut the door, went over to the window, and drew back the curtain. Looking down from this height he saw that guards armed to the teeth were posted all over the hospital entrance, and two green military vehicles were parked out front. Apart from the occasional white-clothed hospital staffer hurrying in or out, he saw no one else. Looking more carefully, he noticed that on the roof of the building opposite were two people surveying the surroundings through binoculars next to a sniper rifle, and he was instinctively certain that similar snipers were on the roof of his own building.
The guards weren’t police. They looked like military. He called for Shi Qiang. “The hospital is still under heavy security, correct?” he asked.
“And if I asked you to dismiss all of the security, what would happen?”
“We would do as you asked. But I advise you not to do so. It’s dangerous at the moment.” “What department are you with? What are you in charge of?”
“I belong to the Planetary Defense Security Department, and I’m in charge of your safety.”
“But I’m no longer a Wallfacer. I’m just an ordinary citizen, so even if my life is in danger, the duty ought to fall to the ordinary police. Why should I still enjoy this degree of protection from planetary defense security? And to have them dismissed or recalled if I so desire? Who gave me that power?”
Shi Qiang’s face remained expressionless, like a rubber mask. “These are the orders we were given.” “Then … where’s Kent?”
“Outside.” “Call him in!”
Kent came in shortly after Shi Qiang left. His manner had returned to the gracious demeanor of a UN official.
“Dr. Luo, I wanted to wait to see you until you had recovered.”
“What are you doing now?”
“I’m your day-to-day liaison with the Planetary Defense Council.”
“But I’m not a Wallfacer anymore!” Luo Ji shouted. Then he asked, “Has the media announced the Wallfacer Project?”
“To the entire world.”
“And my refusing to be a Wallfacer?” “It’s in there too, of course.”
“What did it say?”
“It was quite simple. ‘After the conclusion of the UN special session, Luo Ji declared his refusal of the Wallfacer position and mission.’”
“Then what are you still doing here?”
“I’m in charge of your day-to-day liaisons.”
Luo Ji looked at him blankly. Kent seemed to be wearing the same rubber mask as Shi. He was unreadable. “If there’s nothing else, then I’ll be going. Rest well. Call for me at any time,” Kent said, and then started
to leave. Just as he stepped through the door, Luo Ji called for him to stop. “I want to see the secretary general.”
“The Planetary Defense Council is the specific agency in charge of the direction and execution of the Wallfacer Project. The supreme leader is the PDC’s rotating chair. The UN secretary general exercises no direct leadership over the PDC.”
Luo Ji thought this over. “I’d still like to see the secretary general. I ought to have that power.”
“Very well. Wait one moment.” Kent left the room, but soon returned and said, “The secretary general is waiting for you in her office. Shall we be off, then?”
All along the way to the secretary general’s office on the thirty-fourth floor of the Secretariat Building, Luo Ji remained under security so tight he was practically shut up in a movable safe. The office was smaller than he had imagined, and simply furnished, with a fair bit of space taken up by a UN flag standing behind the desk. Say came around the desk to welcome him.
“Dr. Luo, I’d wanted to visit you in the hospital yesterday, but you see…” She gestured to the pile of papers on the desk, whose only personal touch was a finely crafted bamboo pencil holder.
“Ms. Say, I have come to reiterate the statement I made to you at the close of the meeting,” he said. Say nodded but said nothing.
“I want to go home. If I am in danger, please notify the New York Police Department and have them be responsible for my safety. I am just an ordinary citizen. I don’t need PDC protection.”
Say nodded again. “That certainly can be done, but I advise you to accept your current protection, because it is more specialized and reliable than the NYPD.”
“Please answer me honestly. Am I still a Wallfacer?”
Say returned to her desk. Standing beside the UN flag, she smiled slightly at Luo Ji. “What do you think?” Then she motioned for him to take a seat on the sofa.
The slight smile on Say’s face was familiar. He had seen the same smile on the face of the young assailant, and in the future he would see it in the eyes and on the face of everyone he met. The smile would come to be called “the Wallfacer smile,” and it would be as famous as the smile of the Mona Lisa or the grin of the Cheshire cat. Say’s smile calmed him down at last, the first time he had been truly calm since before she had stood on the rostrum and announced to the world that he was a Wallfacer. He sat slowly down on the sofa, and by the time he got situated, he understood everything.
It took just an instant for Luo Ji to comprehend the true nature of his status as Wallfacer. Like Say had said, before the mission was handed down, the ones who would undertake it could not have been consulted. And once the Wallfacer mission and identity were granted, they could not be refused or abandoned. This impossibility was not due to any individual’s coercion, but because cold logic, as determined by the project’s very nature, meant that once someone became a Wallfacer, an invisible and impenetrable screen was immediately thrown up between them and ordinary people that made their every action significant. And that was what the smiles directed at Wallfacers meant:
How are we supposed to know whether or not you have already started work?
He now understood that the Wallfacers had a mission far weirder than any in history, its logic cold and twisted, yet unyielding as the chains that bound Prometheus. It was an unliftable curse impossible for the Wallfacers to break under their own strength. No matter how he struggled, the totality of everything would be greeted with the Wallfacer smile and imbued with the significance of the Wallfacer Project:
How are we supposed to know whether or not you are working?
His heart surged with a towering fury such as he had never before experienced. He wanted to shout
hysterically, to inquire after Say’s mother and the UN’s mother, to inquire after the mothers of all of the delegates at the special session and on the PDC, to inquire after the mothers of the entire human race, and finally to inquire after the nonexistent mothers of the Trisolarans. He wanted to jump up and down and smash things, to sweep aside the documents, globe, and bamboo pencil holder on Say’s desk, and then tear the blue flag to shreds.… But in the end he understood where he was and who he was facing, controlled himself, and stood up, only to fall heavily back upon the sofa again.
“Why was I chosen?” Luo Ji began, hands covering his face. “Next to the three of them, I have no qualifications. I have no talent and no experience. I’ve never seen war, much less led a country. I’m not a successful scientist. I’m just a university professor who muddles through by throwing together crappy papers. I’m someone who lives for today. I don’t want kids of my own, and I could care less about the continuation of human civilization.… Why was I picked?” By the end of this speech, he had jumped up from the sofa.
Say’s smile vanished. “To tell you the truth, Dr. Luo, we’re baffled by this too. And that’s the reason you have access to the fewest resources out of all of the Wallfacers. Choosing you is the greatest gamble in history.”
“But there’s got to be a reason why I was chosen!”
“Yes, but only indirectly. No one knows the real reason. Like I said, you have to find your own answer.” “Then what about the indirect reason?”
“I’m sorry. I’m not authorized to tell you. But I do believe that you’ll know when the time is right.”
Luo Ji sensed that they had reached the end of their conversation, so he turned to leave, only realizing when he reached the door that he hadn’t said good-bye. He turned around. Like in the assembly hall, Say nodded at him with a smile. Only this time, he knew the meaning behind that smile.
She said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you again. But in the future, your work will be conducted within the framework of the PDC, so you will report directly to the PDC rotating chair.”
“You don’t have any confidence in me, do you?” Luo Ji asked. “I said that choosing you was a huge gamble.”
“Then you’re right.” “Right to have gambled?”
“No. Right to have no confidence in me.”
Again with no good-bye, he walked straight out of the office. Relapsing to the state he had been in just after being declared a Wallfacer, he walked aimlessly. At the end of the hallway, he entered an elevator and rode it down to the hall on the ground floor, then exited the Secretariat Building and came once more to the United Nations Plaza. He was surrounded by security guards the entire way, and though he pushed them impatiently a few times, they stuck to him like magnets and followed him wherever he went. It was daytime now, and Shi Qiang and Kent walked up to him in the sunny square and asked him to either go back inside or enter a vehicle as quickly as possible.
“I’m never going to see the sun again my entire life, am I?” he asked Shi Qiang.
“It’s not that. They’ve cleared the vicinity, so it’s relatively safe here. But there are lots of visitors who all recognize you. Crowds are hard to handle, and you probably don’t want that either.”
Luo Ji looked around him. At least for now, no one paid any attention to their small group. He headed
toward the General Assembly Building and entered quickly for a second time. His goal was clear and he knew where he had to go. Past the empty balcony, he saw the colorful stained-glass panel. Turning right, he entered the Meditation Room, closing the door to keep Shi Qiang, Kent, and the guards outside.
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