THE SPELL 4
Standing in the giant shadow cast by the space plane High Frontier and looking up at its massive body, Zhang Beihai was involuntarily reminded of the carrier Tang, now long dismantled, and even wondered if the hull of High Frontier could contain a few steel plates from Tang. Over the course of more than thirty reentries, the burning heat had left scorch marks on the body of the space plane, and it really did look the way Tang had when it was under construction. The body had the same sense of age, but the two cylindrical booster rockets beneath the wings were new, making it resemble repairs to ancient architecture in Europe: The newness of
the patches stood in stark contrast to the coloring of the original building, reminding visitors that those parts were modern additions. But if the boosters were removed, High Frontier would look like a big old transport plane.
The space plane was a very new thing, one of the few breakthroughs in aerospace technology over the last five years, and quite possibly the last generation of chemically propelled spacecraft. The concept had been proposed the previous century as a replacement for the space shuttle that could take off from a runway like an ordinary plane and fly conventionally to the top layer of the atmosphere, at which point the rockets would be turned on for spaceflight and it would enter orbit. High Frontier was the fourth such space plane in operation, and many more were under construction. They would, in the near future, take on the task of building the space elevator.
“I once imagined that we would never get the chance to go to space in our lifetime,” Zhang Beihai said to Chang Weisi, who had come to see him off. He and twenty other space force officers, all of them members of the three strategic institutes, would take High Frontier to the ISS.
“Are there naval officers who’ve never been to sea?” Chang Weisi said, smiling.
“Of course there are. Lots of them. Some people in the navy sought exactly that. But I’m not that sort of person.”
“Beihai, be aware of one thing: The active-duty astronauts are still air force personnel, so you are the first representatives of the space force to go into space.”
“It’s a shame there’s no specific mission.”
“Experience is the mission. A space strategist ought to have a consciousness of space. This wasn’t feasible before the space plane, since sending up one person cost tens of millions, but it’s much cheaper now. We’ll try to put more strategists into space soon, since we’re the space force, after all. Right now we’re more like a college of bullshit, and that just won’t do.”
Then the boarding call was issued, and the officers began climbing the airstair to the plane. They wore uniforms but not space suits, and looked no different than if they were taking standard air travel. It was a sign of progress, demonstrating that going to space was a little more normal than it had been. From the uniforms, Zhang Beihai noticed that there were people from other departments boarding the plane as well.
“Ah, Beihai, there’s another important thing,” Chang Weisi said as Beihai was about to pick up his carry- on. “The CMC has studied the report we submitted on sending political cadres to the future as reinforcements, and the brass feel that conditions are still premature.”
Zhang Beihai squinted, as if warding against a glare, though they were still in the space plane’s shadow. “Commander, my feeling is that we ought to keep the entire four-century period in mind when making plans, and to be clear about what’s urgent and what’s important.… But please be assured that I won’t say that in any formal setting. I know very well that our superiors are considering the bigger picture.”
“The higher-ups have affirmed your long-term thinking and commend you for it. The document stresses one point: The plan to send reinforcements to the future has not been denied. Research and planning will continue, but present conditions are still premature for execution. I feel—and this is of course my personal opinion—that we need additional qualified political cadres in our ranks to lessen the current work pressures before we can consider it.”
“Commander, surely you are aware of what ‘qualified’ means in the context of the Space Force Political Department, and what the basic requirements are. Qualified people are becoming increasingly rare.”
“But we’ve got to look forward. If there are breakthroughs in the two key technologies of phase one, the space elevator and controlled fusion—and there’s hope of this in our lifetimes—then things will be better.… Okay then. Off with you.”
Zhang Beihai saluted him and then stepped onto the stairs. His first feeling upon entering the cabin was that it wasn’t much different than a civilian airliner, except the seats were wider, having been designed to accommodate space suits. During the first flights of the space plane, all passengers had to wear space suits as a precaution, but there was no need for that now.
He had a window seat, and the seat immediately next to his was also occupied. A civilian, judging from his clothing. Zhang Beihai nodded to him in greeting before turning his attention to fastening the seat’s complicated safety belt.
There was no countdown. High Frontier started its air engines and began taxiing. Because of its weight, it spent longer on the ground during takeoff than an ordinary plane, but at last it lifted ponderously off the ground and embarked on its voyage into space.
“This is the thirty-eighth flight of the space plane High Frontier. The aviation phase has started and will last approximately thirty minutes. Please do not unfasten your safety belts,” said a voice over the intercom.
As he watched the ground recede through the cabin window, Zhang Beihai’s thoughts turned to the past. During training to become a carrier captain, he had completed naval aviation pilot training and had passed the level three fighter pilot exam. On his first solo trip he had watched Earth recede like this and suddenly discovered that he loved the sky even more deeply than the ocean. Now, his longing was for the space beyond the sky.
He was a man destined to fly high and fly far.
“Not much different from civil aviation, you think?”
He turned to see the speaker sitting in the next seat, and recognized him at last. “You must be Dr. Ding Yi.
I’ve been wanting to meet you.”
“But it’s going to get rough in just a little bit,” the man said, ignoring Zhang Beihai’s salutation. He went on, “The first time, I didn’t take off my glasses after the aviation phase, and they crushed my nose with the weight of a brick. The second time I took them off, but then they flew off after gravity went away. It wasn’t easy for the guy to find them for me in the air filter in the plane’s tail.”
“I thought you went up on the space shuttle the first time. On TV, that didn’t look like a very nice trip,” Zhang Beihai said with a grin.
“Oh, I’m talking about taking the space plane. If we count the shuttle, then this is my fourth time. On the shuttle, they took away my glasses before takeoff.”
“Why are you going to the station this time? You’ve just been put in charge of a controlled fusion project.
The third branch, isn’t it?”
Four branches had been set up for the controlled fusion project, each pursuing a different direction of research.
Restrained by the safety belt, Ding Yi lifted a hand to point at Zhang Beihai. “You study controlled fusion
and you can’t go to space? You sound the same as those guys. The ultimate goal of our research is spaceship engines, and the real power held by the aerospace industry today remains to a large degree in the hands of the people who used to make chemical rocket engines. They’re saying now that we’re just supposed to devote ourselves to controlled fusion on the ground, and that we basically have no say in the general plan of the space fleet.”
“Dr. Ding, your views are identical to mine.” Zhang Beihai loosened his safety belt and leaned over. “For a space fleet, space travel is an entirely different concept from chemical rocketry. Even the space elevator is different from today’s aerospace techniques. But right now the aerospace industry of the past still holds too much power. Its people are ideologically ossified and legalistic, and if things continue, there will be all kinds of trouble.”
“There’s nothing to be done. At least they’ve managed to come up with this in the course of five years.” He pointed around him. “And this gives them the capital to squeeze out outsiders.”
The cabin intercom started up. “Please take care: We are approaching an altitude of twenty thousand meters. Due to the thin atmosphere we will now be flying through, there may be sharp drops in altitude that will produce momentary weightlessness. Please do not panic. Again, please keep your safety belts fastened.”
Ding Yi said, “But our trip to the station this time is unrelated to the controlled fusion project. It’s to recover those cosmic ray catchers. That’s some expensive stuff.”
“The space-based high-energy physics research project has been stopped?” asked Zhang Beihai, retightening his safety belt.
“It’s stopped. Knowing that there’s no need to waste effort in the future counts as a kind of success.” “The sophons won.”
“That’s right. So humanity only has a few reserves of theory remaining: classical physics, quantum mechanics, and a still-embryonic string theory. How far their applications can be pushed is up to fate.”
High Frontier continued to climb, its aviation engines rumbling under the strain as if it were struggling up a tall mountain, but there were no sudden drops. The space plane was now approaching thirty thousand meters, the limit of aviation. Looking out, Zhang Beihai saw that the blue of the sky was fading as it got dark, even though the sun became even more dazzling.
“Our current flight altitude is thirty-one thousand meters. The aviation phase is complete and the spaceflight phase is about to begin. Please adjust your seats according to the illustration onscreen to minimize the discomfort of hypergravitation.”
Then Zhang Beihai felt the plane rise gently, as if it had discarded a burden.
“Aircraft engine assembly separated. Aerospace engine ignition countdown: ten, nine, eight…” “For them, this is the real launch. Enjoy,” Ding Yi said, and closed his eyes.
When the countdown reached zero, there was a huge roar, as if the entire sky outside was shouting, and then hypergravity came like a giant, slowly tightening fist. With effort, Zhang Beihai twisted his head to look out the window. He was unable to see the flames spurting from the engine, but a wide swath of the rarified air of the sky outside was painted red, as if High Frontier was floating through a sunset.
Five minutes later, the boosters detached, and after another five minutes of acceleration, the main engine cut off. High Frontier had entered orbit.
The giant hand of hypergravity suddenly let go and Zhang Beihai’s body bounced back from the depths of his seat. Although the restraint of his safety belt kept him from floating away, to his senses he and the High Frontier were no longer parts of the same whole. The gravity that had once bonded them together was gone, and he and the plane were now flying in parallel paths through space. Out the window were the brightest stars he had ever seen in his life. Later, when the space plane adjusted its attitude, the sun streamed in through the windows and myriad points of light danced in its beams: dust particles that had weightlessly taken to the air. As the plane gradually rotated, he saw the Earth. From this low orbital position he couldn’t see the entire sphere, only the arc of the horizon, but he could clearly make out the shapes of the continents.
Then the starfield, that long-awaited sight, finally came into view, and he said in his heart, Dad, I’ve taken the first step.
* * *
For five years, General Fitzroy had felt like a Wallfacer in the actual sense of the word, in that the wall he faced was the big screen with the image of the stars between Earth and Trisolaris. At first glance it was entirely black, but closer inspection of the screen revealed points of starlight. He had grown so well acquainted with those stars that when he had attempted to sketch their position on a piece of paper at a dull meeting the previous day and compared it to the actual photo afterward, he was basically correct. The three stars of Trisolaris lying inconspicuously at the center looked like a single star in the standard view, but every time he magnified them he found that their positions had changed. This chaotic cosmic dance so fascinated him that he forgot what he was looking for in the first place. The brush that had been observed five years ago had gradually faded away, and no second brush had appeared. The Trisolaran Fleet left a visible wake only when it passed through interstellar dust clouds. Earth’s astronomers had verified through observations of the absorption of background starlight that during the fleet’s four-century-long voyage through space, it would pass through five of them. People dubbed these “snow patches” after the way that passersby left tracks on snowy ground.
If the Trisolaran Fleet had maintained a constant acceleration over the past five years, it would pass the second snow patch today.
Fitzroy arrived at the Hubble II Space Telescope Control Center early. Ringier laughed when he saw him. “General, why do you remind me of a child who wants another present so soon after Christmas?”
“Didn’t you say that they would cross the snow patch today?”
“That’s right, but the Trisolaran Fleet has only traveled 0.22 light-years, so it’s still four light-years away.
Light reflected from its passage through the snow won’t reach Earth for another four years.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot about that,” Fitzroy said with an embarrassed shake of his head. “I really wanted to see them again. This time, we’ll be able to measure their speed and acceleration at the time of passage, and that’s very important.”
“I’m sorry. We’re outside the light cone.” “What’s that?”
“It’s what physicists call the cone shape that light describes as it emanates along the time axis. It’s impossible for people outside the cone to comprehend events taking place inside the cone. Think about it: Information about who-knows-how-many major events in the universe is flying toward us right now at the speed of light.
Some of it has been traveling for hundreds of millions of years, but we’re still outside the light cones of those events.”
“Fate lies within the light cone.”
Ringier considered this, then gave him an appreciative nod. “General, that’s an excellent analogy! But sophons outside the light cone can see events on the inside.”
“So the sophons have changed fate,” Fitzroy said with feeling, and turned back to an image-processing terminal. Five years before, the young engineer Harris had started to cry at the sight of the brush, and afterward had suffered from depression so severe that he became practically useless at his job and was let go. No one knew where he had ended up.
Fortunately, there weren’t many people like him.
* * *
Temperatures were cooling rapidly these days, and it had started to snow, causing the green to gradually disappear from the surrounding area and a thin layer of ice to freeze on the surface of the lake. Nature lost its bright coloring, like a color photograph turned black-and-white. Warm weather here had always been short- lived, but to Luo Ji, the Garden of Eden felt like it had lost its aura since the departure of his wife and child.
Winter was a season for thinking.
When Luo Ji began to think, he was surprised to find that his thoughts were already in progress. He remembered back to middle school and a lesson a teacher had taught him for language arts exams: First, take a look at the final essay question, then start the exam from the top, so that as you work on the exam, your subconscious will be thinking over the essay question, like a background process in a computer. Now he knew that from the moment he became a Wallfacer, his thinking had started up and had never stopped. The entire process was subconscious and he had never been aware of it.
He quickly retraced the steps his thoughts had already completed.
He was now certain that everything about his current situation stemmed from his chance encounter with Ye Wenjie nine years ago. Afterward, he had never spoken of the meeting with anyone for fear of causing unnecessary trouble for himself, but with Ye Wenjie gone, the meeting was a secret known only to him and Trisolaris. In those days, only two sophons had reached Earth, but he could be certain that on that evening, they had been there by Yang Dong’s grave, listening to their every word. And the fluctuation in their quantum formation that instantly crossed the space of four light-years meant that Trisolaris had also been listening.
But what had Ye Wenjie said?
Secretary General Say had been wrong about one thing. Luo Ji’s never-begun research into cosmic sociology was quite likely the immediate reason why Trisolaris wanted to kill him. Of course, Say didn’t know that the project had been Ye Wenjie’s suggestion, and although it had just seemed to Luo Ji like an excellent opportunity to make scholarship entertaining, he had been looking for just such an opportunity. Prior to the Trisolar Crisis, the study of alien civilization was indeed a sensational project that would have garnered easy media attention.
The aborted research project wasn’t important in and of itself. What mattered was the instruction that Ye Wenjie had given him, so that’s where Luo Ji’s mind was stuck.
Over and over again he recalled her words: Suppose a vast number of civilizations are distributed throughout the universe, on the order of the number of detectable stars. Lots and lots of them. The mathematical structure of cosmic sociology is far clearer than that of human sociology.
The factors of chaos and randomness in the complex makeups of every civilized society in the universe get filtered out by the immense distance, so those civilizations can act as reference points that are relatively easy to manipulate mathematically.
First: Survival is the primary need of civilization. Second: Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.
One more thing: To derive a basic picture of cosmic sociology from these two axioms, you need two other important concepts: chains of suspicion and the technological explosion. I’m afraid there won’t be that opportunity.… Well, you might as well just forget I said anything. Either way, I’ve fulfilled my duty.
He had returned countless times to these words, analyzing each sentence from every angle and chewing over every word. The component words had been strung into a set of prayer beads, and like a pious monk he stroked them time and again; and unstrung them, scattered them, and restrung them in different orders until a layer of each had been worn away.
Try as he might, he couldn’t extract the clue from those words, the clue that made him the only person that Trisolaris wanted to destroy.
During his lengthy contemplation he strolled aimlessly. He walked along the desolate lakeside, walked through the wind as it grew ever colder, oftentimes completing a circuit of the lake unawares. Twice he even walked to the foot of the snow peak, where the patch of exposed rock that looked like a moonscape was blanketed with snow, becoming one with the snowcap ahead of him. Only then did his mood leave the track of his thoughts, Zhang Yan’s eyes appearing before his own in the boundless blank white of the natural painting. But he was now able to keep his mood in check and continue turning himself into a thinking machine.
A month went by without him knowing it, and then winter came in full force. But he still conducted his lengthy thought process outside, sharpening his mind on the cold.
By this time, most of the prayer beads had been worn faint, except for twenty-one of them. These ones seemed only to get newer the more he polished them, and now emitted a faint light:
Survival is the primary need of civilization.
Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.
He fixated on these two sentences, the axioms Ye Wenjie had proposed for cosmic civilization. Although he did not know their ultimate secret, his long meditation told him that the answer lay within them.
But it was too simple a clue. What could he and the human race gain from two self-evident rules?
Don’t dismiss simplicity. Simple means solid. The entire mansion of mathematics was erected on a foundation of this kind of irreducibly simple, yet logically rock-solid, axiom.
With this in mind, he looked around him. All that surrounded him was huddled up against the icy cold of winter, but most of the world still teemed with life. It was a living world brimming with a complex profusion of oceans, land, and sky as vast as the foggy sea, but all of it ran according to a rule even simpler than the axioms of cosmic civilization: survival of the fittest.
Luo Ji now saw his problem: Where Darwin had taken the boundless living world and made a rule to sum it up, Luo Ji had to use the rules he knew to uncover a picture of cosmic civilization. It was the opposite road to Darwin’s, but a more difficult one.
So he began sleeping in the daytime and thinking at night. Whenever the perils of his mental roadway terrified him, he found comfort in the stars overhead. Like Ye Wenjie had said, the distance hid the complex structure of each star, making them just a collection of points in space with a clear mathematical configuration. It was a thinker’s paradise, his paradise. To Luo Ji, at least, it felt like the world in front of him was far clearer and more concise than Darwin’s.
But this simple world held a perplexing riddle: The entire galaxy was a vast empty desert, but a highly intelligent civilization had appeared on the star nearest to us. In this mystery, his thoughts found an entry point.
Gradually, the two concepts Ye Wenjie had left unexplained came into focus: chains of suspicion and the technology explosion.
The weather that day was colder than usual, and from Luo Ji’s vantage point on the lakeshore, the cold seemed to make the stars into an even purer silver lattice against the black sky, solemnly displaying for him their clear mathematical configuration. All of a sudden, he found himself in a state that was entirely new. In his perception, the entire universe froze, all motion stopped, and everything from stars down to atoms entered a state of rest, with the stars just countless cold, dimensionless points reflecting the cold light of an outside world.
… Everything was at rest, waiting for his final awakening.
The distant bark of a dog brought him back to reality. Probably a service canine belonging to the security forces.
Luo Ji was beside himself with excitement. Although he hadn’t actually glimpsed that final mystery, he had clearly felt its presence just now.
He collected his thoughts and tried to reenter that state, but was unsuccessful. Though the stars remained the same, the world around him interfered with his thinking. All was shrouded in darkness, but he could make out the distant snowcap, the lakeside forest and grassland, and the house behind him, and through the house’s half-open door he could see the dark glow of the fire.… Next to the simple clarity of the stars, everything in the vicinity represented a complexity and chaos that mathematics would be forever unable to grasp, so he attempted to remove them from his perception.
He walked out onto the frozen lake—cautiously, at first, but when he found that the icy surface seemed solid, he walked and slid ahead more quickly, until he reached a point where he could no longer make out the lakeshore through the night around him. Now he was surrounded on all sides by smooth ice. This distanced him somewhat from earthly complexity and chaos, and by imagining that the icy plane extended infinitely in every direction, he obtained a simple, flat world; a cold, planar mental platform. Cares vanished, and soon his perception reentered that state of rest, where the stars were waiting for him.…
Then, with a crunch, the ice beneath Luo Ji’s feet broke and his body plunged straight into the water.
At the precise instant the icy water covered Luo Ji’s head, he saw the stillness of the stars shatter. The starfield curled up into a vortex and scattered into turbulent, chaotic waves of silver. The biting cold, like crystal lightning, shot into the fog of his consciousness, illuminating everything. He continued to sink. The turbulent stars overhead shrank into a fuzzy halo at the break in the ice above his head, leaving nothing but
cold and inky blackness surrounding him, as if he wasn’t sinking into ice water, but had jumped into the blackness of space.
In the dead, lonely, cold blackness, he saw the truth of the universe.
He surfaced quickly. His head surged out of the water and he spat out a mouthful. He tried crawling onto the ice at the edge of the hole but could only bring his body up halfway before the ice collapsed again. He crawled and collapsed, forging a path through the ice, but progress was slow and his stamina began to give out from the cold. He didn’t know whether the security team would notice anything unusual on the lake before he drowned or froze to death. Stripping off his soaked down jacket to lessen the burden on his movement, he had the idea that if he spread out the jacket on the ice, it might distribute the pressure and allow him to crawl onto it. He did so, and then, with just enough energy left for one last attempt, he used every last ounce of strength to crawl onto the down jacket at the edge of the ice. This time the ice didn’t collapse, and at last his entire body was lying on top of it. He crept carefully ahead, daring to stand up only after putting a fair distance between him and the hole. Then he saw flashlights waving on the shore and heard shouts.
He stood on the ice, his teeth chattering in the cold, a cold that seemed to come not from the lake water or icy wind, but from a direct transmission from outer space. He kept his head down, knowing that from this moment on, the stars were not like they once were. He didn’t dare look up. As Rey Diaz feared the sun, Luo Ji had acquired a severe phobia of the stars. He bowed his head, and through chattering teeth, said to himself:
“Wallfacer Luo Ji, I am your Wallbreaker.”
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