THE SPELL 6
As he was preparing for hibernation, Luo Ji came down with the bed flu. His initial symptoms were no different from everyone else, just a runny nose and a slight throat inflammation, and neither he nor anyone else paid it any attention. But two days later his condition worsened and he began to run a fever. The doctor found this abnormal and took a blood sample back to the city for analysis.
Luo Ji spent the night in a fevered torpor, haunted endlessly by restless dreams in which the stars in the night sky swirled and danced like grains of sand on the skin of a drum. He was even aware of the gravitational interaction between these stars: It wasn’t three-body motion, but the 200-billion-body motion of all of the stars in the galaxy! Then the swirling stars clustered into an enormous vortex, and in that mad spiral the vortex
transformed again into a giant serpent formed from the congealed silver of every star, which drilled into his brain with a roar.…
At around four in the morning, Zhang Xiang was awakened by his phone. It was a call from the Planetary Defense Council Security Department leadership who, in severe tones, demanded that he report immediately on Luo Ji’s condition, and ordered the base to be put under a state of emergency. A team of experts was on its way over.
As soon as he hung up the phone, it rang again, this time with a call from the doctor in the tenth basement, who reported that the patient’s condition had sharply deteriorated and he was now in a state of shock. Zhang Xiang descended the elevator at once, and the panicked doctor and nurse informed him that Luo Ji had begun spitting up blood in the middle of the night and then had gone unconscious. Zhang Xiang saw Luo Ji lying on the bed with a pale face, purple lips, and practically no signs of life in his body.
The team, consisting of experts from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, doctors from the general hospital of the PLA, and an entire research team from the Academy of Military Medical Sciences soon arrived.
As they observed Luo Ji’s condition, one expert from the AMMS took Zhang Xiang and Kent outside and described the situation to them. “This flu came to our attention a while ago. We felt that its origin and characteristics were highly abnormal, and it’s clear now that it’s a genetic weapon, a genetic guided missile.”
“A guided missile?”
“It’s a genetically altered virus that is highly infectious, but only causes mild flu symptoms in most people. However, the virus has a recognition ability which allows it to identify the genetic characteristics of a particular individual. Once the target has been infected, it creates deadly toxins in his blood. We now know who the target is.”
Zhang Xiang and Kent glanced at each other, first in incredulity and then in despair. Zhang Xiang blanched and bowed his head. “I accept full responsibility.”
The researcher, a senior colonel, said, “Director Zhang, you can’t say that. There’s no defense against this. Although we had begun to suspect something odd about the virus, we never even considered this possibility. The concept of genetic weapons first appeared in the last century, but no one believed that anyone would actually produce one. And although this one’s imperfect, it truly is a frightening tool for assassination. All you need to do is spread the virus in the target’s general vicinity. Or, rather, you don’t even need to know where the target is: You could just spread it across the globe, and because the virus causes little to no illness in ordinary people, it will spread quickly and would probably strike its target in the end.”
“No, I accept full responsibility,” Zhang said, covering his eyes. “If Captain Shi was here, this wouldn’t have happened.” He dropped his hand and his eyes shone with tears. “The last thing he said to me before hibernation was to warn me of what you said about no defense. He said, ‘Xiao Zhang, in this job of ours we need to sleep with one eye open. There’s no certainty of success, and some things we can’t defend against.’”
“So what do we do next?” Kent asked.
“The virus has penetrated deep. The patient’s liver and cardiopulmonary functions have failed, and modern medicine is helpless. Hibernate him as soon as possible.”
After a long while, when Luo Ji recovered a little of the consciousness that had totally disappeared, he had
sensations of cold, a cold that seemed to emanate from within his body and diffuse outward like light to freeze the entire world. He saw a snow-white patch in which there first was nothing but infinite white. Then a small black dot appeared its very center, and he could gradually make out a familiar figure, Zhuang Yan, holding their child. He walked with difficulty through a snowy wilderness so empty that it lost all dimension. She was wrapped in a red scarf, the same one she had worn seven years ago on the snowy night he first saw her. The child, red-faced from the cold, waved two small hands at him from her mother’s embrace, and shouted something that he couldn’t hear. He wanted to chase them through the snow, but the young mother and child vanished, as if dissolved into snow. Then he himself vanished, and the snowy white world shrank into a thin silver thread, which in the unbounded darkness was all that remained of his consciousness. It was the thread of time, a thin, motionless strand that extended infinitely in both directions. His soul, strung on this thread, was gently sliding off at a constant speed into the unknowable future.
Two days later, a stream of high-power radio waves was sent off from Earth toward the sun, penetrating the convection zone and reaching the energy mirror in the radiation zone, where its reflection, magnified hundreds of millions of times, carried Wallfacer Luo Ji’s spell into the cosmos at the speed of light.
Year 12, Crisis Era
Distance of the Trisolaran Fleet from the Solar System: 4 .18 l ight- years
Another brush had appeared in space. The Trisolaran Fleet had crossed the second patch of interstellar dust, and because Hubble II had been closely monitoring the area, the fleet’s wake was captured as soon as it appeared. This time, it looked nothing like a brush. Rather, it resembled a patch of grass that had just begun to sprout in the dark abyss of space. Those thousand blades of grass grew with a speed that was perceptible to the naked eye, and they were much clearer than the wake had been nine years before, due to nine years of acceleration that had greatly increased the fleet’s speed and had made its impact on the interstellar dust more dramatic.
“General, look closely here. What can you see?” Ringier said to Fitzroy as he pointed to the magnified image on the screen.
“There still seem to be about a thousand.” “No, look closer.”
Fitzroy looked carefully for a long moment, then pointed to the middle of the brush. “It looks like … one, two, three, four … ten bristles are longer than the others. They’re extended out.”
“Right. Those ten wakes are quite weak. They’re only visible after image enhancement.”
Fitzroy turned to Ringier, wearing the same expression he had when the Trisolaran Fleet had been discovered a decade earlier. “Doctor, does this mean that those ten warships are accelerating?”
“All of them are accelerating. But those ten show a greater acceleration. But they’re not ten warships. The number of wakes has increased by ten, to one thousand and ten. An analysis of the morphology of those ten wakes shows that they are far smaller than the warships behind them: about one ten-thousandth the size, or about the size of a truck. But due to their high speed, they still produce detectable wakes.”
“So small. Are they probes?” “Yes, they must be probes.”
This was another of Hubble II’s shocking discoveries: Humanity would make contact with Trisolaran entities ahead of schedule, even if they were just ten small probes.
“When will they reach the Solar System?” Fitzroy asked nervously.
“We can’t say for certain. It depends on the acceleration, but they will definitely arrive before the fleet. A conservative estimate would be half a century earlier. The fleet acceleration is evidently at a maximum, but for some reason we don’t understand, they want to reach the Solar System as quickly as possible, so they launched probes that can accelerate even faster.”
“If they have sophons, then what’s the need for probes?” one engineer asked.
This question made them all stop and think, but Ringier soon broke the silence. “Forget it. This isn’t something we can figure out.”
“No,” Fitzroy said, raising a hand. “We can figure out at least a part of it.… We’re looking at events from four years ago. Can you determine the exact date that the fleet launched the probes?”
“We’re fortunate that the fleet launched them on the snow … I mean, in the dust … allowing us to pinpoint the time from our observations of the intersection of the probe wakes and the fleet tracks.” Then Ringier told him the date.
Fitzroy was speechless for a moment, then lit a cigarette and sat down to smoke. After a while, he said, “Doctor, you’re not politicians. Just like I couldn’t make out those ten longer bristles, you can’t tell that this is a crucial fact.”
“What’s so special about that date?” Ringier asked, uncertainly.
“On that day four years ago, I attended the PDC Wallfacer Hearing, at which Luo Ji proposed using the sun to send a spell out into the universe.”
The scientists and engineers glanced at each other.
Fitzroy went on, “And it was right around that time that Trisolaris issued a second command to the ETO calling for Luo Ji’s elimination.”
“Him? Is he really that important?”
“You think he was first a sentimental playboy and then a pretentious sham sorcerer? Of course. We thought so too. Everyone did, except for Trisolaris.”
“Well … what do you think he is, General?” “Doctor, do you believe in God?”
The suddenness of the question left Ringier momentarily speechless. “… God? That’s got a variety of meanings on multiple levels today, and I don’t know which you—”
“I believe, not because I have any proof, but because it’s relatively safe: If there really is a God, then it’s right to believe in him. If there isn’t, then we don’t have anything to lose.”
The general’s words prompted laughter, and Ringier said, “The second half is untrue. There is something to lose, at least as far as science is concerned.… Still, so what if God exists? What’s he got to do with what’s right in front of us?”
“If God really exists, then he may have a mouthpiece in the mortal world.”
They all stared at him for ages before they understood the implication of his words. Then one astronomer said, “General, what are you talking about? God wouldn’t choose a mouthpiece from an atheist nation.”
Fitzroy ground out his cigarette end and spread out his hands. “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. Can you think of a better explanation?”
Ringier mused, “If by ‘God’ you mean a force of justice in the universe that transcends everything—”
Fitzroy stopped him with a raised hand, as if the divine power of what they had just learned would be reduced if it were stated outright. “So believe, all of you. You can now start believing.” And then he made the sign of the cross.
* * *
The trial run of Tianti III was airing on television. Construction on three space elevators had begun five years ago, and since Tianti I and Tianti II had been put into operation at the start of the year, the test of Tianti III did not cause much of a commotion. All space elevators were currently being built with just a single primary rail, giving them a far smaller carrying capacity than the four-rail models still under design, but this was already an altogether different world from the age of chemical rockets. Setting aside construction, the cost of going into space by elevator was substantially lower than by civilian aircraft. This in turn had led to an increase in the number of bodies in motion in Earth’s night sky: These were humanity’s large-scale orbiting structures.
Tianti III was the only space elevator based on the ocean. Its base was located on the Equator on an artificial floating island in the Pacific Ocean that could navigate at sea under its own nuclear power, which meant that the elevator’s position on the Equator could be adjusted if necessary. The floating island was a real-life version of the Propeller Island Jules Verne had described, and so it had been dubbed “Verne Island.” The ocean wasn’t even visible on the television, which was showing a shot of a metal, pyramid-shaped base surrounded by a steel city, and—at the bottom of the rail—the cylindrical transport cabin that was ready to launch. From this distance, the guide rail extending into space was invisible due to its sixty-centimeter diameter, although at times you could catch a glint of reflected light from the setting sun.
Three old men, Zhang Yuanchao and his two old neighbors, Yang Jinwen and Miao Fuquan, were watching this on television. All of them were now past seventy, and while no one would call them doddering, they were now definitely old. For them, recalling the past and looking toward the future were both burdens, and since they were powerless to do anything about the present, their only option was to live out their waning years without thinking about anything in this unusual era.
Zhang Yuanchao’s son Zhang Weiming led his grandson Zhang Yan through the door. He was carrying a paper sack, and said, “Dad, I’ve picked up your ration card and your first batch of grain tickets.” Then he took out a pack of colorful tickets from the bag and gave them to his father.
“Ah, just like in the old days,” Yang Jinwen said, as he watched from the side.
“It’s come back. It always comes back,” Zhang Yuanchao murmured emotionally to himself, as he took the tickets.
“Is that money?” asked Yan Yan, looking at the bits of paper.
Zhang Yuanchao said to his grandson, “It’s not money, child. But, from now on, if you want to buy nonquota grain, like bread or cake, or want to eat at a restaurant, you’ll need to use these along with money.”
“This is a little different from the old days,” Zhang Weiming said, taking out an IC card. “This is a ration card.”
“How much is on it?”
“I get twenty-one and a half kilos, or forty-three jin. You and Xiaohong get thirty-seven jin, and Yan Yan gets twenty-one jin.”
“About the same as back then,” the elder man said. “That should be enough for a month,” Yang Jinwen said.
Zhang Weiming shook his head. “Mr. Yang, you lived through those days. Don’t you remember? It might be fine now, but very soon there’ll be fewer nonstaples, and you’ll need numbers to buy vegetables and meat.
So this paltry bit of grain really won’t be enough to eat!”
“It’s not that serious,” Miao Fuquan said with a wave of his hand. “We’ve been through times like these a few decades ago. We won’t starve. Drop it, and watch TV.”
“Oh, and industrial coupons16 may be coming soon, too,” Zhang Yuanchao said, putting the grain tickets and ration card on the table and turning his attention to the television.
On the screen, the cylindrical cabin was rising from the base. It ascended quickly and accelerated rapidly, then disappeared into the evening sky. Because the guide rail was invisible, it looked like it was ascending on its own. The cabin could reach a maximum speed of five hundred kilometers per hour, but even at that speed it would take sixty-eight hours to reach the space elevator’s terminus in geostationary orbit. The scene cut to a downward-facing camera installed beneath the cabin. Here, the sixty-centimeter rail occupied the larger part of the screen. Its slick surface made motion practically undetectable, except for the fleeting scale markings that showed the camera’s upward velocity. The rail quickly tapered into nothing as it extended downward, but it pointed at a spot far below where Verne Island, now visible in total, seemed like a giant platter suspended from the lower end of the rail.
Something occurred to Yang Jinwen. “I’ll show you two a real rarity,” he said, as he got up and walked somewhat less nimbly out the door, perhaps to his own home. He soon returned with a thin slice of something about the size of a cigarette box and laid it on the table. Zhang Yuanchao picked it up and looked at it: The object was gray, translucent, and very lightweight, like a fingernail. “This is the material Tianti is made out of!” Yang Jinwen said.
“Great. Your son stole strategic materials from the public sector,” Miao Fuquan said, pointing at the slice. “It’s just a leftover scrap. He said that when Tianti was under construction, thousands upon thousands of
tons of this stuff was shot into space, and it was made into the guide rail there and then hung back down from orbit again.… Soon, space travel will be popularized. I’ve asked my son to hook me up with business in that area.”
“You want to go to space?” asked Zhang Yuanchao, surprised.
“It’s not such a big deal. I’ve heard there’s not even hypergravity when you go up. It’s just like taking a long-distance sleeper train,” Miao Fuquan said dismissively. In the many years he had been unable to operate his mines, his family had gone into decline. He had sold off his villa four years ago, leaving this as his only residence. Yang Jinwen, whose son worked on the space elevator project, had in a single bound become the wealthiest of the three, and this sometimes made old Miao jealous.
“I’m not going to space,” Yang Jinwen said, looking up, and when he saw that Weiming had taken the boy to another room, he went on. “But my remains will. Hey, you two fellows don’t have any taboos about talking about this, do you?”
“What’s taboo about it? Still, why do you want to put your remains up there?” Zhang Yuanchao asked. “You know there’s an electromagnetic launcher at the end of Tianti. When it’s time, my casket will be
fired off at the third cosmic velocity and will fly out of the Solar System. It’s called a cosmic burial, you know. After I die, I don’t want to stay on an alien-occupied Earth. It’s a form of Escapism, I guess.”
“And if the aliens are defeated?”
“That’s practically impossible. Still, if it really happens, it’s no great loss. I get to roam the universe!”
Zhang Yuanchao shook his head. “You intellectuals with your weird ideas. They’re pointless. The fallen leaf returns to the root. I’m going to be buried in the yellow soil of the Earth.”
“Aren’t you afraid that the Trisolarans will dig up your grave?”
At this, Miao Fuquan, who had been silent, suddenly grew excited. He motioned for the others to draw closer, and lowered his voice, as if afraid that the sophons would hear: “Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve thought of something. I have lots of empty mines in Shanxi.…”
“You want to be buried there?”
“No, no. They’re all small pit mines. How deep can they be? But in several places they’re connected to major state-owned mines, and by following their abandoned works, you can get all the way down to four hundred meters below ground. Is that deep enough for you? Then we blast the shaft wall. I don’t think the Trisolarans will be able to dig down there.”
“Sheesh. If Earthlings can dig that far, why can’t the Trisolarans? They’ll find a tombstone and just keep digging down.”
Looking at Zhang Yuanchao, Miao Fuquan was unable to hold back his laughter. “Lao Zhang, have you gone stupid?” Seeing him still at a loss, he pointed to Yang Jinwen, who had grown bored with their conversation and was watching the television broadcast again. “Let an educated man tell it to you.”
Yang Jinwen chuckled. “Lao Zhang, what do you want a tombstone for? Tombstones are meant for people to see. By then, there won’t be any people left.”
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