THE SPELL 7
All along the way to the Third Nuclear Fusion Test Base, Zhang Beihai’s car drove through deep snow. But as he neared the base, the snow melted entirely, the road turned muddy, and the cold air turned warm and humid, like a breath of springtime. On the slopes lining the road he noticed patches of peach flowers blooming, unseasonable in this harsh winter. He drove on toward the white building in the valley ahead, a structure that was merely the entrance for the majority of the base, which was underground. Then he noticed someone on the hillside picking peach flowers. Looking closer, he saw it was the very person he had come to see, and he stopped his car.
“Dr. Ding!” he called to him. When Ding Yi came over to the car carrying a bunch of flowers, he laughed and asked, “Who are those flowers for?”
“They’re for myself, of course. They’re flowers that have bloomed from fusion heat.” He practically beamed under the influence of the brightly colored flowers. Evidently he was still in the throes of excitement at the breakthrough that had just been achieved.
“It’s pretty wasteful, letting all this heat disperse.” Zhang Beihai got out of the car, took off his sunglasses, and took stock of the mini-spring. He couldn’t see his breath, and he could feel the heat of the ground even through the soles of his shoes.
“There’s no money or time to build a power plant. But that doesn’t matter. From now on, energy is not something that Earth needs to conserve.”
Zhang Beihai pointed at the flowers in Ding Yi’s hands. “Dr. Ding, I really was hoping that you had gotten distracted. This breakthrough would have happened later without you.”
“Without me here, it would’ve happened even earlier. There are over a thousand researchers at the base. I just pointed them in the right direction. I’ve felt for a long time that the tokamak approach17 is a dead end. Given the right approach, a breakthrough was a certainty. Me, I’m a theoretician. I don’t get experimentation. My blind pointing probably only delayed the progress of research.”
“Can’t you postpone the announcement of your results? I’m being serious here. And I’m also informally conveying the wish of Space Command.”
“How could we postpone it? The media has been actively tracking the progress of all three fusion test bases.”
Zhang Beihai nodded and let out a sigh. “That’s bad news.”
“I know a few of the reasons, but why don’t you tell me why.”
“If controlled nuclear fusion is achieved, spacecraft research will begin immediately. Doctor, you know about the two current research forks: media-propelled spacecraft and non-media radiation-drive spacecraft. Two opposing factions have formed around these two directions of research: the aerospace faction advocates research into media-propelled spacecraft, while the space force is pushing radiation-drive spacecraft. The projects will consume enormous resources, and if the two directions can’t progress simultaneously on equal footing, then one direction must take the mainstream.”
“The fusion people and I are in favor of the radiation drive. For my part, I feel that it’s the only plan that enables interstellar cosmic voyages. Of course, I’ll grant that Aerospace has its logic, too. Media-propelled spacecraft are actually a variant of chemical rockets that use fusion energy, so the prospects are a little safer for that line of research.”
“But there’s nothing safe in the space war of the future! As you said, media-propelled spacecraft are just huge rockets. They have to devote two-thirds of their carrying capacity to their propulsion media, and it’s consumed very quickly. That type of spacecraft requires planetary bases in order to navigate through the Solar System. We do that, and we would be reenacting the tragedy of the Sino-Japanese War, with the Solar System as Weihaiwei18.”
“That’s a keen analogy,” Ding Yi said, raising his bouquet at Zhang Beihai.
“It’s a fact. A navy’s front line defenses ought to be at the enemy’s ports. We can’t do that, of course, but our defensive line ought to be pushed out as far as the Oort Cloud, and we should ensure that the fleet possesses sufficient flanking capabilities in the vast reaches outside the Solar System. This is the foundation of space force strategy.”
“Internally, Aerospace isn’t entirely monolithic,” Ding Yi said. “It’s the old guard left over from the chemical rocket era that’s pushing for media spacecraft, but forces from other disciplines have entered the sector. Take the people on our fusion system. They’re mostly pushing for radiation spacecraft. These two forces are evenly matched, and all that’s needed is three or four people in key positions to break the equilibrium. Their opinions will decide the ultimate course of action. But those three or four key people are, I’m afraid, all part of the old guard.”
“This is the most critical decision in the entire master strategy. If it’s a misstep, the space fleet will be built atop a mistaken foundation, and we might waste a century or two. And by that time, I’m afraid there will be no way to change direction.”
“But you and I aren’t in a position to fix it.”
After lunching with Ding Yi, Zhang Beihai left the fusion base. Before he had driven very far, the moist ground was again covered with wet snow that glowed white under the sun. As the air temperature plummeted, his heart also chilled.
He was in dire need of a spacecraft capable of interstellar travel. If other roads led nowhere, then just one was left. No matter how dangerous it might be, it had to be taken.
* * *
When Zhang Beihai entered the home of the meteorite collector, situated in a courtyard house in the depths of a hutong alleyway, he noticed that the old, dimly lit home was like a miniature geological museum. Each of its four walls was lined with glass cases in which professional lights shone on rock after unremarkable rock. The owner, in his fifties, hale in spirit and complexion, sat at a workbench examining a small stone with a magnifying lens, and he greeted the visitor warmly when he saw him. He was, Zhang Beihai noticed immediately, one of those fortunate people who inhabited a beloved world of his own. No matter what changes befell the larger world, he could always immerse himself in his own and find contentment.
In the old-fashioned atmosphere unique to old houses, Zhang Beihai was reminded that he and his comrades were fighting for the survival of the human race, while the majority of people were still clinging to their existing lives. This gave him a sense of warmth and peace of mind.
The completion of the space elevator and the breakthrough in controlled fusion technology were two enormous encouragements to the world, and eased defeatist sentiment to a considerable extent. But sober leaders were aware that this was only the beginning: If the construction of the space fleet was analogous to naval fleets, then humanity had just now arrived at the seashore, carrying tools. Not even the shipbuilding dockyards had been built yet. Apart from the construction of the main spacecraft body, research into space weapons and recirculating ecosystems, as well as the construction of space ports, represented an unprecedented technological frontier for humanity. Just getting the foundations in place might take a century.
Human society faced another challenge aside from the terrifying abyss: The construction of a space defense system would consume an enormous amount of resources, and this consumption would likely drag the quality of life back a century, which meant that the greatest challenge to the human spirit was still to come. With that in mind, the military leadership had decided to begin implementing the plan to use political cadres from the space force as future reinforcements. As the initial proponent of the plan, Zhang Beihai had been named commander of the Special Contingent of Future Reinforcements. Upon accepting the mission, he proposed that all of the officers in the special contingent ought to undergo at least a year of space-based training and work before entering hibernation in order to provide them with the necessary preparations for their future work in the space force. “The brass won’t want their political commissars to be landlubbers,” he said to Chang Weisi. This request was swiftly approved, and one month later, he and the first special contingent of thirty comrades went to space.
“You’re a soldier?” the collector asked as he served tea. After receiving a nod, he went on: “Soldiers these days aren’t much like soldiers used to be, but you, I could tell at a glance.”
“You were a soldier once too,” Zhang Beihai said.
“Good eye. I spent most of my life serving in the General Staff Department’s Surveying and Mapping Bureau.”
“How did you get interested in meteors?” Zhang Beihai asked as he looked appreciatively at the rich collection.
“Over a decade ago I went with a survey team to Antarctica in search of meteorites buried beneath the snow, and I got hooked. They come from outside of Earth, from distant space, so naturally they’ve got that attraction. Whenever I pick one up, it’s like I’m going to a new and alien world.”
Zhang Beihai shook his head with a smile. “That’s just a feeling. The Earth itself is formed out of aggregated interstellar matter, so it’s basically just a giant meteorite. The stone beneath our feet is meteorite. This teacup I’m holding is meteorite. Besides, they say that the water on Earth was brought here by comets, so”—he raised the teacup—“what’s contained in this cup is meteorite, too. There’s nothing particularly special about what you have.”
The collector pointed at him and laughed. “You’re sharp. You’ve already started to bargain.… Still, I trust my feelings.”
The collector couldn’t resist taking Zhang Beihai on a tour, and he even opened a safe to show him the treasure of his house: a Martian achondrite the size of a fingernail. He had him view the small round pits on the meteorite’s surface and said that they might be microbial fossils. “Five years ago, Robert Haag wanted to buy her for a thousand times the price of gold, but I didn’t agree.”
“How many of these did you collect on your own?” asked Zhang Beihai, pointing around the room.
“Only a small part. The majority were bought from the private sector or traded from the community.… So, let’s hear it. What sort do you want?”
“Nothing too valuable. It should be high density, shouldn’t break easily under impact, and should be easily workable.”
“I see. You want to engrave it.”
He nodded. “You could say that. It would be great if I could use a lathe.”
“Then an iron meteorite,” the collector said as he opened a glass case and took out a dark-colored stone the size of a walnut. “This one. It’s composed mainly of iron and nickel, with cobalt, phosphorus, silicon, sulfur, and copper. You want dense? This one’s eight grams to the cubic centimeter. It’s easily workable, and highly metallic, so the lathe won’t be a problem.”
“Good. It’s just a little too small.”
The collector took out another piece the size of an apple. “Do you have anything even bigger?”
The collector looked at him and said, “This stuff’s not sold by weight. The big ones are expensive.” “Well, do you have three the size of this one?”
The collector brought out three iron meteorites of roughly the same size and began to lay the groundwork for his asking price: “Iron meteorites are not very common. They represent just five percent of all meteorites, and these three are fine specimens. See here—this one’s an octahedrite. Look at the crisscross pattern on the surface. They’re called Widmanstätten patterns. And here’s a nickel-rich ataxite. These parallel lines are called Neumann lines. This piece contains kamacite, and this one is taenite, a mineral not found on Earth.
This piece is one I found in the desert using a metal detector, and it was like fishing a needle out of the ocean. The car got stuck in the sand and the drive shaft snapped. I almost died.”
“Name your price.”
“On the international market, a specimen of this size and grade would have a price of about twenty USD per gram. So how’s this: sixty thousand yuan per piece, or three for one hundred eighty thousand?”19
Zhang Beihai took out his phone. “Tell me your account number. I’ll pay right away.”
The collector said nothing for quite some time. When Zhang Beihai looked up, he gave a slightly embarrassed laugh. “Actually, I was ready for you to counter-offer.”
“No. I accept.”
“Look. Now that space travel is for everyone, the market price has dropped somewhat even though it’s not as easy to get meteorites in space as it is on the ground. These, well, they’re worth—”
Zhang Beihai cut him off decisively. “No. That’s the price. Treat it as a sign of respect for their recipients.”
* * *
After leaving the collector’s house, Zhang Beihai took the meteorites to a modeling workshop in a research institute belonging to the space force. Work had let out and the workshop, which contained a state-of-the-art CNC mill, was empty. First, he used the mill to slice the three meteorites into cylinders of equal diameter, about the thickness of a pencil lead, and then cut them into small segments of equal length. He worked very carefully, trying to minimize waste as much as possible, and ended up with thirty-six small meteorite rods. When this was done, he carefully collected the cutting debris, removed the special blade he had selected for cutting the stone from the machine, and then left the workshop.
The remainder of the work he conducted in a secret basement. He set thirty-six 7.62 mm pistol cartridges on the table before him and removed each projectile in turn. If they had been old-style brass cartridges, this would have required a lot of effort, but two years ago the entire military had updated its standard guns to use caseless ammunition, whose projectile was glued directly to the propellant and was easy to detach. Next, he used a special adhesive to affix a meteorite rod onto each propellant. The adhesive, originally developed to repair the skin of space capsules, ensured that the bond would not fail in the extreme hot and cold temperatures of space. In the end he had thirty-six meteorite bullets.
He inserted four meteorite bullets into a magazine, which he then loaded into a P224 pistol and fired at a sack in the corner. The gunshot was deafening in the narrow basement room and left behind a strong scent of gunpowder.
He carefully examined the four holes in the sack, noting that they were small, which meant that the meteorite had not shattered upon firing. He opened the sack and withdrew a large hunk of fresh beef, and with a knife carefully extracted the meteorite that had penetrated it. The four meteorite rods had shattered completely, leaving a small pile of rubble that he poured onto his palm. It showed practically no sign of having been worked. This outcome satisfied him.
The sack that held the beef was made out of materials used in space suits. To make the simulation even more realistic, it had been arranged in layers that sandwiched insulation sponges, plastic tubing, and other material.
He carefully packed up the remaining thirty-two meteorite bullets and exited the basement, heading off to make preparations for his visit to space.
* * *
Zhang Beihai hung in space five kilometers out from Yellow River Station, a wheel-shaped space station that lay three hundred kilometers above the space elevator terminus as a counterweight. It was the largest structure humanity had ever constructed in space and it could house over a thousand long-term residents.
The region of space within a five-hundred-kilometer radius of the space elevator was home to other space facilities, all of them much smaller than Yellow River Station and scattered about like the nomadic tents that dotted the prairie during the opening of the American West. These formed the prelude of humanity’s large- scale entrance into space. The shipyards that had just commenced construction were the largest yet and would eventually cover an area ten times greater than Yellow River Station, but right now, all that had been put up was scaffolding that looked like the skeleton of a leviathan. Zhang Beihai had come from Base 1, a separate space station eighty kilometers away and just one-fifth the size of Yellow River Station, the space force’s base in geostationary orbit. He had been living and working with the other members of the first Special Contingent of Future Reinforcements for three months now and had only been back to Earth once.
At Base 1, he had been waiting for an opportunity, and now an opportunity presented itself: the aerospace faction was holding a high-level work conference on Yellow River Station, and all three of his targets for elimination would be attending. Once Yellow River Station went into operation, Aerospace had held quite a few meetings there, as if to make up for the regrettable fact that most of the people in the aerospace sector had never gotten the chance to go to space.
Before leaving Base 1, Zhang Beihai had dropped his space suit’s positioning unit in his own cabin so the surveillance system would not be aware that he had left the base and there would be no record of his movements. Using the thrusters on his suit, he flew eighty kilometers through space to the position he had selected. Then he waited.
The meeting was over, but he was waiting for the participants to come out and take a group photo.
It was a tradition for all meeting participants to take a group photo in space. Usually, the photograph would be taken against the sun, because that was the only way to get a clear shot of the space station. Since every person in the group shot had to turn their helmet visors to transparent to expose their face during the photo, they would have to keep their eyes shut against the sun’s intense rays if they faced it, not to mention the fact that the inside of their helmets would get intolerably hot. So the best time for a group shot was when the sun was just about to rise or fall over the horizon of the Earth. In geosynchronous orbit, one sunrise and one sunset took place every twenty-four hours, although the night was very short. Zhang Beihai was waiting for the sun to set.
He knew that Yellow River Station’s surveillance system was able to detect his presence, but that wouldn’t attract any attention. As the point of origin for space development, the region was littered with construction materials both unused and abandoned, as well as an even greater quantity of garbage. Much of this floating material was roughly the size of a human. Moreover, the space elevator and the surrounding facilities had a relationship like a metropolis and its surrounding villages, with the supplies for the latter coming entirely from
the former, so traffic between them was quite busy. As people became used to the environment of space, they gradually adopted the habit of crossing solo. Using space suits as a sort of space bicycle with thrusters that could push them to speeds of up to five hundred kilometers per hour was the easiest means of travel within a few hundred kilometers of the space elevator. By this point, people were flying between the space elevator and the surrounding stations all the time.
But right now, Zhang Beihai knew the surrounding space was empty. Apart from the Earth (which was visible as a complete sphere from geosynchronous orbit) and the sun, about to dip below its edge, everything in all directions was a pitch-black abyss, and the myriad stars were shining dust that was powerless to alter the emptiness of the universe. He knew that his suit’s life-support system would only hold up for twelve hours, and before that time ran out he had to make it eighty kilometers back to Base 1, now just a shapeless point far off in the distance of the abyss of space. The base itself would not survive very long, either, if it left the umbilical cord of the space elevator. But now, as he floated in the vast void, he felt like his contact with the blue world down below had been cut off. He was an independent presence in the universe, unattached to any world, dangling in the cosmos, no ground beneath his feet and surrounded by empty space on all sides, with no origin or destination, like the Earth, the sun, and the Milky Way. He simply existed, and he liked this feeling.
He even sensed that his father’s departed spirit might share this very same feeling. The sun made contact with the edge of the Earth.
Zhang Beihai raised one hand. The glove of his suit held a telescopic sight which he used to observe one of Yellow River Station’s exits, ten kilometers distant. On the large, curved-metal exterior wall, the round air lock door was still sealed.
He turned his head toward the sun, which had now set halfway and looked like a glittering ring atop the Earth.
Looking back through the scope at the station, this time he saw that the beacon light next to the exit had turned from red to green, indicating that the air inside the air lock had been emptied. Immediately afterward, the hatch slid open and a group of figures wearing white space suits filed out. There were about thirty of them. As they flew off in a group, the shadow they cast on the outer wall of Yellow River Station expanded.
They had to fly a considerable distance to fit the entire station into frame, but before long they slowed down and began their weightless lineup under the photographer’s direction. By now the sun had sunk by two-thirds. The remainder looked like a luminous object inlaid into the Earth above a smooth sea mirror that was half blue and half orange-red, its top covered by sun-soaked clouds that looked like pink feathers.
As the light dropped in intensity, the people in the distant group photo began to turn their visors transparent, revealing the faces in the helmets. Zhang Beihai increased his scope’s focal length and quickly found his targets. Just as he had expected, due to their rank, they were in the center of the front row.
He released the scope, leaving it suspended in front of him, and with his left hand he twisted the metal retaining ring of his right glove to detach it. Now that his right hand was wearing just a thin cloth glove, he immediately felt the minus-one-hundred-degree temperature of space, so to avoid a quick freeze he turned his body to an angle that let the weak sunlight shine on his hand. He extended the hand into a side pocket of his suit and withdrew a pistol and two magazines. Then, with his left hand, he grasped the floating scope and affixed it to the pistol. The scope had been a rifle sight that he had modified with a magnetic attachment so it
could be used on a pistol.
The vast majority of firearms on Earth could shoot in space. The vacuum was not a problem, because the bullet’s propellant contained its own oxidizer, but you did need to worry about the temperature of space: Both extremes differed greatly from atmospheric temperatures and had the potential to affect the gun and ammunition, so he was afraid to leave the pistol and magazines exposed for too long. To shorten that time, over the past three months he had drilled repeatedly in taking out the gun, mounting the sight, and changing magazines.
He started to aim, and captured his first target in the cross hairs of the scope.
In Earth’s atmosphere, even the most sophisticated sniper rifles couldn’t hit a target at a distance of five kilometers, but an ordinary pistol could in space. The bullets moved in a zero-gravity vacuum, free of any outside interference, so as long as their aim was true, they would follow an extremely stable trajectory directly to the target. Zero air resistance, meanwhile, meant that the bullets would not decelerate during flight and would strike the target with the initial muzzle velocity, ensuring a lethal blow from a distance.
He pulled the trigger. The pistol fired in silence, but he saw the muzzle flash and felt the recoil. He fired ten rounds at the first target, then quickly replaced the magazine and fired another ten rounds at the second target. Replacing the magazine again, he fired the last ten rounds at the third target. Thirty muzzle flashes. If anyone in the direction of Yellow River Station had been paying attention, they would have seen a firefly against the dark backdrop of space.
Now the thirty meteorites were speeding toward their targets. The Type 2010 pistol had a muzzle velocity of five hundred meters per second, so they would take around ten seconds to cross the distance, during which Zhang Beihai could only pray that his targets did not change position. This hope wasn’t groundless, because the two back rows had not yet gotten situated for the group photo, and even when they were all situated, the photographer had to wait until the mist sprayed out by the space suit thrusters dissipated, so the leaders in the front row had to wait. But since the targets were, after all, floating in space and weightless, they could easily drift, causing the bullets to not only miss their targets but possibly hurt innocents.
Innocent? The three people he was about to kill were innocent, too. In the years before the Trisolar Crisis, they had made what, looking back now, seemed like particularly meager investments, and had crept carefully over the thin ice toward the dawn of the space age. That experience had imprisoned their thinking. They had to be destroyed for the sake of interstellar-capable spacecraft. Their deaths could be viewed as their final contribution to the cause of humanity’s endeavors in space.
As a matter of fact, Zhang Beihai had deliberately sent a few bullets wide of the mark in the hope of hitting people other than his targets. Ideally he would only wound them, but if he happened to kill an extra person or two, that didn’t matter. That would only serve to reduce any potential suspicion.
He lifted the empty gun and looked soberly through the scope. He was prepared for failure. In that eventuality, he would dispassionately begin the search for a second opportunity.
Time passed second by second, and at last there were signs that a target had been hit. Zhang Beihai did not see the hole in the space suit, but a white gas spurted out. Immediately afterward, an even larger burst of white steam erupted from between the first and second rows, perhaps because the bullet had passed out the target’s back and penetrated his thruster pack. He was confident of the bullets’ power: When the meteorite
projectiles struck their targets with practically no decrease in speed, it would be like being shot at gunpoint. Cracks suddenly appeared across the helmet visor of one target, rendering it opaque, but he could still see the blood that splashed up on the inside before mixing with leaking gasses and spraying out of the bullet hole, where it quickly froze into snowflake-like crystals. His observations soon confirmed that five people, including the three targets, had been hit, and each target had been struck at least five times.
Through their visors he saw everyone in the crowd screaming in terror, and from the shape of their lips he knew that their words included the ones he was expecting:
Everyone in the photo group turned their thrusters to full power and sped back to the station, trailing tails of white mist behind them, and then they were through the round hatch and back inside Yellow River Station. Zhang Beihai saw that the five who had been hit were dragged back with them.
He activated his own thruster pack and accelerated toward Base 1. His heart was now as cold and calm as the empty space around him. He knew that the death of the three key aerospace figures did not guarantee that the non-media radiation drive would become the mainstream of spacecraft research, but he had done all he could. No matter what happened next, as far as the watchful eyes of his father in the beyond were concerned, he could now relax.
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