THE SPELL 9
Three years after the breakthrough in controlled nuclear fusion, new and unusual heavenly bodies had taken their place in the Earth’s night sky, up to five of them now simultaneously visible in one hemisphere. The bodies changed dramatically in luminance, outshining Venus at their brightest, and often blinked rapidly. Sometimes one of them would suddenly erupt with a rapid increase in brightness, then go out after two or three seconds. They were fusion reactors undergoing tests in geosynchronous orbit.
Non-media radioactive propulsion had won out as the research path for future spacecraft. This type of propulsion required high-powered reactors that could only be tested in space, leading to these glowing reactors thirty thousand kilometers out in space known as nuclear stars. Every time a nuclear star erupted, it represented a disastrous defeat. But contrary to what most people believed, nuclear star eruptions were not explosions in the nuclear reactor, but the exposure of the core when the outer hull of the reactor melted from the heat produced by fusion. The fusion core was like a small sun, and because it melted Earth’s most heat- tolerant materials as if they were wax, it had to be contained by an electromagnetic field. These restraints frequently failed.
On the balcony of the top floor of Space Command, Chang Weisi and Hines had just witnessed one such
eruption. Its moonlike glow cast its shadows onto the wall before disappearing. Hines was the second Wallfacer that Chang Weisi had met, after Tyler.
“The third time this month,” Chang Weisi said.
Hines looked out at the now-darkened night sky. “The power of these reactors only reaches one percent of what’s needed for future spacecraft engines, and they don’t operate stably. And even if the required reactors were developed, engine technology will be even more difficult. We’re sure to encounter the sophon block there.”
“That’s true. The sophons are blocking our every path,” Chang Weisi said as he looked off into the distance. The sea of lights in the city seemed even more brilliant now that the light in the sky had disappeared. “A glimmer of hope fades as soon as it is born, and one day it will be destroyed forever. It’s like you said:
The sophons block our every path.”
Chang Weisi said, with a laugh, “Dr. Hines, you’re not here to talk defeatism with me, are you?”
“That’s precisely what I want to talk about. The resurgence of defeatism is different this time. It’s based on the drastically reduced living conditions in the general population and has an even greater impact in the military.”
Chang Weisi looked back from the distance but said nothing.
“I understand your difficulties, General, and I’d like to help you.”
Chang Weisi looked at Hines in silence for a few seconds, his expression unreadable to the other man. Then, without replying to his offer, he said, “The evolution of the human brain needs twenty thousand to two hundred thousand years to achieve noticeable changes, but human civilization has a history of just five thousand years. So what we’re using right now is the brain of primitive man.… Doctor, I really applaud your unique ideas, and perhaps this is where the real answer lies.”
“Thank you. All of us are basically Flintstones.”
“But is it really possible to use technology to enhance mental ability?”
This got Hines excited. “General, you’re not so primitive, at least compared to others! I notice you said ‘mental ability’ rather than ‘intelligence.’ The former is much broader than the latter. To overcome defeatism, for example, we can’t simply rely on intelligence. Given the sophon block, the higher your intelligence, the more trouble you have establishing a faith in victory.”
“So give me an answer. Is it possible?”
Hines shook his head. “How much do you know about my and Keiko Yamasuki’s work before the Trisolar Crisis?”
“Not too much. I believe it was: The essence of thought is not on the molecular level but is carried out on the quantum level. I wonder, does that imply—”
“It implies that the sophons are waiting for me. Just like we’re waiting for them,” Hines said pointing at the sky. “But right now, our research is still quite a ways from our goal. Still, we’ve come up with an unexpected by-product.”
Chang Weisi smiled and nodded, showing cautious interest.
“I won’t talk about the details. Basically, we discovered the mind’s mechanism for making judgments in the cerebral neural network, as well as the ability to have a decisive impact on them. If we compare the process
by which a human mind makes judgments to a computer’s process, there’s the input of external data, calculation, and then the final outcome. What we’re able to do is omit the calculation step of the process and directly produce an outcome. When a certain piece of information enters the brain, it exerts an influence on a particular part of the neural network, and we can cause the brain to render a judgment—to believe that the information is genuine—without even thinking about it.”
“Has this already been achieved?” Chang Weisi asked softly.
“Yes. It started with a chance discovery, which we subjected to in-depth research, and now we’ve done it.
We call it the ‘mental seal.’”
“And if the judgment—or if you will, faith—is at odds with reality?”
“Then the faith will eventually be overturned. But the process will be quite painful, because the judgment produced in the mind by the mental seal is particularly stubborn. Once, this had me convinced that water was toxic, and it was only after two months of psychotherapy that I was able to drink unimpeded. That process is … not something I want to remember. But the toxicity of water is an extremely clear false proposition. Other beliefs may not be. Like the existence of God, or whether humanity will be victorious in war. These don’t have a clearly determined answer, and in the normal course of establishing these beliefs, the mind is slightly tilted in a certain direction by all sorts of choices. If the belief is established by the mental seal, it will be rock-solid and absolutely unshakeable.”
“That is truly a great achievement.” Chang Weisi grew serious. “I mean, for neuroscience. But in the real world, Dr. Hines, you have created a truly troublesome thing. Really. The most troublesome thing in history.”
“You don’t want to use this thing, the mental seal, to create a space force possessing an unshakeable faith in victory? In the military, you have political commissars and we have chaplains. The mental seal is just a technological means of accomplishing their work more efficiently.”
“Political and ideological work establishes faith through rational, scientific thinking.”
“But is it possible to establish faith in a victory in this war on the basis of rational, scientific thought?”
“If not, Doctor, we’d rather have a space force that lacks faith in victory yet retains independent thought.” “Apart from this one belief, the rest of the mind would of course be entirely autonomous. We would just be
performing a tiny intervention in the mind, using technology to leapfrog thought to implant a conclusion—just one alone—into the mind.”
“But one is enough. Technology is now capable of modifying thoughts just like modifying a computer program. After the modifications, are people still people, or are they automatons?”
“You must have read A Clockwork Orange.” “It’s a profound book.”
“General, your attitude is what I expected,” Hines said with a sigh. “I’ll continue my efforts in this area, the efforts a Wallfacer must exert.”
* * *
At the next PDC Wallfacer Project Hearing, Hines’s introduction of his mental seal triggered rare emotion in the assembly. The US representative’s concise evaluation expressed the feeling of the majority of the
attendees: “With their extraordinary talent, Dr. Hines and Dr. Yamasuki have opened up a great door into darkness for humanity.”
The French representative left his seat in his excitement. “Which is more tragic for humanity: the loss of the ability and right to think freely, or defeat in this war?”
“Of course the latter is more tragic!” Hines retorted, standing up. “Because under the first condition, humanity at least has the chance of regaining independent thought!”
“I have doubts about that. If this thing really does get used … Look at all you Wallfacers,” the Russian representative said, raising his hands toward the ceiling. “Tyler wanted to deprive people of their lives, and you want to deprive them of their minds. What are you trying to do?”
His words caused a commotion.
The UK representative said, “Today we are merely proposing a motion, but I believe that the governments of all countries will be unanimous in banning this thing. Regardless of what happens, nothing is more evil than thought control.”
Hines said, “Why is it that everyone gets so sensitive at the mention of thought control? From commercial advertising to Hollywood culture, thought control is everywhere in modern society. You are, to use a Chinese phrase, mocking people for retreating a hundred paces when you’ve retreated fifty yourselves.”
The US representative said, “Dr. Hines, you haven’t gone just one hundred paces. You’ve walked up to the threshold of darkness and are threatening the very foundations of modern society.”
Another commotion swept through the assembly, and Hines knew that now was the time to seize control of the situation. He raised his voice and said, “Learn from the little boy!”
Sure enough, there was a lull in the noise after his utterance. “What little boy?” asked the rotating chair.
“I think we’re all familiar with this story: In a forest, a little boy got his leg caught under a fallen tree. He was alone at the time, and his leg was bleeding uncontrollably. It would have killed him, except that he made a decision that would shame every one of you delegates: He took up his saw and sawed off the leg that was pinned, then climbed into a car and found a hospital. He saved his own life.”
Hines saw with satisfaction that no one in the meeting room had attempted to interrupt him, at least. He went on. “Humanity is now facing a life-and-death problem. The life or death of our species and civilization as a whole. In these circumstances, how can we not give up a few things?”
Two light thumps sounded. The chair was banging the gavel, even though there wasn’t much noise in the assembly. The attendees were reminded that the German man had maintained an unusual silence during the course of the hearing. In a gentle voice, the chair said, “First of all, I hope that each of you can take a good look at the current situation. Investment in building a space defense system is constantly increasing, and the world economy is experiencing a sharp recession during this time of transition. The prediction that the standard of living will retreat a century may come to pass in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile, space defense–related scientific research is running up against the sophon block, and technological progress is slowing. This will trigger a new wave of defeatism in the international community, and this time, it may cause the total collapse of the Solar System Defense Program.”
The chair’s words calmed the assembly completely. After a silence of nearly half a minute, he continued. “Like each of you, when I learned of the existence of the mental seal, I felt the kind of fear and loathing I’d get
from seeing a poisonous snake. But the most rational approach to take right now is to calm down and seriously consider it. When the devil does actually appear, the best option is calmness and rationality. At this hearing, we are simply putting forward a votable motion.”
Hines saw a thread of hope. “Mr. Chair, Representatives, since my initial proposal is unable to be put to an assembly vote, maybe we all can take a step back.”
“No matter how many steps back you take, thought control is absolutely unacceptable,” the French representative said, but in a slightly softer tone than before.
“And if it weren’t thought control? Perhaps something in between control and freedom?” “The mental seal equals thought control,” the Japanese representative said.
“Not so. In thought control, there must be a controller and a subject. If someone voluntarily places a seal in their own mind, then tell me, where is the control in that?”
The assembly fell silent again. Feeling that success was near, Hines went on, “I propose that the mental seal be opened up, like a public facility. It would have but one proposition: belief in a victory in the war. Anyone willing to gain that faith through the use of the seal could, totally voluntarily, take advantage of the facility. Of course, all of this would be conducted under strict supervision.”
The assembly opened up a discussion and added to Hines’s basic proposal a fair number of new restrictions on the use of the mental seal. The most crucial of these was the one limiting its use to the space forces, because it was relatively easy for people to accept the idea of uniform thinking in the military. The hearing continued for nearly eight hours, the longest ever, and eventually formulated a motion to be voted on at the next meeting, and which the permanent member states would take back to their own governments.
“Shouldn’t we come up with a name for this facility?” asked the US representative.
“How about calling it the Faith Relief Center?” the UK representative said. The British humor of the odd name drew a burst of laughter.
“Take out ‘relief,’ and call it the Faith Center,” Hines said, in all earnestness.
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