Crisis Era, Years 1–4 Cheng Xin
Cheng Xin went to Sanya on Hainan Island to research hibernation.
This tropical island seemed an incongruous site for the largest hibernation research center, which was operated by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences. While it was the middle of winter on the mainland, spring ruled here.
The hibernation center was a white building hidden behind lush vegetation. About a dozen test subjects inside engaged in experimental, short-term hibernation. So far, no one had been put into hibernation with the intent of crossing the centuries.
Cheng Xin first asked whether it was possible to shrink the equipment necessary to support hibernation down to one hundred kilograms.
The director of the research center laughed. “One hundred kilograms? You’d be lucky getting it down to one hundred metric tons!”
The director was exaggerating, but only slightly. He showed Cheng Xin around the center, and Cheng Xin learned that artificial hibernation didn’t exactly match its public image. For one thing, it didn’t involve ultra- low temperatures. The procedure replaced the blood in the body with an antifreeze cryoprotectant, then brought the body temperature down to minus-fifty-degrees Celsius. Relying on an external cardiopulmonary bypass system, the body’s organs maintained an extremely low level of biological activity. “It’s like standby mode on a computer,” said the director. The entire system—hibernation tank, life-support system, cooling equipment—weighed about three metric tons.
As Cheng Xin discussed possible ways to miniaturize the hibernation setup with the center’s technical staff, she was startled by a realization: If the body’s temperature must be maintained around minus-fifty-degrees Celsius, then in the frigid conditions of outer space, the hibernation chamber needed to be heated, not cooled. In the long journey through trans-Neptunian space in particular, outside temperature would be close to absolute zero. In contrast, minus-fifty-degrees Celsius was like the inside of a furnace. Considering that the journey would take one to two centuries, the most practicable solution was radioisotope heating. The director’s claim of one hundred metric tons was thus not too far from the truth.
Cheng Xin returned to PIA Headquarters and gave her report. After synthesizing all relevant research results, the staff again sank into depression. But this time, they gazed at Wade with hope.
“What are you all looking at? I’m not God!” Wade surveyed the conference room. “Why do you think your countries sent you here? To collect a paycheck and to give me bad news? I don’t have a solution. Finding
a solution is your job!” He kicked the leg of the conference table, and his chair slid back farther than ever. Ignoring the conference room’s non-smoking rule, he lit up a cigar.
The attendees turned their attention back to the new hibernation experts in the room. None of them said anything, but they made no effort to disguise the anger and frustration of professionals faced with ignorant zealots who were asking for the impossible.
“Maybe…” Cheng Xin looked around hesitantly. She was still unused to MD.
“Advance! We stop at nothing to advance!” Wade spewed smoke at her along with the words. “Maybe … we don’t need to send a live person.”
The rest of the team looked at her, looked at each other, and then turned to the hibernation experts. They shook their heads, uncertain what Cheng Xin meant.
“We could flash-freeze a person to minus-two-hundred-degrees Celsius or below, then launch the body. We wouldn’t need life support or heating systems, and the capsule holding the body could be made very small and light. The total mass should not exceed one hundred and ten kilograms. For us, such a body is a corpse, but that may not be the case for Trisolarans.”
“Very good,” Wade said, and nodded at her. This was the first time he had praised one of his staff since she had known him.
One of the hibernation experts said, “You’re talking about cryopreservation, not hibernation. The biggest barrier to reanimating a flash-frozen body is preventing cell damage from ice crystals during the thawing process. It’s like what happens to frozen tofu: When you defrost it, it turns into a sponge. Oh, I guess most of you haven’t had frozen tofu.” The expert, who was Chinese, smiled at the confused Western faces around him. “Now, maybe the Trisolarans know techniques to prevent such damage. Perhaps they can restore the body to normal temperature within an extremely short period of time: a millisecond, or even a microsecond. We don’t know how to do such a thing, at least not without vaporizing the body in the process.”
Cheng Xin wasn’t paying much attention to this discussion. Instead, she was focused on one thing: Who would this minus-two-hundred-degree corpsicle that would be shot into deep space be? She was trying her hardest to advance without regard for consequences, but she couldn’t help but shudder at the thought.
* * *
The latest version of the Staircase Program was brought back to the current PDC session for a vote. Private discussions between Wade and the delegates of the various nations called for optimism. Since the plan, as modified, would represent the first direct contact between humanity and an extraterrestrial civilization, its meaning was qualitatively different from merely sending a probe. Moreover, the person sent to the Trisolarans could be said to represent a ticking bomb implanted in the heart of the enemy. By skillfully using humanity’s absolute superiority in tricks and ruses, he or she could change the course of the entire war.
Since the special session of the General Assembly was going to announce the Wallfacer Project to the world tonight, the PDC session was delayed by more than an hour. PIA personnel waited in the lobby outside the General Assembly Hall. During previous PDC sessions, only Wade and Vadimov were allowed to attend, while others had to remain outside, waiting to be summoned if their specific area of technical expertise was needed. But this time, Wade asked Cheng Xin to accompany him and Vadimov to the PDC session itself, a
high honor for a lowly technical aide.
After the General Assembly finished its announcement, Cheng Xin and the others watched as a man surrounded by a swarm of reporters passed through the lobby and left the building through another exit— clearly one of the just-revealed Wallfacers. Since everyone from the PIA was focused on the Staircase Program, most weren’t interested in the Wallfacers, and only a couple of them left the building to catch a glimpse of the man. Thus, when the famous assassination attempt of Luo Ji occurred, no one from the PIA heard the gunshot; they only saw the sudden commotion through the glass doors. Cheng Xin and the others ran outside and were immediately blinded by the bright searchlights from helicopters hovering overhead.
“Oh my God, one of the Wallfacers has been killed!” One of her colleagues ran over. “I heard that he was shot several times. In the head!”
“Who are the Wallfacers?” asked Wade. His tone indicated no particular interest.
“I’m not too sure either. I think three of them are from the pool of well-known candidates. But this fourth one, the one who was shot, was one of your people.” He pointed at Cheng Xin. “But no one had heard of him. He’s just some guy.”
“In this extraordinary time, no one is ‘just some guy,’” Wade said. “Any random person could suddenly be handed a heavy responsibility, and anyone important could be replaced at any time.” He looked at Cheng Xin and Mikhail Vadimov in turn. Then a PDC secretary called him aside.
“He’s threatening me,” Vadimov whispered to Cheng Xin. “He threw a fit yesterday and told me that you could easily replace me.”
Vadimov held up his hand to stop her. The bright searchlight from one of the helicopters shone through his palm and revealed the blood under his skin. “He wasn’t joking. Our agency does not need to follow normal HR procedures. You’re steady, calm, hardworking, and also creative; you display a sense of responsibility far above your official position. This is a rare combination of qualities in someone your age. Xin, really, I’m glad that you could replace me—but you can’t do quite what I can do.” He looked around at the chaos surrounding them. “You won’t sell your mother to a whorehouse. You’re still a child, when it comes to that aspect of our profession. My fervent hope is that you will always remain so.”
Camille marched over to them holding a stack of paper. Cheng Xin guessed that it was the interim report on the feasibility of the Staircase Program. Camille held up the document for a few seconds, but instead of handing it over to either of them, she slammed it against the ground.
“Fuck them all!” Camille screamed. Even with the helicopters thundering overhead, a few onlookers turned to stare. “Fucking pigs don’t know how to do anything except fuck around down here in the mud.”
“Who are you talking about?” asked Vadimov.
“Everyone! The human race! Half a century ago, we walked on the moon. But now, we have nothing, can’t change anything!”
Cheng Xin bent down and picked up the document. Indeed, it was the interim feasibility report. She and Vadimov flipped through it, but it was highly technical and difficult to skim. Wade had also returned to their circle—the PDC secretary had informed him that the session would begin in fifteen minutes.
Camille calmed down a bit in the presence of the PIA chief. “NASA has conducted two small tests of
nuclear pulse propulsion in space, and you can read the results in the report. Basically, our proposed spacecraft is still too heavy to reach the required speed. They calculate the entire assembly needs to be one-twentieth its proposed mass. One-twentieth! That’s ten kilograms!
“But wait, they also sent us some good news. The sail, it turns out, can be reduced to under ten kilograms. They took pity on us and told us that we can have an effective payload of half a kilogram. But that is the absolute limit, because any increase in the payload will require thicker cables for attachment to the sail. Every additional gram in the payload means three more grams of cables. Thus, we’re stuck with zero point five kilograms. Haha, it’s just like our angel predicted: light as a feather!”
Wade smiled. “We should ask Monnier, my mother’s kitten, to go. Though, even she would have to lose half of her weight.”
Whenever others were happily absorbed by their work, Wade appeared gloomy; when others were forlorn, he became relaxed and jokey. Initially, Cheng Xin had attributed this quirk to part of his leadership style. But Vadimov told her that she didn’t know how to read people. Wade’s behavior had nothing to do with his leadership style or rallying the troops—he just enjoyed watching others lose hope, even if he himself was among those who ought to be in despair. He took pleasure in the desperation of others. Cheng Xin had been surprised that Vadimov, who always tried to speak of others generously, held such an opinion of Wade. But right now, it did look as though Wade took pleasure in watching the three of them suffer.
Cheng Xin felt weak. Days of exhaustion hit her at once, and she sank to the lawn. “Get up,” said Wade.
For the first time, Cheng Xin refused to obey an order from him. She remained on the ground. “I’m tired.” Her voice was wooden.
“You, and you,” Wade said, pointing to Camille and Cheng Xin. “You’re not allowed to lose control like this in the future. You must advance, stop at nothing to advance!”
“There’s no way forward,” said Vadimov. “We have to give up.”
“The reason you think there’s no path forward is because you don’t know how to disregard the consequences.”
“What about the PDC session? Cancel it?”
“No, we should proceed as though nothing has happened. But we can’t prepare new documents, so we have to orally present the new plan.”
“What new plan? A five-hundred-gram cat?” “Of course not.”
Vadimov’s and Camille’s eyes brightened. Cheng Xin also seemed to have recovered her strength. She stood up.
Accompanied by military escort vehicles and helicopters, an ambulance departed with the Fourth Wallfacer. Against the lights of New York City, Wade’s figure appeared as a black ghost, his eyes glinting with a cold light.
“We’ll send only a brain,” he said.
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