Crisis Era, Years 1–4 Cheng Xin
The mass launch of Peacekeeper missiles had been in process for over half an hour. Trails from six missiles merged together, and, lit up by the moon, resembled a silvery road that reached into heaven.
Every five minutes, another fiery ball ascended this silvery road into the sky. Shadows cast by trees and people swept along the ground like the second hands of clocks. This first launch would involve thirty missiles, sending three hundred nuclear warheads with yields ranging from five hundred kilotons to 2.5 megatons into orbit.
At the same time, in Russia and China, Topol and Dongfeng missiles were also rising into the sky. The scene resembled a doomsday scenario, but Cheng Xin could tell by the curvature of the rocket trails that these were orbital launches instead of intercontinental strikes. These devices, which could have killed billions, would never return to the surface of the Earth. They would pool their enormous power to accelerate a feather to 1 percent of the speed of light.
Cheng Xin’s eyes filled with hot tears. Each ascending rocket lit them up like bright, glistening pools. She told herself again and again that no matter what happened next, it was worth it to have pushed the Staircase Program this far.
But the two men beside her, Vadimov and Wade, seemed unmoved by the spectacular scene playing out before them. They didn’t even bother looking up; instead, they smoked and conversed in low voices. Cheng Xin knew very well what they were discussing: who would be chosen for the Staircase Program.
The last session of the PDC marked the first time a resolution had been passed based on a proposal that wasn’t even written down. And Cheng Xin got to witness the debating skills of Wade, usually a man of few words. He argued that if we assumed the Trisolarans were capable of reviving a body in deep freeze, then it made sense to assume they were also capable of reviving a bare brain in similar condition and conversing with it through an external interface. Surely such a task was trivial for a civilization capable of unfolding a proton into two dimensions and etching circuits over the resulting surface. In some sense, a brain was no different from the whole person: It possessed the person’s thoughts, personality, and memories. And it most definitely possessed the person’s capacity for stratagems. If successful, the brain would still be a ticking bomb in the heart of the enemy.
Although the PDC members did not fully agree that a brain was the same as a whole person, they lacked better choices, especially since their interest in the Staircase Program was largely based on the technology for accelerating the probe to 1 percent of lightspeed. In the end, the resolution passed with five yeses and two
Once the Staircase Program was approved, the problem of who should be sent came to the forefront. Cheng Xin lacked the courage to even imagine such a person. Even if his or her brain could be captured by the Trisolarans and revived, life afterwards—if such an existence could be called life—would be one interminable nightmare. Every time she thought about this, her heart felt squeezed by a hand chilled to minus- two-hundred-degrees Celsius.
The other leaders and implementers of the Staircase Program did not suffer her pangs of guilt. If PIA were a national intelligence agency, this matter would have been resolved long ago. However, since PIA was only a joint intelligence committee formed by the permanent member nations of the PDC, after the Staircase Program was revealed to the international community, the issue became extremely sensitive.
The key problem was this: Before launch, the subject would have to be killed.
After the initial panic of the Crisis subsided, a mainstream consensus gradually dominated international politics: It was important to prevent the Crisis from being leveraged as a tool to destroy democracy. PIA personnel were instructed by their respective nations to be extra careful during the process of selecting potential Staircase Program subjects and not commit political errors that would embarrass their countries.
Once again, Wade came up with a unique solution to the difficulty: advocating, through the PDC and then the UN, the passage of euthanasia laws in as many countries as possible. But even he wasn’t confident that this plan would work.
Of the seven permanent members of the PDC, three quickly passed euthanasia laws. But these laws all clearly provided that euthanasia was only available to those suffering terminal illnesses. This was not ideal for the Staircase Program, but it seemed the outer boundary of political acceptability.
Thus, candidates for the Staircase Program had to be chosen from the population of terminally ill patients.
* * *
The thunderous noises and bright lights in the sky faded. The missile launches had come to an end. Wade and a few other PDC observers got into their cars and left, leaving only Vadimov and Cheng Xin.
“Why don’t we take a look at your star?” he said.
Four days ago, Cheng Xin had received the deed to DX3906. She was utterly surprised and fell into a delirium of joy. For a whole day, she kept on repeating to herself: Someone gave me a star; someone gave me a star; someone gave me a star.…
When she went to see Chief Wade to give a status report, her happiness was so palpable that Wade asked her what the matter was with her. She showed him the deed.
“A useless piece of paper,” he said, and handed it back to her. “If you’re smart, you should drop the price and resell it right away. Otherwise you’ll end up with nothing.”
But Cheng Xin wasn’t bothered by his cynicism—she had already known what he was going to say. She knew very little about Wade except his work history: service in the CIA, then deputy secretary of Homeland Security, and finally here. As for his personal life, other than the fact that he had a mother and his mother had a kitten, she knew nothing. No one else did, either. She didn’t even know where he lived. He was like a machine: When he wasn’t working, he was shut down somewhere unknown.
She couldn’t help but bring up the star to Vadimov, who enthusiastically congratulated her. “Every girl in the world must be jealous,” he said. “Including all living women and dead princesses. You’re certainly the first woman in the history of humankind to be given a star.” For a woman, was there any greater happiness than to be given a star by someone who loved her?
“But who is he?” Cheng Xin muttered.
“Shouldn’t be hard to guess. He must be rich, for one thing. He just spent a few million on a symbolic gift.” Cheng Xin shook her head. She’d had many admirers and suitors, but none of them were that wealthy. “He’s also a cultured soul. Stands apart from the crowd.” Vadimov sighed. “And he just made a romantic
gesture that I’d call fucking ridiculous if I read it in a book or saw it in a movie.”
Cheng Xin sighed as well. A much younger Cheng Xin had once indulged in rose-tinted fantasies that the Cheng Xin of the present would mock. This real star that appeared out of nowhere, however, far exceeded those romantic dreams.
She was certain that she knew no man like that.
Maybe it was a secret admirer from afar who, on impulse, decided to use a tiny part of his vast wealth to indulge in a bit of whimsy, to satisfy some desire she would never understand. Even so, she was grateful.
That night, Cheng Xin climbed onto the top of One World Trade Center, eager to see her new star. She had carefully reviewed the materials that accompanied the deed explaining how to find it. But the sky in New York was overcast. The next day and the day after were the same. The clouds formed a giant teasing hand that covered her gift, refusing to let go. But Cheng Xin wasn’t disappointed; she knew she had received a gift that couldn’t be taken away. DX3906 was in this universe, and it might even outlast the Earth and the Sun. She would see it, one day.
She stood on the balcony of her apartment at night, gazing up at the sky and imagining her star. The lights of the city below cast a dim yellow glow against the cloud cover, but she imagined her star giving the clouds a rosy glow.
In her dream, she flew over the star’s surface. It was a rose-colored sphere, but instead of scorching flames, she felt the coolness of a spring breeze. Below her was the clear water of an ocean, through which she could see swaying, rose-colored clouds of algae.…
After she woke up, she laughed at herself. As an aerospace professional, even in her dreams she couldn’t forget that DX3906 had no planets.
On the fourth day after she received the star, Cheng Xin and a few other PIA employees flew to Cape Canaveral to attend the launch ceremony for the first batch of missiles. Achieving orbit required taking advantage of the Earth’s spin, and the ICBMs had been moved here from their original deployment bases.
The trails left behind by the missiles gradually faded against the clear night sky. Cheng Xin and Vadimov reviewed the observation guide for her star. Both had had some training in astronomy, and soon they were looking at the approximate location. But neither could see it.
Vadimov took out two pairs of military-issue binoculars. With them, it was easy to see DX3906. After that, even without the binoculars, they could find the star. Cheng Xin stared at the faint red dot, mesmerized, struggling to comprehend the unimaginable distance between them, struggling to translate the distance into terms that could be grasped by the human mind.
“If you put my brain on the Staircase Program probe and launched it at the star, it would take thirty thousand years to get there.”
Cheng Xin heard no response. When she turned around, she saw that Vadimov was no longer looking at the star with her, but leaning against the car and looking at nothing. She could see that his face was troubled.
Vadimov was silent for some time. “I’ve been avoiding my duty.” “What are you talking about?”
“I’m the best candidate for the Staircase Program.”
After a momentary shock, Cheng Xin realized that Vadimov was right: He had extensive experience in spaceflight, diplomacy, and intelligence; he was steady and mature.… Even if they were able to expand the pool of candidates to include healthy individuals, Vadimov would still be the best choice.
“But you’re healthy.”
“Sure. But I’m still running from my responsibility.”
“Have you been pressured?” Cheng Xin was thinking of Wade.
“No, but I know what I must do; I just haven’t done it. I got married three years ago, and my daughter just turned one. I’m not afraid to die, but my family matters to me. I don’t want them to see me turned into something worse than a corpse.”
“You don’t have to do this. Neither the PIA nor your government has ordered you to do this, and they can’t!”
“Yes, but I wanted to tell you … in the end, I’m the best candidate.”
“Mikhail, humankind isn’t just some abstraction. To love humanity, you must start by loving individual persons, by fulfilling your responsibility to those you love. It would be absurd to blame yourself for it.”
“Thank you, Cheng Xin. You deserve your gift.” Vadimov looked up at Cheng Xin’s star. “I would love to give my wife and daughter a star.”
A bright point of light appeared in the sky, then another. Their glow cast shadows on the ground. They were testing nuclear pulse propulsion in space.
* * *
The process of selecting a subject for the Staircase Program was fully underway, but the effort imposed little direct pressure on Cheng Xin. She was asked to perform some basic tasks such as examining candidates’ knowledge of spaceflight, a primary requirement. Since the pool of candidates was limited to terminally ill patients, it was almost impossible to find someone with the requisite expertise. The PIA intensified efforts to identify more candidates through every available channel.
One of Cheng Xin’s college classmates came to New York to visit her. The talk turned to what had happened to others in their class, and her friend mentioned Yun Tianming. She had heard from Hu Wen that Tianming was in the late stages of lung cancer and didn’t have much time left. Right away, Cheng Xin went to Assistant Chief Yu to suggest Tianming as a candidate.
For the rest of her life, Cheng Xin would remember that moment. Every time, she had to admit to herself that she just didn’t think much about Tianming as a person.
Cheng Xin needed to return to China for business. Since she was Tianming’s classmate, Assistant Chief Yu asked her to represent the PIA and discuss the matter with Tianming. She agreed, still not thinking much of it.
* * *
After hearing Cheng Xin’s story, Tianming slowly sat up on the bed. Cheng Xin asked him to lie down, but he said he wanted to be by himself for a while.
Cheng Xin closed the door lightly behind her. Tianming began to laugh hysterically.
What a fucking idiot I am! Did I think that because I gave her a star out of love, she would return that love? Did I think that she had flown across the Pacific to save me with her saintly tears? What kind of fairy tale have I been telling myself?
No, Cheng Xin had come to ask him to die.
He made another logical deduction that made him laugh even harder, until it was hard to breathe. Based on Cheng Xin’s timing, she could not know that he had already chosen euthanasia. In other words, if Tianming hadn’t already chosen this path, she would try to convince him to take it. Maybe she would even entice him, or pressure him, until he agreed.
Euthanasia meant “good death,” but there was nothing good about the fate she had in mind for him.
His sister had wanted him to die because she thought money was being wasted. He could understand that— and he believed that she genuinely wanted him to die in peace. Cheng Xin, on the other hand, wanted him to suffer in eternity. Tianming was terrified of space. Like everyone who studied spaceflight for a living, he understood space’s sinister nature better than the general public. Hell was not on Earth, but in heaven.
Cheng Xin wanted a part of him, the part that carried his soul, to wander forever in that frigid, endless, lightless abyss.
Actually, that would be the best outcome.
If the Trisolarans were to really capture his brain as Cheng Xin wished, then his true nightmare would begin. Aliens who shared nothing with humanity would attach sensors to his brain and begin tests involving the senses. They would be most interested in the sensation of pain, of course, and so, by turn, he would experience hunger, thirst, whipping, burning, suffocation, electric shocks, medieval torture techniques, death by a thousand cuts.…
Then they would search his memory to identify what forms of suffering he feared the most. They would discover a torture technique he had once read in a history book—first, the victim was whipped until not an inch of his skin remained intact; then the victim’s body was tightly wrapped in bandages; and after the victim had stopped bleeding, the bandages would be torn off, ripping open all the wounds at once—then send signals replicating such torture into his brain. The victim in his history book couldn’t live for long in those conditions, but Tianming’s brain would not be able to die. The most that could happen was that his brain could shut down from shock. In the eyes of Trisolarans, it would resemble a computer locking up. They’d just restart his brain and run another experiment, driven by curiosity, or merely the desire for entertainment.…
He would have no escape. Without hands or body, he would have no way to commit suicide. His brain would resemble a battery, recharged again and again with pain.
There would be no end.
He howled with laughter.
Cheng Xin opened the door. “Tianming, what’s wrong?” He choked off his laugh and turned still as a corpse.
“Tianming, on behalf of the UN-PDC Strategic Intelligence Agency, I ask you whether you’re willing to shoulder your responsibility as a member of the human race and accept this mission. This is entirely voluntary. You are free to say no.”
He gazed at her face, at her solemn but eager expression. She was fighting for humanity, for Earth.… But what was wrong with the scene all around him? The light of the setting sun coming through the window fell against the wall like a pool of blood; the lonesome oak tree outside the window appeared as skeletal arms rising out of the grave.…
The hint of a smile—an agonized, melancholic smile—appeared at the corners of his mouth. Gradually, the smile spread to the rest of his face.
“Of course. I accept,” he said.
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