Broadcast Era, Year 8 Sun-Earth Lagrangian Point
Cheng Xin once again returned to the point in space where the Sun’s and the Earth’s gravities balanced each other out. A year had passed since the meeting with Yun Tianming, and she was far more relaxed for this trip. She was here as a volunteer for the Bunker Project simulation test.
Fleet International and the UN conducted this simulation jointly. Its goal was to test the effectiveness of the giant planets as barriers in the event of a solar explosion.
A supersized hydrogen bomb would play the role of the exploding sun. The power of nuclear bombs was no longer measured in TNT-equivalents, but this bomb’s yield would be approximately three hundred megatons. In order to more realistically simulate the physical conditions of a solar explosion, the hydrogen bomb was wrapped in a thick shell to mimic the solar material that would be thrown off by the explosion. The eight planets were modeled with fragments of asteroids. Of these, the four asteroids modeling terrestrial planets were around ten meters in diameter; the ones modeling the gas giants were far bigger, each around one hundred meters in diameter. The eight fragments were positioned around the hydrogen bomb at distances that replicated the relative distances of the planets, so that the entire system resembled a miniature Solar System. “Mercury,” which was closest, was about four kilometers from the “Sun,” and “Neptune,” which was farthest, was about three hundred kilometers away. The test was conducted at the Lagrangian point to minimize the effects of the Sun’s and the planets’ gravities so that the system could remain stable for some time.
Scientifically, this experiment wasn’t really necessary. Computer modeling based on existing data was more than adequate to produce results that could be trusted. Even if physical tests had to be done, they could have taken place in a laboratory. Though the scale would have to be smaller, careful design would have yielded considerable precision. As a science experiment, this large-scale simulation in space was clumsy to the point of being idiotic.
But the experimenters who had envisioned, designed, and implemented the simulation understood that the ultimate goal of this trial wasn’t science. It was actually an expensive propaganda effort to stabilize international faith in the Bunker Project. The trial had to be direct and visually impactful, so that it could be broadcast to the world.
After the total rejection of any further research into lightspeed spaceflight, conditions on Earth resembled the beginning of the Crisis Era. Back then, global defense against the Trisolaran invasion expended effort in two areas: one was the mainstream plan of constructing the Solar System’s defenses, and the other was the
Wallfacer Project. Now, humankind’s mainstream survival plan was the Bunker Project, and the Black Domain Plan, like the Wallfacer Project, was a gamble filled with unknowns. The plans were carried out in parallel, but since only theoretical research was possible on black domains, limited resources were committed. The Bunker Project, on the other hand, extensively impacted all of human society, and great effort had to be expended to secure the public’s support.
It would have been sufficient to leave monitoring equipment behind the rocky fragments, in order to test the shielding effects of the “gas giants,” or perhaps animal subjects. But in order to ensure a sensational reaction, the organizers decided that live human subjects were necessary, and so a global effort was undertaken to recruit volunteers.
艾 AA was the one who suggested Cheng Xin send in an application. AA believed that this was an excellent opportunity to do some free marketing to burnish the Halo Group’s public image in preparation for entry into the Bunker Project. She and Cheng Xin also both understood that the trial had been planned carefully. It might look unsettling, but there was basically no danger.
Cheng Xin’s spacecraft stopped in the shadow of the fragment representing Jupiter. This irregular asteroid was shaped like a potato. It was about 110 meters long, with an average width of around seventy meters. Over a period of two months, the asteroid had been pushed from its home in the asteroid belt to here. During its voyage, some artistic engineer who had too much time on his hands had painted it with colorful bands similar to the ones on the real Jupiter, including the Great Red Spot. Overall, however, the painted asteroid did not resemble Jupiter, but some space monster with a Cyclopean red eye.
As on her last voyage, Cheng Xin’s spacecraft flew against the brilliant sun, but once it entered the shadow of the asteroid, everything darkened immediately, because there was no air in space to scatter the sunlight. The Sun on the other side of the asteroid might as well not have existed. Cheng Xin felt she was at the foot of a cliff at midnight.
Even without the barrier of the asteroid, it would have been impossible to see the hydrogen bomb simulating the Sun fifty kilometers away. But in the other direction, she could see the simulated “Saturn.” By scale, it was just about a hundred kilometers from the “Sun” and fifty kilometers from “Jupiter.” It was about the same size as this asteroid fragment, and, illuminated by the real Sun, stood out against the backdrop of space so that Cheng Xin could just tell its shape. She could also see “Uranus” about two hundred kilometers away, though that was just a shiny dot, hard to tell apart from the stars. The rest of the “planets” were invisible.
Along with Cheng Xin’s dinghy, about nineteen other space vessels were parked behind “Jupiter.” Together, these simulated the twenty planned Jovian space cities. The spaceships were lined up in three rows behind the asteroid, and Cheng Xin was in the front-most row, about ten meters from the asteroid. More than a hundred volunteers were seated in the ships. Originally, AA had planned to come with Cheng Xin, but company business kept her away. Thus, Cheng Xin’s dinghy might be the only one sheltered behind “Jupiter” with a lone passenger.
They could see the bright blue Earth about 1.5 million kilometers away. More than three billion people there were watching a live broadcast of the trial.
The countdown indicated that about ten minutes remained before the start of the detonation. The
communications channels quieted. Abruptly, a man’s voice spoke up. “Hello. I’m next to you.”
Cheng Xin shuddered as she recognized the voice. Her dinghy was at one end of the five vessels in the first row. Looking to her right, she saw a spherical dinghy very similar to the one she had ridden in a year ago parked right next to hers. Almost half the hull was transparent, and she could see five passengers inside. Thomas Wade was sitting on the side closest to her, and waved at her. Cheng Xin was able to recognize him right away because, unlike the other four passengers, he wasn’t wearing a lightweight space suit; instead, he wore only his black leather jacket, as if to show his contempt for space. His sleeve remained empty, indicating that he still had not gotten a prosthetic hand.
“Let’s dock so I can come over,” Wade said. Without waiting for Cheng Xin to agree, he initiated the docking sequence. The dinghy he was in started its maneuvering thrusters and slowly approached Cheng Xin’s dinghy. Reluctantly, Cheng Xin initiated the docking procedure as well. After a slight tremor, the two ships were connected, and both sets of cabin doors slid open noiselessly. As the pressure between the two ships equalized, Cheng Xin’s ears popped.
Wade floated over. He couldn’t have had much experience in space, but like Cheng Xin, he moved as though he was born to it. Though he had only one hand, his movements in weightlessness were steady and firm, as though gravity still worked on him. The interior of the cabin was dim. Sunlight, reflected from the Earth, was deflected again by the asteroid into the dinghy. In this obscure light, Cheng Xin looked Wade over and found him not much changed by the intervening eight years. He still looked pretty much the same as he had in Australia.
“What are you doing here?” Cheng Xin asked, trying to keep her voice cool. But she always seemed to have trouble maintaining her composure in front of this man. After what she had gone through the last few years, everything in her heart had been polished until it was as smooth as the asteroid in front of her, but Wade remained a singular sharp corner.
“I finished my sentence a month ago.” Wade took half of a cigar from his jacket pocket—though he couldn’t light it here. “It was reduced. A murderer, out in eleven years—I know that’s not fair … to you.”
“We all have to follow the law. There’s nothing unfair about that.” “Follow the law in everything? Including lightspeed propulsion?”
Just like before, Wade got straight to the point without wasting any time. Cheng Xin didn’t answer. “Why do you want lightspeed ships?” Wade asked. He turned and stared at Cheng Xin brazenly.
“Because that is the only choice that makes humankind grand,” Cheng Xin said. She met his gaze fearlessly. Wade nodded and took the cigar out of his mouth. “Very good. You’re grand.”
Cheng Xin looked at him, her eyes asking the unspoken question.
“You know what is right, and you have the courage and sense of duty to do it. This makes you extraordinary.”
“But?” Cheng Xin prompted.
“But, you don’t have the skill or the will to complete this task. We share the same ideal. I also want to see lightspeed ships built.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“Give it to me.” “Give what to you?”
“Everything you own. Your company, your wealth, your authority, your position—and if possible, your reputation and glory. I will use them all to build lightspeed ships, for your ideals, and for the grandness of the human spirit.”
The thrusters of the dinghy came on again. Although the asteroid generated little gravity, it was still enough to make the dinghy fall toward it slowly. The thrusters pushed the dinghy away from the rock until it returned to its assigned location. The plasma nozzle illuminated the surface of the asteroid fragment, and the red spot painted on it looked like a suddenly opened eye. Cheng Xin’s heart tensed, whether due to this eye or Wade’s words. Wade stared back at the giant eye, his gaze sharp and cold, with a hint of mockery.
Cheng Xin said nothing. She couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Don’t make the same mistake a second time,” Wade said. Each word struck Cheng Xin’s heart like a heavy hammer.
It was time: The hydrogen bomb exploded. Without the obstruction of an atmosphere, nearly all of its energy was released in the form of radiation. In the live feed taken from about four hundred kilometers away, a fireball appeared next to the Sun. Soon, the brightness and size of the fireball exceeded the Sun itself, and the camera’s filters quickly dimmed the light. If someone were to gaze at it directly from this distance, he or she would be blinded permanently. By the time the fireball reached maximum brightness, there was nothing in the camera’s view but pure whiteness. The flame seemed ready to swallow the entire universe.
Sheltered in the shadow of the giant rock, Cheng Xin and Wade did not witness this sight. The live broadcast feed was shut off within the cabin, but they could see “Saturn” behind them increase in brightness abruptly. Next, the molten lava generated on the side of “Jupiter” facing the “Sun” flew around them. The lava glowed red as it dripped away from the edge of the asteroid, but after it flew some distance away, the reflected light from the nuclear detonation exceeded its inherent red glow, and the thin dribbles of lava turned into brilliant fireworks. The view from the dinghy resembled the view from the top of a silvery waterfall tumbling down toward the Earth. By now, the four smaller asteroid fragments simulating the terrestrial planets had been incinerated, and the four larger asteroid fragments simulating the gas giants behaved as four scoops of ice cream being heated on one side by a blowtorch. The side facing the detonation melted and turned into a smooth hemisphere, and every “planet” dripped a silvery tail of lava. More than ten seconds after the radiation reached “Jupiter,” the simulated stellar material, consisting of pieces of the exploded shell of the hydrogen bomb, struck the massive asteroid fragment, causing it to quake and drift slowly away from the “Sun.” The dinghy’s thrusters activated and maintained distance from the fragment.
The fireball persisted for about thirty seconds before going out. Space seemed like a hall where the light had suddenly been shut off. The real Sun, about one AU away, appeared dim. As the fireball disappeared, the light emitted by the red-glowing half of the asteroid fragment became visible. Initially, the light was very bright, as though the rock were on fire, but the frigidity of space quickly chilled it to a dim red glow. The solidified lava at the rim of the fragment formed a circle of long stalactites.
The fifty spaceships sheltered behind the four giant asteroid fragments were unharmed.
The live feed arrived at the Earth five seconds later, and the world erupted into cheers. Hope for the future
exploded everywhere like the hydrogen bomb. The goal of the Bunker Project simulation test had been achieved.
“Don’t make the same mistake twice,” Wade repeated, as though all that had just happened was nothing more than noise that had briefly interrupted their conversation.
Cheng Xin stared at the dinghy Wade had come from. The four men in space suits had been looking in this direction the entire time, oblivious to the magnificent sight that had just taken place. Cheng Xin knew that tens of thousands of people had volunteered for the test, and only famous or important people had been selected. Although Wade had just gotten out of prison, he already had powerful followers—those four men, at least—and the dinghy probably also belonged to him. Even eleven years ago, when he had competed for the Swordholder position, he had had many loyal followers, and even more supporters. It was rumored that he had founded a secret organization, which had perhaps survived. He was like a piece of nuclear fuel. Even when it was sealed up in a lead container, one could feel its power and threat.
“Let me think about it,” said Cheng Xin.
“Of course you need to think about it.” Wade nodded at Cheng Xin, then left noiselessly as he drifted back to his own ship. The cabin door closed, and the two ships separated.
In the direction of the Earth, the cooled lava bits drifted languidly against the starry background like a field of dust. Cheng Xin felt the tension in her heart give way, and she herself felt like a mote of dust drifting through the cosmos.
* * *
On the way back, when the dinghy was within three hundred thousand kilometers of the Earth so that there was essentially no delay in communications, Cheng Xin called AA and told her about the meeting with Wade.
“Do as he said,” AA said without hesitation. “Give him everything he asked for.”
“You…” Cheng Xin stared at AA in the information window, astonished. She had imagined AA would be the biggest obstacle.
“He’s right. You don’t have the capacity for this. The attempt will ruin you! But he can get it done. This bastard, devil, murderer, careerist, political hooligan, technophilic madman … he can get it done. He has the will and skill for this, so let him! It’s hell, so step aside for him to jump in.”
“What about you?”
AA smiled. “I would never work under him, of course. Ever since they proscribed lightspeed ships, I’ve grown afraid, too. I will take what I deserve and go do something I enjoy. I hope you do, too.”
* * *
Two days later, in the transparent conference hall at the top of the Halo Group headquarters, Cheng Xin met with Wade.
“I can give you everything you want,” Cheng Xin said.
“Then you’ll go into hibernation,” Wade said. “Because your presence may affect our task.” Cheng Xin nodded. “Yes. That is my plan.”
“We’ll awaken you on the day we achieve success, which will be your success as well. On that day, if
lightspeed ships are still against the law, we’ll accept all responsibility. If such ships are welcomed by the world, the honor will belong to you.… It will be at least half a century, or even longer. We’ll be old, but you’ll still be young.”
“I have one condition.” “Speak.”
“If this project ever has the potential to harm the human race, you must awaken me. The final decision is mine, and I have the right to take back all the authority I give you.”
“I can’t accept that.”
“Then we have nothing to discuss. I’ll give you nothing.”
“Cheng Xin, you must know what path we’ll be taking. Sometimes, one must—” “Forget it. We’ll go our separate ways.”
Wade stared at Cheng Xin. In his eyes were feelings rarely seen in him: hesitation, even helplessness. It was as unexpected to see these things in him as it was to see water in fire. “Let me think about it.”
He turned and walked over to one of the transparent walls and gazed at the metropolitan forest outside. On that night three centuries ago at the plaza in front of the UN, Cheng Xin had also seen the back of this black figure against the lights of New York City.
About two minutes later, Wade turned around. Still standing at the transparent wall, he looked at Cheng Xin from across the room. “All right. I accept.”
Cheng Xin remembered that three centuries ago, after turning around, he had said, “We’ll send only a brain.” Those words had changed the course of history.
“I don’t have many means to enforce our deal. I can only trust your promise.”
That smile, like a crack in the ice, spread across Wade’s face. “You are perfectly aware that if I break my promise, it will actually be a blessing for you. But unfortunately, I will keep my promise.”
Wade walked back and straightened his leather jacket, which only caused more wrinkles to appear. He stood in front of Cheng Xin and solemnly said, “I promise that if, during the process of researching lightspeed spaceflight, we discover anything that may harm the human race, regardless of the form of the danger, we’ll awaken you. You’ll have the final say and can take back all of my authority.”
* * *
After hearing about the meeting with Wade, AA said to Cheng Xin, “Then I’ll need to go into hibernation with you. We have to be prepared to take back the Halo Group at a moment’s notice.”
“You believe he’ll keep his promise?” asked Cheng Xin.
AA stared straight ahead, as though looking at a ghost Wade. “I do. I think the devil will do as he says. But just like he said, that’s not necessarily a good thing for you. You could have saved yourself, Cheng Xin, but in the end, you didn’t.”
* * *
Ten days later, Thomas Wade became the president of the Halo Group and took over all operations.
Cheng Xin and AA entered hibernation. Their consciousnesses gradually faded in the cold. It felt as though
they had been drifting for a long time in a river. Exhausted, they climbed onto the shore, stopped, and watched the river continue to flow before their eyes, watched as the familiar water flowed into the distance.
While they stepped briefly outside the river of time, the story of humanity went on.
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