15380 words, novelette
The Wings of Earth
“Your turn, Xiaoyu!” Max said, looking back with the hint of a grin.
Jiang Xiaoyu didn’t move.
“Time to ratchet things up a notch.” Max didn’t seem to have noticed Xiaoyu’s trepidation. “We can’t let your trip be in vain. Now then, down on Earth, you might try to jump the last three steps of a staircase. Worst case scenario, you fall on your face and everyone gets a nice laugh. But up here it’s life and death. If you’re going to jump, you jump according to standards. Otherwise the fall goes off course, and you might end up poking a hole in the membrane. Don’t be fooled by the membrane’s appearance. It might look soft, but it’s brittle and hard. Fragments from an impact can poke holes in your space suit. You can lose your oxygen in the blink of an eye. Then you’re belching, farting, outgassing. Not a pretty way to die, with your eyeballs bugging out. I’m guessing that’s not how you want to go. So, pay attention as I demonstrate.”
Max undid his safety cord, bent at the knees, and launched himself from the platform. The backlash caused the floating platform to drift, but attitude control modules restored equilibrium. Max flew off in a straight line. In zero-g, flying like this was simple. A small boost sent you coasting indefinitely. Of course, this was also very dangerous. Without sound preflight calculation, you were a goner. This was space. It was necessary to follow the rules.
Xiaoyu watched Max.
Without his safety cord, he might end up falling through space forever, if he wasn’t aimed well at his objective. Judging by his trajectory, he was likely to strike the edge of the next floating platform at a glancing angle, or careen past it. Xiaoyu’s heart leapt into his throat.
Max approached the platform, from which a thick strut extended. This was certainly Max’s target. He reached out and grabbed it just in time. The strut and the platform wobbled, and were soon still again. Max landed on the platform and fastened his safety cord.
“Give it a try,” Max’s voice came through the earpiece. “Just fasten your cord first.”
Xiaoyu tugged on the cord, confirming it was attached to the platform. But this exercise was so dangerous, and seemingly unnecessary. He hesitated. “Max, this doesn’t fall within guidelines . . . ”
“In space,” Max interrupted, “I call the shots. Didn’t we agree on that? And here at your first challenge you’re already afraid?”
Xiaoyu took a deep breath. He bent at the knees, imitating Max’s launch posture. One, two, three! He rallied his courage, then bore down with all his strength. And then, sure enough, he was flying.
“Klutz!” Max jeered. “Your angle’s off!”
Xiaoyu didn’t need Max to point out the obvious. He could feel his upward-slanted trajectory himself. The vast plane of the membrane seemed limitless, extending in all directions, to ultimately fuse with the starry sky. It flashed with prismatic hues. To Xiaoyu, the seven colors of the rainbow seemed to pass beneath him in endless repetition. He could see his dim reflection in the rainbow. He watched, spellbound, nearly forgetting he was hurtling into space.
He was jarred from this absentminded reverie when his safety cord reached its maximum length, pulling taut.
“Hurry up and burn!” Max was worried, judging by his tone. “Control your flight!”
Xiaoyu took a deep breath, calming himself, and carefully surveyed his dire situation. The safety cord hadn’t fully absorbed his kinetic energy. The force was converting to angular velocity. He was like a pendulum weight, on a collision course with the limitless membrane. Impact could seriously damage the membrane, and possibly kill him. He’d never experienced such a mishap in the academy’s simulation lab. And here he was, a bookworm in the field for the first time, shitting the bed as Max would say.
Fortunately, his speed was low.
“Item five in the manual,” Max said.
Xiaoyu followed the prescribed steps of the emergency plan. He calculated and burned, arresting his collision vector, coming to float fifteen meters above the membrane.
“Good job, kid,” Max said. “Excellent recall, sound use of your jet. You’re a hell of a student, Xiaoyu. So how was it? Exciting? Turn around and I’ll take a commemorative photo for you.”
Xiaoyu turned to face Max. The American stood on the floating platform, clutching a palm device in one hand, indicating Xiaoyu should pose. This veteran astronaut was like a giddy tourist at a scenic outlook on Earth. Xiaoyu smiled and flashed a victory sign.
“Jesus!” Max cried out in surprise. “What’s that behind you? A fucking ghost?”
Xiaoyu was turning to look when something massive swept by overhead. Heart trip-hammering, Xiaoyu looked up and saw a colossus, a monstrous gray world of metallic luster vaguely resembling a mother ship. It passed over Xiaoyu’s head for no less than fifteen seconds. But soon enough it vanished into the starry backdrop, and was gone without a trace.
“It disappeared!” Max cried. “Did you see?” He stared in the direction it had gone, seemingly talking to himself. “Was it magic?”
“It’s still there,” Xiaoyu said, “obstructing stars.” The solar membrane flashed and glittered as far as the eye could see. Above that plane of light, a patch of unadulterated black eclipsed some of the visible stars. This void was the unexpected guest, and it was shrinking, quickly getting further away.
Xiaoyu burned his attitude jet. He ascended, getting as far as he could from the membrane.
Sure enough, the visitor’s form was revealed against the membrane’s dazzling backdrop. The black silhouette was shaped something like a compact rocket, or perhaps a frog with its limbs drawn in. It was hurtling toward a horizon of the membrane, where a slice of blue was quietly rising.
It was Earth.
A UFO was detected in low Earth orbit.
Within two hours, this news had spread across all manner of media, causing a worldwide commotion and sensation. In Conference Room 1 of the China National Space Administration, the object was projected onto a screen.
“Is it alien?” The bureau chief stood in front of the screen. “Who can tell me for sure?” He watched the black shape with a grave expression, and silence reigned.
“Chief,” his assistant finally said. “Many media sources are reporting it is alien.”
“What’s NASA saying?”
“They haven’t released their latest report,” Dr. Li Jiali said. “The last gave a high probability for this object being extraterrestrial. This is consistent with our own opinion.”
The bureau chief turned around and came to the conference table. He gestured around at the chairs. “Everyone sit. Let’s get this meeting started.” He sat down, and everyone took their seats according to rank. This meeting was being convened at 3AM, which was unprecedented.
The bureau chief looked around at the assembly. “I know everyone has been working hard, but half an hour ago I walked out of the ZhongNanHai.”
Li Jiali swallowed hard. The bureau chief had been to the headquarters of the Party and the State Council, in the small hours of the morning. Big things were afoot.
“The Chairman ordered me to submit a report within two hours. This is a space race. Ladies and gentlemen, I trust you understand its importance.”
Li Jiali was fifty-eight years old this year. He’d been chief scientist at the CNSA for eight years. Although the theoretical existence of aliens couldn’t be discounted, the probability was very low. Under Dr. Li’s guidance, CNSA resources had been invested in near-Earth-orbit exploration. Only one-sixth of the budget was left for the deep space programs promised to higher powers: Europa, Titan, the Kuiper belt, and even the Mars projects. There was plenty of opposition to this, but it had been suppressed for the sake of China’s near-Earth power stations. Too much had been poured into these. Their completion had to be guaranteed. They would yield practical benefits in the short term, whereas deep space exploration was a resource-draining, long-term gamble.
“Aliens . . . maybe hundreds of years from now we’ll find them. But not in our lifetimes.” Li Jiali had always said something like this, but now it was like a cosmic joke had been played on him. An alien ship was quietly orbiting earth. It had to be alien. There was no other explanation.
“All of our active telescopes are trained on it,” Dr. Li said. “Within two hours we’ll be able to submit a full and reliable report.”
“Full and reliable,” the bureau chief mused. “To what level of detail? Can you do better than NASA? Chairman Lin got up at midnight and had a phone call with the American president. They agreed to a joint exploration. As it happens, the American mothership is in geosynchronous orbit. They’re going after the object. Telescopes . . . can telescopes surpass on-site exploration?”
There was reproach in the bureau chief’s words. Humanity had two motherships to its name, and both were American. China’s mothership plans had been shelved ten years ago, primarily because they’d competed for near-Earth power station resources. Until this unexpected visitor showed up, Dr. Li’s budget priorities had been sound, especially considering the power stations’ economic benefits. But the alien ship had come. Circumstances had changed.
“We can keep up with NASA,” Li Jiali said. “We’ve been cooperating well in recent years.”
“Then let’s not waste time. At ten-thirty I’m going back into the ZhongNanHai. I want to hear another report at ten. Each department will support Doctor Li’s work. Doctor, at ten-thirty you’ll come with me to the ZhongNanHai. That’s it. You’re all dismissed.”
The people in the conference room quietly dispersed.
“My walker is getting cooked!” Max howled into the com. “It’ll burn out soon! Call the station chief!”
Silence answered him from the com.
“Fuck! Once a bureaucrat, always a bureaucrat!” He was American, but more proficient in Chinese invective than many Chinese astronauts.
“Max,” came the station chief’s voice. “Return at full speed to headquarters.”
“Bill, my walker is basically cooked!”
“I can allocate you a new walker. Just double-time it back to the space station, and prepare to return to Earth.” The station master’s voice was calm, unflustered. It somehow left no margin for haggling.
“Bill, our return shuttle isn’t at the space station.”
“Don’t worry about that. We’re well-coordinated. You can join the Chinese down to the surface.”
“Fine,” Max said, suddenly gunning the walker’s throttle, “this is on you.”
Jiang Xiaoyu seized a grab handle, stabilizing himself. This ‘walker’ vehicle resembled a rugby ball, with only two seats in the tiny cabin. It felt like being packed in a tin can. Max piloted, flying just above the membrane. Dark ridges, the partitions between sections of the vast plane, hurtled toward them. Max cut it close, flashing and dodging between the ridges. Xiaoyu felt like he was in a high-speed race car, dizzy with acceleration.
All he had was the grab handle. He gripped it, white-knuckled, his body shivering.
“Raise your head,” Max said.
“If you feel dizzy, just raise your head.”
Xiaoyu looked up into the tranquil heavens. The resplendent stars braced his spirits, and his dizziness vanished.
“It’s said there’s a ghost living on each star,” Max said, “and they can see you. Is that a comforting thought or what?” The American was joking, but his laughter rang hollow. Max wasn’t his normal hearty self. He was nervous.
The walker banked sharply. Enormous g-forces pinned Xiaoyu to the bulkhead, the force comparable to a rocket takeoff. Fortunately, it was only a sharp turn, over in seconds. Xiaoyu breathed with relief, but then he was staring again, in shock. Far away, Earth hove into view, half dazzling azure, half dark and sprinkled with shimmering golden lights. Above the azure half floated something like a bright white sail full of wind.
The Wings of Earth. He was seeing the already-completed left wing. They were currently speeding over the massive construction project of the right wing.
Xiaoyu could only watch in awe.
“Don’t be too impressed,” Max said. “Not exactly a solar sail, now is it? You must’ve seen it on video.”
The massive construction project had, of course, been thoroughly documented. Xiaoyu had even used VR equipment to experience orbital POVs of Earth’s Wings, but no video or VR could compare with seeing these wonders with his own eyes.
It really looked like Earth had grown a snow-white wing. With the unbounded and desolate cosmos for contrast, the brilliant, blazing Wing was enthralling.
Xiaoyu stared dazedly.
He spotted two dark objects against that pristine backdrop, near the bottom. Whatever they were, to be visible to the naked eye at this distance, they had to be colossal. Xiaoyu soon recognized the uninvited guest he’d seen before. It appeared smaller, almost trivial against such immensity, but its contours were still evocative of a frog.
The other object was a smaller black spec. No telling what it was.
Not waiting for Xiaoyu to collect his thoughts or formulate a theory, a massive steel frame obstructed his view. He and Max had entered a region of unfinished superstructure. Heavenly Palace Seven appeared before them. It was a vast oblate steel sphere, slowly revolving in space, with eight arms of varying length and thickness extending out.
“Sit tight!” Max cried.
Some kind of force pulled the walker downward. A dark opening in the palace loomed ahead, and then Xiaoyu couldn’t see anything.
“We’re safe,” Max said.
Li Jiali was waiting for the Chairman to grant him a meeting. He’d finally reached his endurance limit. He couldn’t take any more uncertainty.
“Bring up the third and fourth most important points first,” the bureau chief reminded him.
Li Jiali nodded. “I’ve adjusted the sequence. I need about five minutes to illustrate our main point.”
The large conference room doors opened. Two staff members in black suits advanced, motioning for the guests to follow. They entered the vast room that represented the highest executive power in China.
Three of the five standing committee members were present. Those familiar figures, so often seen in the media, now sat upright behind the immense table, watching Li Jiali with faint apprehension. The one in the middle, Chairman Lin, waved a hand, and said, “Doctor Li, let’s skip the pleasantries and seize the moment. We need your expertise.”
Li Jiali opened his palm device, illuminating the virtual screen. A one-meter square projection opened before the committee. The black silhouette of the visitor appeared.
“Currently, this is our clearest image. Its surface material absorbs various EM wavelengths. The strongest reflection rate is six parts in a thousand. Visible wavelengths are completely absorbed. So, it’s basically invisible. This is why we didn’t detect it earlier.”
“But it’s clearly capable of detecting Earth’s strong radio sources. And it has issued a targeted response. To date, sixty-five satellite relay stations have received similar signals. All are traceable to the alien object. Our space communications are encountering interference. Reports show the signal’s power surpasses that of eighteen communications satellites, so the signal is intense. And there is a common characteristic . . . it must be using the same frequency as the satellites. So at least we know the object is fairly intelligent.”
“Is it hostile?” Secretary Deng said, “or friendly?”
“We have no data either way,” Li Jiali said. “There’s no way to judge, from the current situation. But we’ve been speculating.”
Li Jiali adjusted the screen, which displayed an orbital path, half red, half blue, elliptical, wrapping around Earth and its two outstretched, twenty-thousand-kilometer solar plants.
“This flight path is based on current intelligence gathering. The blue section has already been described. The red is predicted. The object is in Earth orbit, sixty-thousand kilometers from the surface. The timing of its entry into this orbit took advantage of the accelerating effects of Earth’s gravity. So, the top spaceflight institutions have determined that it could utilize gravitational slingshot acceleration. As for its next move, there is much disagreement. NASA thinks it will break away from Earth orbit at the most advantageous point, and pass near the Wings of Earth. In terms of energy consumption, this route would require the least adjustment, and also provide ample opportunity to survey Earth and the Wings. NASA believes it will use Earth’s gravitational slingshot to accelerate, then the sun’s, and leave the solar system.”
A solar system diagram came up on the screen. A red line extended straight from Earth to Sun, around the Sun in a thirty-degree arc, then away and up-system.
“So,” Secretary Deng said, “NASA concludes the object is passing Earth by chance, and we don’t need to act.”
“This is conjecture. We have no understanding of the object. Any conclusion will be arbitrary and subjective.” Li Jiali took a deep breath. “But I concur with NASA. The object is visiting Earth, and is on course to leave. This is how we would visit other worlds, after all. Of course, if the object’s technology far exceeds ours, we can conjecture all we want to no avail.”
The three committee members exchanged glances.
“What about other possibilities?” Secretary Deng said. “What should we do?”
“We can only wait on its next move. We’re trying to contact it via EM wave, of course. So far it has ignored our transmissions.”
“We must prepare for all possibilities,” Chairman Lin said, unreadable, implacable.
“Our reserve satellites are on standby,” the bureau chief said, “ready to proceed on attack vectors. All intercept rocket troops are ready to defend. Beijing’s important political and military sites are thoroughly locked down. We’ve coordinated with the Rocket Army commander. RA deployment was completed within six hours. We are on highest alert.”
“Very good,” Chairman Lin said flatly, looking at Premier Li and Secretary Deng. “We have reliable information that the Americans have dispatched their Zeus-class mothership to pursue the alien object. I’m authorizing mobilization of all resources necessary to land on the object before the Americans. Or we establish contact with it. I am issuing these orders as Chairman.”
Li Jiali shivered. The Zeus-class was the Americans’ active duty mothership. If they really had dispatched it to rendezvous with the alien object, they enjoyed total superiority. He did some off-the-cuff probability calculations, only managing to remain hopeless and confused.
“Chairman,” the bureau chief said, “I promise you we can implement your orders.”
Chairman Lin’s gaze swept toward Li Jiali. “Doctor?”
Li Jiali summoned his courage. “I will make every effort to formulate a viable plan. But when it comes to problems science can’t solve, my hands are tied.”
Chairman Lin nodded faintly. “You are the chief scientist. You have the final say. But . . . ” His gaze moved between Li Jiali and the bureau chief. “ . . . we are here to reach a unanimous decision. I don’t know the aliens’ purpose, but the Americans have a purpose. If they have dispatched their mothership, we will also dispatch a spacecraft, whatever sort of vehicle we can muster. Where the Americans go, we go. We’ve invested much in the Wings of Earth. How many Long March Seventy rockets launched? At least a thousand? Find something to rendezvous with the alien ship. It shouldn’t be too difficult, right?”
There was more to Chairman Lin’s words than met the ear. This strange alien ship was going to be moving at twice solar escape velocity. Getting close to that required precise calculation and thorough planning. What Chinese ship would suffice on such short notice? The Chairman had already given the final word on this. He couldn’t back down now.
“Chairman,” Li Jiali said, putting on a brave face, “I will provide an optimal plan.” His mind was already churning up possibilities.
Chairman Lin appraised the two men standing before him. “This is all unexpected, but who knows what fruit it might bear? We must strive toward benefiting from the situation. Even if the aliens leave, this will be far from over. What happens next depends on you two.”
His gaze settled on Li Jiali. “Doctor, hurry back to the CNSA hotline. If anything happens, contact me directly.”
Such a big space station, now deserted, seemed desolate and cold. Jiang Xiaoyu passed through the central habitat and couldn’t find anyone. It felt strange. A month before, when he arrived at Heavenly Palace Seven, this large space had been filled with over forty astronauts from six countries. They seemed to have vanished overnight.
“Max, nobody’s here.” Xiaoyu glided to a halt. “Where did they go?”
“How am I supposed to know?” Max said in the earpiece. “Wait a moment. I’ll try to ask around.” He was clearly annoyed. “Dammit! Now of all times for satellite malfunction. And no way to authenticate. I can’t even get into the bathrooms.”
Xiaoyu searched the vast hab, feeling small and alone. He came to a long, panoramic window and looked out. Heavenly Palace Seven had the best windows. This one was a twenty-meter glass wall, without partitions, the best view in all of humanity’s space cities. Normally it was crowded here, with astronauts always coming and going. Everyone who came to Heavenly Palace Seven visited this wall of glass, wanting a moment of solitude, which was harder than reaching Heaven itself.
But now Xiaoyu was alone. He placed his hand on a transparent railing, face almost pressed against the glass. The world seemed peaceful. The only sound was a faint rustling in his earpiece. He stared, absorbing the scenery. The Pacific Ocean filled most of the view, and the clouds were like silken veins in a blue gem. The atmosphere was a pale wash enveloping the planet, like a sacred shroud. The holy light faded away into the dark cosmos. Not far ahead, a white sail was suspended high above the planet. A Wing of Earth, shining, dazzling.
And there was that small black spec, stark against the whiteness: a ship of unknown origin, a real alien object. It had flown right over his head a few hours ago. Xiaoyu stared. It looked to be sweeping past the Wing, descending toward Earth.
He couldn’t help wondering what sort of beings were in that thing.
A hiss interrupted Xiaoyu’s thoughts. He turned to see the airlock opening. A tall, middle-aged man entered the hab, his movements unfolding smoothly, fish-like.
“You must be Jiang Xiaoyu,” he said, his manner cordial. “I am the station master, Gao Dali. Welcome to Heavenly Palace Seven! Firefly Six still needs a few hours before it can launch. You’ll need to board half an hour ahead of time. In the meantime, you’re free to move about as you wish. You have access to most of the hab. I’ve activated your privileges. Don’t forget your training, and pay attention to safety.” He paused. “Max and I are good friends, in addition to colleagues.”
“Xiaoyu,” Max said through the earpiece, “don’t listen to that bastard. I don’t consider him a colleague, or a friend. I still can’t get into this fucking bathroom!”
Gao Dali was laughing. “We’re on high alert at the moment. Standard procedure. You’ll have to hold it.” He patted Xiaoyu’s shoulder. “If anything comes up, call me. There’s not much to do while you wait, but the view ain’t bad. So . . . enjoy!”
“Station Master Gao,” Xiaoyu said, as Gao turned to leave, “where is everyone?”
“Strange, isn’t it? I guess you two haven’t heard the latest news about the object.”
“The alien ship?”
“America has dispatched a Zeus-class to intercept it. Word arrived that according to collaboration pacts and whatnot, astronauts from any cooperating country could join the expedition, if they were interested. As you can see, everyone was interested. I’m the only one left. If I wasn’t station master, I’d have gone myself. Chance of a lifetime! We’re lucky the American ship is big enough to take everyone who wanted to go.”
“Damn right it is!” Max said. “My homeland, land of the free, home of the brave, finally making a comeback. You Chinese are always scrambling to get ahead of us, always going on about Sino-American cooperation. But it’s better to take turns in the limelight. Am I right? Ha!” The American never seemed to run out of laughter.
“Can we catch up and get on board?” Xiaoyu said, growing impatient.
“Of course not,” Gao Dali said. “The pickup ships left several hours ago. And the Zeus-class set off on its rendezvous course before that. Chance of a lifetime. What a pity!” Gao Dali seemed to realize something. “But you two were the first to discover the object. The whole world knows that. You’ll be celebrities. Not bad!” He gave Xiaoyu’s shoulder another consoling pat. “Once communications are restored, I’ll tell everyone you two are here.” With that, Gao plunged expertly into the airlock.
Xiaoyu felt anything but mollified.
That Zeus-class was out there, carrying astronauts from all over the world, on course to rendezvous with the alien ship. And then what? What might they see? Could the Americans capture the object?
“Xiaoyu!” Max said. “Communications are restored. We’re to prepare for descent.”
“I don’t want to go home,” Xiaoyu said, his voice low. He couldn’t take his eyes off that distant black spec.
Li Jiali had been sitting idle in his office for three hours.
After giving instructions to his subordinates, he’d shut himself in here. He knew, based on years of experience, that he was better off alone when it came to formulating a plan. The CNSA had been manufacturing bulk space transport for thirty years, as part of the Wings of Earth construction effort. But these vehicles, built in the CNSA’s orbital cities and moon bases, were awkward, unwieldy tools, moving slowly on set trajectories. They shipped large quantities of materials, but getting them to perform like shuttles would be like getting an elephant to dance in a bathtub. China was well behind America when it came to passenger shuttles. Militarily, this gap was not so relevant, with equilibrium maintained by maneuverable, unmanned satellites. But when it came to a fine-tuned, high-speed rendezvous in space, China was eating America’s dust.
At least someone was going. Ultimately it was good that the Americans were closing in. There were no national boundaries in space.
Li Jiali kept having to suppress such thoughts. Although the world was largely at peace, perfect harmony had yet to be achieved. Competition was everywhere, and space held decisive opportunities. The Chairman had been very clear about this.
Li Jiali continued to browse flight vehicle parameters, compare orbits and loci, and seek possible solutions.
His phone rang.
This was the private hotline, and very few people had the number. Li Jiali pressed the preview button. The phone did not project a floating portrait, but rather a word: “Heavenly Palace hotline.” This was a call from space. Li Jiali’s spirits rose as he connected the call.
“Teacher Li!” The voice sounded pleasantly surprised. “Sorry to take the liberty of disturbing you. Really sorry. I’m Jiang Xiaoyu.”
“Jiang Xiaoyu? Aren’t you on holiday?” This CNSA line couldn’t be mistaken. The call had to be from space. “How did you end up at Heavenly Palace Seven?”
“That’s a long story. An American astronaut and I were carrying out maintenance on the Wings of Earth . . . ”
“It was you two who discovered the alien ship?” Li Jiali interrupted. “You sent those first images?”
“Yes. The discovery is ours.”
Last year, Li Jiali had accepted an invite from the CNSA Academy to teach one semester of a special PhD course. This Jiang Xiaoyu had been top of his class, clever and ambitious. Li Jiali had offered the young man an internship at CNSA, but Jiang Xiaoyu had surprised everyone by declining. He didn’t want to trifle with calculations in some office, he’d explained. He’d been dead set on going to space. Countless people begged for CNSA internships and never got them, while Jiang Xiaoyu had casually declined. Intrigued, Li Jiali had given the young man this phone number.
Now there was an alien ship, and a dilemma, and Jiang Xiaoyu, the discoverer of the ship, was calling from Heavenly Palace Seven. It all seemed like a TV drama. Or perhaps the mysterious, inexorable Will of Heaven . . .
Li Jiali forced himself to be calm. “Xiaoyu, what can I do for you?”
“They want me to come back down to Earth. I want to stay up here and await that ship. Teacher Li, you’re a celebrated, influential man. CNSA will listen to you. Can you help me stay up here for two more days?”
Li Jiali tried to process this. “To wait for the alien ship?”
“Yes, here on Heavenly Palace Seven.”
“It’s predicted to break away from Earth orbit very soon. Seven is not in its path. In fact, it’s getting further away from you.”
“We don’t know what it will do, in the end. Look at Seven’s position . . . right between the two Wings of Earth, massive, surrounded by all manner of auxiliary installations. If I were an alien, I’d pay attention to it. But the ship has not made contact . . . ” Jiang Xiaoyu was growing excited.
“You’re saying the ship will visit you?”
“I don’t know, but it’s quite possible. If it’s aimed at Earth, it can’t miss Heavenly Palace Seven.” The young man sounded cool-headed again, now that he was fielding questions from his teacher.
Li Jiali quickly thought through the argument. Yes, Heavenly Palace Seven occupied a prominent position, linking the two Wings of Earth. The structure was indeed massive, a clearly visible hub or fulcrum. An alien probe couldn’t miss it.
Could the alien ship’s current trajectory be a ruse? Perhaps it had seen Seven but was unwilling to consume the power needed to rendezvous. It all depended on the aliens’ ability and desires, and these were still unknowns.
“Who’s up there with you?”
“Station Master Gao, and Max, the American.”
“Just you three? No one else?”
“The rest are on that Zeus-class. Teacher Li, this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To let it slip . . . Please help me stay up here. Just two more days!”
“Let me think about it, and I’ll do what I can. Standby for an answer.” Li Jiali disconnected.
He laced his fingers together and leaned forward on the desk, frowning. The American mothership had already set off. It had taken astronauts from many countries along, including Chinese. Li Jiali had yet to come up with a plan that would snatch America’s lead in this race. Jiang Xiaoyu’s prediction was a ray of hope, however dim. Li Jiali deliberated, scanning Heavenly Palace Seven’s resource data.
He extended a shaking hand toward the phone. He hesitated, allowing himself to calm down. Then he picked up the phone and tapped a button.
On a desk in the ZhongNanHai, a red phone rang.
The Zeus-class ship was like a massive steel arm, the protective layers of the bow a great clenched fist. Two arrays of EM artillery pointed fore, flickering with dim blue light in their potency, like Zeus’ mystical scepter of power.
The American flag on the side of the ship was bright, unmissable.
Ahead, the mysterious object from deep space was close. It seemed the Zeus-class would overtake its quarry soon. The two ships, human and alien, were comparable in size. The Zeus-class transmitted hailing beacons and data in a constant stream, even sending the occasional threat. But the mysterious object remained aloof, and on course.
Two drones emerged from the Zeus, bound for a close approach and survey of the alien ship.
And then the object vanished.
This sudden, unforeseen event plunged all of humanity into dumbstruck silence.
Alien technology, unlike anything known to humans, had shaken off its pursuer. It was gone. The two drones circled where the object had been, hunting for their quarry in vain. The object had disappeared without a trace. It was like it had never existed. The world, glued to the Zeus-class’ live transmission, was left in bafflement. And then panic began to spread.
Jiang Xiaoyu, in the central hab of Heavenly Palace Seven, slapped the bulkhead triumphantly. The Zeus-class floated on the video screen, suddenly alone. This was the tableau of ten minutes before. It had been transferred all over the place before coming to Heavenly Palace Seven, but Xiaoyu guessed the Zeus-class was still lingering out there.
The alien ship had vanished. Which meant his surmise was at least half correct.
“You shouldn’t take such delight in misfortune of others!” Max reposed in a sofa, a beverage-bulb in hand. “Do you want the aliens to conquer Earth, is that it? Anyway, it’s vanished, over there on the other side of the planet, a hundred thousand kilometers away. If it somehow flies through Earth and shows up here at Heavenly Palace Seven, then I’ll have to call you a genius, I guess.”
Xiaoyu opened his mouth to say something, when the broadcast alert sounded. “Jiang Xiaoyu, phone call,” Gao Dali yelled, “station six. It’s Doctor Li calling.”
Xiaoyu drifted to station six, activated the phone screen. A partition descended for privacy.
“Xiaoyu,” Dr. Li said, sounding excited.
“Teacher Li!” Xiaoyu suppressed his own excitement.
“The Zeus-class . . . you know what’s going on?”
“I just saw.”
“And I just had a conversation with Doctor Qian Bojun of the astrophysics institute. He does cosmology research. He says the disappearance was probably a wormhole effect. Such extreme space warping can only be triggered by very high energy.”
“Right,” Xiaoyu said, nodding. This was all a complete gamble, but things were moving in his favor.
“So your conjecture was, perhaps, correct.” Doctor Li’s voice was still trembling with excitement. “Near-Earth space’s distortion level is not high. Entering a wormhole here, you could only return to normal space near Earth as well. Otherwise you could get lost in the wormhole. That’s a prediction of the Qian-Thomas model.”
Xiaoyu had been listening carefully, but as he looked out the porthole, he stopped hearing his teacher’s words.
A massive ship was floating out there, motionless, suffused with a strange gray light. It was the alien ship. At this distance, its massive size was obvious, and oppressive. It was like that first time he saw it, flying overhead.
“Xiaoyu? Can you hear me?” Dr. Li seemed to sense something had changed.
“It’s . . . here,” Xiaoyu replied. He’d theorized that the alien ship might visit Heavenly Palace Seven. But he hadn’t expected it to emerge from the void, without warning. Now that this divine force was before him, so sought after and coveted, he could only stare, his body going cold.
The connection with Dr. Li was cut short. There was only static.
The partition opened, and Xiaoyu heard a voice echoing throughout the habitat: “Xiaoyu? Can you hear me?” This phrase was being repeated—Dr. Li’s last words, before he got cut off.
Max stood in front of the panoramic window. He turned to Xiaoyu, wide-eyed, stunned.
The airlock hissed open and Station Master Gao plummeted through, nearly crashing into Xiaoyu. “What’s going on? We’ve lost communications. Do the aliens know you?”
Xiaoyu didn’t know what to say. He looked at his two companions, mystified.
Gao collected himself first. “Seems we’re in a tight spot here. It . . . seems to have chosen your name, Xiaoyu. Should I answer it for you?”
Xiaoyu nodded. He was numb. Any idea from anyone was good. Down on Earth, everyone was probably hearing the same thing.
Xiaoyu? Can you hear me?
Dr. Li’s voice, carried by radio waves to every continent. Dr. Li saying the same thing over and over. It was like an invisible nuclear bomb, detonating over everyone.
“Doctor Li, this is a plenary session of the emergency operation committee. The topic under discussion is the communication between you and Heavenly Palace Seven.”
Six simulated human figures appeared before Li Jiali. He knew his own simulation stood in the ZhongNanHai, in the middle of some special conference room, face to face with the most important minds in China.
He wasn’t nervous confronting these big shots. He understood the situation well. The Americans had lost their edge. They would not be first to the alien ship, so the political mission was complete. The aliens had emerged near Heavenly Palace Seven, verifying a conjecture made in advance. All of this was a favorable turn of fortune. He only worried about the three people in Heavenly Palace Seven, who might be dead for all he knew.
“Doctor Li,” Secretary Deng said, “why are the aliens repeatedly broadcasting your phone call?”
“I can only guess. It’s quite possible that it was the last thing I said before they interrupted communication. Perhaps they believe it’s a basic unit or prompt of communication.”
“You mean they took it for a contact method, is that right?”
“But you’ve reported that the aliens are most likely passing through, using Earth’s gravity for slingshot acceleration.”
“Based on the consensus of the world’s experts at the time.”
“But it vanished, and emerged near Heavenly Palace Seven. Was this also your conjecture?”
“It was Jiang Xiaoyu’s conjecture. And I believed it had merit. We weren’t going to be able to preempt the Americans and make first contact. We needed a bit of luck. Chairman Lin agreed at the time.” Li Jiali glanced at the simulated Chairman.
Chairman Lin sat up straight and adjusted his tie, expressionless.
“So your plan was to wait for the alien ship to appear at Heavenly Palace Seven, then use a Firefly Six class shuttle to approach it, correct?”
“Heavenly Palace Seven has just one Firefly left for getting to Earth and back. Who knows what the alien ship will do, in the end. If we really need to land on it, that Firefly is our only option. But it can’t alight on another ship, so they’ll have to perform a complex spacewalk.”
“Is Jiang Xiaoyu up to the task?”
“I don’t know. There’s also Station Master Gao Dali, and the American, Maxwell Davis. They’re veteran astronauts, capable of handling complex situations. We’ve lost contact with Heavenly Palace Seven, as you know. We have no choice but to rely on those three men up there.” Li Jiali hesitated. “Right now, they represent all of humanity.”
“The Americans are mustering their maneuverable satellites to head for Heavenly Palace Seven,” Chairman Lin said, finally breaking his silence. “You are CNSA’s chief scientist. What do you think we should do?”
Li Jiali took a deep breath. “Any military operation would be meaningless. The alien ship has conducted a Qian-Thomas jump, also called a fold-jump. This technology is far beyond anything we know. We have no intelligence on its military tech, but a ship that can Qian-Thomas jump is in control of energy to an astonishing degree. Doctor Qian Bojun told me a fold-jump like the one we’ve seen would require the energy of a ten-megaton hydrogen bomb contained within six cubic meters, a sustained temperature of fifteen million degrees, what you’d find at the core of the sun. Our fusion reactors can achieve this, but in a volume three times larger than the alien ship. Their control technology far exceeds our fusion reactors.”
“Give it to us straight,” Chairman Lin said. “What’s your conclusion?”
“Mobilize satellites to keep a close eye on its movement. Other than that, we do nothing. All countries and organizations should standby, and let’s see what the aliens do, how they try to contact us.” He looked at Chairman Lin. “We should propose suspension of military operations to the Americans.”
Chairman Lin slowly nodded. “Your proposals are very objective. We will talk things over with the Americans.”
The aliens’ broadcast stopped.
The ship still hung there above Heavenly Palace Seven, inert. Jiang Xiaoyu, Gao Dali, and Max stood before the panoramic window, shoulder to shoulder, watching their visitor.
“No movement,” Gao Dali said. “What should we do?”
“Do?” Max said. “We wait. What else? I for one could use a drink before we become human specimens. What’s still in stock? Any civet coffee?”
“What?” Gao Dali said.
“Civet coffee. Kopi luwak. The beans are plucked from the shit of the Asian palm civet . . . ”
“This is no time for jokes!” Gao interjected, expression dark. He turned to face Xiaoyu. “What do you think we should do?”
“Don’t tell me we’re not going over,” Xiaoyu said, meeting Gao Dali’s gaze. “They’re not coming to us, after all. They’ve flown lightyears. The least we can do is fly a few hundred meters.”
Max grinned. “Your face is telling a different story. You went green just now. How does that idiom go . . . Lord Ye’s passion for dragons? Pretending to like something while actually fearing it? Seeing a real dragon would be scary, I think. Maybe this dragon of ours is luring you in.”
Xiaoyu’s face felt hot. “I didn’t expect it to just appear right in front of me. But we should still go.”
“Waiting here is safest,” Max said. “Why face unnecessary dangers?”
They both looked at Gao Dali.
“I think we should wait for orders,” the station master said, looking from Xiaoyu to Max. “We have no orders at the moment, so I agree with Max. It’s safest to wait here.”
Xiaoyu? Can you hear me?
Dr. Li’s voice was back, repeating.
The three men looked at each other.
“We should go,” Xiaoyu said. “It’s inviting us.”
Max gave a wry grin. “Ever the troublesome student. Fine, I’ll go with you. It’s a summons, and we’ll answer it.”
The two of them were looking at Gao Dali once more. The station master glanced at the signal light on the duty station next to the window. The light was red. There were no orders from Earth. Their mysterious guest seemed to be blocking everything.
“It’s just the three of us here, so the choice is ours. The Firefly Six has adequate fuel, and it’s outfitted for a walk. All three of us will go. We approach the alien ship, I stay on the Firefly, you two descend in the walker and land. We might lose communications, so this has to be well-planned. I’ll do my best to maintain my position relative to the visitor, so I can provide support or rescue, if needed. The rest is up to you. You’ll have to seize opportunities as they arise, play it by ear. And keep in mind Earth is nearby. There’s always the option of going home.”
“Good man,” Max said. “I never saw you so eloquent in our advanced studies course at Princeton. I endorse your plan, but I think there’s room for an amendment. You and Xiaoyu stay on the Firefly, and I go down in the walker alone.”
“Not a chance,” Xiaoyu said. “I’m on the descent!”
“It’s a question of safety,” Max said, his smile vanishing. He could be quite intimidating when he didn’t smile.
“It’s inviting me! You know two is better than one for this. If it’s a question of safety, we can look out for each other. Station Master Gao has to deal with the Firefly, otherwise I’d insist all three of us go.”
“Dangerous environments require caution,” Max said. “I’m your buddy,” he added, using the English word, “but in space I call the shots, remember?”
“That was before. Now we’re talking about an alien ship.”
“There’s no use arguing,” Gao Dali said. “You’ll both go. I can handle the Firefly on my own. Who knows what might happen on the alien ship? Xiaoyu is right. Two is better than one. Besides . . . ” Gao Dali paused. “Max, you’re American. If America is going, China should too.”
The quarrel seemed to die in the silence that followed.
“I suppose they didn’t travel lightyears just to kidnap two Earthlings,” Max said. “What do you say we do some sightseeing, then come on back?”
Xiaoyu? Can you hear me?
The query continued to repeat, seeming to urge the three of them to decide.
“Come!” Gao said, extending his right fist.
Xiaoyu and Max followed suit, and three fists came together, the traditional pre-mission astronaut ritual.
The Firefly Six resembled a small winged aircraft. Three vector engines jetted red flame, providing gradual impetus, and the disc of Heavenly Palace Seven fell away.
The Firefly rolled, changing course.
Xiaoyu stared intently at the screen before him. His task was to prompt Gao Dali when the alien ship descended to the middle of the screen. All signal pathways were receiving interference, so they had to rely on manual control. Heavenly Palace Seven slowly withdrew from the right side of the screen. The light gray mass of the alien ship entered the field of view from the upper left corner.
The visitor was not far from Heavenly Palace Seven, its vast bulk occupying more than half the screen. When the ship’s middle floated beneath the reticle at the center of the screen, Xiaoyu said, “Stop!”
A locking sign appeared on the screen. The field of view displaced a bit, then returned to its original position. “Good,” Gao Dali said. “We have about ten minutes until arrival. You’d better go down and join Max.” Gao was hunched over a control screen, his back to Xiaoyu.
“Alright then,” Xiaoyu said, undoing his safety belt. His body floated up, and he reached for his helmet.
“Xiaoyu,” Gao said, turning to face him, “be careful.”
From Gao’s look, Xiaoyu could tell he was deeply concerned. Out here in space, completely separated from the world, the three of them were all of humanity. Once Xiaoyu had gone down into the launch hold with Max, Gao would no longer be able to see or hear them. This was goodbye. Feeling words were inadequate, Xiaoyu simply nodded, then put on his helmet and gave a thumbs-up. He slipped into the launch hold.
He squeezed into the walker, settling in behind Max.
“Take off that helmet!” Max shouted, turning to face him.
Xiaoyu barely heard him. He took it off.
“There’s still some time, and we need to talk. Helmet coms might still be out when we get down there, so let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Coms frequency lock at one-o-seven megahertz. If that’s blocked, then we move to five hundred gigahertz.”
“Right. I’m set for one-o-seven megahertz.”
“If we can’t talk, we use hand signals. No telling what might happen down there.”
“And if they block visible light as well?” Xiaoyu said.
“Huh,” Max said, looking distracted. “Unlikely. Why would they want us blind, groping about in confusion? If they’re highly intelligent life-forms, it’s hard to imagine them wanting that.” Max grabbed his helmet. “Anyway, let’s suit up. Regardless of whether we can communicate, we rely on these to breathe.”
Xiaoyu donned his helmet. The world immediately grew quiet. When his ears had adapted, he sensed new sounds. Max activated the walker, hydraulic pressure valves finding their pace, and these accompanied faint vibrations from the bottom of the vehicle. Then came airlock depressurization. Gao opened the launch gate. The sounds diminished, vanished. The vacuum was before them, the universe utterly silent.
The alien ship loomed ahead, the vast hull filling their entire field of view. It resembled granite, but it was luminous, reflected moonlight turning the color of ash.
To Xiaoyu, it was a tract of ancient wilderness, primeval, a hypostatic union. For a moment he lost his sense of self.
Max glanced back at him. Xiaoyu nodded.
The walker disconnected from the Firefly Six, descending toward the world-like surface of the visitor.
The walker had broken away from the shuttle, but a long safety cord still connected them, like an umbilical linking mother to child. Max had said this might save their lives.
But at the moment, the thumb-thick cord seemed like an antenna pointing straight back at the nearby Firefly. Xiaoyu reached out and pulled on the cord, and it was like a solid steel pole. It was pulled taught, and far too early.
Such a setback, at a moment like this . . . Xiaoyu fought down a queasy panic.
Max was cursing in his helmet, judging by the contortions of his mouth, some withering Chinese oath involving generations and bloodlines. The windlass held at least two hundred meters of line, but it had stopped just shy of fifty. It had to be a windlass malfunction.
Under their feet, the alien ship seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see, gray earth mingled with metallic flashes of light, like small impurities in rock. The prize was so close, and they were restrained by their own safety cord.
But maybe it wasn’t a windlass malfunction after all. Xiaoyu tapped Max’s shoulder, motioned for him to look up. The Firefly was receding. It was already quite far off. And then the walker, after its brief pause, was being pulled away from the alien ship. For whatever reason, Gao Dali wasn’t maintaining the Firefly’s position, and the walker was being pulled along. At the same time, it was being drawn toward the alien ship by some unknowable force. A tug-of-war for the walker, and a deadlock.
Xiaoyu gestured at the safety cord, pantomimed disconnecting it. Max contemplated this, expression frantic, then nodded.
Xiaoyu pulled on the lever with all his might. The connector trembled, a groan transmitted to his ears via his hands. And then there was a distinct snap. The cord shot off like a projectile, vanishing into the boundless void of space. Xiaoyu’s heart raced, his last connection to human civilization severed. Far away, the Firefly was quickly heading for Heavenly Palace Six.
What had happened to Station Master Gao? Xiaoyu watched the faraway shuttle, wondering, fretting. Max got control of the walker and brought it smoothly descending toward the dull gray surface. Xiaoyu’s thoughts returned to the fundamental question quickly approaching.
He and Max were the first people in history to approach extraterrestrials. The walker was about to alight on the visitor. The pivotal moment had arrived. He fidgeted in his seat, excitement mingling with fear. With the Firefly Six gone, his unease was worse. Only two things could have made Gao Dali abandon them: orders from Earth, or alien meddling. The first possibility seemed very remote, so that left the second.
Were their intentions benign, or hostile, after all? Was it possible they just wanted two human specimens? Xiaoyu fixed his eyes on the approaching surface, nearly hyperventilating.
The vehicle shuddered as it touched down. Xiaoyu’s helmeted head banged into the canopy, and then all was still. The walker extended four claws, firmly gripping the surface. He had imagined more spectacle, but there was only silence. No aliens appeared, and there was no sign of a defensive reaction. It seemed this was not a ship, but merely an immense piece of rock.
Suddenly Max’s voice was in Xiaoyu’s ear: “This place is even more desolate and bleak than the moon.”
“Max,” Xiaoyu said. Any words from a human voice were comforting out here, in the soundless alien beyond. “I can hear you talking.”
“So, these alien devils have a conscience after all. They’ve cut the interference so we can talk.” Max turned around to face Xiaoyu.
“What do we do next?” Xiaoyu asked.
“What can we do? We’ve arrived.”
“They must know we’re here.”
“They know, I’m sure. But what should we do? Wait?” Max looked around, finally looking up into the heavens. “We’re in a cage. We must submit to the Will of Heaven, resign ourselves to fate.”
At this distance, they should be able to see Heavenly Palace Seven, and the Wings of Earth, and Earth itself of course, and Luna, and countless stars and satellites. But the sky was pitch black. Nothing was visible. Just a moment ago the Firefly Six had still been visible. Now there was no sign of it.
Xiaoyu and Max had been sealed off from the universe.
“No matter what we do,” Xiaoyu said, “let’s use Heavenly Palace Seven’s communication frequency to send the news that we’ve arrived!”
Time slowed to a crawl in that silence. No more than five minutes passed, but it seemed like hours.
And then the gray flatland stirred with activity. A flurry of little sparks sprang up, and then something like sunlight reflected on waves of clear water, like earth coming to life.
“Look!” Xiaoyu said.
“They’ve finally come,” Max said, watching the undulations of light. “This host of ours is puzzling. Deliberately mystifying, unnecessarily complicated. Although it’s alien, this lack of hospitality is inexcusable.”
The walker faintly trembled. Xiaoyu saw countless tiny things crowding around, like a swarm of insects. The wave-like glimmering was made up of these tiny objects in motion. Xiaoyu watched, flabbergasted. The walker shook again, more violently than before. “They’re attacking!” Xiaoyu cried. The assembling, encroaching little things had engulfed the walker’s four clawed arms, and were gathering upward.
“Don’t panic!” Max said. “I’ll deal with them.” He pushed an operating lever. The walker issued an extended screech, but didn’t move. “Taking advantage of our lack of precautions. Trussing us up here.” Max released the lever. “We’ll have to just wait and see what these little buggers have in store.”
Max’s relaxed tone did not calm Xiaoyu. He watched the little things increase, and engulf. “I feel like we’re being eaten.”
“Eat or be eaten,” Max mused, seemingly detached. “Since we’re finally here, we need the courage to be eaten. We’ll be giving our lives for scientific truth. This is where all your lip service comes to an end, Xiaoyu. Time to put your money where your mouth is, as we say in my homeland.” Max sat up straight as he spoke. “Shall we get out and have a look around? We ought to learn something with our deaths, right?”
Xiaoyu saw that the walker was not being consumed, but drawn down into the alien ship. It was like they were sinking in quicksand, unable to free themselves. The aliens had to be inside the ship. Perhaps this was their entry method. “If they mean to secure us and bring us inside,” Xiaoyu said, “we’d better stay in the walker.”
“You’re the theory man,” Max said, checking the canopy locks, “and I’m in charge of action. Let’s play it safe for a bit. I don’t want those things crawling all over me.”
The walker sank, and the little things swarmed over the canopy. They were like miniature rugby balls, densely packed and piling together—living rugby balls, nimble, flashing like fireflies.
Very soon, the walker was thoroughly buried. They were entombed in darkness and silence. Only the occasional flash of light verified the world still existed. Max watched the canopy, his calm manner finally bringing some comfort to Xiaoyu.
“Civilization is like a flame in the darkness,” the American remarked.
The walker was left between two layers.
The swarm of little objects plunged into the walls and vanished without a trace.
Max opened the canopy. It was completely dark out there, except for a faint red glow around the walker. This glow intensified, converging into a beam that swept over the vehicle, then dissipated. A moment later this happened again, from a different angle.
“They’re examining us,” Max said.
“And we’re examining them,” Xiaoyu said.
“We are? I can’t see shit in here.”
“Those things that brought us in here were strange,” Xiaoyu said, climbing out of the walker. “They merged with the walls.”
“Who told you to get out?” Max said. “We agreed I’m in charge of safety. Get back in.”
“I can’t waste this opportunity,” Xiaoyu said, his feet touching an alien surface for the first time. Max only wanted to protect him, but in this place where humanity had never tread, so close to alien intelligence, they were probably safe. All he had to overcome was the inherent fear of the unknown. Regarding the unknown, he felt not only fear, but curiosity.
The alien ship was generating a gravitational field. Xiaoyu took a step forward. It felt as natural as Earth’s. Based on the ship’s mass, producing a one-g field should have been impossible. The aliens must have adjusted the field to match Earth’s.
“Max, do you know how much energy it would take to produce gravity like this?”
“Something like a hundred megaton H-bomb?” Max guessed.
“No, the answer is infinity,” Xiaoyu said. “Theoretically, there’s no way to generate a gravitational effect, relying on energy alone. That is, we cannot create gravity out of thin air.”
“But here we have an evenly-distributed gravitational field. So . . . ”
“The facts are inconsistent with theory. Either we’re observing the facts wrong, or the theory is wrong.”
“Well isn’t that enlightening.”
“Of course, the facts are important. We shouldn’t be feeling a gravitational field, but here it is. Moreover, it’s very close to one-g. The aliens understand space’s secrets. They can bend space. It’s as if they can perfectly exploit the Qian-Thomas effect.”
“I’m more interested in seeing what the aliens look like. We already know their tech is advanced. Now I want to see how they’ve ended up, physically.” Max took something out of his pocket and waved it around. “I’m well prepared, as you can see.” He had his palm device.
Astronauts weren’t supposed to carry such personal devices on a mission. Max was violating the rules. But just now, recording on such a device might be their best option. Max aimed it at Xiaoyu. “Come on. Say whatever’s on your mind.” He turned the camera on himself. “This is human civilization’s first contact with alien intelligence. It’s . . . a small journey for Xiaoyu and I, but a great thing for humanity. Damn, too reminiscent of Armstrong. I should probably do it in English, regardless.” He repeated everything in his native tongue. “Now you.”
Xiaoyu stared at the camera lens, not knowing what to say.
“How can you drop the ball at a time like this? Say whatever you want. I’m recording.”
Xiaoyu looked at the substance of the wall. “This ship seems to be alive. It can convey objects into itself, like . . . food penetrating cell walls. Max and I, in the walker, were thus consumed and brought in here. You can see this surface is coarse. You can see tiny grains, cracks. If I wasn’t wearing a space suit, I could get my finger in this one.”
Max turned the camera away. “You’re a talented guy, Xiaoyu, but do you always have to get lost in details? Say something moving, something that will overwhelm people with emotion.”
The camera lens was once again aimed at Xiaoyu.
“I feel like this object is one big cell,” he said, his tone serious. “A . . . cosmic cell.”
Max erupted with laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Xiaoyu said, annoyed. He was doing his best to investigate the alien ship, but Max was still his same old happy-go-lucky self. Although the American was just being self-consistent, in this strange starship, they represented all of humanity. They shouldn’t be making fun of each other.
“Oh I’m not laughing at you,” Max said, quieting down. “It’s the recording. There’s no atmosphere here. So, I just recorded a pantomime show with no dialog. With you and I flapping our lips silently at the camera. Funny, right?”
Xiaoyu sighed. Although Max was not the least bit amusing, he was clearly just trying to keep his partner calm.
This gravity was making them too comfortable. They were still in space, in a vacuum. The environment was extremely hazardous.
The scanning red light had vanished. The aliens had gotten what they wanted, perhaps. Was it over? Xiaoyu peered into the darkness, where it seemed an indescribable monstrosity might be concealed, crouching in the gloom, ready to pounce. A shiver of fear crawled up Xiaoyu’s back. A primitive instinct urged him to flee.
“Xiaoyu,” Max said, “there’s light on this side.”
Xiaoyu turned to see the front of the walker reflecting dimly. The light came from the end of a long passageway.
In that moment, the light possessed a clear meaning. It was an invitation.
More than thirty maneuverable satellites had gathered around Heavenly Palace Seven.
In six short hours, a third of humanity’s spaceborne military power had amassed here, the greatest such concentration in history.
“This is like the prelude to a world war,” the bureau chief muttered to himself, sitting at his desk.
Li Jiali stood before the large screen. The situation had become very delicate. The Americans were defying the Space Use Treaty, and had been first on the scene, with two military satellites less than two kilometers from the Palace. Russia and Japan had followed suit. China’s many satellites then surrounded the Palace, taking up defensive positions.
But the true menace wasn’t tension between human nations and their satellites. It was the unexpected guest from deep space.
It was still forbidden to come within a kilometer of Heavenly Palace Seven. Any ship or satellite entering this zone immediately lost contact, and was no longer remote controllable. A British hunter satellite had entered and crashed into the Palace, instantly becoming space junk. After that, the world’s space agencies controlled their satellites with the greatest care, steering clear of the forbidden zone. But they couldn’t leave the vicinity altogether, fraught with danger as it was. The alien ship had to be monitored.
A secretary entered, went to the bureau chief’s side, and whispered in his ear.
The bureau chief sprang up. “Doctor Li, you’re with me!”
Li Jiali followed him out of the supervisory control room, through a low side door.
They came to a screen showing the same content as the big one they’d just left, but the scene changed a moment later. Now it showed a crude video feed, routed here via military satellite on a secret band. To function long-term and encrypt signals, these military satellites used primitive compression, sufficient for transferring information but resulting in poor video quality.
They were looking at a pixelated Gao Dali.
“Comrade Gao, we’re still maintaining publicly that we’ve lost contact with your ship. You must remain silent, so that CNSA can control the release of information.” The bureau chief was straight to the point, as always.
“Understood, sir,” Gao Dali said. In addition to being pixelated by the satellite, his face was distorted by his small webcam.
“Sitrep,” the bureau chief said.
Gao Dali’s voice was breaking up due to the poor audio, but he was intelligible. Twenty minutes later, Li Jiali understood what had happened.
The Firefly Six had been pushed away from the alien ship by an unknown force. In a matter of seconds, it had accelerated enough to break orbit. It had been thrown toward outer space. If it didn’t promptly resume communications, a rescue ship would be dispatched from the fifteenth Wings of Earth construction base. Gao Dali dreaded plummeting into deep space and never returning.
The alien ship showed no sign of friendliness, but at least Gao Dali could return alive. As for the two people who had landed on the alien ship, their fate was unknown.
“What about the state of their walker?” Li Jiali said.
“Normal, just before landing,” Gao said. “After that I don’t know. I almost passed out during that acceleration. When I was clearheaded again, I’d lost contact.”
The alien’s space-folding tech, although beyond anything humans could build, was at least explicable by the Qian-Thomas effect. But causing the Firefly to accelerate, without any sort of direct contact: that was simply magic. Humanity had surrounded the alien ship with its military satellites. It was like dugout canoes surrounding a guided missile destroyer.
Gao Dali’s image vanished. The tableau of Heavenly Palace Seven and the alien ship reappeared.
“What do you think?” the bureau chief said.
“We have no proactive option,” Li Jiali said, sighing deeply. “They’re too powerful. From a scientific point of view, I can only say that compared with them, we’re primitives. Any sort of confrontation or hostilities would be meaningless.”
The bureau chief nodded. “You’re right. If two people in a forest run into a tiger, you would say don’t wrestle the tiger. But you’d also say . . . run away faster than the other guy.” The bureau chief paused. “Only the Americans have a deep space ship with a carrying capacity of a kiloton or more. Our ships are confined to low-Earth-orbit activity.”
Li Jiali found he had nothing to say.
“Chairman Lin has given me permission to tell you that, after this is all over, we’re to formulate a deep space exploration plan. We’re going to develop deep space ships, restart and accelerate the Mars program.”
Li Jiali nodded. He gazed at the dark image on the screen, hoping humanity’s two representatives were alive and safe.
The seemingly endless passage was only two meters high. Two people shoulder to shoulder would be cramped.
“Shall we?” Max said.
“Of course. We’re here to see what sort of intelligent life they are, after all.”
Max patted the walker. “Then we’ll have to leave behind our last Earth machine. And we’re unarmed.”
“We won’t need weapons here. Or Earth machines, I’m guessing.”
“You seem a bit nervous.”
“A bit . . . no, very nervous. But we have to proceed, regardless.”
“Then let me walk in front. I’m not feeling so afraid, for whatever reason. As for this guy . . . ” He patted the walker, as if saying goodbye to an old friend. “We’ll leave him here on standby. He might just save our lives yet.” He stepped in front of Xiaoyu and headed for the passage.
Xiaoyu followed him in. The tunnel was straight, dark, and quiet. Dark except for the bit of light at the end.
There was an indistinct sound in Xiaoyu’s earpiece. He stopped. “Max, do you hear that?”
“In your earpiece?”
“Just your voice.”
“No. Let’s be quiet a moment.”
The subtle sound arose once more.
“Some static, that’s all,” Max said.
“It has a rhythm.” Xiaoyu listened, hoping to understand. It was like endless chatter, in an incomprehensible language, a quick and nimble incantation.
“It’s your imagination,” Max said.
“I think they’re talking.”
“If so, it’s not for us,” Max said, continuing forward. “Let’s get to that light and see what we can see.”
“Wait!” Xiaoyu shouted. “Look at the walls!”
Dim lights flashed in the substance of the ship, nearly imperceptible to the naked eye. If they weren’t rising and falling in sync with the sounds in his earpiece, he could have believed they were his imagination.
“Does this count as welcoming fireworks?” Max said, finally noticing. “Shouldn’t they be more enthusiastic?”
Xiaoyu touched the wall. The substance was composed of countless little round things, but these grains were finer, and more densely integrated, than the stuff of the walker’s enclosure. It felt like a coarse mineral conglomerate.
The place his finger was touching suddenly fluoresced. He withdrew his hand as though he’d been shocked. Darkness was restored.
“Did you see that?” Xiaoyu said to Max.
“It’s like magic.” Max put his hand on the wall, and red light blossomed inside, as if answering his touch. He withdrew his hand. “Still a bit rough. Electrically charged. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to want me electrocuted.”
Xiaoyu touched the wall again. The coarse conglomerate flashed anew, and he endured a light electrical shock and this time did not withdraw his hand. Sliding his palm over the surface, rays of light followed, traveling through the substance of the wall. The rays were made up of flashes from the myriad individual grains. As he watched, it seemed like photons were leaping from grain to grain.
“Fascinating,” Max said. “Almost like we’re playing that game. Do you remember? Squash the fish . . . only in reverse.”
Xiaoyu remembered. The game was a stress response drill for astronauts. They’d had to touch virtual fish floating in the air, with their hands or feet, as well as they could and in a short timeframe. The little fish were lightning fast, darting, pausing, reacting to attacks, scattering to escape. And now these tiny motes of light were chasing his finger, like squash the fish in reverse.
He withdrew his hand, and the lights vanished abruptly. The sound in his ear intensified, then quieted.
He was sure the aliens were sending a signal, but Max was right. For humans, these obscure signs were meaningless. The lights in the wall certainly meant something, but Xiaoyu and Max couldn’t understand. They could only treat it like a game.
Xiaoyu felt an urgent longing to go into the light ahead.
“Want to keep playing?” Max said, watching him. “Or continue forward?”
“Let’s go. And it’s my turn to walk in front.”
The passageway was long, and seemed to get longer as they walked. Twenty minutes in, Xiaoyu reckoned they’d only gone half the distance.
“How about letting me walk in front?” Max said. “You’re too slow.”
In this profound dark, with only the space suit’s weak illumination, he was indeed going slow. He ducked to the side, making room for Max to pass.
They quickened their pace, forging ahead. Xiaoyu struggled to keep up. He was gasping for breath before he knew it. But he was relieved that the white light finally seemed to be getting closer. It looked like an archway. The border between light and dark was sharp, the doorway well-defined, as if cut from the darkness around it.
Soon they stood on the threshold.
Nothing was visible in there, in the unadulterated light. It was like a portal to another reality. There was no telling what was on the other side.
Max turned around. “Should we enter?”
Max looked into the light, hesitating. “It would seem I’m not quite as fearless as I thought.”
“Let me go.”
Max was blocking the way. “In space,” he said, “I call the shots, remember?”
“But now . . . ”
“I’m still calling the shots.” Max turned toward the light. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, the choice is yours. There’s sufficient power in the walker. You can try to burn through the bulkhead. Or you can wait and see what the aliens do. If you don’t hear from me in ten minutes, it’s up to you.”
“And hold on to this.” He offered his palm device. “There’s no audio, but the images are valuable. I’m going in. You should record this.”
Xiaoyu didn’t respond.
“This is first contact, Xiaoyu. You understand the significance.”
Xiaoyu shook his head. “I can’t let you take the risk alone.”
Max laughed. “I’m not trying to snatch the historic moment from you, if that’s what you’re thinking. But we don’t know how this is going to turn out. It might be a trap. There are two of us. It’s only logical that one of us stay behind to observe. You’re the smart one, Xiaoyu. It’s got to be you, in case a tough call has to be made.”
Xiaoyu said nothing.
Max put a hand on his shoulder. “Come on. We’re two explorers who’ve successfully boarded an alien ship. We should have a photo together.” He held up his device, and the screen flashed with an image of two bulky helmets.
Xiaoyu found the device in his hand.
“It’s go time,” Max said. “I don’t know how long I’ll need. Let’s stick to the ten-minute plan. Let’s do this.” He extended a clenched fist.
Xiaoyu followed suit, and their fists lightly touched.
“Remember, ten minutes,” Max urged. He turned and walked into the light.
The radiance surged, nearly blinding Xiaoyu. And Max was gone.
This had to be the longest ten minutes of his life. It felt more like a century.
Once Max had vanished into the light, the world was utterly silent. The strange sound in his earpiece had vanished. All he could hear was his own breathing, and heartbeat.
The stopwatch on his helmet screen counted down. Xiaoyu forgot to breathe. What would he do if Max didn’t return in time? This was a problem nobody could help with. He had to have faith in his own judgment. Since arriving here, he hadn’t considered an exit strategy. Max had vanished into the light, but nothing unsafe seemed to have happened. Perhaps it was a one-way door, leading to some mysterious corner of the universe. Perhaps those who entered remained alive, but couldn’t return.
The stopwatch counted down, finally descending into single digits. This was a bit like a launch countdown. He recalled being strapped in, the countdown on the screen, waiting for sudden gravities of acceleration.
Six, five, four, three, two, one . . .
The one lingered, the countdown complete, and Max did not appear.
Countless trains of thought, like a waterfall of all colors in profusion, plummeted at great speed through his mind, evading capture by words. Xiaoyu took a breath.
And then his mind was clear. All that remained was a white, orderly waterfall. “Max,” he said, “I’m coming.”
He stepped forward, and the light seemed to solidify before his eyes. It became a wall. He bumped into it, withdrew a few steps, and sat down on the ground. He stared in astonishment. He stood and threw himself at whatever the portal had become, and ran his hands all over it.
It was a wall now.
It still looked like a waterfall of light, but he couldn’t get through. He patted the surface, beat it with a fist, searched every inch with his fingers, but there was no hidden entrance. It was futile.
Ten minutes later, he gave up in despair. He leaned against the wall of light, slid down, and sat on the ground. From a wash of light to a solid wall with no gaps: the aliens played with unfathomable magic. This was, perhaps, even more miraculous than the fold-jump. Xiaoyu was physically and emotionally exhausted. What game were these mysterious aliens playing, after all? Was Max okay? These questions might never be answered. He was like a rat in a cage, his agitation mounting.
And he was afraid. Without Max at his side, this profoundly quiet world made him uneasy. Perhaps coming here had been a mistake. He’d been so determined to board this alien ship, and now he couldn’t help a bitter laugh.
He noticed Max’s palm device on the ground nearby, and picked it up. It was unlocked, so he opened the photo album and looked around. Most were photos of Earth, or the space stations, or the Wings of Earth. Max had taken pictures from various locations on the Wings. They were unique images, perhaps the only ones of their kind.
Xiaoyu found a photo taken just before they first set out, a wide shot of the alien ship. The dark hull seemed imbued with mystery. It was the view from Heavenly Palace Seven. Xiaoyu activated the photo’s three-dimensional mode. The ship floated before his eyes, full of possibilities, unknowable.
Now he was a part of the mystery. All those people outside were wondering, theorizing, probing, desperate to come in and understand.
There was audio attached to the image. Xiaoyu played it: “This thing makes people uneasy. Our youngster wants to go and get to the bottom of it. Perhaps he’s right. Now that it’s before our eyes, it’s hard to justify staying here and waiting. But dammit, I don’t want to die!”
Max had recorded this in English. It wasn’t his usual carefree voice. He’d been full of doubt, and fear.
Xiaoyu let his long-withheld tears flow. He enclosed the device in his hand, and he wept.
The ground began to vibrate.
Xiaoyu got up, put his back against the wall of light. He watched the passage, from which the shaking seemed to emanate. It was pitch-black in there. The ground rocked and swayed, undulating. Xiaoyu stooped, lowering his center of gravity to keep his balance.
Something emerged from the darkness.
It was the walker. Like a boat conveyed to shore, by waves of apparently-solid matter, it advanced.
The shaking subsided.
The walker stood before Xiaoyu, blocking the passage, which it had been too big for earlier. The aliens had somehow forced it through and brought it here. The passage itself was alive, perhaps. It had used peristaltic motion to convey the walker, like it was being swallowed.
So the luminous wall behind him—was that the entry to the stomach? Had the time come to be devoured? Was this the end?
Xiaoyu found that he was calm. Alone, helpless, faced with death, he was surprised to find his courage. He resolved not to be afraid, come what may.
The passageway shone bright all at once, and a peal of thunder filled his earpiece.
The ship on the screen vanished. Surrounded by scores of satellites keeping close watch, it simply evaporated into the void. It was just like before.
The formerly-quiet CNSA command room was in an uproar.
The space agencies of the world boiled over with excitement, again. The news proliferated, from spaceflight monitoring stations to media platforms. There were conjectures worldwide. Where had it gone this time?
Humanity’s eyes turned toward the heavens, casting about, seeking signs and traces. Amid the clamor, Li Jiali sat quietly at his desk. There was no way to guess the aliens’ intentions. Their technology was like magic. Humanity had no choice but to wait. Li Jiali was worried, but only for the two humans still in that ship.
These mysterious aliens, crossing vast gulfs of time and space, ought to be like humanity when it came to exploration. They should be without malice. And they should allow brave astronauts to come home.
But who could fathom their intentions, if they had any? Li Jiali closed his eyes, and quietly prayed.
Jiang Xiaoyu felt dizzy, as if he’d been thrown into a centrifuge. A moment later, the feeling vanished.
The gravitational field was also gone. He was floating. Pocketing Max’s palm device, he drifted toward the walker. He grabbed the cockpit’s outer handrail, turned his body over, and landed in the pilot seat.
The walker was still in standby mode, awaiting orders. Fuel was abundant. Perhaps he could get out of here, as Max had suggested.
Xiaoyu closed the canopy. He woke access screens, touched a joystick, and the walker trembled. The vehicle had no weapons, but Max had added a powerful jet engine. Position this near your target and fire it up, and you had some serious destructive power on your hands. Could it blast through the bulkhead? Would it backfire on the walker itself? Xiaoyu could only hope for the best, and submit himself to the Will of Heaven.
He struggled to adjust the walker’s position, and aim the jet at the bulkhead. This sort of thing wasn’t his strong suit.
“Xiaoyu, please remain calm. We can send you out.”
The voice was in his earpiece. It was non-threatening, but there was no emotional pitch or affect, and it betrayed no gender.
“Who are you?” Xiaoyu said, casting about in all directions.
There was no reply.
The walker was pushed forward with tremendous force. The bulkhead changed, countless tiny points of light converging. The luminous grains seemed like conscious life-forms as they moved. It was like before, when the walker was swallowed. The aliens were about to use the same technique to send him out.
He was leaving. He was going home. He couldn’t help feeling relieved, even though Max was still here, somewhere. “My companion!” he called out.
“We have made arrangements for him,” the strange voice said.
“Arrangements? What does that mean? Who are you?”
A vivid, lifelike scene appeared before his eyes: Max against a dull blue background, standing motionless, like a sculpture. A strange organism stood next to him, something like an immense lobster, but bipedal. The body had three sections, with two arms extending from either side of the middle. It was dressed in metal. At its side was a large, prawn-like creature. This one lacked a carapace, and was not segmented. Two eyestalks extended from the prawn head, ending in two large, round eyes, hanging there like overripe fruit. Its body was curled up in a spherical machine that seemed made of concrete.
Strange organisms filled the field of view. Max seemed to have been placed in a fantastical zoo, but the animals were civilized, clothed.
“Max!” Xiaoyu called out.
Max was as motionless as the other creatures. This was an exhibition, a showroom, and Max was a specimen. This was the so-called arrangement. The aliens had made similar arrangements for many organisms, perhaps from other civilized worlds.
Xiaoyu’s hands were shaking. The scene before him vanished.
They’d come here to hunt, and Xiaoyu wished the walker was a nuke. He imagined detonating, perishing with these evil visitors. A moment later, after he’d calmed down, he wanted to know more about the situation.
“Who are you?” he said. “Where are you from?”
Again, there was no answer.
The walker was moving through the bulkhead, and soon arrived outside the ship. Resplendent stars filled the sky, like pearls and jade and gemstones. The Milky Way was radiant, brilliant.
An immense planet rose over a distant horizon of the ship, a gas giant, a world of reddish-brown and yellow bands. As the ship moved, the planet was revealed, and then it occupied most of the sky. It hung over Xiaoyu, oppressive, like it might crush him at any moment.
He’d seen that big red spot countless times, in textbooks, in the media.
The alien ship had leapt across astronomical units, instantly. Xiaoyu struggled with a sudden, primitive terror. A normal ship would need half a year to fly from Earth to Jupiter.
“Who are you?” Xiaoyu demanded, hearing the hysteria in his voice. “What are you doing?”
“Xiaoyu, don’t panic.” Now it was Max’s voice.
“Max! Where are you?”
“Right in front of you.”
Somehow, this was true. Somehow, Max was standing there in front of the walker, on the desolate surface of the alien ship, in a T-shirt and shorts, and sandals. He was standing in perilous vacuum, breathing, smiling, relaxed as a beach bum.
“This isn’t really me,” Max said, confirming the obvious. “This is just for you.”
“What’s going on?”
“The human called Maxwell Davis is dead. I am a newborn individual. You can call me Max, but that’s no longer my name. I don’t have a name.”
The illusion was so lifelike. It was hard to believe this was the manufactured ghost of a dead man.
“How did Max die?” Xiaoyu said. Asking this of a Max-illusion was strange, but he needed to know. He knew there were countless people on Earth who would want to know.
“Death is merely a long sleep, time solidified. The living one passed through time’s gate, lost its life, became immortal, and now it is with us.” The illusion of Max was suddenly transformed. He wore a well-tailored western suit. Xiaoyu had never seen the real Max so formally dressed. Also, this representation seemed unrealistically handsome. The real Max wouldn’t have been caught dead in an outfit like that.
At last, it was easy to believe that this thing before him was not his Max.
“What do you think?” it said, smiling. “Is this a better image to present to humans?”
“What do you want?”
“To deliver a speech.”
“A speech . . . ”
“We’re visitors. We should say hello to our hosts.”
“Why not present your own image?”
“We have no image, no form. Any image could be ours. Adopting and using a human form is best, to cultivate intimacy, and to avoid causing fear. Your reaction to me is a case in point.”
“Max, where are you . . . you all, from?”
“A distant nebula, full of dim, old stars. An invisible planet, lost between the stars. There was no past, no future. We led a wandering existence, wandering into eternity.” This recital from Max was like a song of mourning.
This was not an evenly-matched exchange. Xiaoyu felt weak, powerless. “Why did you come to Earth?”
“All spacefaring civilizations merit a visit. You signaled, and we came.”
“During the past ten Earth years, according to transit photometry, Earth’s volume has increased by seventy percent. This is statistically significant, the sign of a civilization becoming spacefaring.”
“Transit photometry . . . ” Xiaoyu saw the light. “You’re talking about the Wings of Earth!” His home planet was obstructing more solar radiation, now that it was winged, as if it had indeed grown in volume. Ships and satellites were invisible across remote lightyears of distance. Only vast space engineering projects could advertise a civilization’s existence.
In harnessing Sol’s energy, humanity had declared its existence to the cosmos.
“Yes, your Wings of Earth. They obstruct your sun’s radiance, the sign we were waiting for. And now we wish to welcome humanity to the stars.”
Humanity had never perceived signs of alien life, but the aliens had been out there, waiting. Ten years were an instant in cosmic terms. The aliens had been waiting a long time. It was hard to believe. “You’ve been waiting all along for our signal?”
“No,” Max said. “We’ve been waiting for nature to present a gift.”
“What do you mean?”
“No planet merits special expectation. But with time, planets may blossom with life, and bear the fruit of civilization. We monitor the whole Milky Way, waiting for nature to yield her gifts.”
“You monitor the whole galaxy?”
“One billion, thirty million Earth years ago, the Milky Way monitoring network was completed. Thereafter, every world capable of spawning life was monitored, including Earth.”
“So when you discover a new spacefaring civilization, you go and you . . . harvest?” Xiaoyu couldn’t stop thinking about those strange organisms, their fate and Max’s the same. They surely came from Earth-like budding civilizations. They’d been captured and collected, like Max.
“We provide help. Let us explain, Xiaoyu.” The Max-image pointed to a small, white world orbiting Jupiter, dwarfed by it. Xiaoyu recognized Europa, the frozen moon with a subsurface ocean.
“This world is suitable for a human outpost. If humanity’s space dreams aren’t cut short, then in ten years or so, you’ll be able to establish a base here.” Max stood there facing Xiaoyu, Europa hanging overhead. “Humanity’s development is somewhat unusual. Most civilizations, before they start obstructing starlight, have established one or more outposts in their solar systems. Human spaceflight is not up to the galactic standard, and we’ve come to help. We can put a spaceship on this world. We can have it waiting for you here, empty, a ship you’ll be able to figure out, and fly. It will be able to hold sixty-billion humans. Of course, there may be some difficulties. It might be buried under two kilometers of ice. That would be a little test.”
“Sixty billion? I don’t understand.” Xiaoyu gazed at the ghostly radiance of Europa, bewildered. Sixty billion people—it didn’t make sense. Even if Europa could be made habitable, it couldn’t accommodate that many people.
“Sixty billion like me.” Max extended his hands. “Truly intelligent life doesn’t need bodies.”
“You mean, we’d become simulations.” Xiaoyu thought he understood now. “Like all of you?”
“Simulations . . . this word doesn’t do us justice. Being is being, existence is existence. Once humanity reaches Europa and takes the ship out of the ice, it will prepare itself to be humanity’s cosmic ark.”
“This ship we’re on now . . . is it also an ark?”
“This ship contains six hundred and fifty million individuals, from thirty-four civilizations. You saw those little points of light. Each one represents an ego. Now there is one from Earth among them. That one is me, in a sense. So, I remember you, Xiaoyu.”
“Max . . . ”
“I’m no longer the Max you knew. I’m from Earth, but with six hundred and fifty million companions to interact with, I’m very happy. They share memories with me, things I couldn’t experience on Earth in a hundred-million years. I’m much more than one individual now. But I remember you, Xiaoyu. I’m still your buddy, and I’m going to look after you. Don’t worry about me. I will exist throughout the Milky Way, with the stars. Nothing could be better than this.”
“I can send you back. We can send you back.” Max stared at Xiaoyu, deadly serious. “Please close your eyes. After that, it will be done.”
Xiaoyu blinked, and suddenly his eyelids were heavy as lead. He struggled to keep them open. Max was gone. Overhead, Jupiter’s turbulent red spot began to revolve faster. The great storm accelerated, at last becoming a multihued blur, a violent spinning vortex.
A world of limitless, primal chaos. In its midst, flowers bloomed.
Jiang Xiaoyu never thought he’d be sitting face to face with so many world leaders.
Chairman Lin sat opposite him. Li Jiali and Gao Dali were also present, in addition to many presidents familiar from the media. There were also people in the uniforms of various space agencies and militaries, and nearly all of China’s higher-ups. They sat to either side of Chairman Lin, or behind him.
Xiaoyu was on one side of the table, and everyone else on the other. The pressure was awful. He felt like the subject of a criminal tribunal, but at least they were friendly. It took him two hours to narrate everything that had happened after departing Heavenly Palace Seven, and longer to take questions.
Was Max dead or not? Was there really a ship on, or in, Europa? How about more details on that portal Max had gone through? What was the nature of this galactic monitoring network? He couldn’t answer these questions. He could only relate what he’d seen and heard.
Finally, they were out of questions.
Finally, everyone was silent, except for one old professor, who muttered to himself. “This is impossible. Boundary conditions can only lead to dispersal . . . ” It was Professor Qian Bojun. After Xiaoyu had verified the alien ship was in the Jupiter system, the old man had been left in a spellbound confusion. He’d entered his own selfless, inner world.
Finally, old Qian stopped muttering, and the vast meeting room was silent. Everyone was waiting for the most important person in the room to speak.
“This meeting is adjourned,” Chairman Lin said. “In ten minutes we convene the standing committee.”
People got up one by one and left the room.
Xiaoyu stood in the square outside the ZhongNanHai. He didn’t know why, but it seemed a great weight had been lifted from his mind. He raised his head and let out a long, relieved breath.
In the blue vault of the sky, the Wings of Earth were like curved, white jade. He thought back, as if lending an attentive ear to someone in the dark.
“We didn’t believe there were aliens,” Li Jiali had said, when they parted ways. “We threw everything we had into the Wings, and surprise surprise, the aliens came. Mysterious and inexorable, the Will of Heaven.”
The Will of Heaven, mysterious and inexorable, indeed. Beneath Europa’s ice, an ark slept. Humans would ascend to that little moon. They would obtain a precious gift from deep space. That would be a hard test for humanity, a baptism by ice. Humanity would escape its cradle solar system. It would meet an ancient intelligence.
But for Xiaoyu, there was another layer of understanding.
He’d declared everything he saw and heard, except for that last dream, that vision both real and unreal. He’d kept that to himself. In the boundless cosmos, countless stars converged to become a galaxy, galaxies converged to become the Milky Way, the familiar spiral, the foamy whirlpool. Civilizations blossomed and bloomed and withered, only the stars persisting. The spacefaring life of the Milky Way wandered, not in a particular hurry, contemplating the universe, pondering existence. They were like seeds, absorbing the Milky Way’s germinating civilizations, accumulating power. The civilizations were like weeds, growing up savage, but containing boundless vitality.
Just what seeds need.
Xiaoyu didn’t know what the seeds would eventually grow into, but he knew that after hundreds of millions of years, they would finally bear fruit. They would discover a final truth, and become the Milky Way’s greatest beings. All intelligent life would be part of that greatness.
Xiaoyu felt like he was sprouting wings. He felt like a falcon in the vast, boundless heavens, free to soar.
The world became a formless mass, primal chaos. Amid this pre-creation disorder, flowers bloomed. Max leaped from one petal to the next, in splendid zero-g form.
“Your turn, Xiaoyu!” he said, looking back with the hint of a grin.
Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.
Jiang Bo’s first story, “The Last Game,” was published in 2003. To date he has published over fifty short stories and several novels, including The Gate of Machine and The Galaxy Heart trilogy. His work has been honored with multiple Galaxy and Xingyun Awards.
Andy Dudak is a writer and translator of science fiction. His original stories have appeared in Analog, Apex, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best, and elsewhere. He’s translated many stories for Clarkesworld, and a novel by Liu Cixin, among other things. In his spare time he likes to binge-watch peak television and eat Hui Muslim style cold sesame noodles.