Chapter One: Year 3, Crisis Era
Distance of the Trisolaran Fleet from the Solar System: 4.21 light-years
It looks so old.…
This was Wu Yue’s first thought as he faced Tang, the massive ship under construction in front of him, bathed in the flickering of electric arcs. Of course, this impression was simply the result of countless inconsequential smudges on the manganese steel plates of the ship’s nearly completed body, left behind by the advanced gas-shield welding used on the hull. He tried unsuccessfully to imagine how sturdy and new Tang would look with a fresh coat of gray paint.
Tang’s fourth offshore fleet training session had just concluded. During that two-month session, Tang’s commanders, Wu Yue and Zhang Beihai, who was standing just beside Wu Yue, had occupied an uncomfortable role. Formations of destroyers, submarines, and supply ships were directed by battle group commanders, but Tang was still under construction in the dock, so the carrier’s position was either occupied by the training ship Zheng He or simply left empty. During the sessions, Wu Yue often stared vacantly at an empty patch of sea where the surface of the water, disturbed by crisscrossing trails left by passing ships, undulated uneasily, much like his mood. Would the empty spot ever be filled? he asked himself more than once.
Looking now at the unfinished Tang, what he saw was not just age but the passage of time itself. It seemed like an ancient, giant, discarded fortress, its mottled body a stone wall, the shower of welding sparks falling from the scaffolding like plants covering the stones … like it was less construction than archeology.
Afraid of pursuing these thoughts, Wu Yue turned his attention to Zhang Beihai next to him. “Is your father any better?” he asked.
Zhang Beihai gently shook his head. “No. He’s just holding on.”
“Ask for leave.”
“I did when he first went to the hospital. Given the situation, I’ll deal with it when the time comes.”
Then they went silent. Every social interaction between the two of them was like this. Where work was concerned they had more to say, of course, but something always lay between them.
“Beihai, work isn’t going to be like it was. Since we’re sharing this position now, I think we ought to communicate more.”
“We’ve communicated just fine in the past. Our superiors put us together on Tang, no doubt thanks to our successful cooperation aboard Chang’an.” Zhang Beihai laughed as he said this, but it was the sort of laugh that Wu Yue couldn’t read. Zhang Beihai’s eyes could easily read deep into the heart of everyone aboard the ship, be they captain or sailor. Wu Yue was entirely transparent to him. But Wu Yue could not read what was inside Zhang. He was certain that the man’s smile came from within him, but had no hope of understanding him. Successful cooperation does not equate to successful understanding. There was no question that Zhang Beihai was the most capable political commissar on the ship, and he was forthright in his work, exploring every last issue with complete precision. But his internal world was a bottomless gray to Wu Yue, who always felt like Zhang Beihai was saying: Just do it this way. This way’s best, or most correct. But it’s not what I really want. It began as an indistinct feeling that grew increasingly obvious. Of course, whatever Zhang Beihai did was always the best or most correct, but Wu Yue had no idea what he actually wanted.
Wu Yue adhered to one article of faith: Command of a warship was a dangerous position, so the two commanders must understand each other’s minds. This presented Wu Yue with a knotty problem. At first, he thought that Zhang Beihai was somehow on guard, which offended Wu. In the tough post of captain of a destroyer, was anyone more forthright and guileless than he was? What do I have worth guarding against?
When Zhang Beihai’s father had briefly been their superior officer, Wu Yue had spoken with him about his difficulties talking to his commissar. “Isn’t it enough for the work to be done well? Why do you need to know how he thinks?” the general had said, gently, then added, perhaps involuntarily, “Actually, I don’t know either.”
“Let’s get a closer look,” Zhang Beihai said, pointing to Tang through the sparks. Then both their phones chirped at the same time: a text message recalling them back to their car. This usually meant an emergency, since secured communications equipment was only available in the vehicle. Wu Yue opened the car door and picked up the receiver. It was a call from an advisor at battle group HQ.
“Captain Wu, Fleet Command have issued you and Commissar Zhang emergency orders. The two of you are to report to General Staff immediately.”
“General Staff? What about the fifth fleet training exercise? Half the battle group is at sea, and the rest of the ships will join them tomorrow.”
“I’m not aware of that. The order is simple. Just that one command. You can look at the specifics when you get back.”
The captain and commissar of the still-unlaunched Tang glanced at each other, then had one of the rare moments throughout the years where their thoughts aligned: Looks like that patch of water will remain empty.
Fort Greely, Alaska. Several fallow deer ambling along the snowy plain grew alert, sensing vibrations in the earth beneath the snow. Ahead of them, a white hemisphere opened. It had been placed there long ago, a giant egg half-buried beneath the ground, but the deer always felt it didn’t belong to this frozen world. The egg split open and issued forth thick smoke and flames, then, with a roar, it hatched a cylinder that accelerated upward, spurting flames from its bottom. The surrounding snowdrifts were thrown by the fire into the air, where they fell again as rain. When the cylinder gained enough height, the explosions that had terrified the deer were again replaced by peace. The cylinder vanished into the sky trailing a long white tail behind it, as if the snowscape was a giant ball of yarn from which a giant invisible hand had pulled a strand skyward.
“Damn it! Just a few more seconds and I’d have confirmed a launch interrupt!” said Target Screening Officer Raeder as he tossed aside his mouse. Raeder was thousands of kilometers away in the Nuclear Missile Defense Control Room at the NORAD Command Center, three hundred meters beneath Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs.
“I figured it was nothing as soon as the system warning came up,” Orbital Monitor Jones said, shaking his head.
“Then what’s the system attacking?” asked General Fitzroy. Nuclear Missile Defense was just one of the duties of his new position, and he wasn’t entirely familiar with it yet. Looking at the monitor-covered wall, the general attempted to locate the intuitive graphical displays they’d had at the NASA control center: a red line snaking across the world map, forming a sine wave atop the map’s planar transformation. Novices found this inexplicable, but at least it let you know that something was shooting into space. But there was nothing so simple here. The lines on the screens were a complicated, abstract jumble that was meaningless to him. Not to mention all the screens with swiftly scrolling numbers that had meaning only to the NMD duty officers.
“General, do you remember when they replaced the reflective film on the ISS multipurpose module last year? They lost the old film. That’s what this was. It balls up and then unfurls in the solar wind.”
“But … it ought to be included in the target screening database.”
“It is. Here.” Raeder brought up a page with his mouse. Below piles of complicated text, data, and forms, there was an inconspicuous photograph, probably taken with an Earth telescope, of an irregular white patch against a black background. The strong reflection made it difficult to make out details.
“Major, since you’ve got this, why didn’t you terminate the launch program?”
“The system ought to have searched the target database automatically. Human reaction times aren’t quick enough. But data from the old system hasn’t been reformatted for the new one, so it wasn’t linked in with the recognition module,” Raeder said. His tone was a little aggrieved, as if to say,I’ve demonstrated my proficiency by managing to pull this up so quickly in a manual search when the NMD supercomputer couldn’t, but I still have to put up with your clueless questions.
“General, the order came to switch over to actual operational state after the NMD moved its intercept headings into space, but before software recalibration was completed,” a duty officer said.
Fitzroy said nothing. The chatter of the control room annoyed him. Here in front of him was humanity’s first planetary defense system, but it was nothing more than an existing NMD system whose intercepts had been redirected from various terrestrial continents and into space.
“I say we should take a photo for a memento!” Jones said. “This has got to be Earth’s first strike at a common enemy.”
“Cameras are prohibited,” Raeder said coldly.
“Captain, what are you talking about?” Fitzroy said, angry all of a sudden. “The system didn’t detect an enemy target at all. It’s not a first strike.”
After an uncomfortable silence, someone said, “The interceptors carry nuclear warheads.”
“Yeah, one point five megatons. So what?”
“It’s nearly dark outside. Given the target location, we ought to be able to see the flash!”
“You can see it on the monitor.”
“It’s more fun from outside,” Raeder said.
Jones stood up nervously. “General, I … my shift’s over.”
“Mine too, General,” Raeder said. This was just a courtesy. Fitzroy was a high-level coordinator with the Planetary Defense Council and had no command over NORAD and the NMDs.
Fitzroy waved his hand: “I’m not your commanding officer. Do as you please. But let me remind all of you that in the future, we may be spending a lot of time working together.”
Raeder and Jones headed topside at a run. After passing through the multi-ton antiradiation door, they were out on the peak of Cheyenne Mountain. It was dusk and the sky was clear, but they didn’t see the flash of a nuclear blast in outer space.
“It should be right there,” Jones said, gesturing skyward.
“Maybe we’ve missed it,” Raeder said. He didn’t look upward. Then, with an ironic smile, he said, “Do they really believe the sophon will unfold in lower dimensions again?”
“Unlikely. It’s intelligent. It won’t give us another chance,” Jones said.
“NMD’s eyes are pointed upward. Is there really nothing to defend against on Earth? Even if the terrorist countries have all turned into saints, there’s still the ETO, right?” He snorted. “And the PDC. Those military guys clearly want to chalk up a quick accomplishment. Fitzroy’s one of them. Now they can declare that the first stage of the Planetary Defense System is complete, even though they’ve done practically nothing to the hardware. The system’s sole purpose is to stop her from unfolding in lower dimensions near to Earth’s orbit. The technology’s even simpler than what’s needed for intercepting guided missiles, because if the target really does appear, it’ll cover an immense area.… Captain, that’s why I’ve asked you up here. Why were you acting like a child, what with that first-strike photograph business? You’ve upset the general, you know. Can’t you see he’s a petty man?”
“But … wasn’t that a compliment?”
“He’s one of the best hype artists in the military. He’s not going to announce at the press conference that this was a system error. Like the rest of them, he’ll say it was a successful maneuver. Wait and see. That’s how it’s gonna be.” As he was speaking, Raeder sat down and leaned back on the ground, looking up with a face full of yearning at the sky, where the stars had already emerged. “You know, Jones, if the sophon really does unfold again, she’ll give us a chance to destroy her. Wouldn’t that be something!”
“What’s the use? The fact is that they’re streaming toward the Solar System right now. Who knows how many of them.… Hey, why did you say ‘she’ rather than ‘it’ or ‘he’?”
The expression on Raeder’s upturned face turned dreamy: “Yesterday, a Chinese colonel who just arrived at the center told me that in his language, she has the name of a Japanese woman, Tomoko.”
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