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A Novel

Translated by Ken Liu

About The Book

From the Hugo Award­–winning author of Folding Beijing comes a gripping science fiction thriller in which three unlikely allies attempt a desperate mission of first contact with a mysterious alien race before more militaristic minds can take matters into their own hands.

In a future where the world is roughly divided into two factions, the Pacific League of Nations and the Atlantic Division of Nations, tensions are high as each side waits for the other to make a move. But neither side is prepared for a powerful third party that has apparently been an influential presence on Earth for thousands of years—and just might be making a reappearance very soon.

With the realization that a highly intelligent alien race has been trying to send them messages, three rising scientists within the Pacific League of Nations form an uneasy alliance. Fueled by a curiosity to have their questions answered and a fear that other factions within their rival Atlantic Division of Nations would opt for a more aggressive and potentially disastrous military response, the three race to secure first contact with this extraterrestrial life they aren’t quite convinced is a threat.

Bolstered by recent evidence of alien visitations in the distant past, the three scientific minds must solve puzzles rooted within human antiquity, face off with their personal demons, and discover truths of the universe.


Chapter 1: Signal 1 | Signal
Jiang Liu tried to tiptoe his way off the plane without waking Uncle Bo, but the plan failed miserably. As soon as he opened the cabin door, a frigid blast of air forced its way in and woke the steward. The blast also made him realize that his body was definitely not ready for the sudden shift from a tropical island in the Pacific to a wintry city in north China.

Du Yibo rubbed his eyes, sat up with half his muscles still asleep, and realized that he was at the wrong airport. The sight of Jiang Liu trying to sneak away on the tarmac enraged him. He was out of his own seat in seconds and chased after Jiang Liu, who gave up the attempt at stealth and began to run like a gazelle.

“If I don’t bring you home, your father is going to skin me alive! Get back here!”

“I’m sorry, Uncle Bo! I’m afraid you’ll have to take my father’s wrath again for me. That’s what good friends do for each other, right?”

“Who’s your friend? Who? What did I ever do in my previous life to deserve this? Get back here! I’m not taking the fall for you again.”

“I’ll be sure to make it up to you next time!”

Du Yibo chased Jiang Liu through half the airport. However, despite the encumbrance of his bag, Jiang Liu was able to disappear into the crowd. He was sorry for Uncle Bo—Dad had a way of making those who failed him feel utterly worthless. But what else could he do? He certainly didn’t want to face the old man himself. Mom had already hinted that he wasn’t entirely ignorant of Jiang Liu’s recent doings—well, there was no way to hide everything since the blockchain was transparent and there were cameras everywhere. He shuddered at the thought of what Dad would do if he went home. Luckily, he had already shut off all communication channels before he got off the plane. This should buy him a few days of peace.

The self-driving taxi took him through kilometers of abandoned farmland outside Xi’an toward the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. Jiang Liu found the scenery along the way rather shocking, like a forlorn fantasy land forgotten by time. He imagined the landscape outside the car looking pretty much the same way for thousands of years: a rectilinear grid of farm fields, squat houses made of red bricks, and a few copses here and there. The fields, left uncultivated for years, were now overgrown with weeds. He didn’t know if the former inhabitants had been driven away by war or had been forcibly relocated to the mechanized fortresses nearby.

The taxi dropped him off at a complex of buildings in the middle of nowhere. The gate to the compound was Chinese Classical in style, and next to the gate were the remnants of turnstiles and other old equipment that had once guided thronging visitors. He stepped through the gate and saw the elegant form of the museum. One corner of the museum had been destroyed by war, but most of the building was still intact, dignified and immaculate. A few oversized hanzi on one side of the building proclaimed: Museum of the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang.

A young woman exited the museum and headed Jiang Liu’s way.

It was Yun Fan. Looking the same as she did in his memory, efficient and graceful, her cheeks dimpled as she smiled, like the glow of the sun after a shower. She was in a classic white dress, with a ruffled, off-the-shoulder neckline that showed off her collarbones.

“Welcome, Dr. Jiang.”

“Always a pleasure to visit a beautiful woman.”

Yun Fan pretended not to hear this. “I understand you brought the data with you? Please come to my office.”

“Why is it so deserted? Are you the only one here?”

“That’s correct. Because of the war, the museum is not open to visitors.”

“Not so good to be alone in such a desolate place. Good thing I’m here to protect you.”

Yun Fan didn’t change her tone. “There’s no danger here.”

She kept walking, forcing him to keep up. Jiang Liu found that with each step, the projected image underfoot changed. Sometimes it looked like packed earth, sometimes flagstones, and the ground was even marked with the names of different locations. Intrigued, he began to hop around, trying to see what else the ground would show.

“You’re walking through a model of ancient Xianyang, Qin Shi Huang’s capital,” Yun Fan explained. “This was designed as a full holographic display, but since we have no visitors, most of the projections have been turned off. Only the interactive floor is left on. If you’re interested, I can turn on the whole thing for you later this evening.”

They kept going until they entered the museum proper. The floor in the main exhibit hall was made entirely of glass, and under the glass could be seen a replica of the underground palace of the mausoleum. As Jiang Liu looked down, he saw models of the mountains and rivers of the Qin Empire’s territory, with stars reflected in the curves of the streams. There were only a few buildings here and there, sort of like observatories in the mountains and among the stars.

Yun Fan clapped her hands together, and bright lights came on to illuminate the underground palace. The flowing mercury in the river channels caught the lights, as though the Milky Way had fallen into the sublunary sphere. To realize that engineers and builders from more than two millennia ago had constructed something so magnificent and complex, a model of the entire empire to accompany Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife, was awe-inducing.

“This is only a 1:100 scale replica.” Yun Fan seemed to guess what he was thinking. “The real underground palace is 168 meters by 141 meters. If you add in the tumulus over the mausoleum, the entire complex is about 78 times the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Also, no one really knows what the underground palace looks like because it remains unexcavated. We made this model based on the best available data.”

“To build something like this more than two thousand years ago…” Jiang Liu was at a loss for words.

“That’s how I know Qin Shi Huang himself didn’t build it.”

“What do you mean?” Jiang Liu was confused.

Yun Fan kept walking toward one wall of the exhibit hall. Suddenly, the floor opened in front of her, leaving a rectangular hole. Startled, Jiang Liu ran after Yun Fan before realizing that it was the entrance to an underground elevator. He followed Yun Fan into the elevator, and the cab began to descend quietly. After what Jiang Liu estimated was three or four stories, the elevator stopped, and the door opened to reveal a neatly appointed study. One wall was filled with bookshelves, while a desk in antique Chinese style was placed near the opposite wall. Behind the desk hung a delicate brush painting of plum blossoms.

“What an elegant office,” exclaimed Jiang Liu. “But why do you have it in such a secretive location?”


“To… ward off people you don’t want to see.” Jiang Liu quirked a brow. “Or… to guard treasure!”

“Both correct. Tea? Green or Pu’er?”

“Whatever you have. I’m more of a whiskey man.”

Yun Fan nodded. “I’m well aware. Look, let me be frank. I have a small temple here, not suitable for a powerful bodhisattva like yourself. I’d like to get started on the real business right away to give you more time to get back to your whiskey.”

“No rush!” Jiang Liu chuckled. “In your company, I’m not sure I need any more intoxicants.”

Yun Fan’s face showed no expression as she brewed green tea. She used the first two infusions to rinse the teacups and to feed the unglazed tea pet.1 Only after brewing the third infusion, which had the requisite restrained scent and the refined flavor, did she pour the tea into a cup and present it to Jiang Liu.

“Go ahead,” she said. “You contacted me at an ungodly hour last night. What did you discover?”

“It’s related to the question you asked my mentor last time.” Jiang Liu took a sip of tea. It was unexpectedly scalding, and he had to smack his lips to cool down. “Aren’t you even a little bit moved that I care so much about what you’re interested in?”

“What did you discover?” Yun Fan asked again, looking directly into his eyes.

He saw Yun Fan for the first time about four months ago.

It was at an international academic conference in Hawaii where Dr. Johnson, Jiang Liu’s mentor and a renowned astronomy professor at the University of Hawaii, was one of the big-name speakers. After graduating from Harvard College, Jiang Liu had taken a gap year before joining the University of Hawaii’s graduate astronomy program, largely based on his mentor’s reputation as a leading researcher in the frontiers of human knowledge.

Yun Fan had come to his mentor’s talk early and then approached him immediately afterward. Jiang Liu noticed her because she stood out from the crowd like a glowing unicorn in the woods. Yun Fan had put up her hair in a high ponytail and worn a black high-necked dress. Though she was the first to approach the lectern, she wasn’t the first to ask a question. His mentor was surrounded by students, researchers, and science reporters—all peppering the academic star with queries.

Finally, it was Yun Fan’s turn. “Dr. Johnson, I’ve noticed that in the past year, several pulsars closest to us have exhibited regular changes in their emission patterns. I believe this may be the result of manipulation by extraterrestrial intelligence.”

Johnson hesitated before responding. “My research is mainly in extremely energetic electromagnetic events, such as fast radio bursts and gamma ray bursts. I can’t claim to be an expert on common pulsars.”

Yun Fan, however, wouldn’t give up. “But you also suggested one time that some of these high-energy electromagnetic events may be the work of extraterrestrial civilizations.”

Johnson was about to explain further when he was interrupted with an urgent summons to be elsewhere. But before he left, he asked Jiang Liu to follow up with Yun Fan.

Thus, Jiang Liu had the perfect excuse to ask Yun Fan out to dinner. However, it was the most boring could-be date in his memory. Yun Fan kept the conversation focused on astronomy. FSRs, next-generation occultation survey techniques, cosmic microwave background, dark matter… she lobbed question after question at him. He was amazed by the breadth of her knowledge. Although she lacked the specialist’s grasp of the technical details, he could tell by her questions that she had devoted considerable effort into understanding these subjects. Time and again, he tried to redirect the conversation to her personal life, but she never gave an inch: either skillfully stepping around his attempts at flirting, or even openly mocking him when he vexed her.

He couldn’t remember the last time he had failed so miserably with a girl.

Jiang Liu pulled out of his reverie to focus on the present, determined to find out just what Yun Fan was after.

“Last time, you told me you were using the raw data from LAHEO, right?”

“That’s correct,” she said. “Although I did use the built-in software to do some basic filtering and smoothing, I performed no advanced analysis.”

“I must confess that I’m very curious. How did an archaeologist end up being so comfortable with astronomy data and software?”

“Dr. Jiang… there is a human behavior known as ‘learning’ or ‘skill acquisition.’ Have you heard of it?”

“All right, then what made you decide to study astronomy?”

Yun Fan smiled. “I can’t imagine why a man with a PhD in astronomy would find it odd that someone should be interested in astronomy. Surely you can answer that better than I can.”

Jiang Liu could see that he would never get anywhere like this. Telling himself that he was ready to take the long road to his goal, he decided to first show her the data he brought.

The Large Area High Energy Observatory (LAHEO) was the last astronomy satellite launched by the European Space Agency before the war, with an emphasis on observing high-energy celestial bodies. The culmination of years of effort by some of the world’s best astrophysicists and aerospace engineers, it represented a quantum leap over previous-generation instruments. There was virtually no possibility for an error in its data.

After Yun Fan’s visit to Hawaii, Jiang Liu began to pay attention to nearby pulsars. Soon, he found that she was right. Five pulsars showed changes in their emissions, more than 10 percent in magnitude. The dips and rises in the spectrum were plain to see, and all five followed the same pattern. This was impossible to explain as an error or a mere coincidence.

Yun Fan had proposed a theory in Hawaii that the altered pulsars were serving as beacons for extraterrestrial navigators. But Jiang Liu didn’t see why the functions of a lighthouse required such large-magnitude alterations to the pulsar’s emissions. His guess was that the alien spaceships were using the pulsars for energy, not navigation. But such a possibility made the hairs on his back stand up. A pulsar’s energy was a million times greater than the sun’s, and if the amount of energy a pulsar output during a single second could be converted to usable electricity, it would satisfy Earth’s current needs for several billion years. If a single alien ship could cause a 10 percent dip in a pulsar’s radiation magnitude, then it was equivalent to absorbing a hundred thousand times the sun’s energy output. Even if the absorption efficiency was only 0.01 percent, that would still translate to ten times the sun’s energy output. A civilization capable of such a feat was unimaginably ahead of humanity, technologically.

But something else sent an even greater chill down Jiang Liu’s spine. While attempting to calculate the trajectory of the alien ship based on the changes in the pulsars, he realized that the first pulsar was about 300 light-years from Earth, the second 220 light-years, the third 160, the fourth 120, and the fifth 89, but all the changes were observed within the last few months. This meant that the ship itself was approaching Earth at nearly the speed of light—the realm of science fiction.

If the aliens were hostile, Earth could not possibly come out ahead in such a conflict. Jiang Liu didn’t dare to work out the full implications. Only half believing his own conclusions, he went to the satellite networks that his family could access and concentrated on data involving pulsars within fifty light-years. In addition, he directed the family’s private probes near Jupiter and Saturn to scan for unidentified flying objects in the solar system.

“I’ve correlated the data between multiple astronomy satellite networks, space stations, and multiband radio telescopes to be sure of my conclusions.” Jiang Liu used his bracelet to project the results onto the wall of Yun Fan’s office, highlighting the key points in the dense cloud of data. “Look here. This pulsar is about twenty-five light-years away, and it’s located on the same trajectory projected from the previous pulsars—possibly an elliptic arc. Two-and-a-half months ago, this pulsar showed the same change in its emission as the other pulsars. After that, about two months ago, a Saturn-orbiting probe detected an object entering the solar system. This object has been decelerating the whole time, and as of half a month ago, it finally passed the orbit of Saturn and is now approaching Earth. My family’s own satellites only go as far as Saturn, and the rest of the data I had to get from international networks—I’m just trying to explain to you why it took me so long to put it all together and come to you. It’s due to lack of data, not because I didn’t care about your question.”

Yun Fan bit her bottom lip thoughtfully. She didn’t seem surprised by any of this. “How long until the ship reaches Earth?”

“I can’t say exactly. The deceleration is not constant and hard to project. My best guess is about two weeks.”

Yun Fan nodded. Jiang Liu couldn’t tell from her complicated facial expression what she was thinking.

“Can you locate the ship?”

“That’s not easy. The object only shows up in super low frequency radio wave data. There’s nothing in any of the other bands, including visible light. That’s how it was able to evade the probes from multiple countries near Jupiter and Saturn. But there’s not much precision if we rely on super low frequency radio waves for location. I couldn’t even be sure there was a ship until I did the calculations myself—see that red circle? That’s the best I can do for a trajectory.”

“Can you give me authorization to access the data you’re using?”

“Sure! This is from my family’s own satellite network. I don’t think many networks in the world will be able to get you better data. I can get you an account. No problem.”

“Thank you very much. I really appreciate the data. I won’t take up any more of your time today. After I get my account, if I have any more questions, I’ll be sure to reach out.”

“Come on!” Jiang Liu put on an aggrieved expression. “I gave you such good data, and you won’t even ask me to dinner? That’s so cold. Look, my plane has already left, and I’ve got nowhere to go. Are you really going to toss me out on the street, hungry and exhausted?”

“I’d love to feed you, but I don’t have the resources. This place is right next to a military restricted zone, so none of the delivery services would accept orders from here. I get my meals from home—Mei, my family’s helper, sends them to me using a drone. But it’s just enough for me, and the food is all very plain, not suitable for a princeling like Dr. Jiang.”

“I eat very little, and I love plain fare. This is perfect.”

“Um…” Yun Fan’s face was on the verge of breaking into laughter. “That doesn’t fit the data I have on you. My understanding is that you never eat at any place that doesn’t have a Michelin star.”

“Oh?” Jiang Liu was very happy. “Do I understand that you’ve been looking up interesting info on me?”

“You don’t think you’re the only one who knows how to use the web, do you?” She smiled sardonically. “Please, I think it’s best that you go home. I’m sure it takes but a few minutes for you to summon a hoverjet to pick you up. I really do appreciate the help you’ve given me. As soon as I’m done with my project, I’ll be sure to pay you a return visit and thank you properly.”

“No worries. Even if you don’t have food here, we can go out,” Jiang Liu persisted.

“That’s actually not possible. As I mentioned, this is next to a military restricted zone. No ride service would dispatch here. I usually have to call Mei to come and pick me up if I need to run an errand. But unfortunately, Mei is visiting her daughter right now in Yunnan.”

“That’s no problem.” Jiang Liu smiled. “I’ll take care of it. If I can get us a ride, then you’ll come to dinner with me. Deal?”

Yun Fan finally laughed in exasperation. “I’ve never met anyone so shameless. What I really want to say is that I have no interest in going to dinner with you. I was trying to turn you down politely, but you leave me no choice except to come out and say it.”

“Well, you didn’t deny that we have a deal. That is the same as agreeing. So when the ride comes later, you have to keep your promise.”

A few minutes later, an ancient car stopped outside the compound. It was so outdated that it required a human driver, probably one of the last manual models from the 2050s. Yun Fan couldn’t remember the last time she had ridden in such a vehicle. Where in the world did he find such a thing?

In any event, since Jiang Liu did find a ride for them, she felt that she couldn’t turn him down again. So she took a few minutes to groom herself before getting in the car with Jiang Liu.

Having spent so many months all by herself at the museum, she was starting to feel like a tree rooted in the museum grounds: alone, carefree, needing no one, sustained by the glow of the morning sun under a blue sky. She found no need for human company, nor the need to return to the bustling world. The only time she left the museum was when she needed help from the outside world, but as the signal she was seeking grew stronger, she had even less need to go away. More and more, she wanted to turn away from the entanglements of society.

Yet somehow, Jiang Liu had gotten her out. There was something… interesting about him.

The driver was an old man—not surprising since anyone who still knew how to drive a fully manual car these days had to be quite aged. As he drove, he chatted with Jiang Liu and Yun Fan. He told them that his life was pretty good—see, he was making enough to buy a new car, and he was hoping to do something meaningful with his life, even at his age.

Yun Fan was puzzled why a stranger would tell them such personal details. Was he talking to her, or to Jiang Liu? She had a feeling that the old man knew Jiang Liu—at least the tone he was using suggested old acquaintances. But then again, the old man’s questions for Jiang Liu seemed to imply that he knew nothing about the young man at all: Where was he from? How many people were in his family? And so on. Yun Fan could make no sense of it.

They had been driving through the desolate countryside for about ten minutes when a sudden strong gust of wind caught them out of nowhere. The trees on the right side of the road leaned over, the leaves flapping violently, and even through the windows those inside the car could sense the power of the buffeting air. Yun Fan looked out and was surprised to see in front of the car, on the right, a silver unibody low-altitude aircraft. Polyhedral in shape, but with aerodynamic surfaces, the aircraft made little noise despite the swirling vortices it threw up. On one side, painted discreetly, was the logo of Jiang Lang Trading Limited Company.

Ah, that explains it, Yun Fan thought.

“What the…” Jiang Liu muttered. “Uncle Bo is persistent, isn’t he? Uncle Wang, do you mind taking a left up ahead and going down the dirt path in the woods?”

“You sure about that?” asked the old man. “With all the fields abandoned, that dirt path is full of weeds and deep ruts. We could get stuck.”

A stream of bullets shot out of the silvery aircraft and struck near their tires, throwing up clods of earth. The old man swore. “What’s wrong with these people?!” He stepped on the gas and turned the wheel hard to the left, plunging the car into the copse. The dense trees shielded them from further strafing.

“Isn’t this your family’s plane?” Yun Fan asked. “Why is it shooting at you?”

“Who knows?” Jiang Liu said, rather peeved. “Uncle Bo has gone crazy.”

“Who’s Uncle Bo? A family enemy who wants you dead?”

“No. He just… wants me to go home.”

“Aha!” Yun Fan laughed. “What did you do to make you run away from home?”

“It’s a very long story… which I may tell you some other time.” Jiang Liu rubbed the ring on his left hand, and the tattoos on his wrist lit up again. This time, the projected images appeared directly on the skin of his arm. He tapped the images a few times, scrolled around, zoomed out with a finger pinch, until a red dot blinked on his arm.

“Uncle Wang, take the second right and enter the village. Once you are in the village, take the second alley on the left and stop at the entrance to the next home.”

The driver followed his directions. As he parked, the silver plane caught up to them and shot again. One bullet struck a tire, but fortunately the car was no longer in motion. The three of them exited the car and leaped through the open door in front of them. As soon as they were safely inside, the door shut behind them silently.

Yun Fan was still recovering from the narrow escape when a shabbily dressed, middle-aged man came into the front room, leaning on a cane. He gestured for them to sit at the few stools around the room, then sat down himself and greeted them with an old-fashioned fist-and-palm salute. In response, Jiang Liu held out both hands and made a strange pose with each: the middle finger and pinkie extended, the other fingers pinched together. The middle-aged man and the driver made the same gesture. Then, as he stacked the right and left hands together, alternately placing the fingers of one atop the other, he whispered, “Universal love, mutual benefit.”

The middle-aged man began to move his fingers in the same way, and responded, “Divisive hate, mutual harm.”

All satisfied now, the three sat back down.

“Who are the people chasing you?” the man with the cane asked in a hoarse voice.

“They’re not bad people,” Jiang Liu said. “It’s… my family. I don’t want to go home, so they’re overreacting a bit. I’m so embarrassed.”

“Why don’t you want to go home?” the man asked.

Jiang Liu could feel the tension in the question. He noticed the man’s eyes focusing on somewhere near the door. Turning around, he saw a photograph of a boy, about seventeen or eighteen years of age, a goofy smile on his face. The photo frame was black, with a white flower of mourning atop. Jiang Liu understood that he had unwittingly stepped into a private regret.

“How are things going lately?” he asked, trying to change the subject.

“All right,” said the middle-aged man, his voice placid. “Just trying to live out the rest of my years.”

“Don’t put it like that,” said Wang, the driver. “If you think you’re old, then I must be halfway in the ground already. But I think I’m still young. I can still be useful; I can still make a difference.”

“I suppose if you think that way, then I ought to strive to make an even bigger difference.”

Jiang Liu chuckled and broke in, “I think what would make the biggest difference right now is dinner.”

The middle-aged man got up and asked the driver to help him slaughter a chicken in the yard. This left Yun Fan and Jiang Liu alone together; the silence stretched awkwardly.

“Am I going to hear the explanation now?” Yun Fan finally asked.

“That almost sounds like a girl asking why her boyfriend is flirting with another girl,” Jiang Liu said, laughing.

Yun Fan refused to take the bait. “You told me that you were going to explain why your family is after you.”

“You care about me that much?”

“Stop it.” Yun Fan’s voice was cold. “I’m trying to determine whether it’s dangerous for me to allow you to stay at the museum tonight. If you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. I’m leaving right now, and we can be strangers in the future.”

“All right!” Jiang Liu held up his hands. “I’ll tell you.” He hesitated for a moment. “My father is angry at me because I carelessly leaked some details about his business dealings.”

“What kind of business dealings?”

“They involve uranium.”

“Oh…” Yun Fan looked thoughtful. Then she asked, “How do you know so many people around here? I understand that you spent your childhood in Beijing, and then went abroad for high school. How can you possibly have so many acquaintances near Xi’an?”

“The metaverse is flat, as you well know. I know you, don’t I?”

“Then why did you—”

“Wait!” Jiang Liu interrupted. “You’ve asked me many questions. I think it’s only fair that I ask a few. Why do you live by yourself at the mausoleum museum?”

“I’m an archaeologist. It’s my job.”

“Then how do you know about alien spaceships?”

“Because of my academic work, I’m familiar with all kinds of ancient legends and myths passed down through the ages. I simply put two and two together.”

“What sort of legends and myths?”

“The Diagram of Hetu and the Magic Square of Luoshu, Egyptian pyramids, Shang bronze technology explosion, King Wu’s righteous war on Zhou of Shang, Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum, Maya pyramids… all the evidence of extraterrestrial intervention in human affairs is right there for anyone to see.”

Jiang Liu couldn’t stifle a laugh. “As a kid, I devoured books about ancient alien space visitors, too. But I never imagined anyone would take this sort of thing seriously. Come on! You can’t have so little respect for me. Please make up a better story.”

Yun Fan sat up, her expression completely serious. “I don’t care if you don’t believe me. But if you don’t believe me, stop following me around. I’ve never lacked people who want to profess their love for me, but few would believe me.”

Jiang Liu stared at Yun Fan. Sensing the melancholy behind the words, he wiped all flippancy from his face and tried to think of something to say that would comfort her. The two other men returned just then with a few simple dishes. A collapsible table slid out from one of the walls, and the rough wall turned into a screen, showing the daily news broadcast. Apparently, this was how the middle-aged man who lived here took all his meals. The dishes were plain and common—Chang’an hulu chicken, Chinese-style omelette, braised pork, stir-fried choy sum—but the preparation and flavors were top-notch.

“I guess you really are doing all right.” Jiang Liu caressed the smooth wood of the table as he spoke to their host. “When we first came in, and I saw you… I was worried that—”

The man with the cane chuckled, looking at his own shabby clothes. “Since my son and spouse are both gone, I don’t bother dressing up anymore.”

“I have to compliment the chef,” Yun Fan said. “Our little prince here never eats anywhere without a Michelin star. But just now, you saw how quickly he finished everything and went back for another bowl of rice. I’m guessing the sun is going to rise in the west next.”

Jiang Liu gave Yun Fan a gentle kick under the table and indicated with his eyes that she should stop joking this way. Yun Fan noticed that the driver and the man with the cane looked at each other and then pretended that she hadn’t said anything. The meal continued after that in this manner, with the conversation drifting from one harmless topic to another, as though everyone around the table were relatives sharing a meal, all with an unspoken understanding to never get too personal. Yun Fan and Jiang Liu both felt a sense of unreality. They each tended to come and go as they pleased, to spend most time alone, and it had been years since they had experienced these scenes of ordinary life. It felt like they had stumbled into someone else’s life.

After dark, Wang first got into the car to lure the Jiang family plane away on a fruitless chase. The man with the cane then took Jiang Liu and Yun Fan back to the museum with his motorcycle. On the way, Jiang Liu gently put his arms around Yun Fan to keep her secure.

Earlier that day, in a secure compound about five kilometers from the mausoleum museum, a young military researcher was being summoned to the office of General Yuan, the Pacific League’s Supreme Commander of the Northwest and Central Asia Theater of Operations.

The researcher, Qi Fei, was not a military officer; instead, he was the director of a top-secret research institute operated by the military. Although he was only twenty-eight, everyone who knew him was impressed by his maturity and commanding presence. When he spoke, he was insightful and logical, authoritative and composed; when he distributed tasks and recognized contributions, he was fair and thoughtful. That was why more than a hundred researchers—including some experts far older—all supported and followed their young leader gladly. To be sure, everyone also understood that Qi Fei had the full support of his patron: General Yuan. Tall, handsome, with especially piercing eyes, Qi Fei was the sort of man that drew extra looks from women—and there were rumors that General Yuan intended him to become his son-in-law.

As soon as Qi Fei stepped through the door to the office, he noticed the overflowing ashtray on the desk: a sure sign that the general was troubled. In the seven or eight years he had known the general, he could remember only three occasions where the old man smoked so much. The general sat facing the large window, his back to the door, his view dominated by the flat expanse of the tarmac and the row of advanced fighters next to the runway. Qi Fei knew that the general had picked the office precisely because he wanted the comfort of seeing his cherished fighters anytime he wanted.


General Yuan turn around in his chair. “Ah, Xiao Fei. Please sit.”

“Something troubling you?”

“Let me start by congratulating you,” said the general. He tapped the surface of his desk to wake it up and summoned a new chart. “The intercept operation near Hawaii last night was a complete success. Our missile-defense system responded quickly to the Atlantic Alliance’s sneak attack, and although they managed to destroy one tower and part of one runway, most of the air base survived intact. A few stray bombs damaged some nearby civilian buildings, but our strike force was unharmed. Your AI work was instrumental in this success. I’ll make sure that the brass knows what you did.”

“The credit should be shared by the intelligence staff. They told us a day earlier that the Alliance was redirecting its attention to the islands.”

“Speaking of intelligence…” General Yuan sighed. “We’ve suffered multiple intelligence leaks in recent days, including three instances where hackers breached our network. We still don’t know who’s responsible.”

“It’s not the AIA?”

“No. We’re familiar with the techniques used by the AIA. Even though they disguise their tracks with quantum encryption, there are still telltale signs we can use to identify their work.”

“Then… maybe it’s from our friends near the Red Sea?”

“I don’t think so. The techniques are far more advanced than what they’ve shown themselves to be capable of so far.”

“That’s odd. General, let me look into it. I should have something for you in a week.”

“Thank you.” The general nodded appreciatively. “However, that’s not why I asked to see you today. Last week, I sent the report you gave me about the unusual signals emanating from the mausoleum up to Central Command. They took some time to analyze it, and today they gave me the order to send someone onsite to investigate immediately.”

“Why does Central Command care so much about this?”

“The signals you picked up are simply too odd. They can’t decipher it, but the persistence of the signals suggests communicative intent. The super low frequency signals also aren’t used in the communication bands of any of the major powers. Moreover, there appears to be some noise in the transmission that is of unknown origin.” The general brought up the details in the analysis to show Qi Fei. “The most important point is this: Why is the mausoleum sending signals into space? What equipment is used to generate such signals and who installed it? The mausoleum is too close to our base, and we can’t afford to have an adversary or saboteur there. You have to find the source as soon as possible.”

“As far as I know…” Qi Fei hesitated. “The area around the mausoleum is virtually uninhabited. Only a few archaeologists—”

“That is exactly why we must be extra vigilant. The darkest shadow is at the base of the lamp. I won’t feel comfortable until you investigate it thoroughly. I’m asking you to do this personally for two reasons. First, since your institute detected the signals initially, the credit should be yours. Second, the archaeologist stationed at the mausoleum is someone named Yun Fan, an old friend of yours, if I’m not mistaken. I want you to find out if she has been compromised.”

Qi Fei froze for a few seconds before he recovered. “I understand.”

“Qi Fei,” the general said, looking at him meaningfully, “I don’t think it’s helpful for me to be too direct. But I believe you have good judgment. When it’s a matter of duty versus personal loyalty, I hope you understand which you must uphold. After you complete this mission, we should also get the acknowledgment for your meritorious service last night. I’ll host a celebratory banquet for you, which may be a good opportunity to announce the wedding plans for you and Bailu. Do you approve?”

Qi Fei lowered his eyes. “I’m sure you’ve thought of the best plan, General.”

As night fell, Qi Fei stood atop the main building of the research institute and gazed silently in the direction of the mausoleum. For a long time, he didn’t move or make any noise. In the darkness, no one could see the expressions on his face, much less what was in his heart.
  1. 1 A “tea pet,” or chachong, is a small clay figurine kept by a tea lover. It’s “fed” with fresh-brewed tea (the unglazed clay absorbs some of the tea), and then changes color in response.

About The Author

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Hao Jingfang is a Chinese science fiction writer. She won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novelette for Folding Beijing, translated by Ken Liu, marking the first Hugo awarded to a Chinese woman. Hao works as a macroeconomics researcher at China Development Research Foundation, a quango organization located in Beijing, China.

Product Details

  • Publisher: S&S/Saga Press (March 12, 2024)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534422117

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Raves and Reviews

“[A] masterful narrative. Highly recommended for fans of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy or readers who enjoy sf with a focus on social and political themes.”

– Booklist, starred review

“It’s a gorgeous book, treading similar ground to The Three-Body Problem but with a jaunty, almost cheerful outlook… Jingfang melds scientific futurism with age-old mythology in the most satisfying of ways, suggesting that human history is not at all what we think and holding out the trembling hope, that maybe … just maybe … our future is one of peace.”


“Hao’s patient worldbuilding and character-driven approach lends fresh life to the familiar first contact trope. Contact fans will be thrilled." —Publisher's Weekly

“A deeply philosophical and thought-provoking story of humankind’s search for its destiny in the cosmos.” —Kirkus

“Amidst a classic space adventure, there are illuminating elements of the ways history can be corrupted by time, along with well-placed development of our heroes’ relationships.” —Library Journal

"Uniquely taking us millions of kilometers away to experience another way of life."—Cixin Liu, New York Times bestselling author of The Three-Body Problem

“A thoughtful debut with ample scope for reader engagement.” —Kirkus

"It is a novel so busy and brilliant that I can describe it only in the way the proverbial blind men might an elephant, touching one staggering detail and then another without ever quite capturing the whole. In that regard, it is characteristic of Hao’s profound, and sometimes profoundly bizarre, creative mind.”

Washington Post

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