Aphelion Issue 291, Volume 28
February 2024
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China Express

by George Schaade

The streets of Shanghai were packed with people. Shoulder to shoulder but never seeming to touch, tens of thousands of Chinese flowed between the tall buildings like the Yangtze during flood season. They unhurriedly moved past each other in every direction, while the low rumble of a multitude of voices hung like a fog over the crowd.

In this mass of Asians, bobbing like a cork on an ocean, was a lone westerner, Jack Conway. With a Chinese soldier on each of his arms, Jack was guided through the mass of humanity. The Asian faces that flowed past him gave only a glance, although Jack was probably the first Caucasian they had ever seen. They showed no surprise or wonderment because they saw the soldiers with Jack and to question or impede government officials would have been met with severe punishment.

Jack was the one with a look of surprise. Five years earlier he had been escorted by soldiers down this same street; that time no one was in Shanghai. That time the city that normally contained millions of people was deserted. The scene then was a stark contrast to what he was seeing now.

As they approached an intersection, Jack looked down the cross street. In the distance he could see one of Shanghai's landmarks, the Oriental Pearl Tower. At almost five hundred meters high it had dominated the city's skyline for over eighty years. Eleven metallic spheres in its center gave the impression of a string of pearls dropping from the sky. Jack was taken aback by its ancient beauty until he noticed the damper antenna sitting on top.

Jack slipped his hand into his coat pocket and gently touched his computer. A pang of concern hit him. He was disconnected from the Global Net and he missed it immensely. No news feeds, no streaming videos, no IMs or TMs, no calls to friends or work, no conferencing, no audio samples, no referencing data, nothing...nothing at all.

The soldiers tugged at Jack, threaded him through the crowd and plowed down a side street. Soon he recognized the surrounding buildings from his first visit. It was Shanghai's Lujiazui financial district. Jack was quickly guided up some concrete stairs and into Train Station 1.

Contrary to the teeming street outside, the inside of the train depot was inordinately empty. The cavernous lobby echoed loudly as the heels of the soldiers met the tiles of the floor. After climbing a wide marble stairway, the soldiers directed Jack down a long hall. There at the end of the concourse sat an old mag train. Its silver patina had long ago worn to a dull metallic grey while the windows in the cars shown the blur from scratches and scuffs. Jack could just make out the bee-like hum of the magnetic propulsion system.

A very serious looking man in a dark blue suit was standing on the loading platform. He gave a mild nod then spread his arm to direct Jack onto the train. Jack was familiar with this part of his trip. On his first junket to China he had ridden the mag train through the Dead Zone to meet Chairman Huang. It certainly wasn't a pleasant experience for Jack, but this time he knew what to expect.

Inside the train car Jack saw row after row of seats. All of them were quite worn and some were even patched, but they were all quite clean. Scattered around in the seats were three people. Jack did a quick assessment of them before he sat down. The elderly gentleman in the back was Japanese, the middle-aged woman in the middle was possibly Latin, and the man sitting across from her was perhaps her Chinese translator. After a glance at Jack they all averted their eyes and said nothing. Jack plopped down in the first seat in the front, but it seemed a bit wobbly so he moved to the window seat. He had his back to the others in the car and that suited Jack just fine. He needed to do some thinking.

The man in the blue suit came into the train car and was immediately followed by a clone in another blue suit. They just stood there as if guarding the car.

Jack saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Through the window he could see that the mag train was beginning to move. It was slow and rough at first but by the time the train left the city it had switched to its mag drive and was picking up speed. Jack jammed his hand in his pocket and switched on his computer. The Shanghai damper would be blocking out the GNet for at least another hour but it gave Jack some comfort to know that he would soon be reconnected.

Jack leaned back, closed his eyes, and tried to remember his first trip to China. For a young diplomat that had been unnerving but also fascinating. China had become the biggest enigma on the planet. Fifty years earlier China had isolated itself from the rest of the world. The government had unexpectedly expelled all foreign businesses and peoples. The borders were closed and even diplomatic missions were severely restricted. It was a mystery why a major player in world affairs would suddenly withdraw. Some believed it was the country's sharp disapproval of global networking that had come a few years earlier. Others pointed to a second cultural revolution that was taking place in China at the time. Whatever the case, Jack didn't get to see much of China on his initial visit and so far the mag train was one of the few familiar sights.

A slight buzz from Jack's earbud announced that his computer was now working. Jack pulled the computer from his pocket and stared at the screen. In a few more seconds it had connected to the GNet. Jack knew he didn't have time to check A/V messages. There'd only be a couple of minutes between the Shanghai damper and the start of the Dead Zone. His fingers danced over the controls. Eleven TMs, none of them urgent; four IMs, not from his boss; his personal financial report kept wanting to interrupt, he'd have to fix that. Jack resisted the urge to clear up the backlog and scan the news services. He quickly sent a TM to his boss, the Union's Minister of Foreign Affairs, explaining that he was on the train and about to meet Chairman Huang.

Jack had just sent the TM and was trying to squeeze in an audio call to his wife, when he heard static from his earbud. He cancelled the call and pulled up the radioactivity program he'd recently loaded. The radiation dose was definitely rising. Jack was entering the Dead Zone.

Because of his first trip Jack knew what to expect. He leaned slightly away from the train's window and braced himself. Sure enough moments later the train car shook with a jarring bang as heavy metal plates dropped over the windows. The Latin woman sitting behind Jack let out a startled shout. He understood her surprise, but it was all very necessary to get through the highly radioactive Dead Zone.

A few years after China withdrew from the rest of the world, it was hit by a devastating disaster. The Quinshan 6 nuclear power plant was rocked by a huge explosion and a meltdown. The Union along with most of the independent nations of the world immediately offered aid and relief, but China refused. It's estimated that three hundred thousand died from the catastrophe and its aftermath. The bits and pieces of information that leaked out of China indicated that the government was completely overwhelmed. To the rest of the world China never recovered and even began to regress. The mag train track survived the cataclysm though it passed through a highly radioactive area, now known as the Dead Zone.

Jack was no longer linked to the GNet but the radiation wasn't interfering with his computer. Only a damper could do that. He scanned his messages and saved appropriate responses, including an audio message for his wife. When he connected with the GNet on the way back he would send them off. Until he exited the Dead Zone and entered the capital's damper range, Jack carefully reviewed his mission report from five years ago.

Upon arrival in Beijing Jack discovered that the capital was just as crowded as Shanghai had been. One of the blue suits and a soldier from the train station escorted Jack through the multitude to the chairman's residence. Once there Jack barely had time to catch his breath when he was ushered into Chairman Huang's office.

"Director Conway, so good of you to arrive in our country on short notice," said the chairman in broken English. "Please excuse my English. I have little time to practice." Huang bowed respectfully then politely shook Jack's hand. The chairman then led him to a leather chair in front of the desk.

Jack replied in Mandarin Chinese, "Chairman, your English is quite good, but perhaps you would feel more comfortable using your native tongue."

"Ah, thank you," responded Huang. He sat in the adjoining chair and looked Jack squarely in the eye. "Can I offer you some coffee or tea?"

"No thank you," Jack replied. He kept his expression neutral, remembering too late that Asian etiquette required him to accept an offer of hospitality. He waited for the chairman to ask again...and waited...

There was an uncomfortable pause, then the chairman said, "I'm very sorry, but I must dispense with the customary formalities. Things are moving very quickly now. But I do appreciate you coming."

"Well, Chairman, it's most unusual to receive an invitation from the People's Republic. I can only assume it's something of great importance."

Huang shifted in his chair. "Yes, it is very important. Do you know of Dr. Jiangang Li?"

Jack's eyes sparked. "Of course. One of my majors at college was physics. As I remember Dr. Li was working on some very intriguing ideas about time."

"Dr. Li made some amazing discoveries that will soon affect everyone on this planet."

Jack was surprised. "How's that?"

"Mr. Conway, what I'm about to tell you will seem outlandish or even insane, but I assure you that it's all true." Huang stood and began to pace the room. "The isolation that my predecessor began was initiated because of Dr. Li's theories. Those theories explained properties of the fourth dimension that hadn't been known before."

"Wait. Dr. Li believed that time is the fourth dimension. What unknown properties are you talking about?"

The chairman thought for a second. "I do not have the understanding of physics that could properly describe Dr. Li's ideas, so let me explain it to you the way it was told to me.

"As you say, time is the fourth dimension, but we live in a three dimensional world. What humans know as time is simply one property of the fourth dimension. In the same way that a two dimensional being would see a square when looking at a three dimensional box, a three dimensional person sees only one aspect of fourth dimensional time."

"I follow you," said Jack, "so Dr. Li discovered the other aspects of time."

"Yes, but he also learned a way to manipulate these other properties. It would be as if the two dimensional being not only learned of the true nature of the box but also found a way to turn the box, change the size of the box, and fill the box with other boxes."

"Quite extraordinary."

"Indeed," said Huang, "but there was a price to pay for controlling the powers of the fourth dimension. The Quinshan 6 explosion was an accident that came from Dr. Li's experiments into understanding time. Many lives were lost, a large productive area of land was devastated, but the experiment was a success."

Jack was stunned. He wanted to ask questions but couldn't find the words.

"In the following years all of the country's resources and manpower were dedicated to Dr. Li's management of time properties. In the end we controlled time. It was a tremendous sacrifice but no other country or coalition in the world could have done it."

Jack finally managed to ask, "Control time? What can you do?"

"Ah, you've already seen it," replied Huang. "The dampers block the GNet and disrupt computer operations by disrupting the time sequencing on specific wavelengths and devices. The -- handshake between devices can never succeed. And the signals within a chip fall out of synchronization... "

"I'm sorry, Chairman. I don't understand."

"It's all right. I don't either," whispered Huang. "But this is what my scientists tell me."

Jack leaned back in his chair. "This is all very confusing," then added, "but the most confusing thing is why are you telling me all of this? Do you want to sell this technology? There's some independents in the Middle East that I'm sure would love to have those dampers."

Chairman Huang sat down. "I'm talking to you because you represent the largest consortium of countries in the world. The Union has become quite powerful and productive. We'd like the Union to take charge of China after we're gone."

"Gone?" questioned Jack. "Who?"

"The Chinese people," answered Huang. "We're all leaving Earth and going to another planet."

Jack stared into the chairman's eyes wondering if any of what he had just heard was true. He couldn't decide whether to patronize this madman or to educe information from him.

Huang laughed aloud and broke the tension.

"You must think I'm insane," said Huang. "I promise you I'm not. Again let me explain it as it was told to me."

Moving to the edge of his chair, Jack prepared himself for anything.

The chairman leaned back and folded his hands in his lap. "Professor Einstein correctly linked time and space in his special theory. One cannot move from Point A to Point B without the aid of time. Dr. Li found that by using one of the hidden principles of the fourth dimension you can travel between the points and eliminate the time. He solved mankind's greatest obstacle to space travel.

"When you were last here there was no one in the cities. That's because everyone was in the countryside learning basic farming and survival skills. They learned crafts such as weaving, pottery, metallurgy, and carpentry. Things the GNet generation can only research and report on. Now all my people have crowded into the cities ready to leave. In three days, Mr. Conway, the dampers will change their function and transport all within range instantly to a new planet. And I might add, that was no easy feat in itself. It took us decades just to find the right planet."

Jack wasn't sure what was true at this point, but his diplomatic skills kicked in.

"What can the Union do to assist you, Chairman?"

"When you leave I'll give you a document that briefly explains what we've discussed here. It will also give legal authority to the Union to rule China as a mandate. We estimate a few hundred thousand of our people will miss their transportation point. As you know not all regions in China are covered by dampers. We see these people left behind as the heirs to our country, but we also understand that they will not be qualified to govern. We hope that the Union will govern for them until they or their ancestors are ready to take control."

"Once you're gone, that's it? No coming back?"

"We've designed the departure to be that way," the chairman replied.

"Then I give you my word, Chairman, the Union will do everything necessary to maintain the integrity and honor of your country."

"Thank you, Mr. Conway. Now if you'll follow me I'll get those papers for you."

They began to walk toward the office door, when Jack stopped cold and confronted Huang, "Is this really going to happen?"

The chairman smiled. "In three days."


The Union was of course quite skeptical, but its leaders decided to play it safe and prepare for the worst. Ships, planes, and helicopters loaded with food, water, and medical supplies stood ready in neighboring countries. And on the third day the world held its breath.

When the word was given to move in, Jack Conway was in the first helicopter to land in Shanghai. As he emerged from the helicopter, Jack looked around. There was no one in sight, his computer was working fine, and he was still online. He walked around a building until the Oriental Pearl Tower was in sight. The damper that had been on top was gone.

His computer buzzed. Reports were now coming in from other detachments. The same was true in every city. No people. No dampers. Jack stood on the sidewalk beside a small Shanghai park, finally believing all that the chairman had said.

An urgent message on his computer caught Jack's eye. He opened it and saw that it was a delayed message written by Chairman Huang two days ago.

Director Conway, as you can see all has gone as planned. You and the Union will do an excellent job of administering the former People's Republic of China.

There is one question that you didn't ask in our meeting. Why? You and the rest of the world might assume that we left because of cultural differences or aversion to your advanced technology. The answer is that we had to leave. After Dr. Li confirmed the powers of the fourth dimension, we had no choice. We had opened Pandora's box and there was no way to put things back.

Mr. Conway, if you look behind you right now you will see a gold crested bird sitting on a yellow post."

Jack stopped reading and turned. Sure enough the park was bounded by yellow metal posts and on one was a grayish bird with a gold crested head. Jack's stare was frozen on the bird as it dropped to the ground, picked up a bit of blue string, then flew off into the park. Jack swallowed hard and resumed reading Huang's message.

The bird will grab a strand of blue twine and fly away.

An eerie chill raced through Jack. He had that strange feeling that someone was looking over his shoulder, but there was no one there. He was so frightened that he hesitated to read any more. But after a few deep breaths he did.

As you can see, Mr. Conway, one of the properties of the fourth dimension is foreknowledge. But knowing the future can be a very dangerous power and manipulating time can lead to planetary disaster. Luckily foreknowledge is tempered by free will. When we unleashed the hidden powers of time, we created a future for this planet that would culminate in total destruction.

The only way to counterbalance such a future was to take the extreme measure of removing two billion people from the face of the Earth and taking the knowledge of the fourth dimension with us. That is why we left. Your future once again belongs to you. Be very careful with it.

"Chairman Huang, The New People's Republic of China."


© 2011 George Schaade

Bio: George Schaade is a history teacher who enjoys writing SF short stories and novels in the backwoods of East Texas. His story "Tough Negotiator" appears in the September edition of Anotherealm.

E-mail: George Schaade

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George Schaade