Li Tsai stood beside the groundship and studied the ruins of the ancient city. She’d learned in school that the inhabitants of that unhappy place called it Denver, in honor of some forgotten politician. Today those people were naught but dust and troubled memories, she thought, shifting her glance towards the new city standing alongside the bones of the old: Deng Xiaoping, city of the people.
It was a fitting name. Deng Xiaoping was home to the largest undertaking in the history of man, one which would free humankind forever. Li Tsai thought the city’s long-dead namesake would be proud.
“Li, come,” called Fang Shen. “Chiang waits.”
She scowled, ignoring him, and turned instead to view her child, for that’s how she’d begun to consider it. The official name was Shenzhen United Development Project 54. The people simply called it SUD54, or sometimes just the Stairway. Li Tsai cared naught for their names. She’d worked thirty-seven years to get there: SUD54 was hers.
She knew she must be careful. Her possessiveness was traitorous, if not outright dangerous. If Elder Chiang perceived her thoughts, he’d boot her down to material handler grade, or worse. “No, Li,” he would tell her. “SUD54 belongs to the people. To think otherwise is arrogance.”
“Please, Li,” insisted Fang. “We’ll be late for the review.”
And yet, staring at it now, she knew that the family of distant buildings, the dark spire in the center—massive even from this distance—was the only progeny she would ever create. She would gladly give her life to see it finished. Glaring darkly at Feng, she entered the groundcar, hoping she wouldn’t have to.
Project 54 was scheduled to go online in three months and eight days. The Stairway would open, and five months later Earth’s first interstellar spacecraft would pass the orbit of Mars, traveling at nearly one-half light speed towards Alpha Centauri C.
Li Tsai planned to be on that ship.
While Fang Shen drove, Li Tsai gazed lovingly at the complex. Though still hundreds of kilometers away, the circular ring of buildings surrounding the Stairway obscured a wide swath of the horizon. The cluster of towers at its center rose high into the clouds; in the middle stood the main spire, its top caressing the stars.
The afternoon light sparkled on the buildings’ metallic sides, giving them a greenish hue against the dark and distant background of the mountains. “Emerald City,” she mused.
“Hmm?” Fang Shen brooded over the upcoming inspection by Elder Chiang.
“Never mind,” she laughed. “Just something from an old movie.”
Fang rolled his eyes. “You and your antiques. You’d do better to attend some social gatherings in your spare time, Li. Perhaps you would find a mate.”
She ignored the jibe—she’d had one mate too many, and Fang knew it. Dark clouds began to form on the horizon, piling up over the housing complexes crouched at the edge of the city, “Funny,” she said. “The forecasters never mentioned a storm today.”
“They can’t control everything,” he replied. Fang bit at his fingernail. “What will Elder Chiang say about the man?”
“We agreed you will not tell him,” she snapped. “Just keep your mouth shut for once. They don’t have to know everything.” She gripped his arm. “Please, Fang. You must not.”
Five minutes later they pulled up before the entrance to the main administration center. Elder Chiang’s aide stood waiting, a peevish look on her face. “You’re late,” she said. “Come.”
With a low hum the lift carried them to the fiftieth floor. Chiang’s headquarters. The man spent three days of each month here yet warranted his own level? No matter, thought Li Tsai—SUD54 had plenty of room, sufficient even for ego-bloated bureaucrats.
Hundreds of meters across at its widest point, the main complex of buildings towered eight-thousand meters over the plains, rivaling planet Earth’s tallest mountains. Above that, the center spire with its graphene fiber shafts rose three-hundred kilometers further, tall enough to scrape low-earth orbit.
As a young girl Li Tsai conceived a desire to construct a weapon, just as the boys in her school would sometimes do, using them to wage faux war against one another in the hills beyond the city. She broke a cherry branch from one of her grandmother’s trees and stole a short length of fabric to make a slingshot. She grew quite skilled, enough so that she could strike a bull’s-eye at twenty paces, until the day Li Tsai aimed at a robin and killed it. She threw the sling in the river, vowing never to build another.
Yet Li Tsai broke that promise. The launch system housed in the center spire of SUD54 was the greatest slingshot ever constructed, one that would send her and thousands of her people to a nearby star. Being on that ship would be her reward for a lifetime of struggle, of devotion to nothing but the project.
Chiang’s aide deposited them in the anteroom to Elder Chiang’s part-time residence. Fang Shen refused to sit, pacing the small space as he grew increasingly nervous. “Why does he make us wait?”
“Because he can,” said Li, raising a crooked eyebrow.
The door finally opened and Chiang himself motioned them inside, greeted them warmly. “Fang, Li. Please join me.”
“Greetings Elder,” they said in unison. Like parrots, thought Li, seating themselves in comfortable chairs across from the old man.
The window behind him covered an entire wall, providing a glorious view to the east. Below them sprawled immense fields and housing tracts for the millions who tended the Stairway, a neat silver and green checkerboard crisscrossed by a precision network of high-speed rails. And there in the center stood the central spire; massive pylons rigged with molecular-carbon filament marched round its base, an elaborate web securely anchored the Stairway to the surrounding structures, the valley floor.
Li Tsai knew that no wind would topple nor earthly force dislodge its granite grip, and became abruptly and fiercely proud of all she had accomplished.
Chiang poured tea. “I have welcome news for you,” he said. “The review has been cancelled.”
Li Tsai glanced nervously at Fang. “But why?” she said at last.
Elder Chiang beamed. “It’s a waste of time, really. I have full confidence in both of you. Indeed, the entire council does. It’s clear the Stairway will be completed on time,” he said, using the common name for SUD54.
“Thank you, sir.” Li’s breast filled with foreboding. She glanced quickly at Fang, watching in alarm as he set down his tea with a clatter and rose to his feet.
“What is wrong, Fang?” said the Elder.
The young engineer raised his hands, avoiding Li’s sudden glare. “I…what is next for us, Elder? For humanity? Surely this is good news, none would deny it, but it seems that nothing will stop us now.”
“That’s because nothing can, Fang. Mankind will finally escape the solar system. From this place, we will launch our ships into space as easily as one tosses a ball in that primitive game—what did they call it? Bay ball, bail ball?
“Baseball, Elder Chiang,” said Li Tsai.
“Ah, yes. Baseball. We will be like the man on the…pitcher’s mound.”
“But I am afraid, Elder,” said Fang. “Afraid that we will be stopped.”
“How so? Please share your thoughts with us, Fang Shen.”
“When I was a small boy, my great grandfather told me stories. At one time the people of earth fought one against the other, he said. There was constant strife. We had different colored skins, and spoke different languages. Those people actually prayed to supernatural beings, and fought over whose was the correct god.”
“Yes, Fang,” Chiang smiled. “Your grandfather was correct. I, too, am a student of history.”
He is in a particularly tolerant mood today, thought Li.
Fang pointed toward the ruins on the horizon. “What of them? The people who once lived here believed in those gods. What if they were right?”
Chiang laughed. “Ah, you speak of the Baptists. Where is the problem, Fang? Bridget McCain was executed in Red Square at the end of the Last War. Afterward, our people hunted down her followers one by one in the Great Cleansing. Religion has been dead for five-hundred years, Fang, and good riddance I say.” He made an impatient gesture towards the window. “Look at all we’ve accomplished without it.”
Fang hesitated, dismayed at his inability to stop himself before Chiang. “Do you know the rest of the legend? About an ancient tower the people once built?”
Li gripped Fang’s arm, warning him. Beneath the placid face, she could see that the Elder was judging Fang, would perhaps destroy him for this impetuousness.
“Please continue, Fang,” he smiled. “I love bedtime stories.”
Gripping his elbows as though to contain himself, Fang walked to the window. “Long before the great wars, the people of earth came together, united in peace, all speaking one language,” he recited. “They built a tower of grass and clay that reached to the heavens. And one day their god came down to see what they were doing. God grew afraid that humankind would become unstoppable, so he toppled the tower, thus destroying it. And to make certain they would never build another, he scattered the people, twisting their minds such that they no longer understood each other.”
Li Tsai could contain herself no longer. Leaping to her feet, she rushed to Fang and pulled at his shoulder, spinning him around. “Why are you talking this way?” she raged in her comrade’s face. “You will ruin everything!”
Fang Shen looked down at her dangerously. “Tell him. You must.”
Li Tsai took a deep breath and turned to face the Elder. “Last month we were on the far side of the valley, taking readings,” she said. “As I checked the instruments, Fang stood at the ridge, inspecting the Stairway from across the plain. He says a man came to him there, and told him we must stop our activities. ‘Dissuade your people from this folly’ the man said.”
Elder Chiang gaped. “And what did you see, Li Tsai?”
“I saw nothing.”
“What is the meaning of this?” demanded the Elder. “Have you lost your mind, Fang?”
Li Tsai raised a hand, stopping them both. “It does not matter what he saw. This tower will be completed per schedule. We will leave for the stars.” She turned to point a rigid finger at her peer. “Explain that to your imaginary man, Fang Shen.”
Chiang’s aide interrupted any further discussion. She flung the door open and ran to the Elder. “Come, sir. We must go.” But before he could respond, a deep rumble shook the tower. The sound of klaxons reached them from far below.
With a terrible whooshing roar, the window split down the middle. Fang was drawn through the gap. Li Tsai caught herself on the threshold and watched as he fell, his body spinning and tumbling until it was gone. Far below her, the people fled, scattering across the plain like ants before a giant’s footstep.
Storm clouds swirled overhead in a dark cyclone. Lightning flashed, and a roiling arc of light descended from the heavens, reaching toward the summit of SUD54. Li Tsai stared in disbelief as the hand of Bridget McCain’s god drew closer.
Someone gripped her shoulder and she turned. It was Elder Chiang, shouting in a language she had never heard before. Beneath her feet, the tower trembled. Li Tsai raised her head and began to howl.
Banner Image: tower of Babel. Pieter Brueghel the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons