Even in this age of datastreams flowing into oceans of information. Even with all the tools, human and programmatic, available to find, organize and analyze these datastreams, there are still mysteries. For example, what color the sunrise will be today.
8:5 Red haze… 9:2 light grey… 7:1 dark grey…
The odds for the sunrise bet scrolled across the bottom of the view looking out at the black China Sea. In top right corner insert, the announcer silently encouraged his audience to place their bets on the color of the sunrise. This was one of the most popular bets on the Macau gambling stream. Not only were the odds good, particularly if you bet early, but the color of the sunrise also gave an indication as to the weather in Beijing that day, making it of practical, as well as sporting, interest to the inhabitants of the city.
Wong Anming slid the stream out of her immediate line of sight and returned to her task. She had set out the sensor halo and was now calibrating the rest of the diagnostic instruments. There was still two hours before the mission crew arrived for their prelaunch exam, so she was not in a particular hurry. Once she was satisfied that everything was ready, she pulled the Macau gambling view back in front of her. It instantly transformed from a milky transparency to high definition vividness. Anming was not a gambler. She simply liked to watch the sunrise. In the windowless examination ward deep in the medical wing of the Space Agency building, there was no other way to be in contact with the external world.
“Doctor Wong!” a jovial voice boomed out behind her. “I knew you were Chinese after all.” Chief Medical Officer Ling Xaomin ran his hands over his head, causing his short hair to stand up even straighter than it normally did. He laughed and looked over Anming’s shoulder. “What are the odds for clear skies?”
Anming smiled slightly, but said nothing. She knew Ling was teasing her. They had done enough of these early morning exams since she started working at the Space Agency for him to know her morning ritual. She noted that Ling was in a good mood. He always was when there was a launch. He retained the excitement that she had felt the first time she had worked on a launch. It was not that she was bored of them now, it was just that the routine of the prelaunch exam had replaced the heightened sense of awareness that she had during her first mission five years ago. She could still recall the taste of the tea she’d drunk had while she waited for the crew to arrive. She also remembered how long she had thought about what design she would wear on her tunic that day, how she tried five different patterns before finally choosing a simple red-and-gold geometric design that shifted as the fabric came into contact with the heat of her body.
Ling moved to a clear place on the wall screen and placed his hand flat on it. After a moment, his workspace icon appeared under his palm. Ling lifted his hand and tapped the icon to open it. As the various windows spilled out and arranged themselves, Ling opened a number of datastreams and began examining their currents. He worked in near silence with Anming until the alarm on the door connecting the exam room to the prelaunch staging area sounded and the crew came in.
The tall, slightly bulky figure of Commander Fong Zhixuan was the first to enter, followed by the two taikonauts, Ai Songzhu and Wie Hongren. Chief Taikonaut Ai was as tall as Commander Fong, but thin, with a sharp face and the compressed lips of an intense man. Taikonaut Wie was unremarkable in appearance: average height and a face that could pass for a stereotypical Chinese male. Only his eyes were striking. They were a light golden brown and remarkably clear. The rest of the crew: controllers Zhang Han and Wu Ji and Science Officer Wong Sammie followed. Anming could tell that they were all hangtianyuan, employees of the Li Group, like her, instead of the Space Agency. It was not only the subtle Li Group emblem on the sleeves of their launch suits; it was something indefinable, yet apparent to anyone looking. They were, unquestionably, outsiders.
Ling turned and walked over to Fong. “Commander, how are you this fine morning?”
“Tired, Chief Medical Officer. I find these early mornings less and less to my liking.”
Ling laughed and joked with Fong as he guided him onto the semil-reclined examination chair and attached two body sensors. Anming activated the halo and the small swarm of microsensors rose up from the table beside the chair and hovered less than three feet above Fong’s torso. Ling made an adjustment, then nodded to Anming. She turned her attention back to the datastream in front of her where the data from the halo was being compiled and displayed. Using her fingers, she guided the swarm over the length of Fong’s body. Once the halo had completed its pass, she guided the swarm back to the table.
“We’re finished, Commander Fong,” she said. The commander got up and followed Ling over to another part of the room for the rest of the examination. Anming asked Chief Taikonaut Ai to sit in the chair while she prepared the halo.
She was just beginning to scan the crew’s datastreams while Ling finished his last examination, when the door to rest of the Agency offices opened and a short, nervous figure with a slight limp hesitantly stepped into the room.
“Gau Weide, what brings you down here?” Ling asked with some surprise, “Is there a problem? We’re rarely graced with your presence here.”
The head of the launch team shook his head, but his face betrayed concern. Despite his position, he seemed nervous, simply standing there for a moment, not looking at anyone. Then, as if summoning up courage, straightened up to his full height and, trying his best to mask his limp, walked toward the crew, who were sitting by Ling.
“Excuse my intrusion, Chief Medical Officer. We have a change of mission plan and it was felt that I should come down and brief the crew face-to-face.”
“What sort of change?” Commander Fong growled suspiciously.
In the face of the commander’s annoyance, Gau Weide became even more nervous. Looking at a point above the crew, the head of the launch team said, “Over the last two days, we have collected some unusual data from a plateau to the west of the original exploration area. Upon further analysis, the data seems to indicate a new, and potentially rich, source of Helium-3.”
“Where is this new area?” Ai asked. A murmur went up from the crew when Gau told them where it was.
“That area was explored by sensor drones two years ago,” Commander Fong said, his eyes narrowing as he leaned toward Gau. “If I remember, there were no significant deposits of H-3. The amount that could have been extracted wouldn’t have even fuelled the trip back to Earth. How is it possible that there’s now a significant amount of H-3?”
Gau Weide shuffled his feet and looked at the floor. “We haven’t been able to determine that. But both the data scanners and the data miner has confirmed that the data we have is valid and indicates that there is a high level of H-3 in the area.” He paused and looked up apologetically. “While I’m personally not in favor of changing a mission plan at so late a date, it was decided that the potential field is so rich, it’s necessary to obtain more precise data and do a test extraction.”
“Well, who the hell made the decision then? Don’t they realize the risks that come from changing a mission like this? We haven’t prepared for this and all our calculations have been based on the original mission,” Ai snapped. Commander Fong gave him a sharp look. The chief taikonaut glared back but did not say anything more.
“It isn’t important, Chief Taikonaut,” Gau replied sharply, “The plans have changed. Head Controller Song will brief you further once you are settled for pre-flight. The mission controllers have been working since yesterday evening to recalculate the perimeters for the mission. As we speak, additional oxygen is being loaded onto the lander to cover the changed requirements.” Turning to the two controllers, Zhang Han and Wu Ji, Gau Weide continued, “We’ve notified Zho Chenmai of the change in assignments for you and he has agreed. The Li Group has given its support…” The sentence trailed off as he saw the obvious displeasure on the two controllers’ faces. The relationship between the hangtianyuan, Li Group employees, and full Space Agency personnel had become strained recently, as Gau was acutely aware. The lingering mistrust and resentment of the Grand Schism had just barely been contained by the power-sharing between the government and the various factions that had transformed into the corporations. Despite the success of the moon missions in bringing back H-3 to fuel the expansion of Chinese data centers, Gau saw every day the growing restlessness of the hangtianyuan and the resulting distrust of the Agency managers. Cursing the fact that he’d been given this task, Gau wanted nothing more than to get out of the medical facility and back to the relative calm of the control room as quickly as possible. He dismissed the crew with an abrupt, “Have a good mission,” turned and hurried out the door he’d come in.
Before any conversation could start, Commander Fong turned to face the crew. “We have our orders. There’s nothing more to say.” He turned to Ling, “Have you completed your exams, Chief Medical Officer?”
“Very well,” Fong picked up his bag. “Get your gear. We still have pre-flight to do and I want everyone’s attention.” He looked specifically at Zhang Han, then headed out the door to the transporter.
Once the crew had left, Ling Xaomin leaned back against one of the exam tables and laughed. “That was fun, wasn’t it, Wong?”
Anming looked at Ling and realized he was not serious. “Have they ever changed a mission plan at the last minute like this before?” she asked.
Ling shook his head. “Not as far as I know. That data must be very compelling if the director got involved.”
“How do you know the director was involved?”
“Who else could have overruled Gau Weide on the mission plan?” Ling Xaomin laughed. “It had to be the director. The fact that Gau didn’t want to say proves it. He didn’t want to admit that Director Guo interfered in his mission.”
Anming had a nagging worry she could not identify. Walking over to the screen to where the crew’s live datastreams were displayed, she looked over them without really knowing what she was looking for.
“Dr. Wong, would you care to join us in the medical lab for the rest of the prelaunch?” Ling Xaomin inquired with sarcastic courtesy. With a start, she realized she had been standing there for a long time. Quickly closing down her workspace, she followed Ling out the door.
The rest of the day went by in a blur of launch activity. The two doctors monitored the crew’s datastreams as they were transported to the launch site, in between their usual work. By the end of the day, the crew had arrived and were preparing for the launch the next morning.
After Ling and Anming briefed the night crew, they left the Space Agency and headed for the nearby tram stop. The clouds hung low over the city, which meant the air was heavy with particulates. Both of them stopped as they exited the building to pull the hoods of their mantles up and attach their masks. Even with the protection, Anming could taste the harsh tang in the back of her throat from the pollution that continued to linger across the city, decades after the last gasoline engine stopped running. Almost running, they made it to the transport station and crammed inside the waiting room with the rest of the people. Somewhat protected from the air outside, Ling unhooked his mask and rubbed his face. “At least it’s not hot too,” he chuckled. Anming did not say anything, just wiped her brow and watched Ling.
As they waited, Ling regaled Anming with stories about his father and uncle. Some she had heard before over the years that they had worked together, others were new. It was odd, she thought, this continual flow of stories. Normally, Ling Xaomin was not so open. He was usually friendly and joking, but this felt different somehow.
She had changed the rhythm of her breathing, slowing it down in order to be more attentive to the overall energy that Ling Xaomin emanated. Doing so, she was struck by two things almost simultaneously. The first was that Ling Xaomin was attracted to her; something that she had never thought about before. The second was that she was using a technique that her uncle had taught her when she was still attending a Five Truths academy; a technique that she had not used for about twelve years or so. Ling stopped speaking in mid-sentence and looked at Anming. “What happened, Wong? I didn’t think what I was saying was that shocking.”
She shook her head and tried to smile. “No. Sorry, I got lost in my thoughts.”
“What is up with you? That’s at least the second time today you have drifted into the clouds. Is something wrong?”
She sensed the concern in Ling’s voice. “Nothing,” she said blandly. “It just came to me that I haven’t spoken with my uncle for a long time.”
“Oh,” Ling replied. “I guess he doesn’t live with you.”
“No,” she said. “He lives in north Beijing.” She hesitated, not sure she wanted to continue talking about him.
“Which uncle is it? I remember from your profile you had a few in Beijing.”
Anming looked up at the screen attached to the side of building next door. It was showcasing the latest design downloads from one of the big Vietnamese studios. The theme for this version was jungles and Anming got lost for a moment in the explosion of greens and oranges.
“Hey, Wong! Wake up.”
She turned with a start to see Ling looking at her a little crossly.
“Sorry. He’s my father’s brother. He’s head of a Five Truths temple and was my tutor when I was attended the academy.”
“What happened?” Ling asked. “Why don’t you speak to him anymore?”
Anming shrugged. “I went to Medical Academy and got busy training to become a doctor.” She paused. “We just drifted apart. He wasn’t close to my dad, so once I started studying medicine, I didn’t have much chance to see him.”
Ling laughed, “I wish my father wasn’t so close to his brother; then I would only have to deal with one of them telling me I need to settle down and get a life.”
“A wife?” Anming asked, somewhat startled.
“Well, that too. Go home, Wong, and come back to work more attentive tomorrow.” Ling scolded her as he moved off toward his tram.
As she pushed her way onto the second tram she had to take to get home, Anming was still trying, unsuccessfully, not to think about her uncle. She looked down and there was a young man seated in front of her. He was watching something on his tablet, having partially unfolded it across his lap. The design pattern on his tunic, visible through the opening of his mantle, was typical of a junior data scanner for one of the big trading houses. She almost looked away when a symbol on the collar of his mantle, near where the pollution mask was attached, caught her attention. It was a stylized representation of a figure leaning forward with a staff on a long, slightly ascending line. She recognized it as one of the symbols of devotees to the Long Path.
The man looked up and noticed Anming staring at him. He smiled and waved, indicating he wanted to talk. Anming touched the control for her ear bud, turning off the noise dampener so she could hear him clearly.
“Evening sister,” he said in a thick southern accent. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“No,” Anming said, “I was looking at your badge.” She touched her collar, so he knew what she was referring to.
He reached up and stroked his collar with pride. “Yes, I have devoted myself to the Long Path.”
Anming said, “I didn’t know that devotees worked in trading houses. Don’t you usually do something less demanding?”
“I’ve just convinced my parents to let me start on the Path. I still have a few months on my contract.” He paused and looked at her carefully. “Are you a follower?”
Anming shook her head. “No, I was raised in the Five Truths Movement.”
“And now?” He looked at her expectantly.
“And now,” Anming said. “And now I work as a doctor for the Space Agency.”
“Do you still practice the Truths?” he asked.
She was getting upset at the questions. “Some,” she lied, trying to end the conversation. She had not done any of the practices she had been taught, or even meditated, since the first year of Academy. At first, she had told herself that she was too busy; then, once the habit was broken, she simply forgot about them. Until now.
“‘The Path is long and there are many stations along the way’,” he quoted. “Why not start again?”
Anming looked up at the route map. There was less than a minute to the next stop.
“This is my stop,” she said, reactivating her damper as she wiggled around and pushed her way toward the exit. She did not hear the young man wish her a good voyage.
She had no idea where she had gotten off. She just needed to get away from the Long Path devotee and his infernal questions. They were forcing her to see the part of herself that desperately wanted something else. She could not admit what it was, so she tried thinking about Ling Xaomin. She tried thinking about the crew, but she kept coming back to one image: a room, empty except for two cushions and a low table on which rested a burning pot of incense. On one of the cushions, a middle-aged man sat on his knees. He wore a loose-fitting tunic and solid-colored pants without any pattern. They were; however, eye-catching because of their rich, golden-yellow color. The man had a peaceful, kindly face that made him more attractive than his actual physical features. Anming remembered his smile and the warmth that it radiated. As she stood there, waiting for the next tram, she startled the people standing around her by beginning to cry.