The scaffolding construction machines were mostly automated, but they still had two technicians on board, and there were hideous rumours of the express risers breaking loose from the mooring. They were made with redundant power supplies and oxygen reservoirs, but in these whispers, the backups merely prolonged the inevitable as the wayward riser became either a satellite or a meteor. The latter promised a quick end and dissolution, the former a truly unlucky fate for those working at the peak of the elevator. Jian Xu had been told there were audio recordings, distress signals growing fainter and fainter.
Jian heard the dull rattle of his respirator unit as he stared at his own reflection in the pebbled weave, watching his breath fog up his face mask. The winding electronic music followed a flute melody. The channels were supposed to remain clear, but the supervisors tolerated some tunes on shift, figuring it was good for focus and morale. A whole genre had sprung up in the program, everything from sleep songs to running rhythms. His sleek suit was warm and much much better than the ones he had trained in, but the outtake and filtration weren’t good enough to clear his own mask when the battery began to run low.
Failures were common up in the cold hard vacuum, and when a welder ran out of oxygen, they desperately clawed at their throat, while their welding partner could only look on. The helpless partner could dash for emergency supplies or draw the tether reel in, but if fate couldn’t be averted, the stillness spoke for itself. Sometimes, the weight of a casual calamity would drive the witness to vomit in their own mask. That took a full return down to the surface to Central Space to report the death of his comrade, both for the paperwork and the long hot shower needed to take to wash the feeling of death off his body.
He sometimes cried, letting the water bead down on his shaved head. It wasn’t good to cry outside of the narrow shower cubicle. Crying outside your shower was noted down even if it was in your cramped bunk where you collapsed after a sixteen-hour shift. The facts appeared in your quarterly self-criticism sessions. It could be bad for morale in the dorms, where there was one bed for every 宇航员 that was stationed in the quadrant, to hear your comrades crying for home. Accidents were frequent as safety was sacrificed for speed, individuals to the greater good. Jian often felt numb laying flat on his back, looking at the wood supporting the bed above him, wondering if his friends lost to the vacuum were looking down as he gazed up.
The monument he was slowly piecing together with forty thousand other amateur astronauts was made of the most interweaving carbon nanotube ever made, with the strands bonding together at levels that were hard to believe even when viewed under a microscope. It was frequently regarded by Jian as a masterpiece, one of the great feats of engineering the 21st century would see, the first space elevator. The pigheaded Yanks were following far behind, with capitalist corruption, secessionist uprisings, and budget problems facing them at every corner on their inferior imitation in Tejas. An isolated declining country, the United States of America
was faced with collapsing allies and a stagnating economy. The Great People’s Republic was undisputedly the master of “The Second Great Race to the Sky”, as the curving 3D TVs in the lounge would call it.
Jian and his friends from base camp, on the few days off they were allocated, would drink on the base bar, cheer their bright future, and fuck the state-sanctioned whores. His old friends, and a treasured secret lover from his college years, were distant memories. He rarely reflected on them, afraid that they’d fade like photographs exposed to the sun. The chemistry diploma he had been working on before the draft, on the other hand, was clear in his mind. Being selected to work on the elevator was a great honour, a true privilege. His family back home in Shunzao no longer had to struggle in the grain mill, his salary more than enough to support his parents and sister. When he had returned home on ground leave, an endless parade of cousins and uncles had shaken his hand and congratulated him on bringing pride to his dynasty. His grandfather, a proud veteran of the Civil War of Direction, the hardened old man who had taught him discipline and respect, had proud tears in his eyes. The Cosmos Politburo were fond of referring to the gleaming point that pierced the grey horizons as the eighth wonder of the world in the long speeches that dragged on for hours. In the gilded assembly hall, where the endless sea of crisp black uniforms with the gleaming golden star on the breast beneath a practiced stern face could inspire endless patriotic fervour, the dragon’s rise seemed inevitable.
Jian moved his arm down in one fluid practiced motion. Arc of the world spinning below him, horizon in the distance, an almost indescribable yet routine beauty of the faraway mountain peaks below him, the restored Great Wall looking like a thick pencil line, the wildfire smoke looking like spilled ink, the greens of the forest, blues of the rivers and the clouds looking like lye’d cotton his mother would hang on the line. The first time you see it, you almost instinctively think about how we’re all together on this one spinning marble agains the vast parapet of dark unknown. The fragility of nature’s jewel occasionally reduces first timers to tears, and it’s encouraged to express this, helps the grandeur of the project. The thousandth time you ascend, you just get to work.
The crystalline pane fused to the one beneath it, the point of his soldering pen a dull grey that shimmered with invisible heat. Every day was the same. Woken up by the same loud siren and shouted orders, the same bland ration of rice and steamed vegetables with protein-energy pills, same safe conversation about construction and the glory of the future, same pressures of being tied to another worker up beyond the atmosphere with tools and their life in your hands, the same crushing tiredness of long days and loneliness. Jian sometimes dared to think, late at night, that he was unhappy, but another day always washed the thought away. After all, wasn’t he one of the lucky ones who got to build the great monument? Even the pride in his country couldn’t erase the nagging feeling that he wasn’t working on himself. He secretly missed the carefree laughter of his college years, the snatched kisses from an honest mouth, the only pressure being competition with classmates. The dreams of his country rising above the imperialist yoke of the last quarter-millenium did not give him peace and happiness, were not his dreams. The only time he ever felt truly relaxed in contention was when he had visions as he slept, of balanced equations, balanced hips, and the balanced grain of the carbon plate. He’d wake in the morning to the sound of the elevator music, lo-fi a backdrop of single-serving coffee spewing.