In creating the silkpunk world of his novels, sci-fi author Ken Liu envisioned entirely new approaches to energy and technology. Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula prizes, Liu recently shared his insights on creativity and energy tech in an interview with Nexus Media. Below, you can read an excerpt from his most recent novel, The Wall of Storms.
They worked at a lab located inside a giant coastal cave. This facility was the brainchild of the head of the Imperial laboratories, Kita Thu, one of the Haan pana méji who had participated in the Palace Examination alongside Zomi Kidosu years ago. Though he had not wanted this post at the time, the instinct of the emperor and Consort Risana turned out to be correct, and over the years, Kita had grown into an able leader of scholars who was skilled at fulfilling unusual needs.
He secreted the carcasses away inside the cave as soon as they arrived and set up a system of wagons to keep them packed with ice to prevent corruption, paying the expenses out of his family’s wealth even before he had Imperial funding. To most of the merchants and drivers who supplied the laboratory’s needs, the facility was presented as some kind of Imperial warehouse intended to preserve seafood that could be consumed in the off-season. As the weather warmed, the wagons had to go as far as the glaciers of the Damu Mountains to harvest the ice, and the laboratory’s expenses ballooned.
It was imperative that they learn what they could from the carcasses as soon as possible.
With the new war-bond funding from Pan, Kita redoubled his efforts. He expanded the cave and divided it into multiple dissection rooms so that pieces of the carcass could be studied in parallel. A system of carefully drilled holes and mirrors directed filtered sunlight to illuminate the interior of the cave, and he designed a concave frame with numerous refracting glass lenses to be placed over the dissection tables so that no shadows would block the view of the operating surgeon or dissector. To cut through the tough skin, muscle, and tendons of the giant beasts, he commissioned diamond-tipped scalpels to ensure the cuts would be smooth during the dissection process and avoid damaging the tissues needlessly with hacking and sawing. He set up several windmills on top of the cliffs above the cave, from where a series of gears and belts transferred the power down into the lab, where they operated heavy machines for lifting and moving the carcass around. Since the entire space was maintained at near-freezing temperature, everyone working inside had to dress as though it was deep winter. Except for scholars and workmen approved to work on the project, no one was allowed anywhere near the hidden laboratory: Lyucu spies and sympathizers might well attempt to sabotage the work being done here, and whatever revelations they might learn would be military secrets.
At first, the various experts were skeptical of the presence of Théra. Most thought the tales of her contributions to the suppression of the rebellion in Tunoa exaggerated, an instance of Imperial mythmaking, and more than a few grumbled that she was nothing more than a spoiled princess inserting herself among learned men to seek thrills or some sense of relevance.
It didn’t help matters that Théra almost immediately insisted on the addition of two other scholars who had not been on the list of approved researchers drawn up by a select committee of the Imperial Academy Council. Çami Phithadapu was a young woman scholar from Rui who had barely placed among the firoa in the Imperial examinations the previous year, and Mécodé Zégate was a woman cashima of Haan ancestry who had grown up in Tunoa.
Both had been beneficiaries of Kuni Garu’s Golden Carp Program, though even Théra didn’t know that.
“Why these two in particular?” Kita Thu asked, frowning.
“Kita, you have almost no women among the researchers.”
“That’s because there are no qualified women candidates.” Kita paused, wondering if this could be construed as an insult to the princess. He tried to be ingratiating. “Your Highness is an exception, of course, as is special adviser Zomi Kidosu.”
“Although there are not nearly as many women who have passed the Imperial examinations as men, there are some,” said Théra. “Also, since this project requires us to make novel discoveries, it’s important to have a broad spectrum of opinions and views.”
“Originality of thinking is a quality of the mind, not of sex,” scoffed Kita Thu.
Théra persisted. “Because of their different life experiences, women may well provide fresh insights not available from traditional candidates. Unique among the examinees, Çami used her essay last year to discuss evidence of midwifery being practiced by whales, and Mécodé is well known as an expert on the history of herbal lore derived from animals’ attempts at curing their own illnesses. Their interest in these traditionally neglected subjects show originality of thinking.”
Kita wasn’t convinced, but he relented and added the two women to the staff.
Aware of the skepticism directed at her, Théra chose to ignore the climate of mild hostility and threw herself into the work. She labored alongside the other scholars: climbing over the gigantic carcasses with rough cables and sharp hooks, never complaining about the danger; lifting and shifting massive limbs and cutting body parts without showing any sign that such physical labor was beneath her; plunging her arms deep into the blood and fat without concern until her face was spattered with gore and her body steeped in the stench of garinafin viscera. She listened to the talk of the scholars with care, and did not interrupt the discussions with her opinions.
She acted less like a princess of Dara and more like one of the apprentices or students of the scholars.
“Why do you never say anything?” asked Zomi when the two of them were by themselves. “I know you want to contribute.”
Théra smiled at her. “Do you recall the legend of the Phaédo bird?”
“As told by Ra Oji?
*In Damu the scarlet Phaédo sits,
For three years, snowbound, all sounds he omits.
Then, one morn he sings to call forth the sun.
Stunned, the world stands still to listen as one.”*
Théra nodded. “There is a time to assert your opinion, and a time to play the dutiful student. Timing is everything, in war as well as in debate — especially when one is seen as an outsider.”
Zomi sighed. Théra seemed to have a far better grasp of the flow of currents of power than she did — a weakness that Luan had warned her about years ago.
Worried about Théra’s health, Zomi devised a silk mask for her so that she wouldn’t get sick from the garinafin gore that splashed onto her face and the fumes from the medicinal water in which they preserved detached garinafin organs. Théra was delighted, and a warmth suffused Zomi’s heart as she watched the grateful princess.
“Would you mind if I asked the craftsmen to make these for everyone?” Théra asked, holding Zomi by the hand.
Zomi’s face flushed. She berated herself for not thinking through how it would look if only the princess had special equipment. She concentrated on the sensation of the princess’s fingers against her palm — they were rough from wielding heavy tools against tough garinafin skin, but Zomi thought they were lovely and smooth beyond measure. She nodded.
“I’ll embroider some zomi berries on this one so that no one will mistake it for theirs,” said Théra. “It’s special; you made it.”
For hours afterward Zomi caressed her own palm, trying to re-create the warmth of Théra’s hand. In contrast to the guarded reception given Princess Théra, Zomi Kidosu had everyone’s respect from the get-go as the foremost pana méji inthe Imperial examination from two sessions ago. She soon established herself as one of the leading experts on the garinafins, as she had read Luan Zyaji’s accounts many times, and her own detailed notes from observing the creatures in action in Rui proved invaluable in connecting the anatomical features of the garinafins with their behavior.
Working side by side at a joint task brought Zomi and Théra even closer. As they navigated and climbed around a mountainous maze made of garinafin guts, they kept up a constant stream of chatter and laughter, as though they were strolling through a lovely garden and commenting upon the exotic flowers.
With the best minds of Dara at work, the scholars huddled inside the ice cave on the coast of Haan made steady progress toward their first goal: understanding the mystery of the garinafin’s fire breath, an ability that had no equivalent in the fauna of Dara.
Once they cut through the skin and muscle of the garinafins, the scholars found a network of membranous sacs that filled the body cavity.
“These must be similar to the sacs inside the torso of the Mingén falcons,” reasoned Atharo Ye, a noted Patternist scholar of Rui who had served in the court of Emperor Mapidéré as one of the Xana Empire’s airship engineers. He was a descendant of the great engineer Kino Ye, who had committed sacrilege to dissect the Mingén falcons and learned the secret of the lift gas that powered the flight of the great raptors. From time to time, Atharo enjoyed puffing on a coral pipe stuffed with rich tobacco from Faça, and though the smoke lingered in the ice cave, none of the other scholars dared to object given his prominence.
“Even with hollow and light bones, as well as gigantic wings, it appears that these creatures still need the assistance of such sacs for flight,” Atharo continued.
“But that means that they are as dependent on the lift gas as our airships,” said an excited Çami Phithadapu, who made it a point to speak up and not let herself be intimidated by so many well-known scholars around her — a habit that irritated many of the older, established scholars. “If we can cut off their supply, the garinafins will eventually become earthbound.”
Zomi shook her head. “I’m not convinced. I don’t recall the Lyucu sending the beasts to Lake Dako to replenish their supply of lift gas. And there was no mention of a supply of lift gas in Master Zyaji’s accounts of the lands of Ukyu and Gondé. Such an important feature surely would have drawn his interest.”
“It’s possible that the lift gas is far more plentiful in their land than ours, such that the Lyucu did not treat it as a rare resource or make note of it,” said Atharo.
“But how were they able to sustain the supply of lift gas for so long on their voyage across the ocean?” asked Çami.
Atharo dismissed this objection with an impatient wave of his hand.
“Our airships leak gas but slowly, and with careful maintenance and pooling the lift gas supply between ships, we can fly them for years before needing to refill.”
“But the garinafins don’t seem to be able to maintain flight for long,” said Zomi. “All the evidence shows that they can fly for but a few hours at a time before needing to land. If they are reliant on stored lift gas, one would expect them to be able to stay aloft indefinitely.”
“Hmm . . .” Atharo Ye had to admit that this was a rather good point. “Let me examine these sacs some more.”
He located one of the sacs that was still full of gas and carefully severed it from the attached blood vessels, air tubes, and other tissue. Then he tied off the small tubes with a length of string, and, holding on to the string, let the sac go.
The sac, almost three feet across, rose into the air, pulling the string taut.
“Lighter than air, as suspected,” said Atharo.
Next, he took a sharpened hollow reed and stuck it into the sac. The gas hissed out of the tube.
“Master Ye,” Princess Théra interrupted. Since she rarely spoke, everyone turned to look at her. “I think it prudent to be cautious with an unknown gas. Perhaps it’s best to use one of the smaller dissection — ”
Atharo Ye waved at her impatiently. “I’ve been working with lift gas since before you were even an idea in the minds of your parents. I know very well what is safe and what is not.” He closed his eyes and took a deep whiff of the escaping gas. “There’s no smell at all. Pure lift gas.”
He let the sac float over his head like a balloon, the hissing jet of gas from the still-leaking reed propelling it in circles like an airship. Then he took out his coral pipe filled with cured tobacco and gestured for one of the errand boys standing around to bring over a light for his pipe. Since the inside of the cave had to be kept chilled and illumination was provided by refracted and reflected sunlight, there was no lit torch or lamp around the lab. The boy had to run outside the cave and bring back a lit stick.
And just like that, the balloon over his head exploded into a fireball. As the boy yelped and jumped out of the way, the other scholars dove for cover. The fireball fell onto Atharo’s head and set his hair and clothes on fire. Atharo screamed and stumbled around, bumping into the dissection table. There was no ready source of water nearby. He was going to be severely injured by the fire.
The other scholars and guards were stunned and stood around helplessly.
“Your Highness!” Mécodé Zégate, the herbalist from Tunoa, ran up to Princess Théra. “Can I have your robe?”
Théra understood at once. “Good idea!” Without hesitation, she tore off the voluminous winter robe she was wearing, and, with Mécodé’s and Çami’s help, covered Atharo Ye’s flaming head and shoulders before pushing him to the ground. They rolled him along the ground until they were certain the flames had been extinguished.
Atharo sat up and slowly and removed Théra’s robe from his head like the veil of a bride. The fire had singed off his beard and much of his hair, but the injury to his face and neck was relatively light.
“You’ll be fine with an ointment of ice lilies and winter jelly,” said Mécodé after examining him. “It will sting terribly for a few days, though.”
“Thank you,” he said, looking at Théra, Çami, and Mécodé gratefully.
Meanwhile, Zomi calmly issued orders to everyone in the cave.“Get those doors open to let in some fresh air! Don’t cut open any more sacs from the garinafins, and make sure to never bring any fire in here.”
At another time, the sight of three women — one of them a princess in her undergarments — rolling an elder like a log on the ground might have generated itters or gossip, but everyone in the cave understood what a brave thing Théra, Çami, and Mécodé had done.
Kidosu started to clap, and everyone else soon joined in, filling the cave with loud peals of applause.
“You have certainly taught me a lesson,” said an embarrassed Atharo. “Just goes to show you that living for many years does not necessarily gain you any wisdom. How were you able to remain so calm and know what to do?”
Mécodé laughed. “Being from a poor family where I cooked for the whole household, I imagine I’ve spent many more hours in the kitchen than the rest of you put together. A skirt catching fire in the kitchen is a common accident, and I learned to deal with it. I imagine Çami had similar experiences.”
Çami nodded. “I might have been a good student, but I was still expected to cook for my brothers and parents.”
Atharo turned to Théra. “I can’t imagine you learned this technique from the kitchen, however.”
Théra grinned. “Not quite. When my father was a young man, his friend, Farsight Secretary Coda, was caught in a firebomb attack. My father had to figure out how to put out such a fire by separating the flames from air to save his friend. The story made quite an impression on me, and so I was able to put it into practice without much thought.”
Atharo nodded. “Thank the gods you are here.”
From then on, the scholars treated Théra, Çami, and Mécodé as full-fledged members of the team. When they offered opinions or observations, the others listened.
© 2016 Ken Liu, reprinted with permission from Saga Press
This story is made available by Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.