Volume 4 –
Chapters 301 To 400
Chapter 304 – Mysterious Ancient Alloy
The water in the river flowed unhurriedly by before them, so clear that they could see Asian carp swimming in it. They looked plump and delicious. Xia Lei threw a stone into the water and dozens of carp sprang above the surface of the river, throwing up exaggerated splashes of water. The people here didn’t seem to eat much fish – these Asian carp had found a little paradise here to multiply all they wanted.
“I’ve got to hand it to you – you’re still in the mood to play around.” Ning Jing’s voice was small. She looked at Xia Lei’s face, her eyes dull.
Xia Lei laughed and said, “Happiness lasts for a minute, and so does sorrow, so why be sorrowful? I’ve said that I would take you away from here. Relax. You’ll be fine.”
“You…” Ning Jing hesitated, then said, “Did you come specially to save me?”
“Well, I knew you were trapped here so I came.” Xia Lei added, “Of course, there are the other experts too. They’re China’s elite.”
“I thought I would die here. I didn’t expect… that you’d come.” Ning Jing hugged Xia Lei from behind emotionally.
Xia Lei could not help the rippling in his heart when he felt her warmth and
press upon him, accompanied by awkwardness. Him and her were just friends and being hugged intimately like this was not what friends did. He did not resist, however. He just stood quietly by the river and let her hug him.
Ning Jing was a pitiful woman. She’d just mustered the courage to abandon her snobby parents and live her own life but had unexpectedly become trapped in this place, forced to shovel goat droppings. Was a doctor of archaeology like her supposed to shovel excrement?
Ning Jing hugged Xia Lei with her eyes shut, savouring this comforting feeling.
Behind them, the two female guards assigned to watch them did not interrupt but watched them from afar.
“Big Sister Ning, can you tell me what you came here for?” asked Xia Lei gently. This was the reason why he had asked Ning Jing out on a walk. He’d thought about it and was sure that the other experts might not tell him the truth if he asked, but Ning Jing would not lie to him.
“Let’s sit and talk.” Ning Jing released Xia Lei and sat on the grass by the river.
Xia Lei sat close to her on the grass and looked at her quietly.
Ning Jing put her head on his shoulder and stared at the slow-flowing river. She began slowly, “Do you still remember the compass you repaired?”
XIa Lei paused. “You were trapped here… how is this related to that compass? What the hell’s going on?”
That Ming dynasty compass was fairly mysterious and Xia Lei had forgotten about it after repairing it, but this mission was unexpectedly related to that compass!
“It’s like this,” Ning Jing continued, “One month ago, I was recruited for a special team. I did not know what we were to study in the beginning and only knew later that it was going to be that compass. I only found out a few days after joining the team of experts. They had already used the compass to find a place, and had dug up some items at that place.”
“I saw it once. It was a strange metal. It wasn’t painted but it was green, and soft, like it was sentient,” said Ning Jing, “It looked like a piece of a part. Oh, right, there were two letters on it too.”
Xia Lei couldn’t help interrupting her, “What letters?”
“AE,” said Ning Jing.
Xia Lei felt like a huge rock had struck the waters of his mind hard in that instant, sending up waves which seemed to reach the sky.
Ning Jing did not sense the change in Xia Lei. She continued, “This cannot be explained easily. There is a material science expert in the group of experts but he doesn’t know what metal it is either. Some of the experts unanimously agreed
in the end
that it was a completely new type of metal which no one had discovered yet. Its strength and toughness is the best amongst all current known materials and it also has a special lightness which makes it ideal as a material for space-related flight.”
Xia Lei finally calmed himself a little. “Um, a Ming dynasty compass led some experts to find a metal part with ‘AE’ on it… I’m confused.” He smiled self-depreciatingly, “Could it be aliens? The part the experts found could be a part from an alien’s ship. Did aliens appear in the Ming dynasty? The experts have really stretched it too far, haven’t they?”
Ning Jing rolled her eyes at Xia Lei. “I think your imagination is too active. There are no aliens. That piece of metal was smelted. Smelting happened about 1400 years ago. We researched all the races and civilisations of that time period and none of them had such advanced smelting techniques.”
“So who smelted it?”
“No idea.” Ning Jing looked confused as she said, “We did our research assuming those two letters were English. Assuming so, then it had been brought to England by the Germanic people, but the smelting techniques of the Germanic tribes which invaded Britain of that time were also very primitive. It is impossible for them to smelt such an advanced alloy.”
“So how was it smelted?” Xia Lei was full of puzzlement.
“That was why we made a small group of experts and came here. Our orders were to solve this puzzle and get the advanced smelting technique. If we succeed, our country’s smelting technology will be far above the rest of the world. The industries related to it like aerospace, manufacturing and so on will also get a developmental spurt,” said Ning Jing excitedly.
“Hold on…” Xia Lei suddenly understood something, “You mean that that compass did not just point to one location? It pointed to a new location after the experts dug up the part?”
“Yes. It directed us here.”
Xia Lei shook his head and laughed dryly. “Impossible. I repaired that compass. I know its structure. It doesn’t have any AI or anything like that. It’s impossible for it to point to another location after pointing you to the first one.”
“You don’t know about that,” said Ning Jing, “The expert team excavated not just the green part from that location but several Ming dynasty antiques, all very valuable. Among the items was a needle. A compass needle. After installing that needle, it pointed to a different direction.”
This matter was impossible to unravel and made one feel lost, directionless.
Xia Lei thought for a bit. “What were the antiques? Did you see them?”
“I saw a part of it. I am an archaeologist after all and they needed me to identify some things,” Ning Jing paused, then added, “But there was a bronze book I did not see. They only gave me pictures of it.”
“What sort of bronze book was it?”
“It was strange and exquisite. It was thin; not much thicker than our modern paper. It looked to have tens of pages. It’s too bad I saw only pictures and not its contents. I wonder what had been written in it.” Ning Jing looked disappointed.
“Maybe that bronze book has some important lead in it. Didn’t you ask the other experts?”
“I did. They didn’t see its contents either. The bronze book was taken as soon as it was excavated,” said Ning Jing, “Then we discovered that the compass changed directions after we changed the needle, and here we are. We came through the Wakhan Corridor with dozens of special forces guards but they are all dead. I later heard that someone attempted to rescue us but failed. I thought I was going to die here, but you appeared when I’d given up. You always appear when I most need you and bring me hope, and light. I… I…”
Xia Lei put his arms lightly around her shoulders and said gently, comfortingly, “Don’t be scared… It’s all in the past. Tell me, did you find something after the compass brought you here?”
“We were captured before we had time to start work. The experts were put to doing tasks like planting carrots, feeding pigs… I was also sent to tend goats and clean the pens. We had no chance.”
“And the compass?”
“In the hands of the baby-faced warrior,” said Ning Jing. “She snatched the compass away and hung it on the wall of her home; it’s a wall-clock to her. I schemed to steal to back but I had no success. You must take that compass back if you get the chance. It’s too important.”
An ancient and mysterious smelting technique which was more advanced than modern processes was a miracle in itself. Furthermore, it could also boost the standards of the entire manufacturing and aerospace industries in China – its importance was self-evident. However, Xia Lei’s head hurt at the thought of baby-faced Szlamy. He could barely avoid her and now he was to steal from her home? Wasn’t this sending himself to slaughter?
“I’ll try.” A wry smile appeared in the corners of Xia Lei’s mouth as a deeper question nagged at his heart. ‘Ming dynasty compass, ancient smelting technique and the letters ‘AE’… are the letters on the ancient alloy related to the American AE Research Centre? Is it just a coincidence? If they’re related, then how? AE capsules, AE alloy… Heavens, what the heck’s going on?’
“You’re going to leave this place with the chieftain tomorrow morning. Will you come back?” Ning Jing wanted to shift the conversation to something else after talking too much about formal matters.
“Of course. I probably won’t come back if you don’t fail. If you fail, however, I will come back personally and finish up what you were unable to do. But don’t tell anyone this. I will fail too if others know,” nagged Xia Lei.
Ning Jing made a small sound of agreement, then said, “I won’t tell anyone. The people of the tribe here don’t suspect anything either. There are always people who come, risking the danger in search of treasure. They’ve taken us for regular treasure-hunters.”
“That’s best. Let’s go back. I have to talk with Tang Yu-Yan,” said Xia Lei.
“Can’t we stay for a while longer?” said Ning Jing in reluctance.
“Mm… Okay.” Xia Lei smiled. He couldn’t bear to reject a request such as this because he knew that she most needed comforting and someone to be with her at a time like this.
“Lend me your lap.”
“Hm?” Xia Lei looked at her uncomprehendingly.
Ning Jing did not explain. She lay on Xia Lei’s lap, treating it like her pillow, and closed her eyes. A breeze tugged at her hair and black threads floated gently, but they did not cover her beautiful face. She seemed to want to nap like this for a bit, or just lie quietly for a spell.
Xia Lei couldn’t bear to disturb her nor break the tranquility of the atmosphere. He watched the slow-moving river as he struggled to think of a way to steal that compass tonight…