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Caged Earth

Chonghao Liu is a PhD candidate in geology at the China University of Geosciences (Beijing). He is supposed to get his degree in 2016. This is his first story written in English, and Matthew Steele-MacInnis, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, helped him with his English. You can visit Liu's personal website: liuchonghao.com.

Only illusion comes persistently
Blindfolded, I can only hear a car radio reporting the start of mankind's first space program.
The car stops, and my blindfold is removed. An old man in white breaks the silence: "Forgive us for bringing you here this way."
I look around a small room, my eyes resting on a large mirror on the wall. No, it's a one-way transparent glass. I can feel somebody watching me behind the glass.
"Where am I?" I ask.
"Sorry, no comment," says the old man. He points to the files on the desk. "Tell me, when did you start with the idea?"
I leaf through the files. They're my grant applications, submitted five times. How did they get here?
When I was a college student, I saw a photo of the sky taken by a camera with an 8mm fisheye lens. The image is round, with the ground and trees standing along the edge, encircling the sky in the center. It was this photo that gave me the idea.
"According to Doctor... umm... Professor Guide, you once voiced your idea in class," says the old man.
That day, Professor Guide said in class: "Ferdinand Magellan's expedition proved that we live on the surface of a sphere, the Earth."
"I beg to differ," I said, standing up. "Why not on the inner surface of a spherical shell?" Ignoring my classmates' sneers, I continued: "I'd say Magellan could also arrive back where he started after sailing on and on in the same direction along the inner surface."
Some of my classmates tried to convince me, citing natural phenomena, but I retorted with an old Chinese saying: "My eyes lost the true shape of Mount Lushan, for I myself reside right there."
"Later, I wrote several articles, but they all were rejected. Then I began to apply for funding. Drilling through the ground beneath our feet will bear me out."
"Feedback is negative. Why keep going?" asks the old man.
How does he know so much? It dawns on me that this is a special interview. I try to convince him to fund my project, but he interrupts me: "Well, well, young man, I appreciate your insistence. Give up your ridiculous idea, and I'll offer you a job, okay?"
A job! I haven't had any job since graduation. My parents keep urging, even begging me to find one. I don't want to be a burden on my family. But still, I respond by asking: "Did burning at the stake make Giordano Bruno give up his truth?"
"So, you still insist that we are living in a spherical shell?"
"More precisely, on the inner surface."
The man takes me to another room, leaving me alone. Then Guide comes in and gives me a hug. "Welcome to the Earth Academy of Science. You already know the world's greatest secret."
"You mean the spherical shell?" Joy gladdens my heart.
Guide nods. "Initially, humans dwelled on the Earth. Greed drove them to colonize an extrasolar planet, destroying the embryonic civilization there. The Galactic Federation did not tolerate this type of behavior, so they blockaded mankind's space technology, and transformed the planet into a huge spherical shell, imprisoning mankind within it."
"In other words," I say despondently, "this Earth is actually a cage?"
Guide sighs. "To survive, humans had to spend their lives permanently in the spherical shell, keeping it secret from their descendants. Some scientists formed the Earth Academy of Science, where they knew no nationalities and led the development of mankind's technology... they still do. If people keep believing that they live on a sphere, no one will break through the spherical shell."
"I guess Magellan was also a member."
Guide shakes his head. "He belonged to the former Earth. We adopted the early history of Earth civilization."
"Caged Earth." Sadness overwhelms my initial joy. "Hopeless humans."
The academy building isn't big. Scientists here are all dressed in striped blue uniforms. Guide tells me to keep our talks secret from the others, including the staff in white.
After two weeks, my parents appear at reception, with anxious expressions.
Mom, Dad, sorry, I can't tell you the truth.
Before leaving, Mom says: "Son, I wish you an early discharge."
I don't understand what Mom means until the old man appears again. Deferring to Guide's advice, I tell him: "I see now. We live on a sphere."
He ushers me out. I look back for a farewell to the Academy. But the nameplate National Psychiatric Hospital shocks me.
Oh, God, I have been in the hospital for such a long time!
My parents get me a job. With my life getting back on track, I almost believe that I was crazy. But the photo is still branded in my mind. I decide to find out the truth.
Guide appears, with a pleased expression.
"I know this is a hospital," Guide says.
I'm surprised. "Then why not leave?"
"I want to stay. I can meet more people like you here than at college."
"I see. But now..." I'm ashamed, "to be honest, I doubt...."
Guide interrupts me. "Remember my words to you after class that day?"
"All is only an illusion, however persistent."
"Great, you still remember!" Guide smiles and fishes out a card. "I recommend you to our Academy. Go to him, and everything will be clear."
"Why me?" I ask.
"You're a truth seeker. Otherwise you wouldn't be here today, right?"
I reach for the card. "I promise I'll do the right thing."
I get involved in the space program at the Academy. Today we release the Earth's first photo taken by our satellite to the world.
In the photo, she is a fascinating blue sphere.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 11th, 2016

Author Comments

A few parts of this story really happened. Some years ago, I was required to give a presentation in geography class. My opening was a question: "Why did Ferdinand Magellan's expedition prove that we live on the surface of a sphere, but not on the inner surface of a spherical shell?" One of my classmates answered: "The photo taken by satellites and astronauts." That was powerful evidence. But I came up with an idea, what if the photos were fakes? Maybe someone made them just because they didn't want us know the truth. Being an ordinary man, I could hardly go into outer space to make certain the real shape of the Earth. So how can I get the truth by myself?

- Chonghao Liu
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