Chapter 5 A Game of Pool
Novel：The Three-Bodyauthor：Cinxin Liu pubdate：2019-02-14 14:41
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Chapter 5 A Game of Pool
As soon as he opened the door to Ding Yi's brand-new three-bedroom apartment, Wang smelled alcohol. Ding was lying on the sofa with the TV on, staring at the ceiling. The apartment was unfinished, with only a few pieces of furniture and little decoration, and the huge living room seemed very empty. The most eye-catching object was the pool table in the corner.
Ding didn't seem annoyed by Wang's unannounced visit. He was clearly in the mood to talk to someone.
"I bought the apartment about three months ago," Ding said. "Why did I buy it? Did I really think she was going to become interested in starting a family?" His laugh sounded drunk.
"You two . . ." Wang wanted to know the details of Yang Dong's life, but didn't know how to ask the questions.
"She was like a star, always so distant. Even the light she shone on was always cold." Ding walked to one of the windows and looked at the night sky.
Wang said nothing. All he wanted now was to hear her voice. But a year ago, as the sun sank in the west, when she and he had locked eyes for a moment, they had not spoken to each other. He had never heard her voice.
Ding waved his hand as though trying to flick something away.
"Professor Wang, you were right. Don't get involved with the police or the military. They're all idiots. The deaths of those physicists had nothing to do with the Frontiers of Science. I've explained it to them many times, but I can t get them to understand"
"They seem to have conducted some independent investigation."
"Yes, and the investigations scope was global. They should already know that two of the dead never had any contact with the Frontiers of Science, including... Yang Dong" Ding seemed to have trouble saying her name.
"Ding Yi, you know that I am already involved. So. . . as far as why Yang made the choice that... she did, I'd like to know. I think you must know some of it. " Wang thought he must sound very foolish as he tried hard to disguise his real intent.
"If you know more, you'll only get pulled in deeper. Right now you're just superficially involved, but with more knowledge your spirit will be drawn in as well, and then it will mean real trouble."
"I work in applied research. I'm not as sensitive as you theoreticians."
"All right, then. Do you play pool?" Ding walked to the pool table.
"1 used to play a little in college."
"She and I loved to play. It reminded us of particles colliding in the accelerator" Ding picked up two balls: one black and one white. He set the black ball next to one of the pockets, and placed the white ball about ten centimeters from the black ball. "Can you pocket the black ball?"
"This close? Anyone can do it."
Wang picked up the cue, struck the white ball lightly, and drove the black ball into the pocket.
"Good. Come, now let's move the table to a different location." Ding directed the confused Wang to pick up the heavy table. Together they moved it to another corner of the living room, next to a window Then Ding stooped out the black ball, set it next to the pocket, and again picked up the white ball and set it down about ten centimeters away "Think you can do it again?"
Ding waved his hands. "Let's move it again." They lifted the table and set it down in a third corner of the living room. Ding set up the two balls as before. "Go."
Wang shrugged helplessly. Me managed to pocket the black ball a third time.
They moved the table two more times: once next to the door of the living room, and finally back to the original location. Ding set up the two balls twice more, and Wang twice more made his shot. By now both were slightly winded.
"Good, that's the conclusion of the experiment. Let's analyze the results." Ding lit a cigarette before continuing, "We ran the same experiment five times. Four of the experiments differed in both location and time. Two of the experiments were at the same location but different times. Aren't you shocked by the results?" He opened his arms exaggeratedly. "Five times! Every colliding experiment yielded the exact same result!"
"What are you trying to say?" Wang asked, gasping.
"Can you explain this incredible result? Please use the language of physics."
"All right. . . During these five experiments, the mass of the two balls never changed. In terms of their locations, as long as were using the frame of reference of the tabletop, there was also no change. The velocity of the white ball striking the black ball also remained basically the same throughout. Thus, the transfer of momentum between the two balls didn't change. Therefore, in all five experiments, the result was the black ball being driven into the pocket."
Ding picked up a bottle of brandy and two dirty glasses from the floor. He filled both and handed one to Wang. Wang declined.
"Come on, let's celebrate. We've discovered a great principle of nature: The laws of physics are invariant across space and time. All the physical laws of human history, from Archimedes' principle to string theory, and all the scientific discoveries and intellectual fruits of our species are the by-products of this great law. Compared to us two theoreticians, Einstein and Hawking are mere applied engineers."
"I still don't understand what you're getting at."
"Imagine another set of results. The first time, the white ball drove the black ball into the pocket. The second time, the black ball bounced away. The third time, the black ball flew onto the ceiling. The fourth time, the black ball shot around the room like a frightened sparrow, finally taking refuge in your jacket pocket. The fifth time, the black ball flew away at nearly the speed of light, breaking the edge of the pool table, shooting through the wall, and leaving the Earth and the Solar System, just like Asimov once described(*13)."What would you think then?"
[Author’s Note(*13):See Isaac Asimov’s short story “ The Billiard Ball.”]
Ding watched Wang. After a long silence. Wang finally said. "This actually happened. Am I right?"
Ding drained both glasses in his hands He stared at the pool table as though looking at a demon. "Yes. It happened, in the last few years, we finally obtained the necessary equipment for experimentally testing fundamental theories. 'Three expensive 'pool tables' have been constructed: one in North America, another in Europe, and the third you are familiar with, in Liangxiang. Your Nanotechnology Research center earned a lot of money from it.
"These high-energy particle accelerators raised the amount of energy available for colliding particles by an order of magnitude, to a level never before achieved by the human race. Yet. with the new equipment, the same particles, the same energy levels, and the same experimental parameters would yield different results. Not only would the results vary if different accelerators were used, but even with the same accelerator, experiments performed at different times would give different results Physicists panicked. They repeated the ultra-high-energy collision experiments again and again using the same conditions, but every time the result was different, and there seemed to be no pattern."
"What does this mean?" Wang asked. When he saw Ding staring at him without speaking, he added, "Oh, I'm in nanotecth, and I also work with microscale structures. But that's orders of magnitude larger than the scale at which you do your work. Please educate me."
"It means that the laws of physics are not invariant across time and space."
"What does that mean?"
"I think you can deduce the rest. Even General Chang figured it out. He's really a smart man."
Wang looked outside the window thoughtfully. The lights of the city were so bright that the stars of the night sky were drowned out.
"It means that laws of physics that could be applied anywhere in the universe do not exist, which means that physics . . . also does not exist." Wang turned back from the window.
'"I know what I'm doing is irresponsible. But I have no choice,'" Ding said. "That was the second half of her note. You just stumbled on the first half. Now can you understand her? At least a little?"
Wang picked up the white ball. He caressed it for a bit and put it back down. "For someone exploring the forefront of theory, that would indeed be a catastrophe."
"To accomplish something in theoretical physics requires one to have almost religious faith. It's easy to be led to the abyss."
As they said their farewells, Ding gave Wang an address. "If you have the time, please visit Yang Dong's mother. She and her mother always lived together, and she was the entirety of her mother's life. Now the old woman is all alone."
"Ding, you clearly know a lot more than I do. Can you tell me more? You really believe that the laws of physics are not invariant across time and space?"
"I don't know anything." Ding stared into Wang's eyes for a long time. Finally, he said, "But that is the question."
Wang knew that he was only finishing what the British colonel had begun to say: To be, or not to be: that is the question.
Chapter 5 Vocabulary Note
cue - a long straight wooden stick used for hitting the ball in games such as billiards and pool
winded - unable to breathe easily because you have been running or you have been hit in the stomach
Chapter 6 The Shooter and the Farmer
The next day was the start of the weekend. Wang got up early and left on his bicycle. As a hobby photographer, his favorite subjects were wildernesses free of human presence. But now that he was middle-aged, he no longer had the energy to engage in such indulgent travel and only shot city scenes.
Consciously or subconsciously, he usually chose corners of the city that held some aspect of the wild: a dried lakebed in a park, the freshly turned soil of a construction site, a weed struggling out of cracks in cement. In order to eliminate the busy colors of the city in the back-ground, he only used black-and-white film. Unexpectedly, he had developed his own style and had gained some notice. His works had been selected for two exhibitions, and he was a member of the Photographers Association. Every time he went out to take pictures, he would ride his bike and wander around the city in search of inspiration and compositions that caught his fancy. Often he would be out all day.
Today, Wang felt strange. His photography style tended toward the classical, calm and dignified. But today he could not seem to get in the mood necessary for such compositions. In his mind, the city, as it awoke from its slumber, seemed to be built on quicksand. The stability was illusory. All night long, he had dreamt of those two billiard balls. They flew around a dark space without any pattern, the black one disappearing against the black background and only revealing its existence occasionally when it obscured the white ball.
Can the fundamental nature of matter really be lawlessness? Can the stability and order of the world be but a temporary dynamic equilibrium achieved in a corner of the universe, a short-lived eddy in a chaotic current?
Without realizing it, he found himself at the foot of the newly completed China Central Television building. He stopped at the side of the road and lifted his head to gaze up at this gigantic A-shaped tower, trying to recapture the feeling of stability. His gaze followed the sharp tip of the building, gleaming in the morning sunlight, pointing toward the blue, bottomless depths of the sky. Two words suddenly floated into his consciousness: "shooter" and "farmer."
When the members of the Frontiers of Science discussed physics, they often used the abbreviation "SF." They didn't mean "science fiction," but the two words "shooter" and "farmer." This was a reference to two hypotheses, both involving the fundamental nature of the laws of the universe.
In the shooter hypothesis, a good marksman shoots at a target, creating a hole every ten centimeters. Now suppose the surface of the target is inhabited by intelligent, two-dimensional creatures. Their scientists, after observing the universe, discover a great law: "There exists a hole in the universe every ten centimeters." They have mistaken the result of the marksman's momentary whim for an unalterable law of the universe.
The farmer hypothesis, on the other hand, has the flavor of a horror story: Every morning on a turkey farm, the farmer comes to feed the turkeys. A scientist turkey, having observed this pattern to hold without change for almost a year, makes the following discovery: "Every morning at eleven, food arrives." On the morning of Thanksgiving, the scientist announces this law to the other turkeys. But that morning at eleven, food doesn't arrive; instead, the farmer comes and kills the entire flock.
A-shaped building seemed to wobble and sway. He quickly brought his gaze back to the street.
To get rid of the anxiety, Wang forced himself to finish a roll of film. He returned home before lunch. His wife had taken their son out and wouldn't be back for a while. Usually, Wang would rush to develop the film, but today he wasn't in the mood. After a quick and simple lunch, he went to take a nap. Because he hadn't slept well the night before, by the time he woke up it was almost five. Finally remembering the roll of film he had shot, he went into the cramped darkroom he had converted from a closet.
The film developed. Wang began to look through the negatives to see if any shots were worth printing, but he saw something strange in the very first image. The shot was of a small lawn outside a large shopping center. The center of the negative held a line of tiny white marks, which, upon closer examination, turned out to be numbers: 1200:00:00.
The second picture also had numbers: 1199:49:33, as did the third: 1199:40:18.
In fact, every picture in the roll had such numbers, until the thirty- sixth (and last) image: 1194:16:37.
Wang's first thought was that something was wrong with the film. The camera he had used was a 1988 Leica M2—entirely mechanical, which made it impossible for it to add a date stamp. Given the excellent lens and refined mechanical operation, it was considered a great professional camera even in this digital age.
After reexamining the negatives, Wang discovered another strange thing about the numbers: They seemed to adapt to the background. If the background was black, the numbers were white, and vice versa. The shift seemed designed to maximize the numbers' contrast for visibility. By the time Wang saw the sixteenth negative, his heart was beating faster, and a chill crept up his spine.
This shot was of a dead tree against an old wall. The wall was mottled, showing a pattern of alternating black and white patches on the negative. Given this background, either white or black numbers would have been hard to read. But in the picture, the numbers arranged themselves vertically to fit along the curve of the tree trunk, allowing the white numbers to show up against the dark coloring of the dead tree like a crawling snake.
Wang began to analyze the mathematical pattern in the numbers. At first he thought it was some kind of assigned numbering, but the difference between the numbers wasn't constant. He then guessed that the numbers represented time in the form of hours, minutes, and seconds. He took out his shooting diary, in which he recorded the exact time he took each picture down to the minute, and discovered the difference between two successive numbers on the photographs corresponded to the difference in time between when they were taken.
The countdown began with 1,200 hours. And now there were about 1,194 hours left, just under 50 days.
Now? No, at the moment I took the last photograph. Is the countdown still proceeding?
Wang walked out of the darkroom, loaded a new roll of film in the Leica, and began to snap random shots. He even walked onto the balcony for a few outdoor shots. Afterward, he took out the film and went back into the darkroom. In the developed roll, the numbers again appeared on every negative like ghosts. The first one was marked 1187:27:39. The difference matched the passage of time between the last shot of the last roll and the first shot of this roll. After that, the number decreased by three or four seconds in each image: 1187:27:35, 1187:27:31, 1187:27:27, 1187:27:24 ... just like the intervals between the quick shots he had taken.
The countdown continued.
Wang again loaded a new roll of film. He snapped off the shots rapidly, even taking a few with the lens cap on. As he took out the roll of film, his wife and son returned. Before he went into the darkroom to develop the film, he loaded another roll of film in the Leica and handed it to his wife. "Here, finish the roll for me."
"What am I supposed to shoot?" His wife looked at him, amazed.
He never allowed anyone to touch his camera, though she and their son had no interest in doing so either. In their eyes, it was a boring antique that cost more than twenty thousand yuan.
"Doesn't matter. Just shoot whatever you want." Wang stuffed the camera into her hands and ducked into the darkroom.
"All right. Dou Dou, why don't I take some pictures of you?" His wife aimed the camera at their son.
Wang's mind suddenly filled with the imagined sight of the ghost-like figures appearing over his son's face like a hangman's noose. He shuddered. "No, don't do that. Shoot something else."
The shutter clicked, and his wife had taken her first shot. "Why can't I press it again?" she asked. Wang taught her how to wind the film to advance it. "Like that. You have to do it after every shot." Then he ducked back into the darkroom.
"So complicated!" His wife, a doctor, couldn't understand why anyone would use such expensive but outdated equipment when ten- or even twenty-megapixel digital cameras were common. And he even used black-and-white film.
After the third roll of film developed, Wang held it up against the red light. He saw that the ghost-like countdown continued. The numbers showed up clearly on every randomly shot picture, including the few he had taken with the lens cap on: 1187:19:06, 1187:19:03,1187:18:59, 1187:18:56. . .
His wife knocked on the darkroom door and told him she was finished with the roll. Wang opened the door and took the camera from her. As he took out the roll, his hands trembled. Ignoring his wife's concerned look, he took the film back into the darkroom and shut the door. He worked fast and clumsily, spilling developer and fixer all over the ground. Soon the images were developed. He closed his eyes, silently praying, Please don't appear. No matter what, please don't appear now. Don't make it my turn. . . .
He examined the wet film with a magnifying glass. There was no countdown. The negatives held only the interior shots his wife had taken. She had used a slow shutter speed, and her amateurish operation left all the scenes blurry. But Wang thought these were the most enjoyable pictures he had ever seen.
Wang came out of the darkroom and let out a held breath. He was covered in sweat. His wife was in the kitchen cooking, and his son was playing in his room. He sat on the sofa and thought the matter over more rationally.
First, the numbers, which precisely recorded the passage of time between shots and which showed signs of intelligence, could not possibly have been preprinted on the film. Something exposed them onto the film. But what? Did the camera have a malfunction? Had some mechanism been installed in the camera without his knowledge? He took off the lens and disassembled the camera. He examined the interior with a magnifying glass and checked every dustless component without discovering anything out of place. Then, considering that the numbers showed up even in the shots taken with the lens cap on, he realized the most likely light source was some kind of penetrating ray. But how was this technologically possible? Where was the source of the rays? How could they have been aimed?
At least given current technology, such power would be supernatural.
In order to see if the ghostly countdown had disappeared, Wang loaded another roll into the Leica, and again began to shoot randomly. When this roll was developed, Wang's short-lived calm was again shattered. He felt himself pushed to the precipice of madness. The count-down had returned. Based on the numbers, it had never stopped, just failed to display on the roll shot by his wife.
1186:34:13, 1186:34:02, 1186:33:46, 1186:33:35 ...
Wang rushed out of the darkroom and continued through the door of the apartment. He knocked loudly on the door of his neighbor, retired Professor Zhang.
"Professor Zhang, do you have a camera? Not a digital one, but one that takes film!"
"A professional photographer like you wants to borrow my camera? What happened to your expensive one? I have only digital point-and- shoots. Are you okay? Your face looks so pale."
"Please, let me borrow it."
Zhang returned with a common Kodak digital camera. "Here you go. You can just delete the few pictures already on there."
"Thank you!" Wang seized the camera and rushed back home. He actually had three more film cameras and a digital one, but Wang thought it better to borrow a camera from someone else. He looked at his own camera lying on the sofa and the few rolls of film, paused in thought, and decided to reload the Leica with new film. He handed the borrowed digital camera to his wife, who was setting out dinner.
"Quick! Shoot another few pictures, like before."
"What are you doing? Look at your face! What's happening?"
"Don't worry about it. Shoot!"
She put down the dishes and came over to him, her eyes filled with both worry and fright.
Wang stuffed the Kodak into the hands of his six-year-old son, who was about to start eating dinner. "Dou Dou, come help Daddy. Push this button. Right, like that. That's one shot. Push it again. That's another shot. Keep on shooting like that. You can take pictures of anything you want."
The boy learned quickly. He was very interested and made rapid shots. Wang turned around and picked up the Leica from the couch, and began to shoot as well. The father and son kept on pressing the shutters as though they were mad. His wife, not knowing what to do as the flashes went off around her, began to cry.
"Wang Miao, I know that you've been under a lot of pressure lately, but please, I hope you haven't... ?"
Wang finished the roll in the Leica and grabbed the digital from his son. He thought for a moment, and then, in order to avoid his wife, went into the bedroom and took a few more shots with the digital. He used the optical finder instead of the LCD because he was afraid to see the results, though he was going to have to face them soon enough.
Wang took out the film from the Leica and went back into the darkroom. He shut the door and worked. After the film was developed, he examined the images carefully. Because his hands were shaking, he had to hold the magnifying glass with both hands. On the negatives the countdown continued.
Wang rushed out of the darkroom and began to look through the digital images on the Kodak. On the LCD, he saw that the pictures his son had taken did not have the numbers, but in the pictures that he took, the countdown showed clearly and was synchronized with the numbers on the film.
By using different cameras, Wang was trying to eliminate problems with the camera or the film as possible explanations. But by allowing his son and his wife to take some pictures, he discovered an even stranger result: The countdown only appeared on the pictures he took!
Desperate, Wang picked up the pile of film rolls, like a tangled nest of snakes, like a bunch of ropes tied into an impossible knot.
He knew that he could not solve the mystery on his own. Who could he turn to? His old classmates from college and his colleagues at the Re-search Center were hopeless. Like him, they were all people with technical minds. Intuitively, he knew that this went beyond a technical problem. He thought of Ding Yi, but that man was now in a spiritual crisis of his own. Finally, he thought of the Frontiers of Science. These were deep thinkers who remained open-minded. So he dialed Shen Yufei's number.
"Dr. Shen, I have a problem. I must see you."
"Come over," Shen said, and hung up.
Wang was surprised. Shen was a woman of few words. Some in the Frontiers of Science jokingly called her the Female Hemingway. But the fact that she didn't even ask him what was wrong made Wang uncertain whether he should be comforted or even more anxious.
He stuffed the mess of film into a bag, and, taking the digital camera, rushed out of the apartment as his wife watched him anxiously. He could have driven, but even with the city being full of lights, he wanted to be with people. He called for a cab.
Shen lived in a luxury housing development reachable by one of the newer commuter rails. Here, the lights were much dimmer. The houses were set around a small artificial lake stocked with fish for the residents, and at night the place felt like a village.
Shen was clearly well off, but Wang could never figure out the source of her wealth. Neither her old research position nor her current job with a private company could earn that much income. But her house didn't show signs of luxury on the inside. It was used as a gathering place for the Frontiers of Science, and Wang always thought it resembled a small library with a meeting room.
In the living room, Wang saw Wei Cheng, Shen's husband. Wei was about forty years old and had the look of a staid, honest intellectual. Wang knew little about him other than his name. Shen hadn't said much when she introduced him. He didn't seem to have a job, since he stayed home all day. He never showed any interest in the Frontiers of Science discussions, but seemed used to the sight of so many scholars coming to their house.
But he wasn't idle. He appeared to be conducting some kind of research at home, always deep in thought. Whenever he met any visitor, he would greet them absentmindedly and then return to his room upstairs. Most of his day was spent there. One time, Wang glanced into his room through the half-open door and saw an astonishing sight: a powerful HP workstation. He was sure of what he saw because the workstation was the same model as the one he used at the Research Center: slate-gray chassis, model RX8620, four years old. It seemed very strange to own a machine costing more than a million yuan just for personal use. What was Wei Cheng doing with it all day?
"Yufei is a bit busy right now. Why don't you wait a while?" Wei Cheng walked upstairs. Wang tried to wait, but he found that he couldn't be still, so he followed Wei Cheng. Wei was about to enter his room with the workstation when he saw Wang behind him, but he didn't seem annoyed. He pointed to the room across from his. "She's in there Wang knocked on the door. It wasn't locked, and it opened a crack. Shen was seated in front of a computer, playing a game. He was surprised to see that she wore a V-suit.
The V-suit was a very popular piece of equipment among gamers,
made up of a panoramic viewing helmet and a haptic feedback suit The suit allowed the player to experience the sensations of the game: being struck by a fist, being stabbed by a knife, being burned by flames, and so on. It was also capable of generating feelings of extreme heat and cold, even simulating the sensation of being exposed in a snow-storm.
Wang walked behind her. As the game was displayed only on the inside of the panoramic viewing helmet, there were no colorful images on the computer monitor. Wang suddenly remembered Shi Qiang's comment about memorizing Web and e-mail addresses. He glanced at the monitor. The game site's URL caught his attention:
Shen took off the helmet and stripped off the haptic feedback suit. She put on her glasses, which appeared extra large against her thin face. Without any expression, she nodded at Wang and said nothing. Wang took out the mess of film rolls and began to explain his strange experience. Shen paid full attention to his story, picking up the rolls of film and only casually looking at them. This surprised Wang, but further confirmed for him that Shen wasn't completely ignorant about what he was going through. He almost stopped speaking, but Shen kept on nodding at him, indicating that he should continue.
When he finished, Shen spoke for the first time. "How's the nanomaterial project you're leading proceeding?"
This non sequitur disoriented Wang. "The nanomaterial project? What does that have to do with this?" He pointed at the rolls of film.
Shen didn't answer, but continued to stare at him, waiting for him to answer her question. This was always her style, never wasting a single word.
"Stop your research," she said.
"What?" Wang wasn't sure he heard right. "What are you talking about?"
Shen remained silent.
"Stop? That's a key national project!"
Shen still said nothing, only looking at him calmly.
"You have to give me a reason."
"Just stop. Try it."
"What do you know? Tell me!"
'I've told you all I can."
"I can't stop the project. It's impossible!"
"Just stop. Try it."
That was the end of the conversation about the countdown. After that, no matter how hard Wang tried, Shen only repeated, "Just stop. Try it."
"I understand now" Wang said. "The Frontiers of Science isn't just a discussion group about fundamental theory, like you claimed. Its connection to reality is far more complicated than I had imagined."
"No. It's the opposite. Your impression is due to the fact that the Frontiers of Science concerns matters far more fundamental than you imagine."
Desperate, Wang got up to leave without saying good-bye. Mutely, Shen accompanied him to the door and watched as he got into the taxi.
Just then, another car drove up and braked to a hard stop in front of the door. A man got out. By the faint light leaking from the house, Wang recognized him immediately.
The man was Pan Han, one of the most prominent members of the Frontiers of Science. A biologist, he had successfully predicted the birth defects associated with long-term consumption of genetically modified foods. He had also predicted the ecological disasters that would come with cultivation of genetically modified crops. Unlike the prophets of doom who regularly warned of catastrophes without any particulars, Pan made predictions that always gave many specific details that later turned out to be correct. His accuracy was such that there were rumors that he came from the future.
The other cause for his fame was that he had created China's first experimental community. Unlike the "return to nature" utopian groups in the West, his "Pastoral China" wasn't located in the wilderness, but in the midst of one of its largest cities. The community had no property of its own. Everything needed for daily life, including food, came from urban trash. Contrary to the predictions of many, Pastoral China not only survived, but thrived. Currently, it had more than three thousand permanent members, and countless others had joined for short stints to experience the lifestyle.
Based on these two successes, Pan's opinions on social issues had grown more and more influential. He believed that technological progress was a disease in human society. The explosive development of technology was analogous to the growth of cancer cells, and the results would be identical: the exhaustion of all sources of nourishment, the destruction of organs, and the final death of the host body. He advocated abolishing crude technologies such as fossil fuels and nuclear energy and keeping gentler technologies such as solar power and small-scale hydroelectric power. He believed in the gradual de-urbanization of modern metropolises by distributing the population more evenly in self-sufficient small towns and villages. Relying on the gentler technologies, he would build a new agricultural society.
"Is he in?" Pan asked Shen, pointing to the house.
Shen didn't answer, but blocked his progress.
"I have to warn him and also warn you. Do not force our hand." Pan's voice was cold.
Shen called to the taxi driver, "You can go now." After the taxi started, Wang couldn't hear any more of the conversation between Shen and Pan, but he glanced back and saw that Shen did not let Pan into the house.
By the time Wang arrived home, it was already after midnight. As Wang got out of the taxi, a black Volkswagen Santana braked to a stop next to him. The window rolled down and a cloud of smoke emerged. Shi Qiang's thick body filled the driver's seat.
"Professor Wang! Academician Wang(*14)! How've you been the last couple of days?"
[Translator’s Note(*14):This refers to Wang’s status as a member of the Chinese Academy of Science.]
"Are you following me? Don't you have anything better to do?"
"Now, don't misunderstand me. I could have just driven past you, but instead, I chose to be polite and stop to greet you. You're making being nice a thankless task." Shi revealed his trademark roguish smirk. "Well? Did you find out any useful information over there?"
"I've told you already, I don't want anything to do with you. Please leave me alone from now on."
"Fine." Shi started the car. "It's not like I'm going to starve without the overtime for doing this. I'd rather not have missed my soccer match."
Wang entered the apartment. His wife was already asleep. He could hear her tossing and turning in bed, mumbling anxiously. Her husband's strange behavior during the day was surely giving her bad dreams. Wang swallowed a few sleeping pills, lay down on the bed, and, after a long wait, fell asleep.
His dreams were chaotic, but there was one constant: the ghostly countdown, suspended in midair. Even before he fell asleep, he had known he would dream of it. In his dreams, he attacked the countdown. Crazed, he tore at it, bit it, but every attempt failed to leave a mark. It continued to hang in the middle of his dream, steadily ticking away. Finally, just as the frustration became almost intolerable, he woke up.
Opening his eyes, he saw the ceiling, indistinct above him. The city lights outside the window cast a dim glow against it through the curtains. But one thing did follow him from dream into reality: the count-down. It was still hovering before his eyes. The numbers were thin, but very bright with a burning, white glow.
1180:05:00, 1180:04:59, 1180:04:58, 1180:04:57 . . .
Wang looked around, taking in the blurry shadows around the bedroom. He was now certain that he was awake, but the countdown did not disappear. He shut his eyes, and the countdown remained in the darkness of his vision, looking like mercury flowing against a black swan's fathers. He opened his eyes, rubbed them, and still the countdown did not go away. No matter how he moved his gaze, the numbers stayed at the center of it.
A nameless terror made Wang sit up. The countdown clung to him. He jumped off the bed, tore the curtains apart, and pushed the window open. The city, deep in sleep, was still brightly lit. The count-down hovered before this grand background like subtitles on a movie screen.
Wang felt he was suffocating. He let out a stifled scream. His wife, frightened awake, questioned him anxiously. He tried to force himself to be calm and comforted her, telling her that it was nothing. He lay back on the bed, closed his eyes, and spent the rest of his difficult night under the constant glow of the countdown.
In the morning, he tried to act normal in front of his family, but he could not fool his wife. She asked him whether his eyes were all right, whether he could see clearly.
After breakfast, Wang called the Research Center and asked for the day off. He drove to the hospital. Along the way, the countdown mercilessly hovered in front of the real world. It was able to adjust its brightness so that, no matter what the background, it showed up distinctly. Wang even tried to temporarily overwhelm the display by staring into the rising sun. But it was useless. The infernal numbers turned black and showed up against the orb of the sun like projected shadows, which made them even more frightening.
Tongren Hospital was very busy, but Wang was able to see a famous ophthalmologist who had gone to school with his wife. He asked the doctor to test him, without describing the symptoms. After careful examination of both eyes, the doctor told him they were functioning normally with no signs of any disease.
"There's something stuck in my vision. No matter where I look, it's always there " As Wang said this, the numbers hovered in front of the doctor's face.
1175:11:34, 1175:11:33, 1175:11:32, 1175:11:31 . . .
"Oh, you're talking about floaters." The doctor took out a prescription pad and began to write. "They're common at our age, the result of clouding in the lens. They're not easy to cure, but they're also not a big deal. I'll give you some iodine drops and vitamin D—it's possible that they'll go away, but don't get your hopes up too much. Really, they're nothing to worry about, as they don't affect your vision. You just have to get used to ignoring them."
"Floaters.. . Can you tell me what they look like?"
"There's no real pattern. It differs by person. For some, they appear as tiny black dots; for others, like tadpoles."
"What if someone sees a series of numbers?"
The doctor's pen stopped. "You see numbers?"
"Yes, right in the middle of the visual field."
The doctor pushed his pen and paper away, and looked at him sympathetically. "As soon as you came in, I could tell you'd been working too much. At the last class reunion, Li Yao told me you were under a lot of pressure at work. We have to be careful at our age. Our health is no longer what it used to be."
"You are saying this is due to psychological factors?"
The doctor nodded. "If it was anyone else, I'd suggest you go see a psychiatrist. But it's nothing serious, just exhaustion. Why don't you rest for a few days? Take a vacation. Go be with Yao and your kid—what's his name . .. Dou Dou, right? No worries. They'll go away soon."
1175:10:02, 1175:10:01, 1175:10:00, 1175:09:59 . . .
"Let me tell you what I see. It's a countdown! One second after another, it keeps on ticking precisely. Are you saying this is all in my head?"
The doctor gave him a tolerant smile. "You know how much the mind can affect vision? Last month we had a patient—a girl, maybe fifteen, sixteen. She was in class when she suddenly lost the ability to see, went completely blind. But all the tests showed that there was nothing wrong with her eyes physiologically. Finally, someone from the Department of Psychiatry treated her with psychotherapy for a month. All of a sudden, her vision returned."
Wang knew that he was wasting his time here. He got up. "All right, let's not talk about my eyes anymore. I have one last question: Do you know of any physical phenomenon that can operate from a distance and make people see visions?"
The doctor gave this some thought. "Yes, I do. A while ago I was part of the medical team for the Shenzhou 19 spacecraft. Some taikonauts engaged in extravehicular activities reported seeing flashes that didn't exist. The astronauts on the International Space Station reported similar experiences. It was because during periods of intense solar activity, high-energy particles struck against the retina, causing them to see flashes. But you re talking about numbers—a countdown, even. Solar activity can't possibly cause that."
Wang walked out of the hospital in a daze. T he countdown continued to hover in his eyes, and he seemed to be following the numbers, following a ghost that would not leave him. He bought a pair of sun-glasses and put them on so that others would not see his eyes wandering around as though he were sleepwalking.
Before entering the main lab at the Nanotechnology Research Center, Wang took off his sunglasses. Even so, his colleagues noticed his apparent mental state and gave him concerned looks.
Wang saw that the main reaction chamber in the middle of the lab was still in operation. The main compartment of the gigantic apparatus was a sphere with many pipes connected to it.
They had made small quantities of a new, ultrastrong nanomaterial that they'd given the code name "Flying Blade." But the samples so far were all made with molecular construction techniques—that is, using a nanoscale molecular probe to stack the molecules one by one, like laying out bricks for a wall. This method was very resource-intensive, and the results might as well have been the world's most precious jewels. It was impractical to produce large quantities this way.
At the moment, the lab was attempting to develop a catalytic reaction as a substitute for molecular construction so that large numbers of molecules would stack themselves into the right arrangement. The main reaction chamber could rapidly run through a large number of reactions using different molecular combinations. There were so many combinations that normal manual testing methods would have taken more than a hundred years. In addition, the apparatus augmented actual reactions with mathematical simulations. When the reaction reached a certain stage, the computer would build a mathematical model of it based on intermediate products and finish the remainder of the reaction via simulation. This greatly boosted the experimental efficiency.
When the lab director saw Wang, he hurried over and began to report a series of malfunctions with the main reaction chamber—a recent ritual whenever Wang arrived at work. By now the main reaction chamber had been in continuous operation for more than a year, and many sensors had lost sensitivity, resulting in measurement errors that required shutting down the apparatus for maintenance. But as the lead scientist on the project, Wang insisted that the machine would not be shut down until the third set of molecular combinations was finished. The technicians had no choice but to jury-rig more and more kludges onto the main reaction chamber to compensate. And now those kludges required their own kludges, a state of affairs that exhausted the project staff.
But the lab director carefully avoided the topic of shutting down the machine and temporarily halting the experiment, as he knew that such discussions tended to enrage Wang Miao. He just laid out the difficulties before Wang, though his unspoken desire was clear.
Engineers rushed around the main reaction chamber like doctors around a critical patient, trying to keep it going for a little longer. In front of the whole scene, the countdown appeared.
1174:21:11, 1174:21:10, 1174:21:09, 1174:21:08 . . .
Just stop. Try it. Shen's words came to Wang.
"How long would it take to completely overhaul the sensors?" Wang asked.
"Four or five days." Now that the lab director saw a ray of hope, he added, "If we work fast, it will take only three days. I guarantee it, Chief Wang!"
"I am not giving in, Wang thought. The equipment really needs maintenance, so the experiment must be temporarily stopped. This has nothing to do with anything else. He turned to the lab director and focused on him through the hovering countdown. "Shut down the experiment and perform the maintenance. Follow the schedule you gave me."
"Absolutely, Chief Wang. I'll give you an updated schedule right away. We can stop the reaction this afternoon!"
"You can stop it right now."
The lab director stared at him in disbelief, but soon he was excited again, as if afraid to lose this opportunity. He picked up the phone and issued the order to stop the reaction. All the exhausted researchers and technicians grew excited, too. They immediately began the procedures to shut down the main reaction chamber, flipping a hundred complex switches. The various control screens became dark one after another, until finally, the main screen reflected the main reaction chamber's halted status.
Almost simultaneously, the countdown before Wang's eyes also stopped. The final number was 1174:10:07. A few seconds later, the numbers flickered and disappeared.
As the world reemerged, free of the ghostly numbers, Wang let out a long breath, as though he had just struggled up from underwater. He sat down, drained, and realized that others were still watching him.
He turned to the lab director. "System maintenance is the responsibility of the Equipment Division. Why don't all of you in the research group take a break for a few days? I know everyone's been working hard."
"Chief Wang, you're tired, too. Chief Engineer Zhang can take care of things here. Why don't you go home and rest as well?"
"Yes, I am tired," Wang said.
After the lab director left, he picked up the phone and dialed Shen Yufei's number. She picked up after one ring.
"Who or what is behind this?" Wang asked. He tried to make his voice calm, but failed.
"What will happen at the end of the countdown?"
"Are you listening?"
"Why nanomaterials? This is not a particle accelerator. It's just applied research. Is it worth your attention? "
"Whether something is worth the attention is not for us to decide. "
"That's enough! " Wang shouted into the phone. The terror and desperation of the last few days suddenly turned into uncontrollable rage. "Do you think these cheap tricks can fool me? Can stop technological progress? I admit that I can't, for now, explain how you're doing it. But that's only because I haven't been able to peek behind the curtain of your shameful illusionist. "
"You're saying you want to see the countdown on an even greater scale? "
Shen's question stunned Wang for a moment. He forced himself to be calm so he wouldn't fall into a trap. "Put away your set of tricks. So what if you show it at a bigger scale? It's still only an illusion. You can project a hologram into the sky, like what NATO did during the last war. With a powerful enough laser you can project an image onto the surface of the moon! The shooter and the farmer should be able to manipulate matters at a scale that humans cannot. For example, can you make the count-down appear on the surface of the sun? " Wang's mouth hung open. He had shocked himself with his own words. Unconsciously, he had named the two hypotheses that he ought to have avoided. He felt on the verge of falling into the same mental trap that had claimed the other victims.
Trying to seize the initiative, he continued, "I can't anticipate all your tricks, but even with the sun, perhaps your despicable illusionist can still somehow make the deception seem real. To give a demonstration that will really be convincing, you have to display it at an even larger scale. " "The question is whether you can take it, " Shen said. "We're friends. I want to help you avoid Yang Dong's fate. "
The mention of Yang's name made Wang shudder. But another surge of anger made him reckless. "Will you take up my challenge? " "Of course. "
"What are you going to do? "
"Do you have a computer connected to the Internet? Okay, enter the following Web address:
http: //www. qsl. net/bg3tt/zl/mesdm. htm. You got it open? Now, print it out and keep it with you. "
Wang saw that the page was nothing more than a Morse code chart. "I don't understand. This—"
"During the next two days, please find a place where you can observe the cosmic microwave background. For specifics, please check the e-mail I'll send you. "
"What... are you going to do? "
"I know that your nanomaterial project has been stopped. Do you plan on restarting it? "
"Of course. Three days from now. "
""Then the countdown will continue. "
"At what scale will I see it? "
A long silence followed. This woman, who was acting as the spokesperson for some force beyond human understanding, blocked every exit Wang had.
"Three days from now—that's the fourteenth—between one and five in the morning, the entire universe will flicker for you. "
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