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The Wallfacers Sixth parts

Novel:The dark forestauthor: pubdate:2019-03-01 22:59

In the dead of night, the space force work meeting was still in progress. Zhang Beihai pushed aside the notebook and documents that lay on the desk in front of him and stood up, scanning the tired faces of the officers before turning toward Chang Weisi.
“Commander, before we report on our work, I’d first like to share some of my own views. I believe that the military leadership has not paid sufficient attention to political and ideological work among the forces. For example, the political department is the last of the six established departments to present its report at this meeting.”
Chang Weisi nodded. “I concur. The political commissars have not yet reported for duty, so it’s fallen to me to oversee political work. Now that we’ve finally begun work in all areas, it’s difficult to give it enough attention. For the bulk of the work, we’ll have to rely on you and the others who are in charge of specifics.”
“Commander, in my opinion, the present situation is dangerous.” This remark drew the attention of several officers, and Zhang Beihai continued. “Please forgive me for speaking pointedly. For one thing, we’ve been in meetings all day and we’re all tired, so no one will listen if I’m not blunt.” A few people laughed, but the rest were still mired in their fatigue. “More importantly, I’m truly worried. The battle we are facing has a force disparity unprecedented in the history of human warfare, so I believe that for the indefinite future the greatest danger facing the space force is defeatism. Its threat can’t be overstated. The spread of defeatism will not only result in an erosion of morale, but may lead to the total collapse of space-based military power.”
Chang Weisi nodded again. “I agree. Defeatism is our greatest enemy at present. The military commission is acutely aware of this. It’s why political and ideological work in the services will be critical. Once the basic units of the space force are in place, the work will become more complex.”
Zhang Beihai flipped open his notebook. “The work report follows,” he said, and began to read: “Since the establishment of the space force, our primary focus in political and ideological work among the troops has been to conduct a survey of the overall ideological status of officers and soldiers. Since the organization of this new branch is simple at the present time, with few members and few administrative levels, the survey was conducted through informal meetings and personal interaction, and a corresponding forum was set up on the intranet. The results of the survey are worrying. Defeatist thinking is prevalent and spreading swiftly among the troops. The mentality of a sizeable proportion of our comrades consists of terror toward the enemy and a lack of confidence in the future of war.
“The source of this defeatism stems primarily from the worship of technology, and the underestimation or complete dismissal of the role of human initiative and the human spirit in war. It is a development and extension of techno-triumphalism and the ‘weapons decide everything’ theory that has cropped up in the armed forces in recent years. The trend is particularly pronounced among highly educated officers. Defeatism among the troops takes the following forms:
“One. Treating one’s duty in the space force as an ordinary job: despite working with dedication and responsibility, lacking enthusiasm and sense of mission and doubting the ultimate significance of one’s work.
“Two. Passive waiting: believing that the outcome of the war depends on scientists and engineers; believing that prior to breakthroughs in basic research and key technologies, the space force is just a pipe dream, and subsequent confusion about the importance of its present work; being satisfied simply with completing tasks related to establishing this military branch; lacking innovation.
“Three. Harboring unrealistic fantasies: requesting to use hibernation technology to leap four centuries into the future and take part in the Doomsday Battle directly. A number of younger comrades have already expressed this wish, and one has even submitted a formal application. On the surface, this is a positive state of mind, a desire to throw oneself onto the front lines, but it is essentially just another form of defeatism. Lacking confidence in victory and doubting the significance of our present work, a soldier’s dignity becomes the only pillar sustaining work and life.
“Four. The opposite of the above: doubts about the dignity of the soldier, the belief that the military’s traditional moral code is no longer suitable for the battlefield, and that fighting to the end has no meaning; the belief that a soldier’s dignity only exists when there is someone to see it, and when a battle ends in defeat and no humans are left in the universe, then this dignity loses its significance. Although only a minority hold this notion, the abrogation of the very worth of the space force is exceedingly harmful.”
Here Zhang Beihai looked out at the assembly and saw that although his speech had attracted some interest, it still hadn’t managed to shake the fatigue from the meeting hall. He was confident that what he had to say next would change the situation.
“I’ll give you a specific example of a comrade who exhibits a typical form of defeatism. I am referring to Colonel Wu Yue.” Zhang Beihai held out his hand in the direction of Wu Yue’s seat at the conference table.
The tiredness of the room was swept away and the attendees pricked up their ears. Everyone looked nervously at Zhang Beihai and then at Wu Yue, who gazed placidly back, the picture of calmness.
“Wu Yue and I have worked together in the navy for quite some time and we know each other very well. He has a strong technology complex, and as a captain he is a technical type, or, if you want, an engineer. This
in itself isn’t a bad thing, but unfortunately, his military thinking is over-reliant on technology, and while he doesn’t come out and say it, he subconsciously believes that technological advancement is the primary and perhaps sole determinant of combat effectiveness. He completely neglects the human role in battle, particularly in his lack of understanding of the unique advantages formed in our army by difficult historical conditions. When he learned of the Trisolar Crisis, he lost all confidence in the future, and once he joined the space force, this despair only became more pronounced. Comrade Wu Yue’s defeatist sentiment is so heavy and ingrained that we have no hope of pulling him out of it. We must adopt strong measures as soon as possible to arrest the spread of defeatism in the troops, and therefore I believe that Comrade Wu Yue is no longer suitable for work in the space force.”
All eyes were on Wu Yue, who was now looking at the space force emblem on his hat lying on the table.
He remained calm as before.
Throughout the course of his speech, Zhang Beihai had not even glanced in Wu Yue’s direction. He continued: “Commander, Comrade Wu Yue, and the rest of you, I ask for your understanding. I say this only out of concern for the present ideological state of the troops. Of course, I also hope to engage Wu Yue in face- to-face, frank, and open discussion.”
Wu Yue raised a hand requesting permission to speak, and at a nod from Chang Weisi, he said, “What Comrade Zhang Beihai has said about my mental state is accurate, and I accept his conclusion: I am no longer fit to serve in the Space Force. I will abide by whatever the organization arranges.”
The atmosphere turned tense. Several officers looked at the notebook in front of Zhang Beihai, wondering who else its contents might concern.
One senior colonel in the air force got up and said, “Comrade Zhang Beihai, this is an ordinary work meeting. You ought to go through the proper organizational channels instead of bringing up issues like this. Do you think it’s appropriate to talk about this openly?”
His words were immediately echoed by many of the other officers.
Zhang Beihai said, “I know that my remarks violate organizational principles, and I am prepared to accept all responsibility. However, I do believe that I must, by whatever means, bring the seriousness of our current situation to your attention.”
Chang Weisi raised a hand to prevent any other replies. “First, the sense of responsibility and urgency that Comrade Zhang Beihai has shown in his work must be commended. The existence of defeatism amongst the troops is a fact, and we must face it rationally. So long as a technology gap exists between our two sides, defeatism will not vanish. It is not a problem that can be solved through simple methods but will require long and painstaking work, as well as more interaction and discussion. However, I also agree with the suggestion proposed by the colonel: matters concerning personal ideology should be resolved primarily through communication and exchange, and if a report is necessary, it should be made through the proper channels.”
The officers let out a sigh of relief. At this meeting, at least, Zhang Beihai would not be mentioning their names.
*    *    *
Imagining the boundless night sky above the cloud layer, Luo Ji struggled to collect his thoughts. Involuntarily,
his mind drifted to thoughts of the woman: her voice and laughing face appeared in the dimness, and a sorrow he had never felt before weighed upon his heart. This was followed closely by self-reproach, a disdain he had felt on countless prior occasions, but never so intensely. Why was she on his mind now? Up to this point, his only reaction to her death apart from fear and astonishment had been self-absolution, and only now that he knew her role in the situation was negligible did he spare her any of his precious sorrow. What sort of a person was he?
But what could be done? That’s just the sort of person he was.
In his bed, the minute oscillations of the plane gave Luo Ji the feeling of being in a cradle. He had slept in a cradle as a baby, he remembered, and one day in his parents’ basement he had seen, covered in dust under an old kid’s bed, the rockers of a cradle. Now when he closed his eyes and imagined the couple rocking his cradle, he asked himself, From the day you left that cradle, have you ever cared about anyone else besides those two people? Have you ever made even a small, permanent bit of room in your heart for anyone else?
Yes, he had made room, once. Five years before, the golden light of love had inhabited his heart. But that had been an unreal experience.
Everything had started with Bai Rong, an author of young-adult novels. She wrote them in her spare time but had gained enough of a following to bring her more in royalties than she made in salary. Out of all the women he had met, he had spent the most time with Bai Rong, and had even reached the point  of considering marrying her. Their relationship was the ordinary sort, not particularly intense or unforgettable, but they felt it suited them to be relaxed and happy together. Despite a certain dread of marriage, they felt giving it a try was the responsible thing to do.
At Bai Rong’s behest, he had read all of her work, and while he wouldn’t say he appreciated it, it wasn’t as torturous as the other works in the genre he had flipped through. She had an elegant style, and a mature lucidity that her peers lacked. But this style was not complemented by the novels’ content. Reading them was like looking at dewdrops on the undergrowth: pure and transparent, but distinguished from each other only by the way the light reflected and refracted through them and how they rolled about on the leaves, fusing together where they met and separating when they fell, until they evaporated entirely within the space of a few minutes after sunrise. Every time he read one of her books, beneath the graceful style he was left with one question: What do these people live on if they spend twenty-four hours a day in love?
“That love you write about—do you think it exists in the real world?” he asked one day. “I do.”
“Something you’ve seen, or something you’ve experienced yourself?”
She squeezed his neck. “Either way, I’m telling you that it exists,” she said cryptically into his ear. Sometimes he would give her suggestions for the novels she was working on, or even help her revise them. “It’s like you’re more talented than I am,” she said once. “You’re not revising plot, but character, and that’s
the hardest thing to do. Every time, you’re adding the touches that make the characters most vivid. Your skill at creating literary figures is first rate.”
“You’ve got to be kidding. My background’s in astronomy.” “Wang Xiaobo9 studied mathematics, remember.”
On her birthday last year, she had asked him for a specific present: “Can you write a novel for me?”
“A whole novel?”
“Well, at least fifty thousand characters long.” “With you as the protagonist?”
“No. I saw a really interesting exhibition of paintings by male artists of the most beautiful women they could imagine. The protagonist of your novel should be the same. You can leave reality behind and create an angel based entirely on your dream of feminine perfection.”
To this day he had no idea of the motivation for her request. Maybe she didn’t know herself. Thinking back now, it seemed her mood at the time had been a mixture of craftiness and ambivalence.
So he began constructing a character. He first imagined her face, and then designed her clothes, and then thought of her environment and the people around her, and finally placed her in that environment and had her move about and speak, letting her live. But this soon turned tedious, and he told Bai Rong about the difficulties he had encountered: “She’s like a puppet on a string. Every word and action arises from the design but lacks the spark of life.”
She said, “Your approach is wrong. You’re writing an essay rather than creating a literary figure. What a literary character does in ten minutes might be a reflection of ten years’ experience. You can’t be limited to the plot of a novel—you’ve got to imagine her entire life, and what actually gets put into words is just the tip of the iceberg.”
So he followed her advice. He threw out everything he wanted to write and instead imagined the character’s entire life and every detail of it. He imagined her nursing at her mother’s breast, her tiny mouth sucking energetically and burbling with satisfaction; chasing a red balloon tumbling down the street but making it just one step before falling to the ground, wailing as she watched the balloon drift away without realizing that she had just taken her first step; walking in the rain and impulsively folding up her umbrella to feel the raindrops; her first day at elementary school, sitting alone in a strange classroom, unable to see her parents through the windows or door, and nearly starting to cry, only to realize that her best friend from kindergarten was at a nearby desk, and crying in joy instead; her first night at college, lying on her dorm bunk and watching the shadows of trees thrown by streetlamps onto the ceiling.… He imagined every one of her favorite foods, the color and style of every item of clothing in her dresser, the decorations on her mobile phone, the books she read, the music on her media player, the Web sites she visited, the movies she liked; but never her makeup, because she didn’t need makeup.… Like a creator outside of time, he wove the different stages of her life together and gradually came to discover the endless pleasure of creation.
One day at the library, he imagined her standing by a row of shelves, reading. He put her in his favorite outfit, so her petite form would stand out more vividly in his mind. Suddenly, she looked up from the book and over at him, and flashed him a smile.
He was taken aback: Had he told her to smile? The smile had already imprinted itself on his memory like a stain on ice, never to be wiped away.
The real turning point came the following night. The snow and wind picked up, temperatures plummeted, and he watched from the warmth of his dorm the bluster that blanketed the other sounds of the city, the buffeting of the snowflakes on the widow like the patter of sand. A huge carpet of snow covered everything outdoors. The city seemed to no longer exist, leaving the faculty dormitory standing on an infinite snowy
plain. He went back to bed, but before he drifted off to sleep he had a sudden thought: If she were outside in this awful weather, she would be terribly cold. Then he reminded himself: It doesn’t matter, she won’t be outside unless you put her there. But this time his imagination failed, and she continued walking outside in the blizzard like a blade of grass that could blow away at any moment. She still wore that white coat and that red scarf, which was all he could make out, vaguely, through the swirling snow, like a tiny flame fighting against the storm.
It was impossible for him to sleep. He sat up in his bed, then threw on some clothes and sat on the sofa. He wondered if he should have a smoke but, remembering that she detested the smell, instead made a cup of coffee and drank it slowly. He had to wait for her. The blizzard and the cold night weighed on his heart. This was the first time he had felt such heartache for someone, or such yearning.
As his mind was sputtering to life, she came quietly, her small frame wrapped in a layer of cold from the outdoors, but with a breath of spring amid the chilliness. The snowflakes in her hair quickly melted into gleaming droplets as she unwrapped her scarf and put her hands to her mouth to blow on them. He folded her hands in his to warm the icy softness, and she looked at him with excitement and asked the question he was about to ask her: “Are you okay?”
He could only nod dumbly. Then, as he helped her out of her coat, he said, “Come and get warm.” He rubbed her soft shoulders and guided her to the fireplace.
“It’s really warm. Wonderful…” She sat on the rug in front of the fireplace, laughing happily as she watched the firelight.
Damn it! What’s wrong with me? he said to himself, in the middle of the empty room. Wouldn’t it be enough to just come up with any fifty thousand words, print them on high-grade bond, Photoshop a gorgeous cover and flap, have it professionally bound, have it gift-wrapped, and then give it to Bai Rong on her birthday? Why had he fallen so deep into this trap? He was amazed to find that he had tears in his eyes. And then another realization: A fireplace? When the hell did I get a fireplace? Why would I think of a fireplace? But then he understood: What he wanted wasn’t a fireplace, but the glow of the fire, for it is in firelight that a woman is most beautiful. He recalled how she had looked just then against the glow of the fire.…
No! Don’t think about her. It will be a disaster! Go to sleep!
Contrary to his expectations, he did not dream of her the entire night. He slept well, imagining the single bed as a small boat floating on a rosy sea. When he awoke the next morning, he felt reborn, like he was a candle that had been covered in dust for years before being lit by that tiny flame in last night’s snowstorm. He walked excitedly down the road to the classroom building, and though the air was hazy after the snowfall, he felt like he could see a thousand miles. There was no snow on the poplar trees lining the road, their bare branches poking up toward the cold sky, but to him they were more alive than in springtime.
He took the podium, and just as he had hoped, there she was again, seated in the back of the amphitheater, the only one in an empty row, at a distance from the other students. Her pure white coat and red scarf were on the seat beside her, and she was wearing a beige turtleneck sweater. She did not have her head down, flipping pages in her textbook like the other students. Instead, she watched him, and flashed him another snowy-sunrise of a smile.
He grew nervous. His pulse increased, and he had to leave through a side door to stand on the balcony and
calm himself in the cold air. The only other times he had been in a similar state were during his two doctoral thesis defenses. In his lecture he did his utmost to show off, and his extensive citations and impassioned language won a rare burst of applause from the auditorium. She didn’t join in, but merely smiled at him and nodded.
After class, he walked side by side with her along the tree-lined avenue that offered no shade, listening to the crunch of her blue boots in the snow. The two lines of winter poplars listened in silence to their heartfelt conversation.
“You lecture quite well, but I didn’t really understand.” “You’re not in this major, are you?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Do you often sit in on classes in other majors?”
“Only the past few days. I’ll go into a lecture hall at random and sit for a while. I just graduated and will be leaving soon. I suddenly realized that it’s great here, and I’m afraid of the outside.…”
Over the next three or four days, he spent the majority of his time with her, although to others, it looked as if he was spending most of his time alone, strolling on his own. It was quite easy to explain to Bai Rong: He was thinking about her birthday gift. And indeed, this was no lie.
On New Year’s Eve, he bought a bottle of red wine, which he had never drunk before, returned to his dorm room, shut off the light, and lit some candles on the table next to the sofa. When all three candles were burning, she sat down wordlessly next to him.
“Oh, look,” she exclaimed, pointing at the wine bottle with childlike excitement. “What?”
“Look at it from here, where the candles shine through. The wine is lovely.”
Shining through the wine, the candlelight was a deep, crystalline red, the stuff of dreams. “Like a dead sun,” he said.
“Don’t think like that,” she said, with a sincerity that melted his heart. “I think it’s like … the eyes of twilight.”
“Why not the eyes of dawn?” “I like twilight better.” “Why?”
“When twilight fades, you can see the stars. When dawn fades, all that’s left is…” “All that’s left is the harsh light of reality.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
They spoke about everything, sharing a common language in even the most trivial of things, until the bottle that had contained the eyes of twilight had been emptied into his stomach.
He lay drowsily in bed and watched the candles still burning on the table. She had vanished from the candlelight, but he was not worried. So long as he was willing, she could reappear at any time.
Then there was a knock on the door. He knew the knock came from reality and had nothing to do with  her, so he ignored it. The door opened and Bai Rong entered. When she turned on the light it was like switching on the gray of reality. She glanced at the table with the candles, then sat down at the head of his bed
and sighed lightly. “It’s still okay.”
“What is?” He used a hand to block the harsh light.
“You haven’t gotten to the point of leaving a glass for her, too.”
He covered his eyes but said nothing. She pulled away his hands, and then, looking straight at him, asked, “She’s alive, isn’t she?”
He nodded and sat up. “Rong, I used to think that a character in a novel was controlled by her creator, that she would be whatever the author wanted her to be, and do whatever the author wanted her to do, like God does for us.”
“Wrong!” she said, standing up and beginning to pace the room. “Now you realize you were wrong. This is the difference between an ordinary scribe and a literary writer. The highest level of literary creation is when the characters in a novel possess life in the mind of the writer. The writer is unable to control them, and might not even be able to predict the next action they will take. We can only follow them in wonder to observe and record the minute details of their lives like a voyeur. That’s how a classic is made.”
“So literature, it turns out, is a perverted endeavor.”
“It was like that for Shakespeare and Balzac and Tolstoy, at least. The classic images they created were born from their mental wombs. But today’s practitioners of literature have lost that creativity. Their minds give birth only to shattered fragments and freaks, whose brief lives are nothing but cryptic spasms devoid of reason. Then they sweep up these fragments into a bag they peddle under the label ‘postmodern’ or ‘deconstructionist’ or ‘symbolism’ or ‘irrational.’”
“So you mean that I’ve become a writer of classic literature?”
“Hardly. Your mind is only gestating an image, and it’s the easiest one of all. The minds of those classic authors gave birth to hundreds and thousands of figures. They formed the picture of an era, and that’s something that only a superhuman can accomplish. But what you’ve done isn’t easy. I didn’t think you’d be able to do it.”
“Have you ever done it?”
“Just once,” she said simply, and dropped the subject. She grabbed his neck, and said, “Forget it. I don’t want that birthday present anymore. Come back to a normal life, okay?”
“And if all this continues—what then?”
She studied him for a few seconds, then let go of him and shook her head with a smile. “I knew it was too late.” Picking up her bag from the bed, she left.
Then he heard people outside counting down, four, three, two, one. From the classroom building, which until then had been resounding with music, came peals of laughter. On the athletic field people lit fireworks. Looking at his watch, he saw that the final second of that year had just passed.
“It’s a holiday tomorrow. Where should we go?” he asked. He lay on the bed, but knew his character had already appeared beside the nonexistent fireplace.
“You’re not taking her?” she asked in all innocence, pointing toward the still-open door. “No. Just the two of us. Where would you like to go?”
She drank in the dancing flames in the fireplace and said, “It’s not important where we go. I think it’s a wonderful feeling just being on a journey.”
“Then we’ll set out and see where we end up?” “Excellent.”
The next morning, he drove his Accord off campus and headed west, a direction he chose purely because it avoided the headaches of having to traverse the entire city. He felt for the first time the wonderful freedom of traveling with no destination in mind. As the buildings outside slowly thinned out and fields began to appear, he cracked his window to let the cold winter air in. He sensed her long hair catching the wind, and strands of it blew over to tickle his right temple.
“Look, mountains.” She pointed off in the distance.
“Visibility is good today. Those are the Taihang Mountains. They run parallel to this road, and then bend around to form a block in the west, where the road goes into them. I’d say that right now we’re—”
“No, no. Don’t say where we are! Once we know where we are, then the world becomes as narrow as a map. When we don’t know, the world feels unlimited.”
“Okay. Then let’s do our best to get lost.” He turned onto an emptier road, and before they had gone very far, turned a second time. On both sides of them were now endless fields where the snow had not yet melted completely, the snowy patches and snow-free ground roughly equal. No green anywhere, although the sunlight was brilliant.
“A classic northern scene,” he said.
“This is the first time I’ve ever felt that land without the slightest bit of green could be beautiful.”
“The green is buried in the fields and is waiting for springtime. The winter wheat will sprout while it’s still very cold, then this will be a sea of green. Imagine, all this expanse…”
“It doesn’t need green. It’s beautiful right now. Look, doesn’t the land look like a big milk cow asleep under the sun?”
“What?” He looked in surprise, first at her and then through the windows at the patchy snow on either side of the car. “Oh, there really is a resemblance! So, what’s your favorite season?”
“Why not spring?”
“Spring … has so many sensations squashed together. It gets tiring. Autumn is better.”
He stopped the car and went out with her to the edge of the field to look at the magpies, which foraged on the ground until they got quite close, at which point they flew off to some trees in the distance. Then they went down a riverbed that was practically dried up, with only a thin stream of water flowing down the center. But it was a northern river all the same, and so they picked up small chilly smooth stones from the riverbed and pitched them in, watching the cloudy yellow water gush out of the holes they broke in the thin ice. They passed a small town and spent a while at the market there. She knelt down by a goldfish vendor, the fish in their glass bowls like liquid flames under the sun, and wouldn’t leave. He bought her two and put them, water and all, in plastic bags on the backseat of the car. They entered a hamlet, but found nothing that felt like the countryside. The houses and compounds were brand new, cars were parked outside of many of the gates, the cement roads were wide, and people were dressed no differently than in the cities—a few girls were even stylish. Even the dogs were the same long-haired, short-legged parasites found in the cities. More interesting was the large stage at the entrance to the village—they marveled at how such a small village could have such
an immense stage. It was empty, so with some effort he climbed up and—looking down at his lone audience member—sang a verse from “Tonkaya Ryabina” about the slender hawthorn tree. At noon, they ate in another town, where the food was more or less the same as in the city, only the portions were about twice as large. After lunch, they sat drowsily in the warmth of the sun on a bench outside the town hall, and then drove onward with no direction in mind.
Before they knew it, the road had entered the mountains, which were plain and ordinary in shape and devoid of vegetation apart from withered grasses and vitex vines in the crevices of the gray rocks. Over the course of hundreds of millions of years, the mountains, weary of standing, had lain down, sunken into flatness amid time and sunlight, and turned anyone walking among them just as indolent. “The mountains here are like old villagers basking in the sun,” she said, but they hadn’t seen any of those old men in the villages they passed through; none more at ease than the mountains. More than once their car had been stopped by a flock of sheep crossing the road. Beside the road there at last appeared the kind of villages they had imagined, with cave houses and persimmon and walnut trees and stone-tiled low buildings, roofs piled high with stripped corn cob. Even the dogs were larger and more fierce.
They started and stopped as they went through the mountains, and before they knew it the entire afternoon was spent. The sun was setting, and the road had entered the shadows long ago. He drove along a dirt road pitted with potholes up onto a high ridge where the sun still shone, and they decided that this would be the terminus of their journey: They would watch the sun set and then head back. Her long hair blew in the light evening breeze, seemingly striving to seize hold of the last golden rays.
They had only just turned onto the highway when the car broke down. The rear axle had broken, meaning they had to call for help. A while later he was able to learn the name of the place from the driver of a small passing truck. He was comforted by the fact that his phone had a signal. When he gave his location to the person at the repair station, he was informed that the repair truck would take at least four or five hours to get there.
The mountain air chilled quickly after sunset. After their surroundings began to grow dusky, he collected some corn stalks from a nearby terraced field and started a fire.
“Nice and warm,” she said, gazing into the fire, as happy as she had been that first night in front of the fireplace. Again he was transfixed by her appearance in the firelight, drowned in emotions he had never felt before, as if he was a bonfire himself and the only purpose of his existence was to give her warmth.
“Are there wolves?” she asked, looking around at the growing darkness.
“No. Northern China is still in the interior. It just looks desolate, but it’s actually one of the most densely populated regions. Look at the road. A car drives past every two minutes, on average.”
“I was hoping you’d say there were wolves,” she said with a sweet smile, then looked off at the cloud of sparks flying off like stars into the night.
“Okay. There are wolves, but I’m right here.”
They said nothing more, but sat silently before the fire, occasionally feeding it another bunch of straw. Later—he didn’t know how much later—his phone rang. Bai Rong.
“Are you with her?” she asked gently.
“No, I’m alone,” he said as he looked up. He wasn’t lying. He truly was by himself, next to a bonfire along
a road in the Taihang Mountains. The firelight revealed stones around him, and overhead was only a starry sky.
“I know you’re alone. But are you with her?”
He paused and softly said, “Yes,” and when he looked beside him, there she was, feeding straw into the fire and smiling at the flames that lit up the area where they sat.
“Now do you believe that the love I write about in my novels really exists?” “Yes, I believe it.”
When he said those four words, he immediately realized how great the distance between the two of them really was. They were silent for a long time, during which radio waves spun their gossamer strands through the mountains to sustain this final contact.
“You have one of your own, don’t you?” he asked. “Yes. For a long time.”
“Where is he now?”
He could hear her laugh softly. “Where else would he be?” He laughed too. “Yes, where else?”
“Well. Take it easy. Good-bye.” Bai Rong hung up, snapping the thread that stretched across the night sky and leaving the people at the two ends a little saddened, but nothing more than that.
“It’s too cold outdoors. Let’s sleep in the car,” he said to her.
She gently shook her head. “I want to be with you here. You like me by the fire, right?”
It was midnight by the time the repair truck arrived from Shijiazhuang. The repairmen were surprised to find him sitting beside a fire. “Sir, you’ve gotta be freezing. The engine’s not busted. Wouldn’t it be warmer to sit in the car with the heat turned on?”
After the car was repaired, Luo Ji dashed home through the night, out of the mountains and back onto the plain, reaching Shijiazhuang by dawn. It was already ten in the morning by the time he got back to Beijing.
Rather than returning to school, he drove straight to the psychologist.
“You may need a bit of adjustment, but it’s nothing serious,” the doctor said, after listening to his lengthy narrative.
“Nothing serious?” Luo Ji opened his bloodshot eyes wide. “I’m madly in love with a fictional person from a novel of my own creation. I’ve been with her, I’ve traveled with her, and I’ve even broken up with my real-life girlfriend over her. Is that nothing serious to you?”
The doctor smiled tolerantly.
“Don’t you get it? I’ve given my most profound love to an illusion!”
“Are you under the impression that the object of everyone else’s love actually exists?” “Is that even a question?”
“Sure. For the majority of people, what they love exists only in the imagination. The object of their love is not the man or woman of reality, but what he or she is like in their imagination. The person in reality is just a template used for the creation of this dream lover. Eventually, they find out the differences between their dream lover and the template. If they can get used to those differences, then they can be together. If not, they split up. It’s as simple as that. You differ from the majority in one respect: You didn’t need a template.”
“So this isn’t a sickness?”
“Only in the way your girlfriend pointed out: You’ve got natural literary talent. If you want to call that a sickness, go right ahead.”
“But isn’t imagining to this degree a little excessive?”
“There’s nothing excessive about imagination. Especially where love is concerned.” “So what should I do? How can I forget about her?”
“It’s impossible. You can’t forget her, so don’t make the effort. That will only lead to side effects, and maybe even mental disorders. Let nature take its course. Once more, for emphasis: Don’t try to forget about her. It won’t work. But as time passes, her influence on your life will decrease. And you’re actually quite lucky. Whether or not she really exists, you’re fortunate to be in love.”
This was Luo Ji’s most deeply felt romantic experience, a love that only comes around once in a man’s life. After that, he took to an insouciant lifestyle, going where life took him, just like the day they had set out in the Accord. And like the psychologist had said, her influence in his life decreased. When he was with a real woman, she didn’t appear, and eventually she rarely appeared even when he was alone. But he knew that the most secluded part of his soul belonged to her, and she would be there for life. He even saw clearly the world she inhabited, a still snowscape where the sky was forever graced with silver stars and a crescent moon, the snow falling steadily. In the silence you could practically hear the snowflakes coming to rest on the ground like smooth white sugar. In her exquisite cabin in the snow, the Eve that Luo Ji had formed out of one of his mind’s ribs sat before an ancient fireplace quietly watching the dancing flames.
Now that he was alone on this ominous plane flight, he wanted to have her companionship, to guess with her what lay at the journey’s end. But she didn’t appear. He could still see her in a far-off region of his soul, sitting silently before the fireplace, never feeling lonely, because she knew her world was within him.
Luo Ji reached out a hand to the medicine bottle by the bed with the thought of using a sleeping pill to force himself to sleep, but the instant his fingers touched the bottle it flew off the cabinet and up to the ceiling, as did the clothing that he had flung onto the chair. They remained on the ceiling for a couple seconds. He felt himself leave the bed, but since the sleeping bag was attached, he didn’t fly away, and when the bottle landed, he fell heavily back into the bed. For a few seconds his body felt like it was being pressed down by a heavy object, and he couldn’t move. The sudden weightlessness and hypergravitation made him dizzy, a condition that continued for less than ten seconds before everything returned to normal.
He heard the soft swish of footsteps on the carpet outside the door. A number of people were in motion, and then the door opened and Shi Qiang poked his head in. “Luo Ji, are you okay?”
When Luo Ji said he was fine, he closed the door without coming in. Outside, a dialogue continued in low voices.
“It looks like a misunderstanding during the escort change. Nothing to worry about.” “What did the higher-ups say on the call earlier?” That was Shi Qiang’s voice.
“They said that the escort formation would require a midair refueling in half an hour, and that we shouldn’t be alarmed.”
“The plan doesn’t mention this interruption, does it?”
“Not even close. In the chaos just now, seven of the escort planes jettisoned their secondary fuel tanks.”
“Why all the jumpiness? Forget it. You should go back to sleep. Don’t get too worked up.” “How are we supposed to sleep in a state like this?”
“Leave someone on watch. What good are you if you’re tired out? They may try to keep us on high alert all the time, but I maintain my own opinion of security work: When you’ve thought of everything you should, and done everything you need to, then let whatever happens happen. There’s nothing more anyone can do, you know? Don’t psych yourselves out.”
At the mention of “escort change,” Luo Ji reached over, opened the cover to the window, and looked outside. There was still a sea of clouds in the night sky. The moon was inclining toward the horizon, and he could see the trails of the fighter formation, now with an additional six lines. He inspected the tiny aircraft heading up those trails and noticed that they were a different model than the four he’d seen earlier.
The bedroom door opened and Shi Qiang poked his torso in to say, “Luo, my man, just a small issue. Don’t worry. Nothing else from now on. Go back to sleep.”
“There’s still time to sleep? How many hours have we been flying?”
“We’ve still got a few more hours. Go to sleep.” He closed the door and left.
Luo Ji turned over in the bed and picked up the pill bottle. Shi had been thorough: It contained just one pill. He took it, looked at the small red light beneath the window, imagining it was the light of a fireplace, and drifted off to sleep.


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