The Wallfacers Fifteenth parts
It began to rain that evening for the first time since Luo Ji had arrived at the estate, and the living room was quite cold. He sat beside the unlit fireplace and listened to the rain outside, feeling that the house was located on a lonely island in the middle of a dark ocean. He wrapped himself in the boundless solitude. With Shi Qiang gone, he had been restlessly waiting, and this lonely wait was itself a kind of happiness. Then he heard a car pull up to the porch and caught snatches of conversation. The soft, gentle voice of a woman saying “Thank you” and “Good-bye” jolted him like an electric shock.
Two years ago, he had heard the same sound day and night in his dreams. The ethereal sound, a wisp of gossamer floating through the blue sky, brought a fleeting sunshine to the gloomy evening.
Then there was a light knock at the door. He sat stiffly in place and only after a long while did he finally open his mouth and say, “Come in.” The door opened. A slender figure floated in on a breath of rain. The sole light in the living room was a floor lamp with an old-fashioned lampshade that cast a circle of illumination beside the fireplace but lit the rest of the room only dimly. Luo Ji couldn’t make out her face, but noticed that she wore white trousers and a dark jacket that stood in stark contrast to her white collar and made him think of lilies.
“Hello, Mr. Luo,” she said.
“Hello,” he said, standing up. “Is it cold outside?”
“Not in the car.” Although he couldn’t see her clearly, he knew she was smiling. “But here”—she looked around her—“here it’s a little cold.… Er, I’m Zhuang Yan, Mr. Luo.”
“Hello, Zhuang Yan. Let’s light the fireplace.”
And so Luo Ji knelt down and put some of the neatly stacked fruitwood into the fireplace. He said, “Have you ever seen one before? Here, come have a seat.”
She came over and sat on the sofa, still in the shadows. “Oh … only in the movies.”
Luo Ji struck a match and lit the fire-starter under the wood pile. The flame stretched like it was alive, and the woman gradually took shape in its soft golden glow. Luo Ji gripped tightly to the match with two fingers as it burnt down. He needed the pain to tell him this wasn’t a dream. It was like he had ignited the sun, which now shone on a dreamworld-turned-reality. Outside, the sun could remain forever hidden by clouds and night, so long as his world had her and the firelight in it.
Da Shi, you really are a devil. Where did you find her? How the hell were you able to find her?
Luo Ji looked away, back into the fire, and tears came unbidden to his eyes. This made him a little scared to look at her, until he realized there was no reason to hide—she would probably think it was the smoke that made him cry. He rubbed his tears away with a hand.
“It’s really warm, and nice…” she said with a smile as she watched the flames. Her words and her smile made Luo Ji’s heart tremble.
“Why is it like this?” She looked up and glanced around the dim living room a second time. “It’s not the same as you imagined?”
“It’s not the same.”
“It’s not…” He thought about her name. “It’s not ‘dignified’ enough for you?” She smiled at him. “My name is the ‘yan’ that means color, not dignity.”
“Oh, I see. Perhaps you think there ought to be lots of maps, and a large screen, and clusters of uniformed generals, and I’d be here pointing at things with a stick?”
“That’s it exactly, Mr. Luo.” Delighted, her smile blossomed like a rose in bloom.
Luo Ji stood up. “You must be tired from the journey. Have some tea.” He hesitated. “Or would you care for some wine? It’ll ward off the cold.”
She nodded. “Okay.” She accepted the goblet with a quiet “Thank you,” and took a small sip.
Looking at her innocently holding the wineglass stirred the most delicate parts of his mind. She drank when invited. She trusted the world and had no wariness about it at all. Yes, everything in the world was lying in wait to hurt her, except here. She needed to be cared for here. This was her castle.
He sat down and looked at her, and then said, as calmly as he could, “What did they tell you before you came?”
“That I’d be coming to work, of course.” She flashed him that innocent smile that dashed his heart to pieces. “Mr. Luo, what will I be working on?”
“What did you study?”
“Traditional painting, at the Central Academy of Fine Arts.” “Ah. Have you graduated?”
“Yes. I just graduated, and have been looking for work while I prepare for grad school.”
Luo Ji considered this for a while, but he couldn’t come up with anything for her to do. “Well, as for work, we’ll talk about that tomorrow. You must be tired. First you must sleep well.… Do you like it here?”
“I don’t know. There was a lot of fog when I came from the airport, and then it got dark, so I couldn’t see anything.… Mr. Luo, where is this?”
“I don’t know either.”
She nodded and chuckled to herself, clearly not believing him.
“I really don’t know where we are. The land looks like Scandinavia. I could call and ask right now.” He reached for the phone next to the sofa.
“No, don’t, Mr. Luo. It’s nice not knowing.” “Why?”
“Once you know, the world turns narrow.” My god, he exclaimed to himself.
All of a sudden, she exclaimed, “Mr. Luo, look at how lovely the wine is in the firelight.”
The wine, soaked in the light of the fire, shone with a glistening crimson found only in dreams. “What do you think it looks like?” he asked nervously.
“Well, I think it looks like eyes.” “The eyes of twilight, no?”
“The eyes of twilight? That’s a marvelous way to put it, Mr. Luo.” “Dawn or twilight? You prefer twilight, do you?”
“That’s right. How did you know? I love painting the twilight.” Her eyes shone crystalline in the firelight, as if asking, What’s wrong with that?
The next morning, after the rain had cleared, Luo Ji felt as if God had washed out this Garden of Eden to prepare for Zhuang Yan’s arrival. When she saw its true appearance for the first time, what Luo Ji heard was not the squeals and fussing and exclamations that young women like her usually made. No, in the face of such a magnificent vista, she fell into an awed and breathless state and was unable to speak even one word of praise. He could tell that she was far more sensitive to natural beauty than other women.
“So you really like to paint?” he asked.
She stared speechless at the distant snow peak, and it was some time before she recovered her senses. “Oh, yes. But if I’d grown up here, I probably wouldn’t.”
“I’ve imagined lots of wonderful places, and when I paint them it’s like I’ve been there. But this place has everything from my dreams and imagination, so what would a painting do?”
“That’s true. When the beauty in your imagination becomes reality, it’s really…” He trailed off, and glanced at Zhuang Yan against the sunrise, the angel who had stepped out of his dream. The happiness in his heart rippled like the waves on the lake sparkling in the light. The UN and the PDC never imagined that this would be a consequence of the Wallfacer Project. If he died now, he wouldn’t care.
“Mr. Luo, if it rained so much yesterday, why hasn’t the snow on that mountain been washed away?” she asked.
“The rain fell below the snowline. That mountain has snow year-round. The climate here is very different from back in China.”
“Have you been to the mountain?”
“No. I haven’t been here very long.” He noticed that the girl’s eyes never left the mountain. “Do you like snowcaps?”
She nodded. “Then let’s go.”
“Really? When?” she exclaimed in excitement.
“We can set off now. There’s a simple roadway that runs to the foot of the mountain, and if we go now, we can be back by evening.”
“What about work?” Zhuang Yan tore her eyes from the mountain and looked at Luo Ji. “Work can be set aside for now. You just arrived,” he said perfunctorily.
“Well…” She tilted her head, giving his heart a jolt. The naïve expression was one he had seen on her countless times before. “Mr. Luo, I’ve got to know what it is I’m doing.”
He looked into the distance and thought for a few seconds, then said with finality, “I’ll tell you when we’ve reached the mountain.”
“Great! Then we should be off, shouldn’t we?”
“Right. It’s easier if we take the boat to the other side of the lake and then drive from there.”
They walked to the end of the pier. Luo Ji noted that the wind was favorable, so they could take the sailboat. The direction would change at night so they would be able to catch it again coming back. He took her by the hand to help her into the boat. It was the first time he had touched her, and her hands were exactly like the ones he had first clasped on that winter night in his imagination, so soft and cool. She was pleasantly surprised when he raised the white spinnaker. When the boat left the pier, she plunged a hand into the water.
“The lake water is very cold,” he said. “But it’s so clean and clear!”
Like your eyes, he said to himself. “Why do you like snowcaps?” “I like traditional painting.”
“What’s that got to do with snowcaps?”
“Mr. Luo, are you aware of the difference between traditional painting and oil painting? Oil paintings are brimming with rich colors. A master once said that in oil painting, white is as precious as gold. But it’s different with traditional painting. There’s lots and lots of blank space, and blank space forms the painting’s eyes. The scenery is just the border for that blank space. Look at that snowy peak. Doesn’t it look like the blank space in a traditional painting?”
This was the most she had ever said to him. She lectured the Wallfacer, pouring out words and turning him into an ignorant schoolboy, without any sense of being out of line.
You’re like the blank space in a traditional painting: pure, but to a mature appreciation, infinitely appealing, he thought as he looked at her.
The boat docked at a pier on the opposite shore, where an open-top Jeep was parked next to the trees. The driver who had parked it there was gone.
“Is this a military car? I saw troops around when I arrived, and had to go past three sentry points,” she said as they got into the car.
“That doesn’t matter. They won’t bother us,” he said, starting the engine.
The road passing through the forest was narrow and rough, but the car drove smoothly on it. In the forest, where the morning mist had not yet lifted, the sun penetrated the tall pines with shafts of light, and even through the engine sound they could hear the calls of birds in the trees. A sweet breeze whipped up Zhuang Yan’s hair and tossed it about on Luo Ji’s face, and the itching made him think of the winter road trip two years ago.
Everything about their surroundings was completely remote from Mount Taihang and the snowy northern China plains, but his dreams from that trip were so seamlessly connected to today’s reality that he found it hard to believe that it was actually happening to him.
He turned to look at Zhuang Yan and found her looking back at him. She had been for a long time, it seemed. The look in her eyes was one of slight curiosity mixed with goodwill and innocence. Sunbeams flickered over her face and body. When she saw Luo Ji looking at her, she did not turn away.
“Mr. Luo, do you really have the ability to defeat the aliens?” she asked.
He was completely overcome by her childlike nature. The question was one that no one but her would ever ask a Wallfacer, and they had known each other so briefly.
“Zhuang Yan, the core meaning of the Wallfacer Project is to encapsulate humanity’s real strategy in the mind of one person, the only place in the world that’s safe from sophon spying. They had to choose a few people, but that doesn’t mean those people are supermen. Superman doesn’t exist.”
“But why were you chosen?”
That question was even more abrupt and outrageous than the previous one, but it sounded natural coming from Zhuang Yan’s lips, because in her transparent heart, every sunbeam was transmitted and refracted with crystalline clarity.
Luo Ji slowed the car to a stop. She looked at him in surprise as he stared straight ahead at the patches of sun on the roadway.
“Wallfacers are the most untrustworthy people in history. The world’s greatest liars.” “That’s your duty.”
He nodded. “But, Zhuang Yan, I’m going to tell you the truth. Please believe me.” She nodded. “Mr. Luo, please continue. I believe you.”
He was silent for a long while, increasing the weight of the words he then uttered. “I don’t know why I was chosen.” He turned to her. “I’m just an ordinary man.”
She nodded again. “It must be very hard.”
Those words and Zhuang Yan’s look of innocence again brought tears to his eyes. It was the first time he had received such an acknowledgement since becoming a Wallfacer. The girl’s eyes were his paradise, and in that clear gaze he saw no trace of the expression that everyone else directed at the Wallfacers. Her smile was paradise for him, too. It wasn’t the Wallfacer smile, but a pure, innocent smile, like a sun-drenched dewdrop falling softly into the driest part of his soul.
“It’ll be hard, but I’d like to make it easier.… That’s all. Here endeth the truth. We now return to the Wallfacer state,” he said, as he restarted the engine.
They drove on in silence, until the trees grew sparse and the deep blue sky emerged overhead. “Mr. Luo, look at that eagle!” Zhuang Yan shouted.
“And that over there looks like deer!” He pointed, fast enough to distract her attention, because he knew that the object in the sky wasn’t an eagle but a circling sentry drone. This reminded him of Shi Qiang. He took out his phone and dialed.
Shi Qiang answered. “Hey, brother Luo. So now you remember me, eh? First, tell me: How’s Yan Yan doing?”
“Fine. Excellent. Wonderful. Thank you!”
“That’s good. So it turns out I’ve completed my final mission.” “Final mission? Where are you?”
“Back home. I’m getting ready for hibernation.” “What?”
“I’ve got leukemia. I’m going to the future to cure it.”
Luo Ji slammed his foot down on the brakes and stopped short. Zhuang Yan yelped. He looked at her in concern, but, seeing that nothing was wrong, he resumed talking to Shi Qiang.
“Er … when did this happen?”
“I got irradiated on a previous mission and then got ill last year.” “My god! I didn’t delay you, did I?”
“With this sort of thing, delay isn’t relevant. Who knows what medicine will be like in the future?” “I’m truly sorry, Da Shi.”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter. It’s all part of the job. I didn’t bother you about it because I figured we would be able to meet again sometime. But I’d like to tell you something in case we can’t.”
After a lengthy silence, Shi Qiang said, “‘Three things are unfilial, and having no issue is the greatest.’13 Brother Luo, the lineage of the Shi family four hundred years from now is in your hands.”
The call disconnected. Luo Ji looked up at the sky, where the drone had disappeared. The empty blue wash of the sky was his heart.
“You were talking to Uncle Shi?” Zhuang Yan asked. “Yes. Did you meet him?”
“I met him. He’s a nice man. The day I left he accidentally broke the skin on his hand and it wouldn’t stop bleeding. It was pretty scary.”
“Oh … Did he say anything to you?”
“He said you were doing the most important thing in the world, and he asked me to help you.”
Now the forest had entirely disappeared, leaving only grassland between them and the mountain. In silver and green, the composition of the world had turned simple and pure, and, to Luo Ji’s mind, more and more like the girl sitting beside him. He noticed a hint of melancholy in her eyes, and he became aware that she was sighing softly.
“Yan Yan, what’s wrong?” he asked. It was the first time he had called her that, but he thought, If Da Shi can call her that, why can’t I?
“It’s such a beautiful world, but when you think about how someday there may be no one here to see it, it’s quite sad.”
“Won’t the aliens be here?”
“I don’t think they appreciate beauty.” “Why?”
“My dad said that people who are sensitive to beauty are good by nature, and if they’re not good, then they can’t appreciate beauty.”
“Yan Yan, their approach to humans is a rational choice. It’s the responsible thing to do for the survival of their species, and has nothing to do with good or evil.”
“That’s the first I’ve heard of it. Mr. Luo, you’re going to see them, aren’t you?” “Perhaps.”
“If they’re really like you say, and you defeat them in the Doomsday Battle, then, well, could you…” She tilted her head to look at him, and hesitated.
He was about to say that the possibility of that was practically nil, but he controlled himself, and said, “Could I what?”
“Why do you have to drive them out into space to die? Give them a plot of land, and let them coexist with us? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
Luo Ji dealt silently with his emotions for a moment, then pointed up to the sky and said, “Yan Yan, I’m not the only one who heard what you just said.”
Zhuang Yan looked up nervously. “Oh, right. There must be tons of sophons around us.” “It might have been the Trisolar High Consul himself who heard you.”
“And you’re all laughing at me, aren’t you?”
“No. Yan Yan, do you know what I’m thinking right now?” He had a strong impulse to take hold of her slender left hand, which was lying next to the steering wheel, but he controlled himself. “I’m thinking that the person who might actually have a chance of saving the world is you.”
“Me?” She burst out laughing.
“You, except that you’re not enough. Or, rather, there aren’t enough people like you. If a third of humanity was like you, then Trisolaris might negotiate with us about the possibility of coexisting on the world. But now…” He let out a long sigh.
Zhuang Yan flashed a helpless smile. “Mr. Luo, it hasn’t been easy for me. Going out into the world after graduation, I was like a fish swimming into the sea, where the water was muddy and I couldn’t see anything at all. I wanted to swim to clearer waters, but all that swimming got tiring.…”
I wish I could help you swim to those waters, he said to himself.
The road began to climb the mountain, and as the altitude increased, the vegetation grew sparse, exposing the naked black rock. For one stretch of road, they seemed to be driving on the surface of the moon. But soon they crossed the snowline and were surrounded by white, and a crisp chill filled the air. He grabbed down jackets from the travel bag in the backseat, and they put them on and continued ahead.
Before long they reached a roadblock, a conspicuous sign in the middle of the road that warned, DANGER: AVALANCHE SEASON. ROAD AHEAD CLOSED. So they got out of the car and walked to the snow at the roadside.
The sun had started its descent, casting shadows around them on the snowy slope. The pure snow was pale blue in color, almost weakly fluorescent. The jagged peaks in the distance were still lit and shone silver in all
directions, a light that seemed to issue from the snow itself, as if it was this mountain and not the sun that had been illuminating the world all along.
“Okay, now the painting’s entirely blank,” he said, sweeping his hands about him.
Zhang Yan drank in the white world around her. “Mr. Luo, I actually did do a painting like this once. From a distance, it was a white sheet of paper, almost entirely blank, but closer in you would see fine reeds in the lower left corner, and in the upper right the traces of a disappearing bird. In the blank center, two infinitesimally tiny people.… It’s the painting I’m proudest of.”
“I can imagine it. It must be magnificent.… So, Zhuang Yan, now that we’re in this blank world, are you interested in learning about your job?”
She nodded, but looked anxious.
“You know about the Wallfacer Project, and you know that its success relies on its incomprehensibility. At its highest level, no one on Earth or Trisolaris, apart from the Wallfacer himself, understands it. So, Zhuang Yan, no matter how inexplicable you find your work, it definitely has meaning. Don’t try to understand it. Just do it as best you can.”
She nodded nervously. “Yes, I understand.” Then she laughed and shook her head. “I mean, I get it.”
Looking at her amid the snow, the whiteness lost all dimension, and the world faded around her, leaving her its only presence. Two years before, when the literary image he had created had come to life in his imagination, he had tasted love. Now, in the blank space of this grand natural painting, he understood love’s ultimate mystery.
“Zhuang Yan, your work is to make yourself happy.” Her eyes widened.
“You must become the happiest woman on Earth. This is part of the Wallfacer plan.”
The light of the peak that illuminated their world was reflected in her eyes, and complex feelings drifted across the purity of her gaze. The snowy peak absorbed all sound from the outside world, and he waited patiently in the silence, until finally she said, in a voice that seemed to come from a great distance, “Then … what should I do?”
Luo Ji grew animated. “Whatever you want to! Tomorrow, or when we go back tonight, you can go wherever you want and do whatever you wish, and live life as you please. As a Wallfacer, I can help you realize all of it.”
“But I…” She looked at him helplessly. “Mr. Luo, I … I don’t need anything.”
“That’s not possible. Everyone needs something! Aren’t young people always chasing after something?” “Have I ever chased after anything?” She slowly shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Ah, yes. A carefree young woman like you might not need to. But you’ve got to have a dream, at least. You like painting, so have you ever thought of having an individual exhibition at the world’s largest gallery or art museum?”
She laughed, as if Luo Ji had turned into a foolish child. “Mr. Luo, I paint for myself. I’ve never thought about that stuff.”
“Well then. You must have dreamed of love,” he said without hesitation. “You’ve got the means now, so why not go find it?”
The sunset was draining its light from the snowy peak. Zhuang Yan’s eyes darkened, and her expression softened. She said gently, “Mr. Luo, that’s not something you can go in search of.”
“True.” He calmed himself down and nodded. “Then, how about this: Don’t think long term, just think about tomorrow. Tomorrow, you know? Where do you want to go tomorrow? What do you want to do? What will make you happy tomorrow? You’re able to come up with something, surely.”
She thought earnestly for a while, and finally said, hesitantly, “If I tell you, can you really make it happen?” “Of course. Tell me.”
“Then, Mr. Luo, can you take me to the Louvre?”
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