THE DARK FOREST 5
our era. But mainly it’s because there are fewer people. Far fewer, ever since the Great Ravine.” “But Da Shi, your country is in space.”
“I won’t be going there. I’m already retired, you know.”
Luo Ji’s eyes felt more comfortable here, largely because most of the information windows in Shi Qiang’s house were closed, although there were scattered flashes in the walls and on the floor. Shi Qiang tapped an interface on the floor with his foot, turning one wall entirely transparent and unfurling the night city before their eyes. It was a dazzling, giant forest of Christmas trees chained together by the lights of the traffic.
Luo Ji went over to the sofa, which was hard as marble to the touch. “Is this for sitting?” he asked. At Shi Qiang’s affirmative, he sat gingerly down on it, only to feel like he was sinking into soft clay. The sofa’s cushions and backrest adapted to a person’s body, forming a mold completely in sync with their body shape, keeping pressure to a minimum.
His vision from the slab of iron ore in the Meditation Room of the UN Building two centuries ago had become reality.
“Do you have any sleeping pills?” he asked. Now that he was in a space that felt safe, exhaustion hit him. “No, but you can buy them here,” Shi Qiang said, and operated the wall again. “Here. Nonprescription
sleeping pills. This one, River of Dreams.”
Although Luo Ji thought he would witness some sort of high-tech hardware-over-the-network transmission, the reality was much simpler than he imagined. In a few minutes, a small, flying delivery van pulled up outside the transparent wall and delivered the medicine through the portal that had just opened up with a slender mechanical arm. Luo Ji took the medicine from Shi Qiang. It was a traditional box without any active display. The instructions said to take one pill, so he opened the pack, took one out, and reached out for the glass of water on the coffee table.
“Wait a moment,” Shi Qiang said, taking the box out of Luo Ji’s hands and reading it carefully before returning it to him. “What does this say? The one I asked for was called River of Dreams.”
Luo Ji saw a long string of complicated English-language drug names. “I don’t recognize it. But it’s certainly not River of Dreams.”
Shi Qiang activated a window on the coffee table and began looking for a medical consult. With Luo Ji’s help, they found one, a white-clothed consulting physician who examined the box, then looked from the box to Shi Qiang with a peculiar expression.
“Where did this come from?” the doctor asked warily. “I bought it. Right here.”
“Impossible. This is a prescription drug. It’s only for use in the hibernation center.” “What’s it got to do with hibernation?”
“It’s short-term hibernation medicine. It can make someone hibernate for ten days to a year.” “You just swallow it?”
“No. It requires a whole set of external systems to sustain internal bodily circulatory functions before short- term hibernation can be achieved.”
“And if you take it without them?”
“Then you’d die for sure. But you’d die comfortably. So it’s often used for suicide.”
Shi Qiang closed the window and tossed the box onto the table. He looked straight at Luo Ji for a while, then said, “Damn it.”
“Damn it,” Luo Ji said, pitching back onto the sofa. Then he was subjected to the final attempt on his life that day.
When his head touched back against the sofa, the hard headrest quickly adapted to the back of his head and began to form an impression of its shape. But the process didn’t stop there. His head and neck continued to sink, until the headrest on either side formed a pair of tentacles that squeezed tight around his neck. He had no time to cry out, but could only open his mouth and eyes and scramble with his hands.
Shi Qiang bounded into the kitchen and returned with a knife, which he used to hack at the tentacles a few times, then resorted to his own hands to pry them from Luo Ji’s neck. When Luo Ji left the sofa and pitched forward onto the floor, the sofa’s surface lit up and displayed a large string of error messages.
“How many times have I saved your life today, my boy?” Shi Qiang asked, rubbing his hands.
“This is … the … sixth,” Luo Ji said, through gasps. He vomited onto the floor. When he finished, he leaned back weakly against the sofa, but then pulled back immediately, as if shocked. He didn’t know where to put his hands. “How long will it be before I can be as agile as you and save my own life?”
“Probably never,” Shi Qiang said. A vacuum cleaner–like machine glided over to clean up the vomit on the floor.
“Then I’m dead meat. This is a twisted world.”
“It’s not that bad. I’ve got an idea about the whole situation, at least. The first attempt on your life failed, and then there were five more attempts. This is stupidity, not professional behavior. Something somewhere must have gone wrong.… Let’s contact the police immediately. We can’t wait for them to crack the case.”
“Who made a mistake, and where? Da Shi, it’s been two centuries. Don’t just apply your mind-set from our time.”
“It’s the same thing, my boy. Certain things are the same no matter the age. As for whose mistake it is, I really don’t know. I even wonder whether such a ‘who’ actually exists.…”
The doorbell rang. Shi Qiang opened it to see several people standing outside. They wore civilian clothes, but Shi Qiang identified them before the leader had even flashed his ID.
“Wow. So there are actual footbeats in this society. Come on in, officers.”
Three of them entered the house, leaving two others outside to guard the door. The officer in charge, who looked about thirty years old, surveyed the room. Like Shi Qiang and Luo Ji, he had all the displays on his clothes turned off, which put them at ease, and he spoke a pure, fluent “ancient Chinese” without any English words.
“I’m Officer Guo Zhengming with the PSB’s Digital Reality Department. I apologize for our tardy arrival. That was negligent. The last time there was a case like this was half a century ago.” He bowed to Shi Qiang. “I pay my respects to my senior officer. Aptitude like yours is very rare in the force these days.”
As Officer Guo was speaking, Luo Ji and Shi Qiang noticed that all of the information windows in the house had switched off. The leaf had evidently been cut off from the external hyper-information world. The other two officers were hard at work. They were holding something he hadn’t seen in ages: a notebook computer. But the computer was as thin as a sheet of paper.
“They’re installing a firewall for this leaf,” Officer Guo explained. “Rest assured, you’re safe now. And I’ll guarantee that you’ll receive compensation from the municipal PSB system.”
“Today,” Shi Qiang said, counting off on his fingers, “we’ve been guaranteed compensation four times.”
“I know. And lots of people in lots of departments have lost their jobs over this. I beg for your cooperation, so that I don’t join them. Thanks in advance,” he said, bowing to them.
Shi Qiang said, “I understand that. I’ve been in that position. Do you need us to brief you on the situation?” “No. We’ve actually been tracking you all along. It’s just negligence.”
“Can you tell us what’s happening?” “Killer 5.2.”
“It’s a network virus. The ETO first released it about a century into the Crisis Era, and then there were lots of subsequent variants and upgrades. It’s a murder virus. First it establishes the identity of the target by a variety of methods including the chip everyone has implanted in their body. When it locates the target, the Killer virus manipulates every possible piece of external hardware to carry out the murder. Its concrete manifestation is what you experienced today. It seems like everything in the world wants to kill you. So, at the time, people called it a ‘modern hex.’ For a while, the Killer software was even commercialized and sold on the online black market. You entered the personal ID number of your target and uploaded the virus. Then, even if that person was able to evade death, they would still have a hard time living in society.”
“The industry developed as far as that? Incredible!” Shi Qiang exclaimed. “Software from a century ago can still run today?” Luo Ji asked incredulously.
“Sure it can. Computer technology stopped advancing long ago. When the Killer virus first appeared, it killed quite a few people, including a head of state, but eventually it was controlled by firewalls and antivirus software and gradually faded away. This version of Killer is programed specifically to attack Dr. Luo, but because the target was in hibernation, it never had the opportunity to take any concrete action. It stayed dormant and wasn’t detected or recorded by the information security system. It was only when Dr. Luo emerged into the world today that Killer 5.2 activated itself and carried out its mission. It’s just that its creators were wiped out a century ago.”
“They were still trying to kill me a century ago?” Luo Ji said. A mood he thought was gone forever returned, and he struggled to dispel it again.
“Yes. The key thing about this version of the Killer virus is that it was programmed specifically for you. It was never activated, which is why it was still lurking in wait today.”
“Then what are we supposed to do now?” Shi Qiang asked.
“The entire system will be cleaned of Killer 5.2, but that will take some time. Before it’s completed, you have two choices. First, Dr. Luo can be given a temporary false identity, but this will not totally guarantee his safety and might lead to other more serious consequences. Due to the technological sophistication of the ETO software, Killer 5.2 might have already recorded other characteristics of its target. In one case that caused a sensation a century ago, when a protected individual was given a false identity, Killer used fuzzy recognition to simultaneously kill over a hundred people, target included. The other choice, and my personal recommendation, is for you to live up on the surface for a while. Killer 5.2 won’t have any hardware to
manipulate up there.”
Shi Qiang said, “I agree. Even without this situation, I’ve been wanting to go up to the surface.” “What’s on the surface?” Luo Ji asked.
Shi Qiang explained, “Most of the reawakened hibernators live on the surface. It’s hard for them to adapt down here.”
“That’s right. So you ought to spend at least some time up there,” Officer Guo said. “Many aspects of modern society—politics, economics, culture, lifestyle, and relations between the sexes—have changed greatly in two centuries, so it takes some time for us to adapt.”
“But you’ve adapted well enough,” Shi Qiang said, looking him over. He and Luo Ji had both noticed that the officer had said “us.”
“I went into hibernation because of leukemia, and I was quite young when I reawakened, just thirteen years old,” Guo Zhengming said with a laugh. “But people still don’t understand the difficulties I’ve had. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone for psychological treatment.”
“Are there many other hibernators like you who have totally adapted to modern life?” Luo Ji asked. “Lots. But you can still live quite well on the surface.”
* * *
“Special Contingent of Future Reinforcements commander Zhang Beihai reporting,” Zhang Beihai said, and saluted.
Behind the commander of the Asian Fleet flowed the brilliant Milky Way. Fleet Command was in orbit around Jupiter and rotated continuously to produce artificial gravity. Zhang Beihai noticed that the room lights were relatively dim, and the wide windows seemed intended to integrate the interior environment with space outside as closely as possible.
The commander saluted back. “Greetings, predecessor.” He looked quite young, his Asian features illuminated by the glow of his epaulets and cap insignia. When he was issued a uniform on the sixth day after he reawakened, Zhang Beihai had noticed the familiar emblem of the space force: a silver star shining rays in four directions, the rays in the shape of sword. Two centuries had passed, and while the insignia had not changed much, the fleet had become an independent country, with a president as its supreme leader. The commander was just in charge of the military.
Zhang Beihai said, “That’s too much, Commander. We’re all just new recruits now, who have to learn everything.”
The commander smiled and shook his head. “You can’t say that. You’ve already learned everything there is to know here. And the knowledge you’ve got, we’ll never be able to learn. That’s why we awakened you now.”
“Commander Chang Weisi of the Chinese Space Force asked me to convey his greetings.”
Zhang Beihai’s words touched something in the commander’s heart. He turned and looked out through the window at the river of stars, like the upper reaches of a long river. “He was an exceptional general, one of the founders of the Asian Fleet. Today’s space strategy still uses the framework he established two centuries ago. I wish that he could have seen this day.”
“Today’s achievements are far beyond anything he ever dreamed.” “But all of this began in his … in your time.”
Then Jupiter appeared, at first as a sliver of an arc that quickly took over the entire field of view in the window, bathing the office in its orange light. The dreamlike patterns of hydrogen and helium in its vast gaseous ocean were on a breathtaking scale and fascinating in their detail. The Great Red Spot moved into view. The superstorm that could hold two Earths looked like the giant, pupilless eye of this blurry world. The three fleets had put their primary base on Jupiter because its hydrogen-helium ocean held an inexhaustible supply of fusion fuel.
Zhang Beihai was transfixed by the Jovian scene. Countless times he had dreamed of the new domain that now presented itself before his eyes. He waited until Jupiter had moved out of the window before speaking. “Commander, the great achievements of this age are what make our mission unnecessary.”
The commander turned to him and said, “No, that’s not right. The Future Reinforcement Plan was a farsighted initiative. During the Great Ravine, when the space armed forces were on the brink of collapse, the special reinforcement contingents played a major role in stabilizing the overall situation.”
“But our contingent arrived too late to be of assistance.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s how things are,” the commander said. The lines on his face turned gentle. “After you left, they sent more special reinforcement contingents to the future, and the last to be sent out were the first to be reawakened.”
“That’s understandable, Commander, since their knowledge framework was closer to that era’s.”
“Right. Eventually your contingent was the only one left in hibernation. The Great Ravine ended and the world entered a period of rapid development. Defeatism had practically vanished, so there was no need to reawaken you. At the time, the fleet made the decision to keep you until the Doomsday Battle.”
“Commander, this was actually what we all hoped for,” Zhang Beihai said excitedly.
“And it’s the highest honor of all space servicemen. They were well aware of this when they made that decision. But present circumstances are totally different, as you of course know.” The commander pointed at the river of stars behind him. “The Doomsday Battle might never even take place.”
“That’s excellent, Commander. My small regret as a soldier counts for nothing compared with the great victory humanity is about to welcome. I just hope you’ll be able to fulfill our one request: to let us join the fleet at the lowest level, as ordinary soldiers, to do whatever work we can.”
The commander shook his head. “The length of service for all special contingent personnel will resume from the date of reawakening, and ranks will be elevated one or two levels.”
“Commander, that shouldn’t be. We don’t want to spend our remaining years in an office. We want to go to the fleet’s front lines. Two centuries ago, the space force was our dream. Without it, our lives have no meaning. But even at our present ranks, we are unqualified for work in the fleet.”
“I never said I wanted you to leave the fleet. Precisely the opposite. You will all be working in the fleet to complete a highly important mission.”
“Thank you, Commander. But what mission can there be for us today?”
The commander did not answer him. Instead, as if it had only just occurred to him, he said, “Are you okay with talking while standing like this?” The commander’s office had no chairs, and the table had been designed
to be high enough to work at while standing. Fleet Command’s rotation produced one-sixth of Earth’s gravity, which meant there wasn’t much difference between standing and sitting.
Zhang Beihai smiled and nodded. “Not a problem. I spent a year in space.” “And the language? Do you have any communication problems in the fleet?”
The commander was speaking standard Chinese, but the three fleets had formed a language of their own, similar to the modern Chinese and modern English on Earth, but with the two languages blended more closely. Chinese and English words each accounted for half of the vocabulary.
“At first—mostly because I couldn’t distinguish between Chinese and English vocabulary—but I was able to understand it pretty quickly. Speaking is more difficult.”
“That doesn’t matter. If you just use English or Chinese when you speak, we’ll be able to understand you.
So that means that the General Staff Department has fully briefed you?”
“That’s right. In the first few days on base, they gave us a comprehensive introduction to everything.” “Then you must be aware of the mental seal.”
“Recent investigations still haven’t discovered any signs of the Imprinted. What’s your read?”
“I believe that one possibility is that the Imprinted have disappeared. Another possibility is that they’ve been deeply hidden. If a person has an ordinary defeatist mentality, they will speak of it to others. But a one- hundred-percent unshakeable technologically hardened faith will inevitably produce a corresponding sense of mission. Defeatism and Escapism are intimately related, and if the Imprinted really exist, then their ultimate mission is bound to be accomplishing an escape into the universe. But to achieve this goal, they have to deeply conceal their true thoughts.”
The commander nodded with approval. “An excellent analysis. This is the opinion of General Staff.” “Commander, the second alternative is very dangerous.”
“Yes, it is, particularly with the Trisolaran probe so close to the Solar System. The fleet is divided by command system classifications into two major groups. The first, a distributed command system, is a traditional structure akin to the naval craft you once commanded. The captain’s orders are carried out by various operating personnel. The second is a centralized command system. The captain’s orders are carried out automatically by the ship’s computer. The most recently built advanced space warships, as well as those currently under construction, fall into this category. It is mainly against this category of warship that the mental seal poses a threat, because the captain wields enormous power in the command system. He can unilaterally control when the ship leaves and returns to port, its speed and course, and even a large portion of its weapons systems. Under this command system, you could call the ship an extension of the captain’s body. Right now, 179 of the 695 stellar-class warships in the fleet have a centralized command system. The commanding officers on board these ships will be the focus of review. Originally, all the warships involved in the review process were supposed to be docked and sealed up, but present circumstances no longer permit this, because the three fleets are preparing to intercept the Trisolaran probe when it arrives. This will be the first actual engagement between the Space Fleet and the Trisolaran invaders, so all warships must be on standby.”
“So, Commander, the command authority for centrally commanded warships must be turned over to reliable individuals,” Zhang Beihai said. He had been speculating about his mission but had not guessed it yet.
“Who is reliable?” the commander asked. “We don’t know the extent of the mental seal, and we have no information about the Imprinted. In these circumstances, no one can be trusted, not even me.”
The sun appeared outside the window. Although its light was far weaker than on Earth from this distance, the commander’s body was hidden in a glare when the disc passed behind him, leaving only his voice: “But you are all reliable. When you entered hibernation, the mental seal didn’t exist. And one of the most important factors for your selection two centuries ago was your loyalty and faith. You are the only trustworthy group available to us in the fleet right now. So the fleet has decided to put the authority of the centralized command system into your hands, to appoint you as acting captains, through whom every order issued by the former captains must pass before being issued to the command system.”
Two tiny suns ignited in Zhang Beihai’s eyes. He said, “Commander, I’m afraid that’s not possible.” “Saying no to an order is not our tradition.”
The commander’s use of “our” and “tradition” warmed Zhang Beihai, letting him know that the bloodline of the military of two centuries ago still endured in the space fleet of today.
“Commander, we’re from two centuries ago, after all. In the context of the navy of our time, it’s like using an official in the Beiyang Fleet to command a twenty-first century destroyer.”
“Do you think that the Qing admirals Deng Shichang and Liu Buchan20 would really be unable to command your destroyers? They were educated, and their English was good. They would have learned. Today, captaining a space warship doesn’t involve technical details. Captains issue general commands, but the warship is a black box to them. Besides, the warships will be docked at base while you serve as acting captain. They won’t be navigating. Your duty will be to convey the former captains’ commands to the control system once you’ve determined whether or not the commands are normal. You’ll be able to pick that up as you learn.”
“We’ll have too much power in our hands. You could let the former captains retain a portion of that power, and we could supervise their orders.”
“If you think about it carefully, you’ll realize that won’t work. If the Imprinted really do occupy key battle positions, they’ll take any necessary measures to evade your supervision, including assassinating their supervisors. A centrally supervised ship on standby requires just three commands to take off, after which it’s too late to do anything. The system must only acknowledge commands from the acting captain.”
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