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THE DARK FOREST 6

Novel:The dark forestauthor: pubdate:2019-03-03 17:54

As the personnel craft flew past the Asian Fleet’s Jupiter base, Zhang Beihai felt he was flying over a range of towering mountains, except each was a docked warship. The naval base had entered nightside orbit around Jupiter, and the steel mountain clusters slept silently under the surface phosphorescence and the silvery moonlight from Europa overhead. A moment later, a ball of white light rose from the edge of the mountain range, lighting the moored ships in perfect clarity in an instant. To Zhang Beihai, it looked like a sunrise over the mountains, casting a moving shadow of the fleet upon the turbulent Jovian atmosphere down below. When a second light rose over the other side of the fleet, he realized it wasn’t the sun, but two warships that were entering the dock and turning their fusion engines toward the base to decelerate.
The fleet’s chief of staff, who was delivering Zhang Beihai to his new post, told him that more than four hundred warships, representing two-thirds of the Asian Fleet, were now moored at the base. The remainder
 
of the fleet’s ships now cruising the Solar System and beyond were also expected to return to port.
Zhang Beihai had to tear himself away from the grand spectacle of the fleet and return to reality. “Sir, won’t recalling all of the ships provoke any Imprinted there are to immediate action?”
“Hmm. No, the order recalling the ships was given for another reason—a real one, not an excuse, although it does sound a little ridiculous. You haven’t been watching the news lately, I take it?”
“No. I’ve been reading materials on Natural Selection.”
“Don’t worry about that. You’ve got a good grasp of things, judging from the last phase of basic training. Your task now is to familiarize yourself with the systems to the point that everything can proceed in an orderly manner once you go aboard. It’s not as hard as you think.… Competition among the three fleets for the task of intercepting the Trisolaran probe has turned into bickering, but a preliminary agreement was hammered out by the Joint Conference yesterday: Each fleet’s ships will assemble back at base. A special committee will supervise the execution of the maneuver to avoid any ships being dispatched without authorization to carry out the interception.”
“Why has it come to that? Any technological information and intelligence obtained from a successful interception would be shared.”
“Yes, but it’s a question of honor. There’s considerable political capital to be gained by the fleet that makes first contact with Trisolaris. Why did I call it ridiculous? Because it’s cheap and absolutely risk-free. The worst thing that could happen is if the probe self-destructs during the interception process, so everyone’s gunning for it. If it was a battle with the main Trisolaran Fleet, then all sides would try to preserve their strength. Politics today isn’t all that different from your time.… Look, there’s Natural Selection.”
As the personnel craft approached Natural Selection and the sheer bulk of the iron mountain gradually became clear, the image of Tang floated up in Zhang Beihai’s mind. Natural Selection, comprised of a disc- shaped body and a separate cylindrical engine, looked entirely different from that seagoing aircraft carrier of two centuries before. When Tang met its untimely end, it was like he had lost his spiritual home, even though he had never moved in. Now, this giant spaceship gave him a new feeling of home. On Natural Selection’s stalwart hull, his spirit found a place to live after two centuries of wandering, like a child enfolded in the embrace of some enormous power.
Natural Selection was the flagship of the third squadron of the Asian Fleet, and in gross tonnage and performance it was second to none. Possessing the latest non-media fusion propulsion system, at full thrust it could accelerate to 15 percent of the speed of light, and its impeccable internal ecological systems could sustain a long-term voyage. In fact, an experimental version of this system was first put into use on the moon seventy-five years ago and had not yet exhibited any major defects or faults. Natural Selection’s weapons were the most powerful in the fleet, too. Its gamma-ray lasers, railguns, high-energy particle beams, and stellar torpedoes made up a four-way weapons system that could obliterate the surface of an Earth-sized planet.
Natural Selection now occupied Zhang Beihai’s entire field of view so that only part of it was visible from the personnel craft. He noticed that the outer walls of the ship were mirror-smooth, a broad mirror that perfectly reflected the atmospheric ocean of Jupiter, as well as the gradual approach of the personnel craft.
An oval opening appeared in the outer wall of the ship. The craft flew straight inside and came to a halt. The chief of staff opened the cabin door and exited first. Although Zhang Beihai was slightly nervous because
 
he hadn’t seen the craft pass through an air lock, he immediately sensed the influx of fresh air from the outside. The technology to maintain a pressurized compartment opening directly into space without allowing air to leak out was not something he had seen before.
Zhang Beihai and the chief of staff were inside a giant sphere the diameter of a soccer field. Spaceship compartments typically adopted a spherical structure, because during acceleration, deceleration, or change of direction, any point on the sphere could serve as a floor or ceiling, and during weightlessness, the center of the sphere would be the crew’s main activity space. In Zhang Beihai’s time, cabins had been modeled on the structure of Earth buildings, so he was not at all used to this entirely new cabin structure. The chief of staff told him that this was the fighter hangar, but since there were no fighters right now, a formation of Natural Selection’s two thousand officers and soldiers was floating in the center of the sphere.
Before Zhang Beihai entered hibernation, national space forces had begun conducting drills in the weightlessness of space. They had developed specifications and drill books as a result, but implementation had been particularly difficult. Personnel could use their space suits’ microthrusters to move about outside the cabin, but since they lacked propulsion equipment inside, they had to maneuver by pushing against bulkheads and paddling the air. Under such conditions, it was very difficult to form neat lines. Now, he was astonished at the sight of more than two thousand people floating in space in such a neat formation without any supports. These days, personnel moved through weightless cabins primarily by using magnetic belts, fabricated from superconductors and containing a circuit that generated a magnetic field that interacted with the magnetic field that was always present in the cabins and corridors of the spacecraft. With a tiny controller in hand, they could move freely inside the ship. Zhang Beihai was now putting on such a belt, but it would require skill to master. He watched the formation of space soldiers, a generation that had grown up in the fleet. Their tall, slender bodies had none of the clumsy sturdiness of people growing up under Earth’s gravity, but possessed the light agility of spacers. Three officers were in front of the formation, and his gaze eventually rested on the young woman in the center with four glittering stars on her shoulder—Natural Selection’s captain, no doubt. A typical representative of new space humanity, taller even than Zhang Beihai, who was himself quite tall. She drifted easily over from the formation, her slender body floating through space like an elegant musical note. When she reached Zhang Beihai and the chief of staff she stopped, and the hair that had been floating behind her rippled around the fair skin of her neck. Her eyes were full of sunshine and vitality, and Zhang Beihai
immediately trusted her, because the Imprinted would never wear such an expression.
“Dongfang Yanxu, captain of Natural Selection,” she said, saluting him. A note of playful challenge appeared in her eyes. “On behalf of the entire crew, I offer a gift to my forbear.” She extended her hand, and he saw that, although the object she held in it had changed quite a bit, it was still recognizably a pistol. “If you really find that I have defeatist thinking and Escapist goals, you may use this to kill me.”
*    *    *
Getting to the surface was easy. The trunk of every giant tree building was a pillar supporting the dome of the underground city, and from the trunk you could take an elevator directly to the surface, passing through more than three hundred meters of rock. When Luo Ji and Shi Qiang exited the elevator, they felt nostalgic, a feeling prompted by one thing: The walls and floor of the exit hall did not have activated display windows.
 
Information was displayed on actual display screens that hung from the ceiling. It looked like an old subway station, and most of the handful of people in it wore clothes that didn’t flash.
When they passed through the hall air lock, they were met by a hot wind blowing dusty air.
“There’s my boy!” Shi Qiang shouted, pointing at a man bounding up the steps. From this distance, Luo Ji could make out only that the man was in his forties, so he was a little surprised at Shi Qiang’s certainty. As Shi Qiang hurried down the stairs to welcome his son, Luo Ji turned his eyes from the reunion to the surface world before him.
The sky was yellow. He now realized why the image of the sky showing in the underground city was shot from a height of ten thousand meters, because, from the ground, the sun was only visible as a hazy outline. Sand covered everything on the ground, and cars passed by on the streets dragging dusty tails. It was another sight from the past for Luo Ji: cars that traveled on the ground. They didn’t seem to run on gasoline. They came in all kinds of weird shapes, and some were new and some old, but they all shared one feature: Every car had a flat sheet installed on the roof, like an awning. Across the street, he saw an old-era building with sand- covered windowsills and windows that were either boarded up or glassless black holes. However, people were evidently living in some of the rooms, because he saw clothing hanging outside to dry and even some potted flowers on the windowsills. Though the airborne sand and dust kept visibility low, he soon located a couple of familiar building outlines farther away and knew for certain that he was in the same city where he had spent half his life two centuries ago.
He walked down the steps to the two men who were hugging and pounding each other in their excitement.
Seeing the middle-aged man up close, he knew that Shi Qiang hadn’t made a mistake.
“Dad, when you figure it, I’m only five years younger than you,” Shi Xiaoming said, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes.
“Not bad, kiddo. I was afraid some damn white-bearded old man would be calling me Dad,” Shi Qiang said with a chuckle. Then he introduced Luo Ji to his son.
“Oh, Dr. Luo. You used to be world famous,” Shi Xiaoming said, as he looked Luo Ji up and down.
The three of them headed toward Shi Xiaoming’s car, which was parked at the side of the road. Before they got in, Luo Ji asked about the thing on the roof.
“It’s an antenna. Up on the surface, we have to use whatever electricity leaks through from the underground city, so the antennas are a little larger, and the power is only enough to run the cars on the ground. They can’t fly.”
The car wasn’t fast, due either to the power or the sand on the road. Luo Ji looked out the window at the sandy city. He had a belly full of questions, but Shi Xiaoming and his father kept talking and he couldn’t get a word in.
“Mom passed away in Year 34 of the Crisis. Me and your granddaughter were with her then.” “Oh, good.… You didn’t bring my granddaughter with you?”
“After the divorce, she went with her mom. I looked up her file. She lived into her eighties and died in Year 105.”
“Too bad I never met her.… How old were you when your sentence ended?” “Nineteen.”
 
“What did you do then?”
“Everything. At first, with no other way out, I kept up the swindles, but then I did a bit of legitimate business. After I had the money, I saw the signs of the Great Ravine and went into hibernation. I didn’t know then that things would get better later on. I just wanted to see you.”
“Is our house still there?”
“Land-use rights were extended past the original seventy-year period, but I only got to stay a short time before it was demolished. The one we bought later is still there, but I haven’t been to see it.” Shi Xiaoming pointed outside. “The city population isn’t even one percent of what it was in our day. Do you know what the most worthless thing is? That house. You dedicated your entire life to it, Dad, but everything’s empty now. You can live wherever you like.”
Finally Luo Ji managed to seize a gap in their conversation to ask, “Do all reawakened hibernators live in the old city?”
“No way! They live outside. There’s too much sand in the city. But mostly, it’s because there’s nothing to do. Of course, you can’t go too far from the underground city, or you can’t get electricity.”
“What do all of you do?” Shi Qiang asked.
“Think: What can we do that the kids can’t? Farming!” Shi Xiaoming, like other hibernators, no matter their age, had the habit of calling modern people “kids.”
The car left the city and drove east. As the sand lessened to reveal the highway, Luo Ji recognized it as the old expressway between Beijing and Shijiazhuang, although both sides were piled high with sand now. The old buildings still stood there amid the sand, but what brought a spark of life to this desertified plain of northern China were the small oases ringed by sparse trees, which Shi Xiaoming said were hibernator settlements.
They drove into one oasis, a small residential community surrounded by a sand-break of trees that Shi Xiaoming called New Life Village #5. When he got out of the car, Luo Ji felt time flowing backward: rows of six-story apartments fronted by open space, old men playing chess on stone tables, mothers pushing baby carriages, and a few children playing soccer on the sparse lawn growing on the sand.…
Shi Xiaoming lived on the sixth floor with a wife nine years younger than him. She had entered hibernation in Year 21 due to liver cancer, but was completely healthy now. They had a four-year-old son who called Shi Qiang “Grampa.”
A sumptuous lunch had been laid out to welcome Luo Ji and Shi Qiang: local farm produce, chicken and pork produced at other nearby farms, and even home-brewed alcohol. They called three of their neighbors to join them, three men who—like Shi Xiaoming—had entered hibernation relatively early, back when it was expensive and available only to rich members of the upper class or their sons and daughters. Now, gathered here after a span of more than a century, they were all just ordinary people. Shi Xiaoming introduced one neighbor as Zhang Yan, the grandson of Zhang Yuanchao, the man he had cheated back in the day.
“Remember how you made me return the money I cheated him out of? I began the day I got out,  and  that’s how I met Yan. He had just graduated from college. Taking inspiration from his two neighbors, we went into the funeral business and called our firm the High and Deep Company. ‘High,’ for space burials. We shot ashes into the Solar System, and later on we were able to launch entire bodies. For a price, of course. ‘Deep,’ for mine burials. At first we used abandoned shafts, and later on we dug new ones, since they would
 
work equally well as anti-Trisolaris tombs too.”
The man called Yan was a little older—he looked to be in his fifties or sixties. Shi Xiaoming explained that Yan had been reawakened once before and lived for more than thirty years before going back into hibernation.
“What’s our legal status here?” Luo Ji asked.
Shi Xiaoming said, “Completely equivalent to modern residential areas. We count as the city’s distant suburbs, and we have a proper district government. It’s not just hibernators who live here. We also have modern people, and people from the city often come out here for fun.”
Zhang Yan took over: “We call the modern people ‘walltappers,’ because when they first get here they’re always touching the wall out of habit, trying to activate something.”
“So life’s okay?” Shi Qiang asked. They all said it was pretty good.
“But along the road I saw the fields you plant. Can you really support yourselves by growing crops?”
“Why not? In the cities these days, agricultural products are luxury items.… The government’s actually quite good to hibernators. Even if you don’t do anything, you can still live comfortably off government subsidies. But you’ve got to have something to do. The idea that hibernators all know how to farm is nonsense. No one was a farmer at first, but this is all we can do.”
The conversation quickly turned to the history of the past two centuries.
“So what was the deal with the Great Ravine?” Luo Ji brought up the question he had long been wanting to ask.
Instantly their faces grew serious. Seeing that the meal was almost over, Shi Xiaoming allowed the topic to continue. “You’ve probably learned a little about it over the past few days. It’s a long story. For more than a decade after you went into hibernation, life was pretty good. But later on, when the pace of economic transformation picked up, the standard of living declined by the day and the political climate constricted. It really felt like wartime.”
A neighbor said, “It wasn’t just a few countries. The entire Earth was like that. Society was on edge, and if you said something wrong they would say you were ETO, or a traitor to humanity, so nobody felt safe. And film and television from the Golden Age began to be restricted, and then was banned worldwide. Of course, there was too much of it to ban effectively.”
“Why?”
“They were afraid of eroding the fighting spirit,” Shi Xiaoming said. “Still, so long as there was food to eat, you could make do. But later on, things got worse, and the world began to starve. This was about twenty years after Dr. Luo went into hibernation.”
“Because of the economic transition?”
“Right. But environmental deterioration was also a major factor. The environmental laws were there, but in those pessimistic times, the general attitude was, ‘What the hell is environmental protection for? Even if Earth turns into a garden, isn’t it all going to the Trisolarans anyway?’ Eventually, environmental protection was seen as no less treasonous to humanity than the ETO. Organizations like Greenpeace were treated like ETO branches and suppressed. Work on the space forces accelerated the development of highly polluting heavy industry, which made environmental pollution unstoppable. The greenhouse effect, climate anomalies,
 
desertification…” He sighed.
“When I entered hibernation, desertification was just starting,” another neighbor said. “It’s not what you imagine, like the desert advancing from the Great Wall. No! It was patchwork erosion. Perfectly fine plots of land in the interior began turning to desert simultaneously, and it spread from those points, like how a damp cloth dries in the sun.”
“Then agricultural production plummeted, and grain reserves were exhausted. And then … and then came the Great Ravine.”
“Did the prediction that the standard of living would go backward a hundred years come true?” Luo Ji asked.
Shi Xiaoming gave a few bitter chuckles. “Ah, Dr. Luo. A hundred years? In your dreams! A hundred years back from that time would have been … around the 1930s or so. A paradise compared to the Great Ravine! No way the two are the same. For one thing, there were so many more people than in the Great Depression
—8.3 billion!” He pointed at Zhang Yan. “He saw the Great Ravine when he reawakened for a while. You tell them.”
Zhang Yan drained his glass. Eyes blank, he said, “I have seen the grand march of hunger. Millions of people fleeing famine on the great plains through sand that blocked out the sky. Hot sky, hot earth, and hot sun. When they died, they were divided up on the spot.… It was hell on Earth. There are tons of videos to watch if you want. You think of that time, and you feel lucky to be alive.”
“The Great Ravine lasted for about half a century, and in those fifty-odd years, the world population dropped from 8.3 billion to 3.5 billion. Think about what that means!”
Luo Ji got up and went over to the window. From here he could see the desert across the protective tree line, its yellow covering of sand extending silently to the horizon under the noonday sun. The hand of time had smoothed over everything.
“And then?” Shi Qiang asked.
Zhang Yan let out a long breath, as if no longer having to talk about that period of history had taken a burden off his shoulders. “After that, well, some people came to terms with it, and then more and more people did. They wondered whether it was worth it to pay so high a price, even if it was for victory in the Doomsday Battle. Think about what’s more important: the child dying of starvation in your arms, or the continuation of human civilization? Right now you might think the latter choice is more important, but you wouldn’t have in that day and age. No matter what the future might bring, the present is most important. Of course, that mind-set was outrageous at first, the classic thinking of a traitor to humanity, but you couldn’t stop people from thinking it. And very soon the entire world thought so. There was a popular slogan back then, which soon became a famous historical quote.”
“‘Make time for civilization, for civilization won’t make time,’” Luo Ji contributed, without looking back from the window.
“Right, that one. Civilization is meant for us.” “And after that?” Shi Qiang asked.
“A second Enlightenment, a second Renaissance, a second French Revolution … You can find all that stuff in the history books.”
 
Luo Ji turned back in surprise. The predictions he had made to Zhuang Yan two centuries before had come to pass. “A second French Revolution? In France?!”
“No, no. That’s just a saying. It was the entire world! After the revolution, the new national governments terminated their space strategies and poured their attention into improving people’s lives. And then critical technology emerged: Genetic engineering and fusion technology were harnessed for large-scale food production, ending the age of weather-dependent food. From then on, the world would no longer be hungry. Everything moved quickly after that—there were fewer people, after all—and in the space of just two decades, life returned to pre–Great Ravine levels. Then Golden Age levels were restored. People had set their hearts on this road of comfort, and no one wanted to go back.”
“There’s another term you might find interesting, Dr. Luo,” said the first neighbor, drawing closer to him. An economist before hibernation, he had a deeper understanding of the issues. “It’s called civilization immunity. It means that when the world has suffered a serious illness, it triggers civilization’s immune system, so that something like the early Crisis Era won’t happen again. Humanism comes first, and perpetuating civilization comes second. These are the concepts that today’s society is based on.”
“And after that?” Luo Ji asked.
“After that came the freaky stuff.” Shi Xiaoming grew excited. “Originally, the countries of the world had planned to live in peace and push the Trisolar Crisis onto the back burner, but what do you think happened? There was swift progress everywhere. Technology sped forward and broke through all the technical obstacles that had stood in the way of space strategy before the Great Ravine, one after the other!”
“That’s not freaky,” Luo Ji said. “Emancipation of human nature inevitably brings with it scientific and technological progress.”
“After about half a century of peace following the Great Ravine, the world turned its thoughts back to the Trisolaran invasion and felt it ought to reconsider the war. With humanity’s power now on a completely different plane than before the Great Ravine, a global state of war was again declared, and construction was begun on a space fleet. But unlike the first time, national constitutions were clear about one thing: Resource expenditure for the space strategy had to be kept within a specified range, and must not have a disastrous impact on the world economy and on community life. And that’s when the space fleets became independent countries.…”
“You don’t actually have to think about any of this, though,” the economist said. “From now on, just think about how to live a good life. That old revolutionary slogan is just an adaptation of the old saying from the Golden Age: ‘Make time for life, or life won’t make time.’ To new life!”
When they had drained their last glass, Luo Ji praised the economist for putting things so well. Now his mind had space only for Zhuang Yan and the child. He wanted to get settled as soon as possible, and then go wake them.
Make time for civilization, make time for life.

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