THE DARK FOREST 7
After boarding Natural Selection, Zhang Beihai found that the modern command system had evolved far beyond what he had imagined. The giant spacecraft, equal in volume to three of the largest seagoing carriers of
the twenty-first century, was practically a small city, but it had no bridge or command module, or even a captain’s room or operations room. In fact, it had no specific functional compartments whatsoever. All of them were identical, regular spheres that differed only in size. At any location inside the ship, you could just use a data glove to activate a holographic display, which, due to the high cost, was a rarity even in Earth’s super-wired society. And at any location, so long as you had the appropriate system permissions, you could pull up a complete command console, including a captain’s interface, which effectively made the entire ship, even the passageways and bathrooms, a bridge, command module, captain’s room, and operations room! To Zhang Beihai, it felt like the evolution from a client-server model to a browser-server model in late- twentieth-century computer networks. With the former, you could only access the server through specific software installed on a computer, but using the latter, you could access the server from any computer on the network so long as you had the right permissions.
Zhang Beihai and Dongfang Yanxu were situated in an ordinary cabin that, like every other one, had no special instruments or screens. It was just a spherical compartment whose bulkheads were white most of the time, making it feel like the inside of a giant Ping-Pong ball. When gravity was produced by ship acceleration, any part of the spherical bulkhead could be transformed into a shape suitable for use as a chair.
For Zhang Beihai, this was another aspect of modern technology that few people had imagined: the elimination of single-purpose facilities. Only the first tendrils of this trend had appeared on Earth, but it was part of the fundamental structure of the far more advanced world of the fleet. This world was spare and simple. Devices were no longer permanently installed, but would appear when necessary at any location required. The world, made complex by technology, was becoming simple again, its technology hidden deeply behind the face of reality.
“Now we come to your first onboard lesson,” Dongfang Yanxu said. “Of course, you really shouldn’t be getting this lesson from a captain who’s under review, but no one in the fleet is more trustworthy than I am. Today, we’ll demonstrate how to launch Natural Selection and put it into navigation mode. And, in fact, so long as you remember what you see today, you’ll have closed off the primary opening for the Imprinted.” As she spoke, she used her data glove to call up a holographic star chart in the air. “This may be a little different from the spatial maps of your time, but it still uses the sun as the origin.”
“I studied this in training, so I can read it fine,” Zhang Beihai said, looking at the star chart. His memory of the ancient Solar System map he and Chang Weisi had stood in front of two centuries ago was still fresh. This chart, however, precisely marked out the positions of all celestial bodies within a radius of one hundred light- years of the sun, at a scale more than a hundred times greater than the older one.
“You don’t really need to understand much. In the present state, navigation to any position on the map is prohibited.… If I were Imprinted, and wanted to hijack Natural Selection to flee into the cosmos, I’d first need to select a heading, like this.” She activated a point on the map, turning it green. “Of course, we’re just in simulation mode right now, because I no longer have permissions. When you obtain captain’s permissions, I’ll have to go through you to perform the operations. But if I really submitted this operation request, it would be a dangerous act, and you should refuse it. You should also report me.”
Once the heading was activated, an interface appeared in the air. Zhang Beihai was already quite familiar with the appearance and operations from his training, but he still listened patiently to Dongfang Yanxu’s
explanation and watched how she brought the huge ship from complete shutdown to hibernation, then to standby, and finally to Slow Ahead.
“If these were real operations, Natural Selection would now leave port. What do you think? Simpler than spaceship operations in your day?”
“Yes. Much simpler.” When he and the other special contingent members first saw the interface, they were surprised at its simplicity, and the total lack of technical detail.
“The operation is totally automatic, leaving the technical process entirely hidden from the captain.” “This display only shows general parameters. How do you see the ship’s operational status?”
“Operational status is monitored by officers and noncommissioned officers at lower levels. Their displays are more complex—the further down you go, the more complicated the interface becomes. As captain and vice- captain, we must focus our attention on more important matters.… Very well, let’s continue. If I were Imprinted … There I go with that supposition again. What do you think?”
“Given my position, any response would be irresponsible.”
“Fine. If I were Imprinted, then I’d set the throttle directly to Ahead Four. No other ship in the fleet can catch Natural Selection under Ahead Four acceleration.”
“But you couldn’t do that, even if you had the permissions, because the system will only proceed to Ahead Four if it detects that all passengers are in a deep-sea state.”
Under maximum propulsion, the ship’s acceleration could reach 120 gs, but this exerted a force more than ten times what a human could tolerate under normal conditions. To go to maximum, they had to enter a “deep-sea state,” which consisted of the cabins being filled with an oxygen-rich “deep-sea acceleration fluid” that trained personnel could breathe directly. As they breathed, it would fill their lungs and then the rest of their organs. First dreamed up in the first half of the twentieth century, the liquid was intended at the time to facilitate ultra-deep dives. Pressure was in equilibrium inside and outside of a human body filled with deep-sea acceleration fluid, meaning it could sustain high pressures like a deep-sea fish. The environment of a liquid- filled cabin in a rapidly accelerating spacecraft was like that of the deep sea, so the liquid was now being used to protect human bodies against the ultra-high acceleration of space travel. Hence the term “deep-sea state.”
Dongfang Yanxu nodded. “But you should know that there’s a way to get around that. If you set the spacecraft to remote control, then it will assume that no one is on board and won’t perform the check. This setting is part of the captain’s permissions.”
“Let me try it and you tell me if I’ve got it right.” Zhang Beihai activated an interface in front of him and began setting up remote control mode for the spacecraft, looking at a small notebook from time to time as he did so.
Dongfang Yanxu smiled at the notebook. “There are more efficient recording methods now.”
“Oh, it’s just habit. For particularly important things, it’s always more reassuring to write them down like this. It’s just that I can’t find a pen now. I brought two with me into hibernation, but only the pencil was still usable.”
“You’ve learned quickly.”
“That’s because the command system retains a lot of the navy’s style. After all these years, the names of things haven’t even changed. The engine orders, for example.”
“The space fleet did have its origins in the navy.… Okay, you’ll soon be receiving system permissions as the acting captain of Natural Selection. This warship is in class-A standby, or, as they called it in your time, ‘fired up and ready to go.’” She extended her slender arms and turned a circle in the air.
Zhang Beihai had not been able to figure out how to perform that action using the superconducting belt. “We didn’t ‘fire up’ in those days. But you evidently know quite a bit of naval history,” he said, changing the subject from the sensitive issue that was liable to make her hostile to him.
“A grand old branch of the service.”
“Doesn’t the space fleet inherit that grandeur?” “Yes. But I’m going to leave it. I plan on resigning.” “Because of the review?”
She turned to look at him, her thick black hair leaping again from the lack of gravity. “You encountered this sort of thing all the time back then, didn’t you?”
“Not necessarily. But if we did, every comrade would understand, because undergoing review is one of the duties of a soldier.”
“Two centuries have passed. This is no longer your time.”
“Dongfang, don’t deliberately widen the gap. There are similarities between the two of us. Soldiers in all ages have to bear up under humiliation.”
“Are you advising me to stay?” “No.”
“Ideological work. That’s the word, isn’t it? Wasn’t that your duty once?” “Not anymore. I have a new duty.”
She floated easily around him, as if carefully studying him. “Is it that we’re children to you? Half a year ago I went to Earth, and in one hibernator district, a six- or seven-year-old boy called me a kid.”
“Are we kids to you?”
“In our day, seniority was very important. In the countryside, there were adults who called children Aunt and Uncle because of family seniority.”
“But your seniority is unimportant to me.” “I can see that in your eyes.”
“Your daughter, and your wife—they didn’t come with you? Special Contingent family members were allowed to hibernate, too, as far as I’m aware.”
“They didn’t come, and they didn’t want me to go. You know, trends at the time pointed toward a very bleak future. They criticized me for being irresponsible. She and her mother moved out, and in the dead of night the day after they left, the Special Contingent received the order. I didn’t even have time to see them again. It was on a late winter’s night, a cold one, that I left home carrying my bags.… Of course, I’m not expecting you to understand any of this.”
“I understand.… What happened to them?”
“My wife died in Year 47. My daughter in Year 81.”
“They saw the Great Ravine.” She lowered her eyes and remained silent for a while. Then she activated a
holographic window and switched to an external display mode.
The bulkheads of the white sphere melted like wax and Natural Selection vanished, leaving them suspended in infinite space, facing the misty starfield of the Milky Way. They were now two independent beings in the universe, unattached to any world, with nothing but the abyss surrounding them. They hung in the universe like the Earth, the sun, and the galaxy itself, with no origin and no destination. Simply existing … Zhang Beihai had experienced this feeling before, 190 years ago, when he floated in space wearing nothing
but a space suit, holding a pistol loaded with meteorite bullets.
“I like it this way, where you can ignore the spacecraft and the fleet and everything outside your own mind,” she said.
“Dongfang,” he called softly.
“Hmm?” The captain turned around, her eyes shining with the starlight of the Milky Way. “If the day comes when I have to kill you, please forgive me,” he said gently.
She met his words with a smile. “Do I look to you like I’m Imprinted?”
He looked at her in the sunlight coming from five AU away. She was a lithe feather floating against the backdrop of the starfield.
“We belong to the Earth and the sea, you belong to the stars.” “Is that bad?”
“No. It’s very good.”
* * *
“The probe’s gone out!”
The report from the duty officer came as a shock to Dr. Kuhn and General Robinson. They knew that once the news got out it would make waves in both the Earth International and the Fleet International, particularly since the latest observations of the probe’s speed meant that it would cross the orbit of Jupiter in just six days.
Kuhn and Robinson were on the Ringier-Fitzroy Station that orbited the sun along the outside rim of the asteroid belt. Floating in space five kilometers away from the station were the most peculiar objects in the Solar System: a set of six giant lenses, the top one 1,200 meters in diameter, and the five below it slightly smaller in size. This was the latest incarnation of the space telescope, but unlike the previous five generations of the Hubble, this space telescope had no barrel, or any connecting material at all between the six giant lenses. They floated independently, the rim of each lens equipped with multiple ion thrusters that could precisely adjust the distance between them or change the orientation of the entire group. Ringier-Fitzroy Station was the control center for the telescope, but even from this close, the transparent lenses were practically invisible. When technicians and engineers would fly between them during maintenance, the universe on either side would be grossly distorted, and if they were at the proper angle, the protective iris on the surface would reflect the sunlight and reveal the entire giant lens, whose curved surface would then resemble a planet covered in bewitching rainbows. The telescope broke with the Hubble series naming convention and was dubbed the Ringier-Fitzroy Telescope, to commemorate the two men who discovered the tracks of the Trisolaran Fleet. Although their discovery had no scholarly significance, the name was fitting, because the primary purpose of this massive telescope, a joint project of the three major fleets, was the
continued monitoring of the Trisolaran Fleet.
A team like Ringier and Fitzroy—a lead scientist from Earth and a head of military affairs from the fleet— had always been in charge of the telescope, and in every such team there were the same differences of opinion that Ringier and Fitzroy had. Right now, Kuhn wanted to squeeze in some observation time for his own study of the cosmos, while Robinson worked to stop him, so as to safeguard the fleet’s interests. They argued about other things, too: For example, Kuhn reminisced over the wonderful way that Earth’s superpowers, headed up by the United States, were leading the world, in contrast to the fleets’ current inefficient bureaucracy; but every time he did so, Robinson would ruthlessly dismantle Kuhn’s ridiculous historical fantasies. But the most heated argument was over the station’s rotation speed. The general insisted on a slow rotation for minimal gravity, even to the point of keeping the station in an entirely weightless state with no rotation at all, while Kuhn stumped for a fast rotation and Earth standard gravity.
But what was happening now overwhelmed all of that. The probe having “gone out” meant that its engines had turned off. Two years before, far beyond the Oort Cloud, the probe had begun to decelerate, which meant that its engine had started up in a sun-facing direction, enabling the space telescope to track the probe by engine light. Now that the light had gone out, tracking was no longer possible, because the probe itself was far too small—probably no bigger than a truck, based on the wake it left crossing the interstellar dust. An object that small out on the periphery of the Kuiper Belt, no longer emitting its own light and reflecting the weak light of the distant sun even more weakly—even a telescope as powerful as Ringier-Fitzroy couldn’t see such a tiny dark object so far off in the darkness of space.
“The three fleets don’t know how to do anything but struggle over power. This is just perfect—the target’s been lost.…” Kuhn grumbled, waving his arms for emphasis. He forgot the station was now in a weightless state, and his movements caused him to perform a somersault.
For the first time, General Robinson did not defend the fleet. The Asian Fleet had originally dispatched three light, high-speed ships to track the probe at close range, but after the dispute erupted among the three fleets over the right to intercept, the Joint Conference had issued a resolution recalling all craft to base. The Asian Fleet repeatedly protested that the three fighter-class spaceships had been stripped of all weapons and external equipment and were carrying a crew of just two people each to achieve maximum acceleration for tracking the target, and even so, they could not possibly intercept the probe. However, the European and North American Fleets were unconvinced, and insisted that all spaceships in transit be recalled and replaced by three spaceships dispatched by Earth International as a fourth party. If not for that, the fleet ships would already have made close contact with the probe and begun tracking it. Earth’s ships, dispatched by the European Commonwealth and China, had not even passed the orbit of Neptune.
“Perhaps. Its engines might start up again,” the general said. “It’s still traveling pretty fast, and if it doesn’t decelerate it won’t be able to rest in solar orbit. It’ll pass right through the Solar System.”
“Are you the Trisolaran commander? Maybe the probe wasn’t ever planning on remaining in the Solar System, but was just going to pass through anyway!” Kuhn said. Then a thought suddenly struck him. “If the engines are off, then it can’t change course! Can’t you just figure out where it’s headed and send the tracking spacecraft to wait for it?”
The general shook his head. “That’s not precise enough. It’s not like an air force search in Earth’s
atmosphere. One miniscule error, and you’ll be hundreds of thousands or even millions of kilometers off course. In such a huge area, the tracking craft won’t be able to find such a tiny, dark target.… But we’ve got to come up with a way somehow.”
“What can we do? Let the fleet figure it out.”
The general turned tough. “Doctor, you’ve got to realize the nature of the situation. Even though this isn’t our fault, the media won’t care. The Ringier-Fitzroy system was, after all, responsible for tracking the probe in deep space, so a good portion of that dirty water is going to land on our heads.”
Kuhn said nothing, but remained with his body perpendicular to the general’s for a while. Then he asked, “Is there anything else outside Neptune’s orbit that could be useful?”
“For the fleet, probably nothing. For Earth…” The general turned to ask the duty officer and soon learned that the UN Environmental Protection Organization had four large ships near Neptune, working on the early stages of the Fog Umbrella Project. The three small craft newly tasked with tracking the probe had been dispatched from those ships.
“And they’re there to mine oil film?” Kuhn asked. The reply was affirmative. Oil film was a substance found in Neptune’s rings. At high temperatures, it turned into a rapidly diffusing gas that then condensed into nanoparticles in space, forming space dust. It was so called because when it evaporated, it became highly diffusive, so a small quantity of the substance could form a large patch of dust, like a tiny droplet of oil spreading into an oil film of molecular thickness across a large area of water. Dust formed from this oil film had another property: Unlike other types of space dust, “oil-film dust” was not easily dispersed by the solar wind.
It was the discovery of oil film that made the Fog Umbrella Project possible. The plan was to use nuclear blasts in space to evaporate and spread the oil-film substance into a cloud of oil-film dust between the sun and Earth as a means of decreasing the sun’s radiation on Earth and alleviating global warming.
“I remember there’s supposed to be a stellar bomb near Neptune orbit from before the wars,” Kuhn said. “There is. And the Fog Umbrella spaceships brought along a few, too, for blasting Neptune and its
satellites. I’m not sure of the precise number.” “I’d say one is enough,” Kuhn said excitedly.
Like Wallfacer Rey Diaz had predicted two centuries prior when he developed the stellar hydrogen bomb for his Wallfacer plan, although the weapon would be of limited use in the Doomsday Battle, the major powers wanted it to prepare for the possible outbreak of interplanetary war between humans. More than five thousand bombs had been manufactured, mostly during the Great Ravine, when international relations grew volatile due to lack of resources, and humanity was pushed to the brink of war. When the new era dawned, the horrifying weapons became dangerous nonessentials that were kept in storage in outer space, although they still belonged to countries on Earth. A few of them were blown up in planetary engineering projects, and another set was sent into orbit in the remote Solar System with the notion that the fusion materials could supplement the fuel of long-range spacecraft. However, because of the difficulty involved in dismantling the bombs, this idea was never realized.
“Do you think it’ll work?” Robinson asked, his eyes aglow. He was a little rueful that he hadn’t thought up such a simple idea himself, and that Kuhn had snatched the opportunity to go down in history.
“Give it a try. It’s the only thing we’ve got.”
“If your idea works, Doctor, then the Ringier-Fitzroy Station will forever revolve fast enough to generate Earth gravity.”
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