THE DARK FOREST 10
Natural Selection flew at 1 percent of the speed of light on a course between Jupiter and the orbit of Saturn. Behind it, the sun was now small, although it was still the brightest of the stars, while up ahead, the Milky Way shone with an even greater brilliance. The ship’s heading was more or less in the direction of Cygnus, but in the expanse of outer space, its speed was imperceptible. To a nearby observer, Natural Selection would have seemed suspended in deep space. From its own vantage point, in fact, all movement throughout the universe had been erased, leaving the ship seemingly in a static state, with the Milky Way ahead and the sun behind. Time seemed to have stopped.
“You have failed,” Dongfang Yanxu said to Zhang Beihai. All personnel aboard the ship but the two of them were still in deep-sea sleep state. Zhang Beihai remained shut inside the spherical compartment, and Dongfang Yanxu, unable to enter, had to talk with him through the communication system. Through the section of bulkhead that was still transparent, she could see the man who had hijacked humanity’s most powerful warship floating quietly in the center of the compartment, head bent, intent on writing in a notebook. In front of him floated an interface that showed the ship on standby for Ahead Four, ready to go at the press of a button. Around him floated several globs of liquid deep-sea acceleration fluid that hadn’t yet been evacuated. His uniform had dried, but its wrinkles made him look much older.
He ignored her and continued to write, head bent.
“The pursuing force is only 1.2 million kilometers away from Natural Selection,” she said.
“I know,” he said without looking up. “You were wise to keep the entire ship in deep-sea state.”
“It had to be this way. Otherwise, agitated officers and soldiers would have attacked this cabin. And if you took Natural Selection to Ahead Four at will, you would have killed them all. That’s also the reason why the pursuers haven’t closed in.”
He said nothing. Flipping a page in the notebook, he continued writing. “You wouldn’t do that, would you?” she asked softly.
“You never imagined I’d do what I’m doing now.” He paused a few seconds, then added, “The people of my time have our own ways of thinking.”
“But we’re not enemies.”
“There are no permanent enemies or comrades, only permanent duty.”
“Then your pessimism about the war is totally unfounded. Trisolaris has just shown signs of wanting talks, and the combined Solar Fleet has set off to intercept the Trisolaran probe. The war will end with a victory for humanity.”
“I’ve seen the news that came in…”
“And you still persist in your defeatism and Escapism?” “I do.”
She shook her head in frustration. “Your way of thinking really is different from ours. For instance, you knew from the start that your plan would be unsuccessful, because Natural Selection has only a fifth of its fuel and is certain to be caught.”
He set down his pencil and looked out of the cabin at her. His eyes were calm as water. “We’re all soldiers, but do you know what the biggest difference between soldiers from my time and soldiers now is? You determine your actions according to possible outcomes. But for us, we must carry out our duty regardless of the outcome. This was my only chance, so I took it.”
“You’re saying that to comfort yourself.”
“No. It’s my nature. I don’t expect you to understand, Dongfang. We’re separated by two centuries, after all.”
“So you’ve carried out your duty, but there’s no hope for your Escapist endeavor. Surrender.”
He smiled at her, then looked back at his writing. “It’s not time yet. I need to write down all that I’ve experienced. Everything across two centuries needs to be written down, so that it might be of assistance to a few sober-minded people in the next two centuries.”
“You can dictate to the computer.”
“No, I’m used to writing by hand. Paper lasts longer than a computer. Don’t worry. I’ll bear full responsibility.”
* * *
Ding Yi looked out through Quantum’s broad porthole. Even though the holographic display in the spherical cabin provided a better view, he still liked seeing things with his own eyes. What he saw was that he was situated on a large plane consisting of two thousand small, dazzling suns whose light seemed to set his gray hair aflame. The sight had grown familiar to him in the days since the launch of the combined fleet, but its grandeur still shook him each time he looked. The fleet was not just in this configuration as a show of force or majesty. In a traditional naval configuration of staggered columns, the radiation produced by the engine of every warship would have an effect on the ships to the rear. In this rectangular formation, the ships were separated by about twenty kilometers. Even though each of them was an average of three to four times the size of a naval aircraft carrier, from that distance they were practically dots, with only the glow of the fusion engines to prove their existence in space.
The combined fleet was in a dense formation, one that had only ever been used in fleet review. In a normal cruising formation, the ships ought to have been spaced at roughly three hundred to five hundred kilometers, so a twenty-kilometer spacing was basically like sailing hull-to-hull through the ocean. Many of the generals in
the three fleets disagreed with this dense formation, but conventional formations presented a number of thorny problems. First of all, there was the principle of fairness in battle opportunity. If the probe were approached in a standard formation, then the ships at the edge would still be tens of thousands of kilometers away from the target when the formation reached minimum distance. If combat broke out during the capture, a fair number of the ships could not have been considered to have taken part, leaving them nothing in the history books but eternal regret. But the three fleets couldn’t break off into their own subformations, because it was impossible to coordinate which of them would occupy the most advantageous position in the overall formation. So the formation had to be made as dense as possible, a review formation that placed all ships within combat distance of the probe. A second reason for selecting this formation was that the Fleet International and the United Nations both desired stunning visuals, not so much to show off for Trisolaris as to give the masses something to look at. The visual impact held enormous political significance for both groups. With the main enemy force still two light-years away, the dense formation was certainly not in danger.
Quantum was located in a corner of the formation, giving Ding Yi a view of the majority of the fleet. When they crossed the orbit of Saturn, all the fusion engines turned toward the forward direction and the fleet began to decelerate. Now, as the fleet closed in on the Trisolaran probe, its velocity was negative—it was traveling back toward the sun as it closed the distance separating it from its target.
Ding Yi put a pipe to his lips. With no loose tobacco in this age, it was an empty pipe that dangled there, the lingering flavor of two-century-old tobacco faint and indistinct, like a memory of the past.
He had been reawakened seven years earlier and had been teaching in the Peking University physics department since then. Last year he had put in a request to the fleet asking to be one of the people who would examine the Trisolaran probe up close when it was intercepted. Although Ding Yi was held in high regard, his request had been refused until he declared that he would kill himself in front of the three fleet commanders if they did not comply. Then they said they would think about it. In fact, selection of the first person to contact the probe was a knotty problem, because first contact with the probe meant first contact with Trisolaris. According to the fairness principle to be observed during interception, none of the three fleets could be permitted to enjoy this honor alone, but sending someone from each of them presented operational problems and could complicate matters. So the mission had to be undertaken by someone outside Fleet International. Ding Yi was naturally the most suitable candidate, although another unstated reason lay at the core of his request’s ultimate approval: Neither the Fleet International nor the Earth International had much confidence in obtaining the probe, because it was practically certain to self-destruct during or after intercept. Before it did so, close-range observation and contact were imperative if they wanted to obtain as much data as possible. As the discoverer of the macroatom and the inventor of controlled fusion, the veteran physicist was completely qualified in this area. At any rate, Ding Yi’s life was his own, and at eighty-three, his unparalleled qualifications naturally gave the old man the power to do anything he wanted.
At the final meeting of Quantum command before the intercept began, Ding Yi saw an image of the Trisolaran probe. Three tracking craft had been dispatched by the three fleets to replace Earth International’s Blue Shadow. They had captured an image at a distance of five hundred kilometers from the target, the closest that any human spacecraft had come to the probe. The probe was about as large as expected, 3.5 meters long, and when Ding Yi saw it, he had the same impression as everyone else: a droplet of mercury. The probe was a
perfect teardrop shape, round at the head and pointy at the tail, with a surface so smooth it was a total reflector. The Milky Way was reflected on its surface as a smooth pattern of light that gave the mercury droplet a pure beauty. Its droplet shape was so natural that observers imagined it in a liquid state, one for which an internal structure was impossible.
Ding Yi remained silent after he saw the image of the probe. He did not speak at the meeting, and his expression was downcast.
“Master Ding, you seem to have something on your mind,” the captain said.
“I don’t feel good,” he said softly, and pointed at the holographic probe with his pipe. “Why? It looks like a harmless work of art,” an officer said.
“And that’s why I don’t feel so good,” Ding Yi said, shaking his gray head. “It looks like a work of art rather than an interstellar probe. It’s not a good sign when something’s so far removed from our own mental concept.”
“It is peculiar. Its surface is entirely sealed. Where’s the engine nozzle?”
“Yet its engine lights up. We’ve observed that. When it went out for a second time, Blue Shadow wasn’t close enough to capture an image in time, so we don’t know where the light came from.”
“What is its mass?” Ding Yi asked.
“We don’t have an exact value right now. A rough value, obtained through high-precision gravitational instruments, is less than ten tons.”
“Then at least it’s not made of matter from a neutron star.”
The captain put an end to the officers’ discussion and continued with the meeting. He said to Ding Yi, “Master Ding, this is how the fleet has planned out your visit: After the unmanned craft completes its capture of the target and carries out an observation period, if nothing unusual is found, you will enter the capture craft on a shuttle and conduct a close-up observation of the target. You may not stay longer than fifteen minutes. This is Major Xizi. She will represent the Asian Fleet and accompany you as you carry out your examination.”
A young officer saluted Ding Yi. Like the other women in the fleet, she was tall and slender, the very epitome of New Space Humanity.
With only a glance at the major, Ding Yi turned to the captain. “Why does there have to be someone else?
Can’t I go alone?”
“Of course not, sir. You’re unfamiliar with the space environment, and you need assistance throughout the entire process.”
“In that case, I’d better not go. Does someone really need to follow me…” He broke off without uttering “to death.”
The captain said, “Master Ding, this trip is dangerous, to be sure, but not completely so. If the probe self- destructs, then it will most likely occur during the intercept. The likelihood of it self-destructing two hours after the intercept is very low, so long as the examination process does not use destructive instruments.”
In point of fact, the primary reason the Earth and Fleet Internationals decided to send a human to the probe was not for an inspection. When the world saw the probe for the first time, everyone was captivated by its magnificent exterior. The mercury droplet was just so beautiful, so simple in shape yet masterfully styled, with each point on its surface in exactly the right place. It was imbued with a graceful dynamism, as if at every moment it was dripping endlessly in the cosmic night. It inspired the feeling that even if human artists tried out every possible smooth closed shape, they wouldn’t come up with this one. It transcended every possibility. Not even in Plato’s Republic was there such a perfect shape: straighter than the straightest line, more circular than a perfect circle, a mirrored dolphin leaping out of the sea of dreams, a crystallization of all the love in the universe.… Beauty is always paired with good, so if there really existed a demarcation between good and evil in the universe, this object would fall on the good side.
So a hypothesis was quickly worked out: The object might not even be a probe. Further observation confirmed this hypothesis, to an extent. People first noticed its exterior, the highly smooth finish that made it a total reflector. The fleet conducted an experiment on the probe using a large quantity of monitoring equipment: Its entire surface was irradiated with different wavelengths of high-frequency electromagnetic waves, and the reflectance was measured. To their shock, they discovered that at every frequency, including visible light, the reflection was practically 100 percent. No absorption was detected. This meant that the probe could not detect any high-frequency waves—or, in layman’s terms, it was blind. There must be a
particular significance to a blind design. The most reasonable guess was that it was a token of goodwill from Trisolaris to humanity, expressed through its nonfunctional design and beautiful form. A sincere desire for peace.
So the probe was given a new name inspired by its shape: “the droplet.” On both Earth and Trisolaris, water was the source of life and a symbol of peace.
Public opinion maintained that a formal delegation ought to be sent to make contact with the droplet, rather than an expedition team made up of a physicist and three ordinary officers. But after careful consideration, Fleet International decided to keep its original plan unchanged.
“Can’t you at least swap in someone else? Letting this young lady…” Ding Yi said, gesturing at Xizi.
Xizi smiled at him and said, “Master Ding, I am Quantum’s science officer. I’m in charge of off-ship scientific expeditions during our voyages. This is my duty.”
“And women make up half the fleet,” the captain said. “Three people will accompany you. The other two are science officers sent by the European and North American Fleets. They’ll be reporting shortly. Master Ding, let me reiterate one point: According to the decision of the SFJC, you must be the first to make direct contact with the target. Only then are they permitted to make contact.”
“Pointless.” Ding Yi shook his head again. “Humanity hasn’t changed at all. So eager to chase after vanity.
… But, rest assured, I’ll do as you wish. I just want to have a look, is all. What I’m really interested in is the theory behind this super-technology. But I’m afraid that this life is … ah.”
The captain floated over to him and said with concern, “Master Ding, you can go rest now. The intercept will be starting soon, and you need to preserve your energy before setting off on your expedition.”
Ding Yi looked up at the captain. For a moment he didn’t realize that the meeting was going to continue after he left. Then he looked back at the image of the droplet, noticing now how its round head reflected a regular row of lights that gradually deformed toward the rear, merging into the reflected pattern of the Milky Way. That was the fleet. He looked again at Quantum’s commanders floating before him, all of them so very young. Just children. They looked so noble and perfect, from the captain to the lieutenants, and their eyes shone with a godlike wisdom. The light of the fleet streaming in through the portholes was tinted like a golden sunset by the auto-darkening glass, enveloping them all in gold. Behind them floated the image of the droplet like a supernatural silver symbol, making the place otherworldly and transcendent, and turning them into a host of gods atop Mount Olympus.… Something stirred deep within him, and he grew excited.
“Master Ding, do you have something else to add?” the captain asked.
“Er, I’d like to say…” His hands moved aimlessly, and he let his pipe float in the air. “I’d like to say that you kids have been great to me over the past few days.…”
“You’re the man we admire the most of all,” a vice-captain said.
“Oh … so there are a few things I’d really like to say. Just … the nonsense of an old fool. You don’t have to take it seriously. Still, children, as someone who’s crossed two centuries, I’ve been through a bit more than you.… Of course, like I said, don’t take it seriously.…”
“Master Ding, if you’ve got something to say, then just say it. You really have our highest respect.”
Ding Yi slowly nodded. Then he pointed upward. “If this spaceship has to go to maximum acceleration, everyone here will need to … be immersed in a liquid.”
“That’s right. Deep-sea state.”
“Yes, right. The deep-sea state.” Ding Yi hesitated again, and ruminated for a moment before resolving to go on. “When we go out for our examination, could this ship, ah, Quantum, be put into a deep-sea state?”
The officers looked at each other in surprise, and the captain said, “Why?”
Ding Yi’s hands began fluttering again. His hair glowed white under the fleet’s light. Like someone had noticed when he first came aboard, he looked quite a bit like Einstein. “Um … well, at any rate there’s no harm in doing it, right? You know, I don’t have a good feeling.”
After saying this, he remained silent, his eyes locked onto the infinite distance. At last he reached out, plucked the pipe out of the air, and put it into his pocket. Without saying good-bye, he awkwardly worked his superconductor belt to float toward the door as the officers watched him.
When he was halfway out, he slowly turned back around. “Children, do you know what I’ve been doing all these years? Teaching physics at a university and advising doctoral students.” As he looked out at the galaxy, an inscrutable smile played on his face—tinted with, the officers noticed, a hint of sadness. “Children, a man from two centuries ago is still able to teach university physics today.” With that, he turned and left.
The captain wanted to say something to him, but now that he was gone, the words didn’t come out. He remained deep in thought. Some of the officers looked at the droplet, but more of them turned their attention to the captain.
“Captain, you’re not going to take him seriously, are you?” one lieutenant asked.
“He’s a wise scientist, but he’s still an ancient man. Their thoughts about modern things are always…” someone else added.
“But in his field, humanity hasn’t made any progress. It’s still stuck at his era’s level.”
“He spoke of intuition. I think his intuition may have discovered something,” an officer said, in a voice full of awe.
“Also…” Xizi blurted out. But looking at the surrounding officers who outranked her, she swallowed the rest of her words.
“Major, please continue,” the captain said.
“Also, like he said, there’s no harm in doing it,” she said.
“Think about it this way,” a vice-captain said. “According to present battle plans, if the capture fails and the droplet unexpectedly escapes, then the fleet can only deploy fighters as a tracking force. But long-range tracking needs to be stellar-class, so the fleet ought to have warships prepared. This is an oversight in the plan.”
“Make a report to the fleet,” the captain said.
The fleet’s approval was swift: When the examination team had set off, Quantum and the neighboring stellar-class warship Bronze Age would enter a deep-sea state.
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