THE DARK FOREST 11
To capture the droplet, the fleet’s formation maintained a distance of one thousand kilometers from the target, a figure decided after careful calculation. There were various hypotheses about the manner in which the droplet might self-destruct, but the maximum release of energy would come from self-destruction by
antimatter annihilation. Since the droplet had a mass of less than ten tons, the largest energy burst that needed to be considered was that produced by the annihilation of five tons each of matter and antimatter. That annihilation, if it occurred on Earth, would be enough to destroy all life on the planet surface, but in space, the energy would be released entirely in the form of light radiation. For stellar-class warships, with their super anti-radiation capacity, one thousand kilometers was far enough to allow for a sufficient margin of safety.
The capture would be accomplished by Mantis, a small unmanned craft that had previously been used for collecting mineral specimens in the asteroid belt. Its key feature was an extra-long robotic arm.
At the start of the operation, Mantis crossed the five-hundred-kilometer line held by the previous monitoring craft and carefully approached the target, flying slowly and pausing for several minutes every fifty kilometers so that the dense omnidirectional surveillance system behind it could perform a complete scan of the target. Only after confirming that there were no abnormalities did it proceed.
At one thousand kilometers from the target, the combined fleet had matched speed with the droplet, and most of the warships had turned off their fusion engines to drift silently in the abyss of space, their giant metal hulls reflecting the weak sunlight. They were like abandoned space cities, the whole fleet array a silent, prehistoric Stonehenge. The 1.2 million people in the fleet held their breath as they watched Mantis on its brief voyage.
The images seen by the fleet traveled at the speed of light for three hours before reaching Earth, where they were transmitted to the eyes of three billion people similarly holding their breath. All activity in the human world had stopped. The flying cars had disappeared from among the giant trees, and a stillness had fallen over the underground metropolises. Even the global information network, busy since its birth three centuries before, emptied out. The majority of data transmissions were images from twenty AU away.
Mantis’s stop-and-go advance took half an hour to cover a distance that was hardly even a step through space. Finally, it hung in place fifty meters from the target. Now the Mantis’s distorted reflection could be clearly seen in the droplet’s mercury surface. The ship’s many instruments began a close-range scan of the target, first confirming prior observations: The droplet’s surface temperature was even lower than the surrounding space, close to absolute zero. Scientists had thought that there might be powerful cooling equipment inside the droplet, but Mantis’s instruments were still unable to detect anything about the target’s internal structure.
Mantis extended its extra-long robot arm toward the target, starting and stopping over the fifty-meter distance. But the dense monitoring system did not pick up anything abnormal. The grueling process lasted half an hour before the tip of the arm finally reached the target’s position and touched it, an object that had come from four light-years away on a nearly two-century-long trek through space. When the robot arm’s six digits grasped hold of the droplet at last, a million hearts in the fleet beat as one, echoed three hours later by three billion hearts on Earth.
Holding the droplet, the mechanical arm waited motionless. When the target still showed no response or abnormality after ten minutes, it began to pull it back.
It was at this point that people noticed a strange contrast: The mechanical arm was obviously designed purely as a functional object, with a rugged steel frame and exposed hydraulics that felt complicatedly technological and crudely industrial. But the droplet was perfect in shape, a smoothly gleaming, solid drop of
liquid whose exquisite beauty erased all functional and technical meaning and expressed the lightness and detachment of philosophy and art. The steel claw of the robot arm clutched the droplet like the hairy hand of Australopithecus clutching a pearl. The droplet looked so fragile, like a glass thermos liner in space, that everyone was afraid it would shatter in the claw. But that did not occur, and the robot arm began to retract.
It took another half hour for the arm to retract and pull the droplet into Mantis’s main cabin, after which the two bulkheads gradually came together. If the target were to self-destruct, this would be the most likely time. The fleet and Earth behind it waited quietly, as if through the silence they could hear the sound of time flowing through space.
Two hours later, nothing had happened.
* * *
The fact that the droplet had not self-destructed was final proof of what people had guessed: If it was a military probe, it surely would have self-destructed after falling into enemy hands. It was now certain that this was a gift from Trisolaris to humanity, a sign of peace sent in that civilization’s baffling mode of expression.
Once again the world erupted with joy. This time the revelry wasn’t as wild and abandoned as the last, because humanity’s victory and the end of the war were no longer anything unanticipated. Taking a thousand steps back, even if the coming negotiations broke down and the war continued, humanity would still ultimately be the victors, because the presence in space of the combined fleet had given the masses a visual impression of human power. Earth now had the calm confidence to face any sort of enemy.
With the arrival of the droplet, people’s feelings toward Trisolaris slowly began to change. They increasingly began to recognize that the race marching toward the Solar System was a great civilization, one that had experienced two-hundred-odd cyclic catastrophes and had endured with unbelievable tenacity. Their arduous journey of four light-years across the vastness of space was all for the sake of finding a stable star, a home in which to live out their lives.… The public’s feelings toward Trisolaris began to change from enmity and hatred to sympathy, compassion, and even admiration. People also realized another fact: Trisolaris had sent out the ten droplets two centuries ago, but humanity had only just realized their true significance. This was no doubt because the behavior of Trisolaris was overly subtle, as well as a reflection of the fact that humanity’s state of mind had been distorted by its own bloody history. In a global online referendum, citizen support for Project Sunshine rose rapidly, increasingly inclined toward the Strong Survival Plan that offered Mars as a Trisolaran reservation.
The UN and the fleets accelerated their preparations for negotiations, and the two internationals began organizing delegations.
All of this took place in the day after the droplet was captured.
But what excited people most of all was not the facts before their eyes, but the rudimentary outline of a bright future: What sort of fantastic paradise would the Solar System become after the union of Trisolaran technology and human power?
* * *
At about the same distance on the other side of the sun, Natural Selection coasted silently at 1 percent the
speed of light.
“Message just received: The droplet didn’t self-destruct upon capture,” Dongfang Yanxu said to Zhang Beihai.
“What’s a droplet?” he asked. They faced each other through the transparent bulkhead. His face was haggard.
“The Trisolaran probe. Now we have confirmation that it’s a gift to the human race, an expression of the Trisolaran wish for peace.”
“Is that so? That’s very good.”
“You don’t seem to care very much.”
He didn’t reply. Instead he lifted the notebook up in front of him with both hands. “I’ve finished.” Then he put it into a close-fitting pocket.
“So can you hand over control of Natural Selection now?”
“I can, but first I’d like to know what you plan on doing once you’ve gained control.” “Decelerating.”
“To rendezvous with the pursuing force?”
“Yes. Natural Selection’s fuel store is below return capacity, so it needs to refuel before being able to return to the Solar System. But the pursuing force doesn’t have enough fuel for us. Those six ships are only half the tonnage of Natural Selection, and in their pursuit they’ve accelerated to five percent of light speed and decelerated a similar amount. They’ve got enough fuel for a return. So Natural Selection’s personnel will have to return aboard the pursuing force. Later, a ship carrying enough fuel will be sent after Natural Selection to take it back to the Solar System, but that will require time. We need to decelerate as much as possible before leaving to minimize that time.”
“Don’t decelerate, Dongfang.” “Why?”
“Deceleration will consume all of Natural Selection’s remaining fuel. We can’t become a powerless ship.
No one knows what will happen. As captain, you ought to keep that in mind.”
“What can happen? The future is clear: The war will end and humanity will win, and you’ll be proven totally wrong!”
He smiled at her excitement, as if trying to quell it. As he looked at her, there was a softness in his eyes that had never been there before. It rocked her emotions. She found his defeatism unbelievable, and suspected him of having other motivations for defecting. She had even wondered about his sanity. But for some reason she felt a certain attachment to him. She had left her father when she was very young, certainly not anything unusual for a child of that era. Fatherly love was something ancient. But in this ancient soldier from the twenty-first century, she had come to understand it.
He said, “Dongfang, I come from troubled times. I’m a realist. All I know is that the enemy is still there and it’s still approaching the Solar System. As a soldier knowing this, I can’t be happy until everyone is at peace.… Don’t decelerate. This is the condition under which I’ll relinquish control. Of course, the only guarantee I have is your character.”
“I promise that Natural Selection will not decelerate.”
Zhang Beihai turned and floated to the interface panel, where he called up the permissions-transfer interface and entered his password. After a series of taps, he turned it off.
“Natural Selection’s captain’s privileges have been transferred to you. The password is still Marlboro,” he said, without looking back at her.
Dongfang Yanxu called up an interface in the air and quickly confirmed this. “Thank you. But I ask you not to come out of that cabin for the time being, or open the door. The ship’s personnel are awakening from deep-sea state and I’m afraid they might act aggressively toward you.”
“Will they make me walk the plank?” At her mystified expression, he laughed. “It’s a form of the death penalty on ancient ships. If it had really carried on through to today, you would have to shove a criminal like me right out into space.… Okay. I’d quite like to be alone.”
* * *
The shuttle that sailed out of Quantum seemed as small as a car leaving a city compared to its mother ship. The light of its engine illuminated only a small part of the ship’s hull, like a candle beneath a cliff. It eased out of Quantum’s shadow into the sunlight, its engine nozzle glowing like a firefly as it flew toward the droplet a thousand kilometers away.
The expedition team consisted of four people: a major and a lieutenant colonel from the European and North American Fleets, Ding Yi, and Xizi.
Through the porthole, Ding Yi looked back at the receding fleet formation. Quantum, situated in a corner, still appeared large, but its nearest neighbor, the warship Cloud, was so small that its shape could only barely be made out. Farther away, the ranks of warships were just rows of points across his field of view. Ding Yi knew that the rectangular array was a hundred ships in length by twenty in width, with an additional fifteen ships maneuvering outside of the formation. But when he counted along the length, by the time he reached thirty he couldn’t see clearly, and that was just six hundred kilometers away. It was the same looking up, where the short side extended vertically. The warships that could be made out in the far distance were just fuzzy points of light under the weak sunlight, nearly indistinguishable from the starry background. Only when their engines started up would the fleet array be totally visible to the naked eye. The combined fleet was a one-hundred-by-twenty matrix in space. He imagined another matrix being multiplied with it, the horizontal elements from one multiplied in turn with vertical elements from the other to form an even larger matrix, although in reality the only important constant for the matrix was one tiny point: the droplet. He didn’t like extreme asymmetry in mathematics, so this attempt to calm himself through mental gymnastics failed.
When the force of acceleration subsided, he struck up a conversation with Xizi, who was sitting next to him. “Child, are you from Hangzhou?”
Xizi was staring straight ahead, as if trying to locate Mantis, which was still hundreds of kilometers away. Then she recovered and shook her head. “No, Master Ding. I was born in the Asian Fleet. I don’t know whether my name has anything to do with Hangzhou.22 I’ve been there, though. It’s a nice place.”
“It was a nice place back in our day. But West Lake has now turned into Crescent Lake, and it’s in a desert.
… Still, even though the desert’s everywhere, today’s world still reminds me of the south, and the age in which the women were as graceful as the water.” As he said this, he looked at Xizi, whose enchanting
silhouette was set off by the soft light of the distant sun that streamed in through the porthole. “Child, looking at you, I’m reminded of someone I once loved. Like you, she was a major, and although she wasn’t as tall as you, she was just as beautiful.…”
“In the old days, lots of girls must have been in love with you,” Xizi said to Ding Yi, turning back to him. “I wouldn’t usually bother the girls I liked. I believed in what Goethe said: ‘If I love you, what business is it
He went on, “Oh, if only I had the same attitude toward physics! My life’s biggest regret is that we’ve been blinded by the sophons. But here’s a more positive way of thinking about it: If we’re exploring laws, what business is that of the laws? One day, perhaps, humanity—or maybe someone else—will explore the laws so thoroughly that they’ll be able to alter not only their own reality, but perhaps the entire universe. They’ll be able to turn every star system into whatever shape they require, like kneading a ball of dough. But so what? The laws still won’t have changed. Yes, she’ll still be there, the one unchanging presence, forever young, like how we remember a lover.…” As he spoke, he pointed out the porthole at the brilliant Milky Way. “And when I think about that, my worries go away.”
Xizi said nothing, and they fell into a heavy silence. Mantis soon came into view, albeit as a point of light two hundred kilometers away. The shuttle rotated 180 degrees, and the engine nozzle, now pointing ahead of them, began their deceleration.
The fleet was now directly ahead of the shuttle, around eight hundred kilometers away, a trivial distance in space, but one that turned the massive warships into barely visible points. The fleet itself was distinguishable from the starry background only by its neatly arranged ranks. The entire rectangular array seemed like a grid covering the Milky Way, its regularity standing in stark contrast to the chaos of the starfield. With its great size made tiny by the distance, the power of the formation was made apparent. Many people in the fleet and the distant Earth behind it who were watching this image sensed that it was a visual display of what Ding Yi had just been talking about.
The shuttle reached Mantis and the force of deceleration cut off. To the shuttle’s passengers, the speed of the process made it feel as if Mantis had suddenly popped up in space.
Docking was completed quickly. Since Mantis was unmanned, there was no air in the cabin, so the four members of the expedition team put on light space suits. Upon receiving final instructions from the fleet, they filed weightlessly through the docking hatch and into Mantis.
The droplet floated dead center in Mantis’s one spherical main cabin. Its colors were entirely different from the image seen aboard Quantum, paler and softer, evidently due to differences in the scene reflected on its surface—the droplet’s total reflectance meant that it had no color of its own. Arranged in the main cabin of Mantis was the folded robotic arm, an assortment of equipment, and several piles of asteroid rock samples. Floating in a mechanical and stony environment, the droplet once again presented a contrast between exquisiteness and crudeness, aesthetics and technology.
“It’s the tear of the blessed mother,” Xizi said.
Her words were transmitted from Mantis at the speed of light, first to the fleet and then resonating three hours later throughout the entire human world. Xizi, the lieutenant colonel, and the major from the European
Fleet—ordinary people on the expedition team placed, by unexpected circumstance, in a central position at the pinnacle moment in the history of civilization—shared a common feeling now that they were so close to the droplet: All sense of the distant world’s unfamiliarity vanished, replaced by an intense desire for recognition. Yes, in the cold expanse of the universe, all carbon-based life shared a common destiny, one that might take billions of years to cultivate, but a destiny that cultivated feelings of love that transcended time and space. And now, they sensed that love in the droplet, a love that could bridge the chasm of any enmity. Xizi’s eyes were wet, and three hours later, the eyes of billions of people like her would fill with tears.
But Ding Yi watched all of this dispassionately from the rear. “I see something else,” he said. “Something far more sublime. A realm where both self and other are forgotten, an effort to encompass everything by shutting out everything.”
“That’s too much philosophy for me to understand,” Xizi laughed through her tears.
“Dr. Ding, we don’t have much time.” The lieutenant colonel motioned for Ding Yi to come forward to be the first to touch the droplet.
Ding Yi floated slowly toward the droplet and placed a hand on its surface. To avoid frostbite from the cold mirror surface, he had to touch it with a gloved hand. Then the three officers touched it, too.
“It looks so fragile. I’m afraid of breaking it,” Xizi said softly.
“I can’t feel any friction at all,” the lieutenant colonel marveled. “It’s so smooth.” “How smooth is it?” Ding Yi asked.
To answer that question, Xizi took out a cylindrical instrument, a microscope, from a pocket in her space suit. She touched the lens to the droplet, and they could see a magnified image of the surface on the instrument’s small display. Displayed on the screen was a smooth mirror.
“What’s the magnification?” Ding Yi asked.
“A hundred times.” Xizi pointed to a number in the corner of the screen, then adjusted the magnification to one thousand.
The enlarged surface remained a smooth mirror. “Your device is broken,” the lieutenant colonel said.
Xizi removed the microscope from the droplet and placed it against her space suit visor. The other three drew closer to look at the screen, where the visor—a surface which, to the naked eye, looked as smooth as the droplet—was a rough and rocky beach on the screen under one-thousand-times magnification. Xizi returned the microscope to the surface of the droplet, and the screen once again displayed a smooth mirror, no different from the surrounding, unmagnified surface.
“Increase it by another factor of ten,” Ding Yi said.
This was beyond the capabilities of optical magnification, so Xizi carried out a series of operations to switch the microscope from optical to electron tunneling mode. Now the magnification power stood at ten thousand. The magnified surface remained a smooth mirror. The smoothest surface that human technology could produce revealed itself as rough at just one thousand times magnification, like Gulliver’s impression of the face
of the beautiful giantess.
“Adjust to a hundred thousand times,” the lieutenant colonel said. Still they saw a smooth mirror.
“A million times.” A smooth mirror.
“Ten million times.”
Macromolecules would be visible at this magnification, but what they saw on the screen remained a smooth mirror without the slightest sign of roughness, no difference in smoothness from the surrounding unmagnified surface.
“Push it up again!”
Xizi shook her head. This was the electron microscope’s highest level of magnification.
More than two centuries before, in his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke had described a black monolith left on the moon by an advanced alien civilization. Surveyors had measured its dimensions with ordinary rulers and had found a ratio of one to four to nine. When these were rechecked using the most high-precision measurement technology on Earth, the ratio remained an exact one to four to nine, with no error at all. Clarke described it as a “passive yet almost arrogant display of geometrical perfection.”
Now, humanity was facing a far more arrogant display of power. “Can an absolutely smooth surface really exist?” Xizi gasped.
“Yes,” Ding Yi said. “The surface of a neutron star is nearly absolutely smooth.” “But this has a normal mass!”
Ding Yi considered this, then looked about him. “Hook up to the spaceship computer and find the spot that the robot arm gripped during capture.”
This was accomplished remotely by a fleet surveillance officer. The Mantis computer projected thin red laser beams to mark the position on the droplet surface that had been gripped by the steel claw. Xizi examined one of the spots with the microscope, and at a magnification of ten million times, she still saw a smooth, flawless mirror.
“How high was the pressure at the point of contact?” the lieutenant colonel asked, and soon received a reply from the fleet: approximately two hundred kilograms per square centimeter.
Smooth surfaces are easily scratched, but the strong metal clamp did not leave any scratches on the droplet’s surface.
Ding Yi floated away in search of something within the cabin. He returned with a rock pick, perhaps dropped in the cabin by someone during collection of rock samples. Before anyone could stop him, he slammed it forcefully into the mirror surface. There was a clang, crisp and melodious, like the pick had smashed into jade-paved ground. The sound traveled through his body, but the other three didn’t hear it because of the vacuum. With the handle of the pick, he pointed out the spot he had struck, and Xizi examined it with the microscope.
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