THE DARK FOREST 14
Awakening from a long sleep, Zhang Beihai looked at the time: He had been asleep fifteen hours, perhaps the longest he had ever slept apart from his two centuries in hibernation. Now he felt a new feeling. Examining his mind, he realized where this feeling came from.
He was on his own.
In the past, even when floating alone in the endlessness of space, he had never had the feeling of being on his own. His father’s eyes were watching him from the beyond with a gaze that was present every moment of every day. Like the sunlight during daytime and the starlight at night, it had become a part of his world. Now his father’s gaze had disappeared.
Time to go out, he said to himself as he adjusted his uniform. He had slept weightless, so no part of his hair or clothing was out of place. Taking a last look at the spherical cabin in which he had spent more than a
month, he opened the door and drifted out, prepared to calmly face the fury of the crowd, to face the countless expressions of disdain and condemnation, to face the final judgment … and to face, as a conscientious soldier, a life whose duration he did not know. Whatever happened, the rest of his life was sure to be calm.
The corridor was empty.
He advanced slowly, passing compartments on either side, all of them open. They were all identical to his own spherical cabin, their snow-white walls resembling pupilless eyes. The environment was clean, and he saw no open information windows. The ship’s information system had probably been restarted and reformatted.
He recalled a movie he had seen in his youth, in which the characters lived in a Rubik’s Cube world made up of countless identical cubic rooms, each of which contained a different sort of death mechanism. They passed from one room to the next, endlessly.…
The free rein of his thoughts surprised him. This used to be a luxury, but now that his nearly two-century- long mission was at an end, his mind could walk a leisurely path.
He turned a corner, and ahead of him was another, longer corridor that was just as empty. The bulkheads emitted an even, milky-soft light that was enough to make him lose his sense of depth. The world felt compact. Again, the doors to the spherical cabins on either side were all open, and each one was an identical white space.
Natural Selection looked abandoned. To Zhang Beihai’s eyes, the massive ship he occupied was one enormous yet concise symbol, a metaphor for some law hidden beneath reality. He had the illusion that these identical white spherical spaces extended endlessly into space around him, repeating infinitely through the universe.
An idea popped into his mind: holography.
Every spherical cabin could achieve total manipulation and control of Natural Selection, so, at least from an informatics perspective, every cabin was the totality of Natural Selection. That meant Natural Selection was holographic.
The ship itself was a metal seed carrying the total information of human civilization. If it germinated somewhere in the universe, then it might grow into a complete civilization. The part contained the whole, hence human civilization might be holographic as well.
He had failed. He had not managed to spread these seeds, and for this he felt regret. But not sadness, and not just because he’d done everything he could to carry out his duty. His mind, now freed, took flight, and he imagined the universe as holographic, every point containing the whole, so that the entire universe endured so long as one atom remained. Suddenly he had an all-encompassing sense of focus, the same feeling that Ding Yi had just over ten hours ago at the other end of the Solar System on the last stage of his approach toward the droplet, while Zhang Beihai was still asleep.
He reached the end of the corridor and opened the door to enter the warship’s largest spherical hall, the one he had arrived at when he first entered Natural Selection three months ago. As before, a formation of fleet officers and soldiers was floating in the center of the sphere, but their numbers were several times greater and made up three layers in the formation. The two-thousand-strong crew of Natural Selection formed the center layer, which he realized was the only real layer. The other two were holograms.
Looking closer, he saw that the hologram formations were made up of the officers and soldiers from the four pursuing ships. Right in the center of the three-layer formation was a row of five colonels: Dongfang Yanxu and the captains of the four other ships. All but Dongfang Yanxu were holograms that were evidently being transmitted from the pursuing ships. When he entered the hall, the eyes of five thousand people focused on him with an expression clearly not directed at a defector. The captains saluted in order.
“Blue Space, of the Asian Fleet!” “Enterprise, of the North American Fleet!” “Deep Space, of the Asian Fleet!” “Ultimate Law, of the European Fleet!”
Dongfang Yanxu was the last to salute him. “Natural Selection, of the Asian Fleet! Sir, the five stellar-class warships you have preserved for humanity are all that is left of Earth’s space fleet. Please accept your command!”
* * *
“It’s a collapse. Everything’s collapsed. It’s a collective mental breakdown!” Shi Xiaoming sighed and shook his head. He had just returned from the underground city. “The whole city’s out of control. It’s chaos.”
The administrative officials had all come to a meeting of the neighborhood government. Hibernators made up two-thirds, with modern people accounting for the rest. They were easily distinguishable now: Although they were in a state of extreme depression, the hibernator officials kept their composure despite their low spirits, while the moderns manifested signs of breakdown to varying degrees and lost control on multiple occasions during the course of the meeting. Shi Xiaoming’s words plucked at their fragile nerves once again. The neighborhood chief executive’s eyes were wet with tears, and when he covered his face to weep, it prompted several other modern officials to weep with him. The official in charge of education laughed hysterically, and several other moderns began to snarl, before tossing their cups on the ground.…
“Quiet down,” Shi Qiang said. His voice wasn’t loud, but it had a dignity that quieted the modern officials.
The executive and the others who were crying struggled to hold back their tears.
“They’re just kids,” Hines said, shaking his head. Attending the meeting as a people’s representative, he was perhaps the only person who had benefited from the destruction of the combined fleet, because now that reality was in line with his mental seal, he had returned to normal. Previously, he had been tormented day and night by the mental seal in the face of what seemed like an all-but-certain victory, and he had nearly suffered a mental breakdown. He had been sent to the largest hospital in the city, where expert psychiatrists had been powerless to help him, although they had proposed a novel idea, which Luo Ji and the suburban officials helped carry out. As in Daudet’s “The Siege of Berlin,” or the old Golden-Age film Good Bye, Lenin!, why not fabricate a fictional environment in which humanity had failed? Fortunately, at the pinnacle of modern virtual technology, it wasn’t at all hard to create such an environment. Every day at his residence, Hines watched news that was broadcast especially for him, accompanied by lifelike three-dimensional images. He saw a portion of the Trisolaran Fleet accelerate and arrive at the Solar System early, and humanity’s combined fleet suffer heavy losses in a battle at the Kuiper Belt. Then the three fleets were unable to hold the line at Neptune’s orbit, and they were forced to stage a difficult resistance at Jupiter’s orbit.…
The neighborhood official in charge of manufacturing this false world got quite wrapped up in it, and when the crushing defeat actually took place, he was the first to suffer a mental breakdown. He had exhausted his imagination painting humanity’s defeat in the most disastrous way possible, both for Hines’s needs and for his own personal pleasure, but cruel reality far outstripped anything he had imagined.
When the images of the fleet’s destruction twenty AU away reached Earth after a three-hour delay, the public behaved like a gang of desperate children, turning the world into a nightmare-plagued kindergarten. Mass mental breakdown spread rapidly, and everything went out of control.
In Shi Qiang’s neighborhood, all the officials ranked higher than him either resigned or simply broke down and did nothing, so the higher-level authorities gave him an emergency appointment to take over the duties of the local chief executive. It may not have been all that important a post, but the fate of this hibernator neighborhood was in his hands during this crisis. Fortunately, compared to the underground city, the hibernator societies remained relatively stable.
“I would ask everyone to remember the situation we’re in,” Shi Qiang said. “If there’s ever a problem with the artificial environmental system in the underground city, the place will turn to hell and everyone there will flood out to the surface. If that happens, this place won’t be fit for survival. We had better consider migration.”
“Migration where?” someone asked.
“To somewhere sparsely populated, like the northwest. Of course, we would have to send people to check it out first. Right now, no one can say what will happen to the world, or whether there will be another Great Ravine. We have to make preparations to survive totally on agriculture.”
“Will the droplet attack Earth?” someone else asked.
“What’s the point of fretting?” Shi Qiang shook his head. “No one can do anything about it, at any rate.
And until it punches through the Earth, we’ve still got to live, right?”
“That’s right. Worrying is pointless. I’m quite clear on that point,” Luo Ji said, breaking his silence.
* * *
Humanity’s seven remaining spaceships flew away from the Solar System, split into two groups: five ships comprised of Natural Selection and its pursuers and another group of two ships, Quantum and Bronze Age, which had survived the droplet’s devastation. The two small fleets were at opposite ends of the Solar System, separated by the sun. They were on headings that took them in almost opposite directions, and gradually getting farther apart.
On Natural Selection, after Zhang Beihai heard the account of the combined fleet’s annihilation, his expression didn’t change. His eyes remained calm as water, and he said lightly, “A dense formation is an unforgivable error. Everything else was to be expected.”
“Comrades,” he said, sweeping his eyes over the five captains and the three layers of assembled officers and soldiers, “I call you by that ancient title because I want us all to share a common will from this day forward. Each of you must understand the reality we are facing, and must envision the future that we will face. Comrades, we can’t go back.”
Indeed, there was no going back. The droplet that had destroyed the combined fleet was still in the Solar
System, and nine others would arrive in three years. For this small fleet, their former home was now a death trap. From the information they had received, human civilization would totally collapse even before the main Trisolaran Fleet arrived, so Earth’s doomsday was not far off. The five ships had to accept the responsibility of carrying civilization forward, but all they could do was to fly onward, and fly far. The spaceships would be their home forever, and space would be their final resting place.
Together, the 5,500 crewmembers were like an infant who had been cut from its cord, then cruelly tossed into the abyss of space. Like that infant, there was nothing they could do but cry. Yet Zhang Beihai’s calm eyes were a strong force field that upheld the stability of the formation and helped them maintain their military poise. Children cast aside into the endless night needed a father most of all, and now, like Dongfang Yanxu, they found the power of that father in the person of this ancient soldier.
Zhang Beihai went on. “We will be a part of humanity forever, but we are an independent society and must rid ourselves of our psychological dependence on Earth. Now we need to choose a new name for this world of ours.”
“We come from Earth, and we may be the sole inheritors of Earth civilization, so let’s call ourselves Starship Earth,” Dongfang Yanxu said.
“Excellent.” Zhang Beihai nodded approvingly, then turned to the formation. “From now on, we are each of us citizens of Starship Earth. This moment might be a second starting point for human civilization. There are many things we need to do, so I would ask all of you to return to your posts now.”
The two hologram formations vanished, and Natural Selection’s formation began to disperse.
“Sir, should our four ships rendezvous?” the captain of Deep Space asked. The captains had not vanished.
Zhang Beihai shook his head firmly. “That’s not necessary. You are currently around two hundred thousand kilometers from Natural Selection, and although that’s close, a rendezvous would expend nuclear fuel. Energy is the foundation of our survival, and with what little we have, we must conserve as much as we can. We are the only humans in this part of space, so I understand your desire to gather together, but two hundred thousand kilometers is a short distance. From now on, we have to think about the long term.”
“Yes, we have to think about the long term,” Dongfang Yanxu repeated softly, her eyes still staring at the horizon as if surveying the long years ahead of them.
Zhang Beihai continued, “A citizens’ assembly must be convened immediately to set down basic issues, then the majority of the people need to be put into hibernation as soon as possible so that the ecological systems can be operated at a minimum.… Whatever transpires, the history of Starship Earth has begun.”
Zhang Beihai’s father’s eyes emerged from the beyond once again, like rays from the edge of the cosmos that penetrated everything. He felt the gaze, and in his heart he said, No, Dad. You really can’t rest. It’s not over. It’s started up again.
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