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Novel:The dark forestauthor: pubdate:2019-03-03 18:13

The next day, still keeping Earth time, Starship Earth convened its first plenary Citizens’ Assembly, held in a venue formed from the combination of five holographic subvenues. The citizens in attendance numbered around three thousand, and the remainder who were unable to leave their posts networked in.
First off, the assembly identified an urgent matter: the destination of Starship Earth’s voyage. Maintaining
the current heading unchanged was passed by unanimous vote. This target was the one Zhang Beihai had set for Natural Selection, a heading in the direction of Cygnus—or, more precisely, the star NH558J2, one of the planetary systems closest to the Solar System. It had two planets, both of which were gaseous like Jupiter and not suitable for human life, but could provide supplemental nuclear fuel. It now appeared that the choice of destination had been made after considerable thought, because along a different heading, at a distance just 1.5 light-years farther than their present destination, there was another planetary system which, according to observations, contained a planet whose natural environment was similar to Earth’s. But that system had just one planet, and if it turned out to be an inhospitable world—the conditions for a hospitable world were more exacting than the rough observations from light-years away could reveal—then Starship Earth would miss the chance to refuel. After reaching NH558J2 and refueling, they could fly at even higher speeds toward their next target.
NH558J2 was eighteen light-years away from the Solar System. At their present speed, taking into account various uncertainties in the voyage, Starship Earth would reach it in two thousand years.
Two millennia. The grim number presented another clear picture of the present and the future. Even taking hibernation into account, most of the citizens of Starship Earth would never live to see their destination. Their lives would last just a small part of the twenty-century-long voyage, and even for their descendants who would reach it, NH558J2 was just a way station. No one knew what their next destination would be, much less when Starship Earth would finally reach its true, hospitable home.
In fact, Zhang Beihai had been exceptionally rational in his thinking. He clearly knew that Earth’s suitability for human life was no coincidence, much less an effect of the anthropic principle, but rather was an outcome of the long-term interaction between the biosphere and the natural environment, an outcome that would not likely be repeated on another planet around some far-flung star. His choice of NH558J2 implied another possibility: Perhaps a hospitable world would never be found, and the new human civilization would forever voyage on a starship.
But he did not make this idea explicit. It might take the next generation born on Starship Earth to truly be able to accept a starship civilization. The present generation would have to live their lives sustained by the thought of a home on an Earth-like planet.
The assembly also determined Starship Earth’s political status. It decided that the five ships would remain part of the human world forever, but under the present circumstances, it was impossible for Starship Earth to be politically subordinate to Earth or the three fleets, so it would become a totally independent country.
When this resolution was transmitted back to Solar System, the UN and the SFJC were silent for quite some time before replying. Without taking a position, they merely sent their tacit blessing.
And thus the human world was divided into three internationals: the ancient Earth International, the Fleet International of the new era, and the Starship International that was voyaging into the depths of the cosmos. The last group had just over five thousand people, but it carried with it all the hope of human civilization.
*    *    *
At the second meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly, they began discussing the issue of Starship Earth’s leadership structure.
When the meeting began, Zhang Beihai said, “I think it’s too early for this agenda item. We’ve got to determine the shape of society on Starship Earth before we can decide what sort of governing bodies we need.”
“You mean, we need to draft a constitution first,” Dongfang Yanxu said. “At least the basic principles for a constitution.”
So the meeting continued along those lines. The inclination of the majority was that because Starship Earth was a highly fragile ecosystem traveling through the harsh environment of space, a disciplined society had to be established to guarantee a unified will to survive under these conditions. Someone proposed maintaining the present military system, and the idea received majority support.
“You mean a totalitarian society,” Zhang Beihai said.
“Sir, there ought to be a nicer name for it. We’re military, after all,” the captain of Blue Space said.
“I don’t think it’ll work.” Zhang Beihai shook his head decisively. “Staying alive is not enough to guarantee survival. Development is the best way to ensure survival. During our voyage, we’ll have to develop our own science and technology to expand the size of our fleet. The historical facts of the Middle Ages and the Great Ravine prove that a totalitarian system is the greatest barrier to human progress. Starship Earth requires vibrant new ideas and innovation, and this can only be accomplished through the establishment of a society that fully respects freedom and individuality.”
“Are you talking about establishing a society like the modern Earth International, sir? Starship Earth has certain intrinsic conditions,” a low-ranking officer said.
“That’s right.” Dongfang Yanxu nodded at the speaker. “Starship Earth may have few people, but it possesses a highly refined information system through which any problem can easily be put to discussion and vote by all citizens. We can establish the first truly democratic society in human history.”
“That won’t work either.” Zhang Beihai shook his head again. “Like those citizens said before, Starship Earth is traveling through the harsh environment of space, where catastrophes that threaten the entire world might occur at any time. Earth’s history during the Trisolar Crisis has demonstrated that, in the face of such disasters, particularly when our world needs to make sacrifices in order to preserve the whole, the humanitarian society you have in mind is especially fragile.”
All of those in attendance at the meeting glanced at each other, their eyes holding the same question: So what should we do?
Smiling, Zhang Beihai said, “I’m thinking too simply. There’s never been an answer to this question throughout human history, so how can we solve it in one meeting? It will, I think, require a long process of practice and exploration before we can find the social model most suitable for Starship Earth. After the meeting, discussions should be opened up on the issue.… Please forgive me for disrupting the meeting’s agenda. We should continue with the original topic.”
Dongfang Yanxu had never seen Zhang Beihai smile like that. He rarely smiled, and when he occasionally did, it was confident and forgiving. But this smile had shown an apologetic shyness that she had never seen before. Even though interrupting the meeting wasn’t a big deal, he was a man with an especially discreet mind, and this was the first time he had put forth an opinion only to retract it. She noticed his distraction. He hadn’t taken notes during this meeting, unlike the careful recording he had done at the previous one. He was
the only one on board who still used an ancient pen and paper, and it had become an emblem for him.
So what was occupying his thoughts now?
The meeting turned toward the matter of governing bodies. The citizens tended to feel that conditions were not yet right for holding elections, so the ships’ present chains of command should not be changed. Captains would lead their respective ships, and a Starship Earth Authority Committee formed from the five of them would discuss and decide upon major affairs. Zhang Beihai was unanimously elected as chair of the committee, to serve as supreme commander of Starship Earth. The resolution was put to the entire assembly, and passed with 100 percent of the votes.
But he refused the appointment.
“Sir, it’s your responsibility,” the captain of Deep Space said.
“On Starship Earth, you’re the only one with the prestige to command all the ships,” Dongfang Yanxu said. “I feel I’ve fulfilled my responsibility. I’m tired, and I’ve reached retirement age,” Zhang Beihai said softly.
When the meeting adjourned, Zhang Beihai called for Dongfang Yanxu to stay behind. Once everyone had left, he said, “Dongfang, I want to recover my position as acting captain of Natural Selection.”
“Acting captain?” She eyed him in surprise.
“Yes. Give me operational permissions over the ship again.”
“Sir, I can hand over the captain’s chair of Natural Selection to you. I mean it. And the Authority Committee and the body of citizens certainly won’t oppose it.”
He shook his head with a smile. “No, you’ll still be the captain, with a captain’s full power to command.
Please trust me. I won’t interfere with your work at all.”
“Then why do you want an acting captain’s privileges? Is there a need for them in your present position?” “I just like the ship. It’s been a dream of ours for two centuries. Do you know what I’ve done for this ship
to be here for us today?”
When he looked at her, the stony hardness that had been in his eyes was gone, revealing a tired emptiness and a deep sorrow that made him look like a different person. He was no longer the calm, grim survivor who thought deeply and acted decisively, but rather a man bent with the weight of time. Looking at him, she felt a concern and compassion she had never felt before.
“Sir, don’t think about those things. Historians have a fair evaluation of your actions in the twenty-first century: Choosing research in radiation propulsion was a key step in the right direction for humanity’s space technology. Perhaps at the time, it … it was the only choice, just like escape was the only choice for Natural Selection. Besides, according to modern law, the statute of limitations ran out long ago.”
“But I can’t get rid of the cross I bear. You can’t understand.… I have feelings for this ship, more feelings than you. I feel like it’s a part of me. I can’t leave it. Also, I’ve got to have something to do in the future. Having things to do puts my mind more at ease.”
Then he turned and left, a tired figure floating away, turning into a small black dot within the huge white spherical space. Dongfang Yanxu watched until he disappeared into the whiteness, and a loneliness she had never felt before surged in from all sides and overcame her.
*    *   *
In future Citizens’ Assembly meetings, the people of Starship Earth immersed themselves in the passion of creating a new world. They held lively debates on the constitution and social structure of the world, drafted various laws, and planned the first election.… There was a thorough exchange of views between officers and soldiers of different ranks, and among the different ships. People acknowledged their prospects and looked forward to Starship Earth forming a core that would snowball into a future civilization, continually increasing in size as the fleet reached star system after star system. An increasing number of people began calling Starship Earth a “second Eden,” a second point of origin for human civilization.
But this state of wonder did not last very long, because Starship Earth truly was a Garden of Eden.
As Natural Selection’s chief psychologist, Lieutenant Colonel Lan Xi headed the Second Civilian Service Department, an agency of military officers trained in psychology that was responsible for psychological health on the ship during long space voyages and in battle. When Spaceship Earth began its journey of no return, Lan Xi and his subordinates went on alert, like warriors facing an attack from a powerful enemy. The plans they had rehearsed on many previous occasions had prepared them for a wide range of possible psychological crises. They agreed that the biggest enemy was none other than “Problem N”: nostalgia, or homesickness. This was, after all, the first time that humankind had embarked on an endless voyage, so Problem N had the potential to cause a mass psychological disaster. Lan Xi commanded CSD2 to take every necessary precaution, including establishing dedicated channels for communicating with Earth and the three fleets. This enabled everyone on board to maintain constant contact with their family and friends on Earth and in the fleet, and allowed them to watch most of the news and other programming from the two Internationals. Although Starship Earth was seventy AU away from the sun, meaning that signals were delayed nine hours, the quality of
communication with Earth and the fleets was excellent.
In addition to conducting active psychological counseling and adjustments when signs of Problem N cropped up, CSD2 psychological officers also prepared an extreme means of responding to a large-scale mass psychological disaster: quarantining an out-of-control crowd in hibernation.
Subsequent events demonstrated that these concerns were superfluous. While Problem N was widespread on Starship Earth, it was far from out of control, and did not even reach the level of previous, ordinary long- range voyages. Lan Xi was confused by this at first, but he soon found a reason: After the destruction of humanity’s main fleet, Earth had lost all hope. Even though the ultimate doomsday was still two centuries away (using the most optimistic estimate), the news from Earth informed them that the world, plunged into chaos by the heavy blow of the great defeat, was full of the stench of death. For Starship Earth, there was nothing on the Earth or in the Solar System to provide them with sustenance. Nostalgia for a home like that was limited.
However, an enemy nevertheless appeared, one that was more ominous than Problem N. By the time that Lan Xi and CSD2 realized it, their position had already been overcome.
Lan Xi knew from his experience that on long space voyages Problem N tended to crop up in soldiers and low-ranking officers first, because their jobs and responsibilities commanded less of their attention compared to high-ranking officers, and their mental conditioning was comparatively poor. So CSD2 turned its attention to the lower levels from the start, but the shadow first fell upon the upper levels.
Around that time, Lan Xi noticed something peculiar. The first election for Starship Earth’s governing
bodies was about to take place, an election that would be open to the entire population, meaning that most of the senior commanders were facing a transition from being military officers to being government officials. Their positions would be reshuffled, and many of them would be replaced by lower-ranking competitors. Lan Xi was surprised to learn that no one in Natural Selection’s senior command was overly concerned about the election that would determine the rest of their lives. He saw no senior officers engaging in even the least bit of campaigning, and when he mentioned the election, none of them was at all interested. He couldn’t help but recall Zhang Beihai’s absentmindedness during the second Citizens’ Assembly meeting.
Then he began to see symptoms of psychological imbalance among officers above the rank of lieutenant colonel. Most of them started to become increasingly introverted, spending long periods alone with their thoughts and sharply reducing their social interactions. They spoke less and less at meetings, sometimes choosing to become completely silent. Lan Xi noticed that the light had disappeared from their eyes, and their expressions had turned gloomy. They couldn’t look anyone in the eye for fear that others would notice the fog in theirs. When they occasionally met someone’s gaze, they would break away immediately like they had been shocked.… The higher the rank, the more serious the symptoms. And there were signs that it was spreading through the lower ranks, too.
There was no way for psychological counseling to proceed. Everyone stubbornly refused to talk to the psychological officers, so CSD2 was compelled to exercise its special power to conduct mandatory counseling. Still, most of their subjects remained silent.
Lan Xi decided that he needed to talk to the supreme commander, so he went to Dongfang Yanxu. Although Zhang Beihai had once held supreme prestige and status on Natural Selection and the whole of Starship Earth, he had rejected it all, withdrawing from the race and insisting he was an ordinary person. The only duties he had retained were those of acting captain: transmitting the captain’s orders to the ship’s control system. The remainder of his time he spent wandering Natural Selection, learning about the specifics of the ship from officers and soldiers at all ranks and showing a constant affection for the space ark. Apart from this, he remained calm and indifferent, practically unaffected by the ship’s mass psychological shadow. He was no doubt trying to remain aloof, but Lan Xi knew of another important reason for his immunity: The ancients were not as sensitive as moderns, and in the present circumstances, numbness served an excellent self- protective function.
“Captain, you ought to give us some indication of what’s happening,” he said. “Lieutenant Colonel, you ought to be the one giving us an indication.”
“Do you mean that you don’t know anything about your present state?”
An infinite sadness welled up in her dull eyes. “I only know that we’re the first humans who have gone into space.”
“What do you mean?”
“This is the first time humanity has really gone to space.”
“Oh. I see what you mean. Before, no matter how far humans traveled into space, they were still just a kite sent aloft by Earth. They were connected to Earth by a spiritual line. Now that line has been severed.”
“That’s right. The line is severed. The essential change is not that the line has been let go, but that the hand has disappeared. The Earth is heading toward doomsday. In fact, she’s already dead in our minds. Our five
spacecraft are not connected to any world. There is nothing around us apart from the abyss of space.” “Indeed. Humanity has never faced a psychological environment like this before.”
“Yes. In this environment, the human spirit will be fundamentally changed. People will become—” She suddenly broke off, and the sadness in her eyes vanished, leaving only gloom, like a cloud-covered sky after the rain has stopped.
“You mean that in this environment, people will become new people?” “New people? No, Lieutenant Colonel. People will become … non-people.”
At that last word, Lan Xi shuddered. He looked up at Dongfang Yanxu, and she met his gaze. In the blankness of her eyes, all he saw were tightly closed windows to her soul.
“What I mean is that we won’t be people in the old sense.… Lieutenant Colonel, that’s all I can say. Just do your best. And…” The words that followed seemed like she was talking in her sleep. “It’ll be your turn soon.”
The situation continued to deteriorate. The day after Lan Xi’s talk with Dongfang Yanxu, there was a vicious injury on Natural Selection. A lieutenant colonel with the ship’s navigational system fired upon another officer bunking with him. According to the victim’s recollection, the officer had awakened suddenly in the middle of the night and, noticing that the victim was also awake, had accused him of eavesdropping on him talking in his sleep. In the struggle, his emotions had gotten away from him and he had fired the gun.
Lan Xi went at once to see the detained lieutenant colonel. “What were you afraid of him hearing you say in your sleep?” he asked.
“You mean he really heard it?” the attacker asked in terror. Lan Xi shook his head. “He said that you didn’t say anything.”
“So what if I did say something? You can’t take sleep talk for the truth! My mind doesn’t really think that.
Surely I’m not going to go to hell for something I said in my sleep!”
In the end, Lan Xi was unable to draw out what the attacker imagined he said in his sleep, so he asked whether he minded going under hypnotherapy. Unexpectedly, the attacker once again blew up at this suggestion, lunging at Lan Xi and strangling him until the military police finally came in and pried him off. Leaving the brig, one MP who had overheard the conversation said to Lan Xi, “Lieutenant Colonel, don’t mention hypnotherapy again unless CSD2 wants to become the most hated place on the ship. You wouldn’t last very long.”
So Lan Xi had to contact Colonel Scott, a psychologist aboard Enterprise. Scott also served as the ship’s chaplain, a position most ships in the Asian Fleet did not have. Enterprise and the other three ships in the pursuing force were still two hundred thousand kilometers away.
“Why is it so dark over there?” Lan Xi asked as he looked at the video sent over from Enterprise. The curved walls of the cabin Scott was in had been adjusted to glow a faint yellow, and they displayed an image of the stars outside, making it look as if he was inside a fogged-over cosmos. His face was shrouded in shadow, but even so, Lan Xi could still sense Scott’s eyes slipping quickly away from his gaze.
“The Garden of Eden is growing dark. Blackness will swallow everything,” Scott said in a weary voice.
Lan Xi had consulted him because, as chaplain of Enterprise, he would likely have had people confide the truth in him during confession, and he might be able to pass on some advice. But at these words, and noticing
how the colonel’s eyes loomed in the shadows, Lan Xi knew that he would come up with nothing. So he suppressed the question he was about to ask and turned to another, one that surprised even him:
“Will what happened in the first Garden of Eden be repeated in the second?”
“I don’t know. At any rate, the vipers have come out. The snakes of the second Garden of Eden are even now climbing up people’s souls.”
“You mean, you’ve eaten the fruit of knowledge?”
Scott slowly nodded. Then he bowed his head, but did not raise it again, as if he was trying to hide the eyes that would betray him. “You could say that.”
“Who will be expelled from the Garden of Eden?” Lan Xi’s voice quavered, and a cold sweat was on his palms.
“Many people. But unlike the first time, this time some people might remain.” “Who? Who will remain?”
Scott gave a long sigh. “Lieutenant Colonel Lan, I’ve said enough. Why don’t you seek the fruit of knowledge for yourself? Everyone’s got to take that step, after all. Isn’t that right?”
“Where should I seek it?”
“Set down your work, and think about it. Feel more, and you’ll find it.”
After speaking with Scott, Lan Xi halted his busy work amid chaotic feelings, and stopped to think, as the colonel had advised. Faster than he had imagined, Eden’s cold, slippery vipers crawled into his consciousness. He found the fruit of knowledge and ate it, and the last rays of sunshine in his soul disappeared forever as everything plunged into darkness.
On Starship Earth, an invisible, taut string was being pulled close to snapping.
Two days later, the captain of Ultimate Law committed suicide. He had been standing on the aft platform at the time, a platform enclosed in a transparent dome that made it seem exposed to space. The stern of the ship faced the Solar System, where the sun was by now no more than a yellow star just a bit brighter than the rest. The peripheral spiral arm of the Milky Way lay in this direction, its stars sparse. The depth and expanse of deep space exhibited an arrogance that left no support for the mind or the eyes.
“Dark. It’s so fucking dark,” the captain murmured, and then shot himself.


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