THE DARK FOREST 17
“I knew it!”
That was the first thing Luo Ji said upon learning about the Battle of Darkness that had taken place at the edges of the Solar System. Leaving behind a baffled Shi Qiang, he ran out of the room and raced through the neighborhood until he stood facing the northern China desert.
“I was right! I was right!” he shouted at the sky.
It was late at night, and, perhaps because of the rain that had just fallen, atmospheric visibility was excellent. The stars were visible, although they weren’t nearly as clear as in the twenty-first century, and they were far sparser than before, since only the brightest could be seen. Yet he still swelled with that feeling he had on that cold night on the frozen lake two centuries ago: Luo Ji the ordinary person had disappeared, and he became a Wallfacer once again.
“Da Shi, I have in my hands the key to human victory!” he said to Shi Qiang, who had followed after him. Shi Qiang laughed. “Oh?”
Shi Qiang’s slightly mocking laughter dashed Luo Ji’s excitement. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me.” “So what will you do now?” Shi Qiang asked.
Luo Ji sat down on the sand, and his mood crashed rapidly. “What should I do? It looks like there’s nothing I can do.”
“You could at least find a way to report it upstairs.”
“I don’t know if that would work, but I’ll give it a try. Even if it’s just to fulfill my responsibility.” “How high up will you go?”
“The highest. The UN secretary general. Or the chair of the SFJC.”
“That won’t be easy, I’m afraid. We’re just ordinary people now.… Still, you’ve got to try. You can, uh, go to the city government first. Find the mayor.”
“Very well. I’ll go to the city, then.” He stood up. “I’ll go with you.”
“No, I’ll go alone.”
“Even at this rank, I’m still an official. I’ll have an easier time meeting the mayor.” Luo Ji looked up at the sky and asked, “When does the droplet reach Earth?” “The news said it’ll arrive in ten or twenty hours.”
“Do you know what it’s coming to do? Its mission wasn’t to destroy the combined fleet. Nor was it to attack the Earth. It’s here to kill me. I don’t want you to be with me when it does.”
Shi Qiang laughed the same mocking laugh again. “There’s still ten hours, right? By that time, I’ll just stay farther away from you.”
Luo Ji shook his head with a wry smile. “You’re not taking me seriously at all. So why do you want to help me?”
“My boy, it’s up to the top whether they believe you or not. I always play things safe. If you were selected from out of billions of people two centuries ago, there’s got to be a reason, right? If I delay you here, then won’t I be condemned by the ages? If the higher-ups don’t take you seriously, I won’t have lost anything. It’s just a trip into the city. But there’s one thing: You say that the thing that’s flying toward Earth is coming to kill you. I don’t believe that at all. I’m well acquainted with killing, and that’s excessive, even for Trisolarans.”
They reached the passage from the old city to the underground city in the early hours of morning and saw that the elevators going down were still functioning normally. Lots of people were coming out carrying large quantities of luggage. Few were going down, however, and on their elevator there were only two other people.
“Are you hibernators? They’re all going up top. Why are you going down?”
“The city’s in chaos,” one of them, a young man, said. On his clothes, fireballs shone continually against a black background. A closer look revealed that it was an image of the destruction of the combined fleet.
“Then what are you going down for?” Shi Qiang asked.
“I’ve found a place to live on the surface, so I’m going down to get a few things,” he said. Then he nodded at them. “You on the surface are going to get rich. We don’t have any houses there, and the property rights to the surface houses are mostly in your hands. We’ll have to buy them off you.”
“If the underground city collapses and all those people rush to the surface, there’s probably not going to be any actual buying or selling,” Shi Qiang said.
A middle-aged man huddling in a corner of the elevator was listening to them, and he suddenly covered his face with his hands and let out a whine. “No. Oh…” Then he squatted down and started crying. His clothing showed a classical biblical scene: a naked Adam and Eve standing beneath a tree in the Garden of Eden as a bewitching snake crawled between them. It may have been a symbol for the recent Battle of Darkness.
“There are lots of people like him,” the young man said, pointing disdainfully at the weeping man. “Unsound of mind.” His eyes lit up. “Actually, doomsday is a wonderful time. The most wonderful time, even. This is the only time in history where there’s a chance for people to abandon all of their cares and burdens and belong entirely to themselves. It’s stupid to be like him. The most responsible way of life right now is to enjoy ourselves while we can.”
When the elevator reached the bottom, Luo Ji and Shi Qiang exited the hall and immediately smelled the strong, strange odor of something burning. The underground city was brighter than before, but it was an irritating white light. Looking around, what Luo Ji saw through the gaps in the huge trees wasn’t the blue sky, but a total blank. The projection of the sky on the vault of the underground city had vanished. The blankness reminded him of spherical spaceship cabins he had seen on the news. The lawns were littered with a mess of debris that had fallen from the huge trees. Not far off was the wreckage of several crashed flying cars, one of which was in flames and surrounded by a crowd of people who were picking up other combustibles from the lawn and throwing them into the flames. Someone even threw in his own clothing while it was still flashing images. A ruptured underground pipe sprayed a high column of water, drenching a group of people who played around in it like children. From time to time they would scream excitedly in unison and scatter to avoid debris falling from the trees, then they would regroup and continue their revels. Luo Ji looked up again and saw fires in several places on the trees. The sirens of flying firefighting vehicles screamed as they flew through the air, dangling plucked tree leaves that had caught fire.…
He noticed that the people they met on the streets fell into two types, much like the two people they had encountered in the elevator. One type was depressed, walking with dull eyes or simply sitting on the lawns enduring the torment of despair, a despair whose cause had now shifted from humanity’s defeat to the present difficult living conditions. The other type was in a state of crazed excitement and grew intoxicated from indulgence.
Traffic in the city was in chaos. It took Luo Ji and Shi Qiang half an hour to hail a taxi, and when the driverless flying car that carried them passed through the huge trees, Luo Ji was reminded of his first horrific day in the city and felt the tension of riding a roller coaster. Fortunately, the car soon arrived at City Hall.
Shi Qiang had been here several times because of work, and was fairly familiar with the place. After a considerable number of steps, they finally received permission to meet the mayor, but they had to wait until the afternoon. Luo Ji had expected complications, so the mayor’s acceptance of the meeting caught him by surprise, since this was an extraordinary time, and they were little people. At lunch, Shi Qiang told Luo Ji that the mayor had taken office the day before. He used to be the official in charge of hibernator affairs in the city government and was, in a way, Shi Qiang’s superior, so he knew him fairly well.
“He’s one of our countrymen,” Shi Qiang said.
In this age, the meaning of the term “countryman” had shifted from geography to temporality. But it wasn’t used between all hibernators. Only those who had entered hibernation at roughly the same time counted as countrymen. When they got together across the long years, temporally based countrymen shared an even closer affinity than geographically based countrymen used to.
They waited until half past four to see the mayor. High-ranking officials in this age typically possessed a star quality, with only the most attractive getting elected, but the current mayor was plain. He was about Shi Qiang’s age, but far thinner, and he had one trait that made him identifiable as a hibernator at a glance: He wore glasses. They were definitely antiques from two centuries ago, because even contact lenses had long since disappeared. But people who used to wear glasses tended to feel that something was wrong with their appearance when they didn’t wear them, so lots of hibernators wore them even after their vision was repaired. The mayor looked utterly exhausted and seemed to have difficulty rising from his chair. When Shi Qiang apologized for the interruption, and congratulated him on his promotion, he shook his head. “These are
vulnerable times. Us rugged savages come in handy again.” “You’re the highest-ranking hibernator on Earth, right?”
“Who knows? As the situation develops, we might have countrymen promoted to even higher positions.” “And the former mayor? Mental breakdown?”
“No, no. There are strong people in this age, too. He was very competent, but he was killed in a car crash in a riot area two days ago.”
The mayor noticed Luo Ji behind Shi Qiang and immediately extended a hand. “Oh, Dr. Luo, hello. Of course I recognize you. I worshiped you two centuries ago, because out of those four people, you seemed most like a Wallfacer. I really couldn’t figure out what you wanted to do.” But their hearts sank at the next thing he said. “You’re the fourth messiah I’ve received in the past two days. And there are dozens more waiting outside who I don’t have the energy to see.”
“Mayor, he’s not like them. Two centuries ago—”
“Of course. Two centuries ago, he was selected from billions of people, and it’s for that reason that I decided to see you.” The mayor pointed at Shi Qiang. “There’s something else I need you for, but we’ll talk about that afterward. First, let’s talk about what you’ve got. But I have a small request: Can you not talk about your plan to save the world? They’re always so long. First just tell me what you need me to do.”
After Luo Ji and Shi Qiang explained what they wanted, the mayor immediately shook his head. “Even if I wanted to help, I couldn’t. I’ve got piles of stuff of my own I need to report to the senior leadership. But that level’s lower than you imagine. It’s just provincial and national leaders. It’s hard for everyone. You ought to know that the senior leadership is handling even bigger problems right now.”
Luo Ji and Shi Qiang had been paying attention to the news, so naturally they knew about the bigger problems that the mayor referred to.
The annihilation of the combined fleet saw the swift resurrection of Escapism after two centuries of silence. The European Commonwealth had even drafted a plan to select one hundred thousand candidates for departure through a nationwide drawing, and the plan had been passed by a popular vote. But after the results of the drawing, the majority of those who had not been picked were furious, leading to widespread rioting. The public turned unanimously to Escapism as crime against humanity.
After the Battle of Darkness erupted between the surviving warships in outer space, accusations of Escapism gained new meaning: Recent events had proved that when the spiritual bonds with Earth were snapped, people in space suffered total spiritual alienation. So even if escape were successful, what survived would no longer be human civilization, but some other dark and evil thing. And like Trisolaris, that thing would be the antithesis of human civilization and an enemy of it. It had even been given a name: Negacivilization.
As the droplet came closer to Earth, the public’s sensitivity to Escapism reached a peak. The media warned it was highly likely that someone would attempt to escape before the droplet’s attack. Crowds flocked to the vicinity of the space ports and the base points of the space elevators with the intent of cutting off all channels into space. They did indeed possess that ability. In this age, the citizens of the world all had the freedom to own weapons, and most of them had small laser guns. Of course, a laser pistol posed no threat to the cabin of the space elevator or the launching spacecraft, but unlike a traditional gun, a large number of lasers could focus their light on a single point. If ten thousand laser pistols fired at one point at the same time, they were unstoppable. Crowds numbering in at least the tens of thousands, with up to a million people in places, gathered around the base points and launching sites, and at least a third were carrying weapons. When they saw a cabin ascend or a spacecraft launch, they would fire their weapons simultaneously. The straight path of the laser beam made aiming incredibly precise, so most of the beams would focus on the target and destroy it. In this way, Earth’s transport links with space were almost entirely severed.
The chaos grew worse. Over the past couple of days, the target of the attacks had shifted to space cities in synchronous orbit. Rumors flew thick online that certain cities had been converted into escape ships, so they too became subject to attack by the people of Earth. Owing to the vast distance, laser beams dissipated and were weakened by the time they reached targets in space, and given the additional factor of the space cities’ rotation, no material injury was caused. But the activity became a kind of collective entertainment for humanity in those last days. That afternoon, the European Commonwealth’s third space city, New Paris, had been subject to simultaneous irradiation by ten million laser beams from the northern hemisphere, causing the temperature in the city to rise sharply and prompting the evacuation of its residents. From the space city, the Earth had been brighter than the sun.
There was nothing more for Luo Ji and Shi Qiang to say.
“I was really impressed with your work at the Hibernation Immigration Bureau,” the mayor said to Shi Qiang. “And Guo Zhengming. You know him, right? He was just promoted to director of the Public Security Bureau, and he recommended you to me. I hope you’ll come work at the city government. We need people like you right now.”
Shi Qiang thought for a moment, and then nodded. “Once I’ve settled things in my neighborhood. How’s
the situation in the city right now?”
“The situation is deteriorating, but it’s still under control. Right now the focus is on maintaining the operation of the induction field power supply. Once that goes, the city will collapse completely.”
“These riots are different from those in our day.”
“Yeah, they are. First, their source is different. They’re sparked by total despair for the future and are incredibly hard to handle. At the same time, we have fewer means at our disposal than in those days.” As the mayor was speaking, he pulled up an image on the wall. “This is the central plaza from a height of a hundred meters.”
The central plaza was where Luo Ji and Shi Qiang had taken refuge from the flying car. From this vantage point, the Great Ravine Memorial and its surrounding patch of desert couldn’t be seen. The entire plaza was white, with white dots crawling around like rice in a pot of porridge.
“Are those people?” Luo Ji asked in wonder.
“Naked people. It’s a tremendous sex party, with more than a hundred thousand people, and it’s still growing.”
Acceptance of heterosexual and homosexual relations in this era was far beyond anything Luo Ji had imagined, and some things were no longer considered remarkable. Still, the sight before them came as a shock to both of them. Luo Ji was reminded of the dissolute scene in the Bible before humanity received the Ten Commandments. A classic doomsday scenario.
“Why doesn’t the government put a stop to it?” Shi Qiang asked sharply.
“How would we stop it? They’re completely within the law. If we take action, the government would be the one committing a crime.”
Shi Qiang let out a long sigh. “Yes, I know. In this age, police and the military can’t do much.”
The mayor said, “We’ve been through the law, and we haven’t found any provisions for coping with the present situation.”
“With the city like this, it would be better if the droplet smashed it apart.”
Shi Qiang’s words jerked Luo Ji awake. He asked hurriedly, “How long until the droplet gets to Earth?”
The mayor replaced the image of spectacular promiscuity with a breaking news channel showing a simulation of the Solar System. The eye-catching red line that marked the path of the droplet looked like the orbit of a comet, except that it terminated close to the Earth. In the lower right was a countdown clock indicating that if the droplet didn’t reduce speed, it would reach Earth in four hours and fifty-four minutes. The news crawl was now displaying an expert analysis of the droplet. Despite the terror gripping the world, the scientific community had recovered its senses after the initial shock of defeat, so the analysis was calm and sober. Though humanity knew absolutely nothing about the droplet’s energy source and drive mechanism, the analyst felt that it had run into a power consumption problem, because its acceleration toward the sun after destroying the combined fleet had been particularly sluggish. It had passed close by Jupiter but, ignoring the three warships at the base, used the planet’s gravity to accelerate, a move that further demonstrated that the droplet’s energy was limited to the point of exhaustion. Scientists believed that the notion that the droplet would crash into Earth was utter nonsense, but they had no idea what it had actually come to do.
Luo Ji said, “I have to leave, or else the city will really be destroyed.”
“Why?” the mayor asked.
“Because he thinks the droplet wants to kill him,” Shi Qiang said.
The mayor laughed, but his smile was stiff. Apparently he hadn’t laughed in a long time. “Dr. Luo, you’re the most self-absorbed person I’ve ever met.”
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