THE DARK FOREST 18
Luo Ji and Shi Qiang drove off immediately after traveling back to the surface from the underground city. The city’s inhabitants were pouring out in large numbers, which meant that ground traffic was so heavy that it took them half an hour to leave the old city and reach full speed on the highway to the west.
On the car’s television, they saw that the droplet was approaching Earth at a speed of seventy-five kilometers per second and showed no sign of slowing. At that rate, it would arrive in three hours.
The weakening of the induction field power supply slowed the car, and Shi Qiang had to tap a storage battery to maintain speed. They reached the large hibernator residential area, but drove past New Life Village #5 and continued westward. They stayed silent along the way, speaking little and focusing their attention on the breaking news on the television.
The droplet passed lunar orbit without slowing. At this rate it would reach Earth in just half an hour. No one knew how it would behave, so to avoid a panic, the news didn’t predict a point of impact.
Luo Ji made a determined effort to welcome the moment he had long wanted to postpone, and said, “Da Shi, stop here.”
Shi Qiang stopped the car and they got out. The sun, now nearing the horizon, cast long shadows of the two men on the desert. Luo Ji felt the earth beneath his feet turn as soft as his heart. He almost lacked the strength to stand.
He said, “I’ll try my best to reach a sparsely populated area. There’s a city ahead of us, so I’m going to turn this way. You find your own way back, and get as far as possible from the direction I’m going.”
“My boy, I’ll wait for you here. When it’s over, we’ll go back together.” Shi Qiang took out a cigarette from his pocket and looked around for a lighter before remembering that the cigarette didn’t need to be lit. Like the other things he had brought from that distant past, his personal habits had not changed at all.
Luo Ji smiled a little sadly. He hoped Shi Qiang actually believed that, because at least that would make their parting a little easier to take. “Wait if you’d like. When the time comes, you had better move to the other side of the embankment. I don’t know how powerful the strike will be.”
Shi Qiang smiled and shook his head. “You remind me of an intellectual I met two hundred years ago. He had the same hangdog look you’ve got. I remember him sitting out early in the morning in front of the Wangfujing church, crying.… But he got out okay. I checked after I woke up: He lived to be nearly a hundred.”
“What about the first guy to touch the droplet, Ding Yi? I believe you knew each other, too.”
“He had a death wish. Nothing you could do about that.” Shi Qiang looked up at the sky clothed in sunset, as if reminding himself what the physicist looked like. “Still, he was a truly broad-minded man, the kind that could accept any situation. I never met anyone like him in my whole life. Seriously, a great mind. My boy, you ought to learn from him.”
“And again I say to you: We’re just ordinary people, you and I.” He looked at his watch, knowing that there was no more time for delay. He extended a firm hand to Shi Qiang. “Da Shi, thank you for everything you’ve done for me the past two centuries. Good-bye. Maybe we’ll meet again in some other place.”
Shi Qiang did not take his hand, but gave him a wave. “Cut the crap! Believe me, my boy. Nothing’s going to happen. Go, and when it’s over, hurry back and get me. And don’t blame me if I make fun of you tonight over drinks.”
Luo Ji got into the car quickly, not wanting Shi Qiang to see the tears in his eyes. Sitting there, he strove to etch the rearview-mirror image of Shi Qiang onto his mind, then set off on his final journey.
Maybe they would meet again someplace. The last time it had taken two centuries, so what would the separation be this time? Like Zhang Beihai two centuries before, Luo Ji suddenly found himself hating that he was an atheist.
The sun had now entirely set, and the desert on either side of the road shone white in the twilight, like snow. It suddenly occurred to him that it was along this very stretch of road two centuries ago that he had driven in the Accord with his imaginary lover, when the northern China plain was covered with real snow. He felt her hair blowing in the wind, its strands teasing him with their strange tickles on his right cheek.
No, no. Don’t say where we are! Once we know where we are, then the world becomes as narrow as a map. When we don’t know, the world feels unlimited.
Okay. Then let’s do our best to get lost.
Luo Ji had always had the feeling that Zhuang Yan and Xia Xia had been brought into the world by his imagination. He felt a stab in his heart when the thought entered his mind, because, at this moment, love and longing were the most excruciating things in the world. Tears blurred his vision as he strove to keep his mind blank. But Yan Yan’s lovely eyes stubbornly surfaced through the blankness, accompanied by Xia Xia’s intoxicating laughter. It was all he could do to focus his attention on the television news.
The droplet had passed the Lagrange point,25 but it still sped toward Earth at constant speed.
Luo Ji parked the car at what he thought was the most fitting spot, the border between the plain and the mountains, where there were no people or buildings as far as he could see. The car stood in a valley surrounded by a U-shaped ring of mountains, which would dissipate some of the shock waves from the impact. He took the television from the car and carried it onto the open sand, where he sat down.
The droplet crossed the 34,000-kilometer geosynchronous orbit altitude and passed close by the space city New Shanghai, whose inhabitants all clearly saw the bright point of light pass rapidly across their sky. The news declared that the impact would occur in eight minutes.
The news finally predicted the latitude and longitude of impact: to the northwest of China’s capital. Luo Ji knew that already.
Twilight had fallen heavily now, and the colors of the sky had shrunk to a small space in the west, like a pupilless eyeball watching the world indifferently.
Perhaps as a way to pass the remaining time, Luo Ji began to look back on his life.
It had been divided into two entirely distinct parts. The part after he became a Wallfacer spanned two centuries, but it felt densely compacted. He passed quickly back through it as if it had been just yesterday. That part of his life didn’t seem like his own, including the love that was engraved onto his bones. It all felt
like a fleeting dream. He didn’t dare think about his wife and child.
Contrary to his expectations, his memories of life before becoming a Wallfacer were a blank. All that he could fish out from the sea of memory were a few fragments, and the farther back he went, the fewer there were. Had he really been to high school? Had he really attended primary school? Had he really had a first love? Some of the fragments bore clear scratches, reminding him that those things had indeed taken place. The details were vivid, but the feelings had vanished without a trace. The past was like a handful of sand you thought you were squeezing tightly, but which had already run out through the cracks between your fingers. Memory was a river that had run dry long ago, leaving only scattered gravel in a lifeless riverbed. He had lived life always looking out for the next thing, and whenever he had gained, he had also lost, leaving him with little in the end.
He looked around at the twilight mountains, recalling that one winter’s night he spent here more than two hundred years ago, in the mountains that had grown tired of standing for hundreds of millions of years, and had lain down “like old villagers basking in the sun,” as his imaginary lover had once said. The fields and cities of the northern China plain had long since turned to desert, but the mountains didn’t seem to have changed. They were still plain and ordinary in shape, and withered grasses and vitex vines still grew stubbornly from the crevices in the gray rocks, no lusher and no sparser than two centuries ago. Two centuries was far too short for any visible change to come to these rocky mountains.
What was the human world like in the eyes of the mountains? Perhaps just something they saw on a leisurely afternoon. First, a few small living beings appeared on the plain. After a while, they multiplied, and after another while they erected structures like anthills that quickly filled the region. The structures shone from the inside, and some of them let off smoke. After another while, the lights and smoke disappeared, and the small things vanished as well, and then their structures toppled and were buried in the sand. That was all. Among the countless things the mountains had witnessed, these fleeting events were not necessarily the most interesting.
Finally, Luo Ji located his earliest memory. He was surprised to discover that the life he could remember also began on the sand. It was in his own prehistoric age, in a place he couldn’t remember, and with people he couldn’t recall, but he clearly remembered the sandy shore of a river. There was a round moon in the sky, and the river rippled under the moonlight. He was digging in the sand. When he had dug out a pit, water seeped through the bottom, and in the water there was a small moon. He kept digging like that, digging lots of pits and bringing forth lots of small moons.
That was his earliest memory. Before that, everything was blank.
In the dark of night, only the light of the television illuminated the small patch of sand surrounding him.
As Luo Ji worked to maintain a blank state in his mind, his scalp tightened, and he felt like an enormous hand had covered the entire sky overhead and was pressing down on him.
But then the giant hand slowly withdrew.
At a distance of twenty thousand kilometers from the surface, the droplet changed direction and headed directly toward the sun.
The TV reporter shouted, “Attention northern hemisphere! Attention northern hemisphere! The droplet has grown brighter, and you can see it with the naked eye!”
Luo Ji looked up. He could actually see it: It wasn’t too bright, but its high speed made it easily distinguishable as it crossed the sky like a meteor and vanished in the west.
At last the droplet reduced its velocity relative to the Earth to zero and rested at a point 1.5 million kilometers away. A Lagrange point. That meant that, in the days to come, it would remain motionless relative to both Earth and sun, squarely between the two.
Luo Ji had a hunch that something else might happen, so he sat on the sand and waited. The mountains, like old men beside and in back of him, waited quietly with him and gave him a sense of security. For the time being, there was no more important information in the news. A world uncertain whether or not it had escaped catastrophe waited nervously.
Ten minutes passed, but nothing happened. The monitoring system showed the droplet suspended motionless, the propulsion halo gone from its tail and its round head facing the sun. It reflected the bright sunlight, so that its front third appeared to be on fire. To Luo Ji, some sort of mysterious induction seemed to be taking place between the droplet and the sun.
The image on the television suddenly blurred, and the sound turned scratchy. Luo Ji sensed commotion in the surrounding environment: A startled flock of birds took flight in the mountains, and a dog barked in the distance. It might have been a false impression, but he felt his skin begin to itch. The television’s sound and picture jittered for a moment and then cleared up. Later it was learned that the interference was still present, but global telecommunications systems had quickly filtered out the sudden noise with their anti-interference capabilities. However, the news reacted slowly to this development because of the vast amounts of monitoring data that needed to be pooled and analyzed. It was another ten minutes or more before precise information became available.
The droplet was sending a continuous, powerful electromagnetic wave directly at the sun with an intensity far exceeding the sun’s amplification threshold and a frequency that covered all the bands that the sun could amplify.
Luo Ji began to giggle, and then laughed until he choked. Yes, he really was self-absorbed. He should have thought of all of this long ago. Luo Ji wasn’t important. The sun was important. From now on, humanity could no longer use the sun as a powerful antenna to transmit messages to the universe.
The droplet had sealed it off.
“Hah! My boy, nothing’s happened! We really should have wagered on it.” At some point, Shi Qiang had made his way over to Luo Ji. He had flagged down a car to get here.
Luo Ji felt like something had been drained out of him. He lay limply down on the sand, which was still warm from the sun. It was comfortable beneath him.
“Yes, Da Shi. We can go and live our lives now. Everything’s finished.”
* * *
“My boy, this is the last time I help you do Wallfacer stuff,” Shi Qiang said on the road back. “That occupation must cause mental problems, and you’ve just had another episode.”
“I hope that’s the case,” Luo Ji said. Outside, the stars that were visible yesterday had vanished, and the black desert and night sky joined into one at the horizon. A section of road illuminated by the headlights
stretched out ahead of them. The world was like the state of Luo Ji’s mind: darkness everywhere, with one spot incredibly clear.
“You know, it’ll be easy for you to get back to normal. It’s time for Zhuang Yan and Xia Xia to reawaken. Although, with the recent chaos, I don’t know if they’ve suspended reawakening. But even if they have, it won’t be for very long. The situation will quickly stabilize, I think. After all, there’s still time left for several generations. Didn’t you say you can go and live your life?”
“I’ll go inquire at the Hibernation Immigration Bureau tomorrow.” Shi Qiang’s words reminded Luo Ji of the bit of color that existed in his dull mind. Maybe a reunion with his wife and child was his only chance for redemption.
But humanity was beyond hope.
As they neared New Life Village #5, Shi Qiang suddenly slowed the car. “Something’s not right,” he said, looking ahead. Following his gaze, Luo Ji saw a glow in the sky cast by a light on the ground, but the high embankments on the roadway meant they couldn’t see its source. The glow was in motion. It didn’t seem like the lights of a residential area.
When the car turned off the highway, a strange and spectacular sight met them: The desert between New Life Village #2 and the highway had been turned into a shining blanket dense with lights, like an ocean of fireflies. It took Luo Ji a moment to realize that it was a crowd of people. All of them were from the city, and the light came from their clothes.
As the car slowly approached the crowd, everyone ahead of them raised their hands to block the glare of the headlights, so Shi Qiang turned them off, leaving them facing a bizarre, gaudy human wall.
“Looks like they’re waiting for someone,” Shi Qiang said, looking at Luo Ji, who tensed up at his expression. The car stopped, and Shi Qiang went on, “You stay here and don’t move. I’ll go have a look.” He jumped out of the car and walked over to the crowd. Against the glowing human wall, Shi Qiang’s stocky body stood out as a black silhouette. Luo Ji watched him walk to the crowd, then exchange a few words with the people before turning and walking back.
“Turns out they’re waiting for you. Go,” he said, leaning on the door. Seeing Luo Ji’s face, he reassured him, “Relax. It’ll be okay.”
Luo Ji got out of the car and went over to the crowd. He had grown familiar with the wired clothing of modern people, but in the desolate desert, he still had the feeling that he was walking toward the Other. But when he drew closer and could make out their expressions, his heart began to beat faster.
The first thing he had learned when he awakened from hibernation was that the crowds of every age have their own unique expression. The differences across time to this far-off age were remarkable—you could easily distinguish between moderns and hibernators who had only just reawakened. But the expressions Luo Ji saw now weren’t modern, nor were they twenty-first century. He didn’t know what era they belonged to. Fear nearly rooted him to the spot, but his trust in Shi Qiang propelled his steps mechanically forward.
When he had gotten closer to the crowd, he finally stopped, because he saw the images they had on their clothes.
Their clothing displayed pictures of Luo Ji—some still photographs, some videos.
Luo Ji had rarely appeared before the media since becoming a Wallfacer, so he hadn’t left much of a visual
record, but a fairly complete set of those videos and images was now on display on the people’s clothing. On some people, he even saw photographs of his pre-Wallfacer self. The clothing took its images from the Internet, which meant that these images must be circulating worldwide. He also noticed that the images were in their original state and had not been subjected to the artistic deformation that the moderns liked to do, which meant that they had just appeared online.
When they saw him stop, the crowd moved toward him. When they got as close as two or three meters, the people in front held back the rest of the crowd, and then knelt down. Those behind them knelt down successively in a wave of glowing people that receded along the sand.
“Lord, save us!” he heard someone say. The words buzzed in his ears. “Oh god, save the world!”
“Great spokesman, uphold justice in the universe!” “Angel of justice, save humankind!”
Two people came up to Luo Ji, and he recognized the one whose clothing wasn’t glowing as Hines. The other man was a soldier with glowing badges and ribbons.
Hines said to him gravely, “Dr. Luo, I’ve just been appointed your liaison to the UN Wallfacer Project Commission. It is my duty to inform you that the Wallfacer Project has been revived, and you have been named the sole Wallfacer.”
The soldier said, “I am special commissioner Ben Jonathan of the SFJC. We met when you had just been reawakened. I am also instructed to inform you that the Asian Fleet, the European Fleet, and the North American Fleet have agreed with the revalidation of the Wallfacer Act and have recognized your status as Wallfacer.”
Hines pointed to the crowd kneeling on the sand, and said, “In the eyes of the public, you now have two identities. For theists, you are the angel of justice. To atheists, you are the spokesperson for a just, superior civilization in the Milky Way.”
This was followed by silence, with all eyes focused on Luo Ji. He thought for a while, but came up with only one possibility: “The spell worked?” he ventured.
Hines and Jonathan nodded, and Hines said, “187J3X1 has been destroyed.” “When?”
“Fifty-one years ago. It was observed a year ago, but no one was paying much attention to that star, so the observations were only discovered this afternoon. A few desperate people in the SFJC wanted to find inspiration in history, and they remembered the Wallfacer Project and your spell. So they looked at 187J3X1 and found that it wasn’t there anymore. In its place was a nebula of debris. They scanned through all observational records of the star until its destruction a year ago, then pulled all of the observational data of 187J3X1 at the time it exploded.”
“How do they know it was destroyed?”
“You’re aware that 187J3X1 was in a stable period, like the sun, so it would be impossible for it to go nova. And its destruction was observed: A body traveling close to the speed of light struck 187J3X1. The tiny object
—they’re calling it a ‘photoid’—was observed the instant it passed into the periphery of the stellar atmosphere by the tracks it made. Even though it was small in volume, its near-light velocity meant that its vastly
amplified relativistic mass had reached one-eighth of 187J3X1’s by the time it struck the target. It destroyed the star immediately. The star’s four planets were also vaporized in the blast.”
Luo Ji looked up at the night’s dark sky, where the stars were practically invisible. He walked forward, and the people stood up and silently made a path for him, closing back together immediately behind him. They were all trying to push closer to him, as if yearning for sunlight amid the cold, but they respectfully left him a circle of space, a dark spot in a fluorescent ocean, like the eye of a storm. A man pushed forward and fell to the ground in front of Luo Ji, compelling him to stop, and then the man kissed his feet. A few others entered the ring to repeat that act. Just when the situation seemed about to go out of control, there were critical shouts from the crowd, prompting the people to scramble and retreat back into the group.
Luo Ji continued on ahead, but realized that he didn’t know where he was going. He stopped, found Hines and Jonathan in the crowd, and walked over to them.
“So what should I do now?” he asked when he reached them.
“You’re a Wallfacer, so of course you can do anything within the scope of the Wallfacer Act,” Hines said to him with a bow. “Although the act still has restrictions, you can now mobilize practically all of the resources of Earth International.”
“That includes the Fleet International’s resources, too,” Jonathan added.
Luo Ji thought for a moment, and said, “I don’t need to tap any resources right now. But if I’ve really recovered the power granted by the Wallfacer Act…”
“There’s no doubt about that,” Hines said. Jonathan nodded.
“Then I’ll make two requests. First, order will be restored in all cities, and normal life will resume. There’s no mystery about this request. I’m sure you understand.”
Everyone nodded. Someone said, “The world is listening, oh god.”
“Yes, the world is listening,” Hines said. “Restoring stability will require time, but because of you we have faith that it can be done.” His words were echoed in the crowd.
“Second: Everyone, go home. Leave this place in peace. Thank you!”
The people were silent after hearing this, but soon began to buzz as his words were passed back through the crowd. The crowd began to disperse, slowly and unwillingly at first, but eventually the pace picked up and car after car headed off down the road in the direction of the city. The many people walking along the roadside looked like a long glowing colony of ants in the night.
Then the desert was empty once again. Only Luo Ji, Shi Qiang, Hines, and Jonathan were left on the sand littered with chaotic footprints.
“I am truly ashamed of my former self,” Hines said. “Human civilization has a history of just five thousand years, yet we cherish life and freedom so highly. There must be civilizations in the universe with a history of billions of years. What sort of morality do they possess? Is there any point to that question?”
“I’m ashamed for myself, too. The past few days, I’ve even begun to doubt God,” Jonathan said. When he saw Hines about to cut in, he raised his hand to stop him. “No, friend. We might be talking about the same thing.”
They embraced, tears streaming down their faces.
“So, gentlemen,” Luo Ji said as he patted them on the back. “You can go back. If I need you, I’ll get in
touch. Thank you.”
He watched them go off, supporting each other like a happy pair of lovers. Now he and Shi Qiang were the only ones left.
“Da Shi, anything you’d like to say now?” he said, turning to Shi Qiang with a smile.
Shi Qiang stood rooted to the spot, as stunned as if he had just witnessed a thrilling magic trick. “My boy, I’m damn confused.”
“What? You don’t believe I’m an angel of justice?” “You’d have to beat me to death before I’d say that.” “And a spokesperson of a superior civilization?”
“A little better than an angel, but I don’t believe that either, to tell you the truth. I’ve never thought that was the case.”
“Don’t you believe in fairness and justice in the universe?” “I don’t know.”
“But you’re in law enforcement.”
“I said I don’t know. I’m genuinely confused.” “Then you’re the most sober one here.”
“So can you tell me about the justice of the universe?”
“Very well. Come with me.” Then Luo Ji walked straight out into the desert, with Shi Qiang following close behind him. They walked a long while in silence, then crossed the highway.
“Where are we going?” Shi Qiang asked. “To the darkest place.”
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