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Bunker Era, Year 68 The Two-Dimensional Solar System

Novel:Death's Endauthor:liu pubdate:2019-03-10 12:31

Cheng Xin and AA carried the first batch of artifacts to the surface. Other than a dozen or so frameless paintings, they also carried two bronze ritual vessels from the Western Zhou Period and some ancient books. Under standard 1G gravity, they would not have been able to move all these, but with Pluto’s weak gravity, it didn’t require too much effort. Going through the air lock, they were careful to close the inner door first before opening the outer door, lest they and the artifacts be blown into the open by escaping air. As soon as they opened the outer door, the small amount of air inside the air lock turned into a flurry of ice crystals. Initially, they thought the ice crystals were illuminated by the searchlight on Halo, but after the flurry subsided, they realized that Halo’s searchlight had already shut off. Some source of light in space illuminated Pluto’s surface, and Halo and the black monolith cast long shadows on the white ground. They looked up, and backed up two steps with shock.
A pair of giant eyes stared down at them from space.
Two glowing ovals hung in space, looking exactly like eyes. The “whites” were white or light yellow, and the “irises” were dark.
“That’s Neptune, and the other one is Ura—oh, no, that’s Saturn!” AA said.
Both gas giants had been two-dimensionalized. Uranus’s orbit was outside Saturn’s, but since Uranus was currently on the other side of the Sun, Saturn had fallen into the two-dimensional plane first. The giant planets ought to look like circles after collapsing, but due to the angle of view from Pluto, they appeared as ovals. The two-dimensional planets showed up as clear, concentric rings. Neptune consisted mainly of three rings: the outermost was blue, bright and vivid, like lashes and eye shadow—that was the atmosphere of hydrogen and helium. The middle ring was white—that was the twenty-thousand-kilometer mantle, which astronomers thought of as a water-ammonia ocean. The dark center was the core, formed of rocks and ice, with a mass equal to the entire Earth. Saturn’s structure was similar, except it didn’t have the outer blue ring.
Each large ring was composed of many smaller rings, full of detailed structures. As they examined the planets further, the two giant eyes now more resembled the rings of a newly felled tree. Around each two- dimensional planet were a dozen or so small circles—moons that had also been flattened. Around Saturn was another faint large circle—its rings. They could still find the Sun in the sky, a small disk emitting faint yellow light. Since the two planets were still on the other side of the sun, their area after collapsing into two dimensions was breathtaking.
Both planets had no thickness anymore.
In the light emitted by these two-dimensional planets, Cheng Xin and AA carried the artifacts across the white landing field toward Halo. The ship’s smooth, streamlined body was like a funhouse mirror, and the reflections of the two-dimensional planets were stretched into long, flowing shapes. The yacht’s profile naturally made people think of droplets, and evinced a comforting strength and lightness. On the way to Pluto, AA had told Cheng Xin that she thought Halo’s hull was probably made up in large part of strong-interaction materials.
As they approached, the door on the bottom of the ship slid open noiselessly. They carried the artifacts up the airstair and into the cabin, took off their helmets, and took a deep breath in their cozy little world. Relief filled their hearts—without consciously being aware of it, they already thought of the yacht as home.
Cheng Xin asked the ship’s AI whether it had received any transmissions from Neptune and Saturn. As soon as she made the request, information windows flooded forth like a colorful avalanche that threatened to bury them. The scene reminded them of the first false alarm of 118 years ago. Back then, most of the information had come from media reports, but now, the news media seemed to have disappeared. Most of the information windows contained no discernible images at all—some were blurred, others shook, and most showed meaningless close-ups. But a few of the windows were filled with patches of gorgeous color which, as they flowed and shifted, revealed complex, detailed structures. They probably showed the two-dimensional universe.
AA asked the AI to filter the images. The AI asked them what kind of information they wanted. Cheng Xin asked for information about the space cities. The flood of windows cleared and was replaced by about a dozen others arranged in order. One of the windows enlarged and moved before the others. The AI explained that this had been taken twelve hours ago at Europe VI in the Neptune cluster. The city had once been part of a combined city that had separated after the strike alert.
The image was stable, and the field of view wide. The camera was probably at one end of the city, and almost the entire city could be seen.
Electricity had gone out in Europe VI, and only a few searchlight beams projected unsteady circles of light onto the city’s far side. The three artificial fusion suns along the city’s axis had all turned into silvery moons, giving out only illumination, but no heat. This was a standard football-shaped city, but the buildings inside the city were very different from what Cheng Xin had seen half a century ago. The Bunker World had prospered, and the buildings inside the city were no longer monotonous and uniform. They were much taller, and each had a unique design. The tips of some of the skyscrapers almost touched the axis of the city. Buildings in the shapes of trees reappeared as well, and they looked about as large as the ones that had been built on Earth, though the leaves hung more densely. It was possible to imagine the city’s beauty and magnificence when lit up at night. But now, only cold moonlight illuminated it, and the tree-buildings cast wide shadows so that the rest of the city appeared as ruins nestled in the shade of a giant forest.
The city had stopped spinning and everything was weightless. Countless objects floated through the air— vehicles, miscellaneous goods, and even entire buildings.
A black belt of clouds appeared along the city’s axis, connecting the two poles. The ship’s AI outlined a rectangular region in the image and zoomed in, creating a new information window. Cheng Xin and AA were shocked to see that the black cloud was formed from people drifting in the middle of the city! Some of the
weightless individuals had pulled together into a cluster; some had linked hands and formed a line; but most floated alone. Everyone wore helmets and clothes that covered all parts of their body—most likely space suits. Even during Cheng Xin’s last time out of hibernation, it was hard to tell everyday clothes apart from space suits. Everyone seemed to have a pack for life-support systems—some wore it on their back, while others held it in their hands. But most people had their visors open, and it was possible to see a light breeze blowing through the city, indicating that the city still retained a breathable atmosphere. Many had congregated around the suns, perhaps hoping for more light as well as a bit of warmth, but the light emitted by the fusion suns was cold light. The silvery light shone through cracks in the people-cloud and turned into dappled shadows in the surrounding city.
According to the ship’s AI, of the six million inhabitants of Europe VI, half had already left the city on space vehicles. Of the remaining three million, some had no way to get off the city, but most understood that any attempt at escape was hopeless. Even if some ships miraculously managed to escape the collapsing zone and reached outer space, most ships had no ecological cycling system to maintain life for long. Access to stellar ships that could survive indefinitely in outer space was still a privilege of the very few. These people chose to wait for the end in a place they were familiar with.
The transmission wasn’t muted, but Cheng Xin couldn’t hear anything. The people-cloud and the city were both eerily quiet. Everyone looked in one direction. That part of the city looked no different from any other, filled with crisscrossing streets and row upon row of buildings. Everyone waited. In the watery, cold moonlight, people’s faces appeared as white as ghosts. The sight reminded Cheng Xin of the bloody dawn in Australia 126 years ago. Like then, Cheng Xin felt as though she were looking down upon an ant colony, and the black people-cloud looked just like a drifting swarm of ants.
Someone in the people-cloud screamed. A glowing dot appeared at a spot on the city’s equator, the same spot where everyone had been gazing. It was like a small opening in the roof of a dark house letting in the sunlight.
That was where Europe VI first came into contact with two-dimensional space.
The light grew rapidly and turned into a glowing oval. The light it emitted was sliced into many shafts by the tall buildings all around, and illuminated the people-cloud on the city’s axis. The space city now resembled a giant ship whose bottom had been breached, sinking in a flat sea. The plane of the two- dimensional space rose like water, and everything that came into contact with the surface instantaneously turned into two dimensions. Clusters of buildings were cut, and their two-dimensional images spread out on the plane. Since the city’s cross section was but a small portion of the entire flattened city, most of the two- dimensionalized buildings had expanded beyond the oval marked by the city’s hull. On the rising, expanding plane, gorgeous colors and complicated structures flashed by and zoomed away in every direction, as though the plane was a lens through which one could see colorful beasts running. Because the city still possessed air, they could hear the sound of the three-dimensional world falling into two dimensions: a crisp, piercing series of crunches, as though the buildings and the city itself were made of exquisitely carved glass and a giant roller was crushing everything.
As the plane continued to rise, the people-cloud began to spread out in the opposite direction, like a curtain being lifted by an invisible hand. The scene reminded Cheng Xin of a massive flock of millions of birds that
she had seen once. The flock had seemed like a unified organism changing shape in the dusk sky.
Soon, the plane had swallowed one-third of the city, and it continued to flicker frantically as it rose irresistibly toward the axis. Some people had begun to fall into the plane by now. They either fell behind due to malfunctions in their space suit thrusters or they had given up on running. Like drops of colorful ink, they spread open on the plane in an instant, and each appeared as a unique figure in two dimensions. On one of the zoomed-in images shown by the AI, they saw a pair of lovers leaping into the plane while in an embrace. Even after the two had been flattened, it was possible to see the figures in an embrace lying side by side—their postures appeared odd, as though drawn by a clumsy child who did not understand the principles of perspective. Nearby there was a mother who lifted her baby overhead as she fell into the plane, all so that the baby would survive for an extra tenth of a second. The mother and child were also vividly portrayed in this giant painting. As the plane kept on rising, the rain of people falling on it became denser. Two-dimensional human figures flooded forth on the plane, most moving outside the boundary of the space city.
By the time the two-dimensional space approached the axis, most of the surviving population had landed against the city’s far side. Half of the city was now gone, and as people looked “up” they could no longer see the familiar city on the other side, but only a chaotic, two-dimensional sky pressing down on the parts of Europe VI that remained in three dimensions. It was now no longer possible to escape from the main gateway at the north pole, so people congregated around the equator, where there were three emergency exits. The weightless crowd piled into mountains around the exits.
The two-dimensional space passed through the axis and swallowed up the three suns, but the light emitted by the two-dimensionalizing process made the world even brighter.
A low whistling sound began: The city was losing its air to space. The three emergency exits along the equator were wide open, each as large as a football field; outside them was the still-three-dimensional space.
The ship’s AI pushed another information window to the front. This was a feed from space looking down at Europe VI. The two-dimensionalized portion of the space city spread across the invisible plane, making the rapidly sinking, still-three-dimensional portion look minuscule by comparison, like the back of a whale peering out of the vast ocean. Three clumps of black smoke rose out of the city and dissipated in space; the “smoke” was formed from the people blown out by the fierce winds of the decompressing space city. The lonely, three-dimensional island continued to sink and melt into the two-dimensional sea. In less than ten minutes, all of Europe VI had turned into a painting.
The painting of Europe VI was so vast that it was hard to estimate its exact area. It was a dead city, but perhaps it was more accurate to call it a 1:1 drawing of the city. The drawing reflected every detail of the city, down to every screw, every fiber, every mite, and even every bacterium. The precision of the drawing was at the level of the individual atom. Every atom in the original three-dimensional space was projected onto its corresponding place in two-dimensional space according to ironclad laws. The basic principles governing this drawing were that there could be no overlap and no hidden parts, and every single detail had to be laid out on the plane. Here, complexity was a substitute for grandeur. The drawing wasn’t easy to interpret—it was possible to see the overall plan of the city and recognize some big structures, such as the giant trees, which still looked like trees even in two dimensions. But buildings looked very different after being flattened: it was almost impossible to deduce the original three-dimensional structure from the two-dimensional drawing by
imagination alone. However, it was certain that image-processing software equipped with the right mathematical model would be able to.
In the information window, it was also possible to see two other flattened space cities in the distance. The cities appeared as perfectly flat continents drifting in dark space, gazing at each other across the plane. But the camera—perhaps located on a drone—was also falling toward the plane, and soon the two-dimensional Europe VI filled the screen.
Close to a million people had escaped Europe VI via the emergency exits; now, caught by the three- dimensional space around them collapsing into two dimensions, they fell toward the plane like a swarm of ants caught in a waterfall. A majestic rain of people fell onto the plane, and the two-dimensional human figures in the city multiplied. Flattened persons took up a lot of area—though still minuscule compared to the vast two- dimensional buildings—and resembled tiny, barely man-shaped marks in the immense picture.
More objects appeared in three-dimensional space in the information window: the skiffs and dinghies that had left Europe VI earlier. Their fusion reactors were operating at maximum capacity, but they still fell inexorably toward the plane. For a moment, Cheng Xin thought the blue flame of the fusion drives penetrated that depthless plane, but the plasma had simply been two-dimensionalized. In those areas, the two- dimensional buildings were distorted and twisted by the two-dimensional flames. Next, the skiffs and dinghies became part of the giant drawing. Obeying the no-overlapping principle, the two-dimensionalized city expanded to give these new objects space, and the whole image resembled spreading ripples on the surface of a pond.
The camera continued to fall toward the plane. Cheng Xin stared at the approaching two-dimensional city, hoping to find signs of movement in the city. But no, other than the distortion caused by the plasma flames earlier, everything in the flat city was still. Similarly, the two-dimensional bodies did not move at all, and gave no signs of being alive.
This was a dead world. A dead picture.
The camera moved still closer to the plane, falling toward a two-dimensional body. The body’s limbs soon filled the whole image, and then came the complicated patterns of muscle fibers and blood vessels. Perhaps it was just an illusion, but Cheng Xin seemed to see red, two-dimensional blood flowing through two- dimensional blood vessels. In a flash, the picture was gone.
*    *    *
Cheng Xin and AA began their second trip to retrieve more artifacts. They both felt the mission was likely to be meaningless. After observing the two-dimensionalized cities, they understood that the process preserved most of the information from the three-dimensional world. Any information loss would be at the atomic level. Due to the nonoverlapping principle used in projection, the flattened Pluto’s crust wouldn’t be commingled with the artifacts in the museum, and so the information in the artifacts should be preserved. But since they had accepted this mission, they would finish it. Like Cao Bin said, doing something was better than doing nothing.
They exited Halo and saw the two flattened planets still suspended overhead, but now they were much dimmer. This made the new long, glowing belt that appeared below the planets even more noticeable. The
light belt went from one end of the sky to the other, like a necklace formed from numerous individual glowing spots.
“Is that the asteroid belt?” Cheng Xin asked. “Yes. Mars will be next,” said AA.
“Mars is on this side of the Sun right now.”
The two fell silent. Without looking at the flattened asteroid belt, they walked toward the black monolith. The Earth was next.
In the great hall of the museum, they saw that Luo Ji had already prepped a bunch of additional artifacts for them. Many of them were Chinese-brush-painting scrolls. AA unrolled one of them: Along the River During the Qingming Festival.
Cheng Xin and AA no longer had the initial awe and delight of seeing such precious works of art— compared to the grandeur of the destruction in process outside, this was nothing more than an old painting. When future explorers arrived at the great painting that was the flattened Solar System, they would have trouble imagining that this twenty-four-centimeter-by-five-meter rectangle was once very special.
Cheng Xin and AA asked Luo Ji to come onto Halo. Luo Ji said he would like to see it, and went to look for a space suit.
As the three of them carried the artifacts out of the monolith, the sight of a flattening Earth greeted them.
The Earth was the first solid planet to collapse into two dimensions. Compared to Neptune and Saturn, the “tree rings” in the two-dimensionalized Earth were even more replete with fine details—the yellow mantle gradually shifted over to the deep red nickel-iron core—but the overall area was much smaller than the gas giants.
Unlike in their imagination, they couldn’t see any hint of blue. “What happened to our oceans?” Luo Ji asked.
“They should be near the outside … But two-dimensionalized water is transparent, so we can’t see it,” AA said.
The three carried the artifacts to Halo in silence. They couldn’t feel the grief yet, like one didn’t immediately feel the pain of a fresh wound cut by a sharp knife.
But the flattened Earth did show her own wonders. At her outermost rim, a white ring gradually appeared. At first it was barely visible, but soon it stood out sharply against the black backdrop of space. The white ring was pure, flawless, but seemed uneven in its makeup, like it was formed from countless small white grains.
“That’s our ocean!” Cheng Xin said.
“The water froze in two-dimensional space,” said AA. “It’s cold there.”
“Oh—” Luo Ji wanted to stroke his beard, but the visor got in the way of his hand.
The three carried the boxes of artifacts onto Halo. Luo Ji seemed familiar with the ship’s layout, heading for the ship’s hold without instruction from Cheng Xin or AA. The ship’s AI also recognized him, and accepted his orders. After they secured the artifacts, the three returned to the yacht’s living quarters. Luo Ji asked the AI for a cup of hot tea, and soon, a little robot that Cheng Xin and AA had never seen before brought it to him. Clearly, Luo Ji had some history with this ship that the two women did not know about. They were curious about the story, though more urgent matters had to be taken care of first.
Cheng Xin asked the AI to play some news from the Earth, but the AI said that it had received only a few transmissions from the planet, and the visual and audio content was essentially impossible to make sense of. They looked at the few open information windows and saw only blurred images taken by unmanned cameras. The AI added that it could provide the video taken by the spacecraft monitoring system near the Earth. A new, large window popped up and the flatted Earth filled the screen.
The three immediately thought the image looked unreal, even suspecting that the AI had synthesized the image to fool them.
“What in the world is this?” AA cried out.
“It’s the Earth about seven hours ago. The camera is fifty astronomical units away, and angular magnification is four hundred and fifty times.”
They looked more closely at the holographic video taken by the telescopic lens. The body of the flattened Earth appeared very clearly, and the “tree rings” were even denser than when observed with the naked eye. The collapse had probably already been completed, and the two-dimensional Earth was dimming. But what really shocked them was the frozen two-dimensional ocean—the white ring around the rim of the Earth. They could clearly make out the grains forming the ring: snowflakes! These were unimaginably large snowflakes, hexagonal in plan, but each with unique crystal branches—exquisite, lovely beyond words. To see snowflakes from fifty AU away was already extremely surreal, and these immense snowflakes were arranged side by side on the plane with no overlap, which further enhanced the feeling of unreality. They seemed to be purely artistic portrayals of snowflakes, powerfully decorative, turning the frozen two-dimensional sea into a piece of stage art.
“How big are the snowflakes?” AA asked.
“Most have diameters between four thousand and five thousand kilometers.” The ship’s AI, incapable of wonder, continued to speak in a serene tone.
“Bigger than the moon!” Cheng Xin said.
The AI opened a few other windows, and each showed a zoomed-in snowflake. In these images, the sense of scale was lost, and they seemed to be tiny spirits under a magnifying lens, each snowflake ready to turn into a tiny droplet as soon as it touched down on a palm.
“Oh—” Luo Ji stroked his beard again, and this time, succeeded. “How are they formed?” AA asked.
“I don’t know,” the AI said. “I can’t find any information about the crystallization of water at astronomical scales.”
In three-dimensional space, snowflakes formed in accordance with the laws of ice-crystal growth. Theoretically, these laws did not restrict the size of snowflakes. The largest snowflake previously on record was thirty-eight centimeters in diameter.
No one knew the laws of ice crystal growth in two-dimensional space. Whatever they were, they permitted ice crystals in two dimensions to grow to five thousand kilometers.
“There’s water on Neptune and Saturn, and ammonia can also form crystals. Why didn’t we see large snowflakes there?” Cheng Xin asked.
The AI said it didn’t know.
Luo Ji squinted his eyes and enjoyed the two-dimensional version of the Earth. “The ocean looks rather nice this way, don’t you think? Only the Earth is worthy of such a lovely wreath.”
“I really want to know what the forests look like, what the grasslands look like, what the ancient cities look like,” Cheng Xin said slowly.
Grief finally struck them, and AA began to sob. Cheng Xin turned her eyes away from the snowflake ocean and made no sound as her eyes filled with tears. Luo Ji shook his head, sighed, and continued to sip his tea. Their grief was moderated to some extent by the thought that the two-dimensional space would also be their home in the end.
They would attain their eternal rest alongside Mother Earth on that plane.
*    *    *
The three decided to begin their third cargo trip. They exited Halo, gazed up at the sky, and saw the three two-dimensional planets. Neptune, Saturn, and the Earth had grown even larger, and the asteroid belt was wider. This was no hallucination. They asked the AI about it.
“The navigation system has detected a split in the Solar System’s navigational frame of reference. Frame of reference one continues as before. The navigational markers within this system—the Sun, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Uranus, Pluto, and some asteroids and Kuiper Belt objects—still satisfy the recognition criteria. Frame of reference two, however, has transformed dramatically. Neptune, Saturn, the Earth, and some asteroids have lost their characteristics as navigational markers. Frame of reference one is moving toward frame of reference two, which leads to the phenomenon you’ve observed.”
In the sky in the other direction, many moving points of light appeared before the stars—the fleet of ships seeking to escape the Solar System. Some of the glowing blue lights dragged long tails behind them. Some of the ships swept by the three of them, fairly close. The bright lights of their engines operating at maximum capacity cast moving shadows of the three observers on the ground. None of the ships tried to land on Pluto.
But it was impossible to escape from the collapsing zone. Halo’s AI was trying to say this: The three- dimensional space of the Solar System was like a large carpet that was being pulled by invisible hands into a two-dimensional abyss. These ships were nothing more than worms on the carpet inching along—they couldn’t extend their already limited allotment of time by much.
“Go ahead by yourselves,” Luo Ji said. “Just take a few more objects. I want to wait here. I don’t want to miss it.” Cheng Xin and AA understood what he meant by “it,” but they had no desire to witness the scene.
After returning to the underground hall, Cheng Xin and AA, not in the mood to pick and choose,  randomly gathered a collection of artifacts. Cheng Xin wanted to take along a Neanderthal skull, but AA tossed it aside.
“You’ll have plenty of skulls on this picture,” AA said.
Cheng Xin acknowledged that she was right. The earliest Neanderthals had lived no more than a few hundred thousand years ago. Optimistically, the flattened Solar System would not have visitors until a few hundred thousand years from now. In their eyes, Neanderthals and modern humans would appear to be the same species. Cheng Xin looked around at the other artifacts, and none excited her. For themselves in the present, and for those unimaginable observers in the far future, nothing here mattered as much as the world
that was dying outside.
They took a last look at the dim hall and left with the artifacts. Mona Lisa watched them leave, smiling sinisterly and eerily.
On the surface, they saw that yet another two-dimensional planet had appeared in the sky: Mercury (Venus was on the other side of the Sun at this moment). It looked smaller than the two-dimensional Earth, but the light generated by its recent collapse into two dimensions made it very bright.
After they packed the artifacts in the hold, Cheng Xin and AA came out of Halo. Luo Ji, who was waiting outside, leaning on his cane, said, “All right. I think that’s enough. It’s meaningless to carry more, anyway.”
The women agreed. They stood together with Luo Ji on the Plutonian ground and waited for the most magnificent scene of the play: the flattening of the Sun.
At this moment, Pluto was forty-five AU from the Sun. Earlier, since both Pluto and the Sun were in the same region of three-dimensional space, the distance between them hadn’t changed. But when the Sun came into contact with the plane, it ceased to move, while Pluto continued to fall toward it, along with the space around it, causing the distance between them to shrink rapidly.
When the Sun began to two-dimensionalize, the naked eye could only see that its brightness and size appeared to increase suddenly. The latter was due to the rapid expansion of the flattened portion of the Sun on the plane, but from a distance it appeared as though the Sun itself was growing. Halo’s AI projected a large information window outside the ship to show a holographic feed from a telescopic lens, but as Pluto pulled closer to the Sun, even the naked eye could see the grand spectacle of a star collapsing into two dimensions.
As soon as the Sun began to two-dimensionalize, a circle expanded on the plane. Soon, the planar Sun’s diameter exceeded the diameter of the remaining part of the Sun. This process took only thirty seconds. Based on the mean solar radius of seven hundred thousand kilometers, the rim of the two-dimensional Sun grew at the rate of twenty thousand kilometers per second. The planar Sun continued to grow, forming a sea of fire on the plane, and the three-dimensional Sun sank slowly into this blood-red sea of fire.
Four centuries ago, Ye Wenjie had stood on the peak of Red Coast Base and watched such a sunset during the last moments of her life. Her heart had struggled to beat like a zither string about to break, and a black fog had begun to cloud her eyes. On the western horizon, the Sun that was falling into the sea of clouds seemed to melt, and the Sun’s blood seeped into the clouds and the sky, creating a large crimson swath. She had called it humanity’s sunset.
And now, the Sun really was melting, its blood seeping into the deadly plane. This was the last sunset.
In the distance, white fog rose from the ground outside the landing field. Pluto’s solid nitrogen and ammonia sublimated, and the fresh, thin atmosphere began to scatter the sunlight. The sky no longer appeared pure black, but showed hints of purple.
While the three-dimensional Sun was setting, the two-dimensional Sun was rising. A flat star could still radiate its light inside the plane, so the two-dimensional Solar System received its first sunlight. The sides of the four two-dimensional planets facing the sun—Neptune, Saturn, the Earth, and Mercury—all took on a golden glow, though the light only fell along a one-dimensional curved edge. The giant snowflakes that surrounded the Earth melted and turned into white vapor, which was blown by two-dimensional solar wind into two-dimensional space. Some of the vapor soaked up the golden sunlight and appeared as if the Earth had
hair that drifted with the wind.
An hour later, the Sun had completely collapsed into two dimensions.
From Pluto, the Sun appeared as a giant oval. The two-dimensional planets were tiny fragments compared to it. Unlike the planets, the Sun did not display clear “tree rings” but was separated into three concentric sections around a core. The center was very bright, and no details could be seen—probably corresponding to the core of the original Sun. The wide ring outside the core probably corresponded to the original radiation zone—a boiling, two-dimensional, bright red ocean where countless cell-like structures rapidly formed, split, combined, and disappeared in a manner that seemed chaotic and agitated when viewed locally, but followed grand patterns and order when viewed as a whole. Outside that was the original Sun’s convection zone. Like in the original Sun, currents of solar material transferred heat into space. But unlike the chaotic radiation zone, the new convection zone revealed clear structure, as many ring-shaped convection loops, similar in shape and size, arranged themselves side by side in neat order. The outermost layer was the solar atmosphere. Golden currents leapt away from the circular rim and formed a large number of two-dimensional prominences, resembling graceful dancers cavorting wantonly around the Sun. Some of the “dancers” even escaped the Sun and drifted far into the two-dimensional universe.
“Is the Sun still alive in two dimensions?” asked AA. She spoke for the hope of all three. They all wished for the Sun to continue to give light and heat to the planar Solar System, even if there was no more life in it.
But her hope was soon dashed.
The flattened Sun began to dim. The light from the core diminished rapidly and soon it was possible to see fine annular structures within. The radiation zone was also quieting, and the boiling calmed down, turning into a viscous peristalsis. The loops in the convection zone distorted, broke apart, and soon disappeared. The golden dancers around the rim of the Sun wilted like dried leaves and lost their vivaciousness. Now it was possible to tell that at least gravity continued to function in the two-dimensional universe. The dancing solar prominences lost the support of solar radiation and began to be dragged back to the edge of the Sun by its gravity. Finally, the dancers yielded to gravity and fell lethargically, until the Sun’s atmosphere was no more than a thin, smooth ring wrapped around the Sun. As the Sun went out, the golden arcs at the edges of the planets also dimmed, and the Earth’s two-dimensional hair, formed from the sublimated ocean, lost its golden glow.
Everything in the three-dimensional world died after collapsing into two dimensions. Nothing survived in a painting with no thickness.
Perhaps a two-dimensional universe could possess its own sun, planets, and life, but they would have to be created and operate under completely different principles.
*    *    *
While the three were focused on the flattening Sun, Venus and Mars collapsed into the plane as well. Compared to the Sun, however, the two-dimensionalization of these two terrestrial planets was rather unremarkable. The flattened Mars and Venus were very similar to the Earth in terms of their “tree ring” structure. There were many hollow areas near the rim of Mars, places in the Martian crust that contained water, suggesting that Mars had possessed far more water than people thought. After a while, the water also
turned an opaque white, but no giant snowflakes appeared. There were giant snowflakes around the flattened Venus, but they weren’t anywhere as numerous as the ones near the Earth, and the Venusian snowflakes were yellow in hue, indicating that they were not water crystals. A while later, the asteroids on that side of the Sun were also flattened, completing the other half of the Solar System necklace.
Tiny snowflakes—three-dimensional ones—now fell from the light purple Plutonian sky. These were the nitrogen and ammonia that had sublimated in the burst of energy during the Sun’s flattening, and which were now freezing into snow as the temperature plummeted following the Sun’s extinguishment. The snow fell more heavily, and soon accumulated a thick layer over the monolith and Halo. Although there were no clouds, the heavy snow blurred Pluto’s sky, and the two-dimensional Sun and the planets turned hazy behind a curtain of snow. The world looked smaller.
“Don’t you feel at home?” AA lifted both hands and spun in the snow.
“I was just thinking the same thing,” Cheng Xin said, and nodded. She had also thought of snow as something unique to the Earth, and the giant snowflakes around the flattened Earth had confirmed this feeling. The snow falling on this cold, dark world on the edge of the Solar System surprisingly provided her a trace of the warmth of home.
Luo Ji watched as AA and Cheng Xin tried to catch the snow. “Hey, you two! Don’t even think about taking off your gloves!”
Cheng Xin did feel an impulse to take off her gloves and catch the snow with her bare hands. She wanted to feel the slight chill, and watch the crystalline snowflakes melt with her own body heat.… but of course she had enough presence of mind to not indulge the impulse. The nitrogen-ammonia snowflakes were at a temperature of minus-210-degrees Celsius. If she really took off her gloves, her hand would turn as fragile and hard as glass and the feeling of being on Earth would disappear instantaneously.
“There’s no more home,” Luo Ji said, shaking his head and leaning against his cane. “Home is now just a picture.”
The nitrogen-ammonia snow didn’t last long. The snowflakes thinned out and the purple haze from the nitrogen-ammonia atmosphere faded. The sky was once again perfectly transparent and dark. They saw that the Sun and the planets had grown even bigger, indicating that Pluto had moved even closer to that two- dimensional abyss.
When the snow stopped, a bright glowing light appeared near the horizon. The intensity of the light grew rapidly, and soon overwhelmed the fading two-dimensional Sun. Although they couldn’t see the details, they knew that it was Jupiter, the Solar System’s largest planet, falling into the plane. Pluto spun slowly, and part of the flattened Solar System had fallen below the horizon, so they thought they wouldn’t get to witness Jupiter’s collapse, but it appeared that the rate of fall into two dimensions was accelerating.
They asked Halo’s AI to look for transmissions from Jupiter. Very few images and videos were being transmitted now, and most were indecipherable. Almost all of the messages they got were audio only. Every communication channel was filled with noise, mostly human voices, as though all the remaining space in the Solar System had been filled with a frenzied sea of people. The voices cried, screamed, sobbed, laughed hysterically … and some even sang. The chaotic background noise made it impossible to tell what they were singing, only that it was many voices singing in harmony. The music was solemn, slow, like a hymn. Cheng
Xin asked the AI whether it was possible to receive any official broadcasts from the Federation Government. The AI said that all official communications from the government had terminated when the Earth was flattened. The Federation Government couldn’t fulfill the promise to carry out its duties until the end of the Solar System after all.
Ships trying to escape continued to stream by the vicinity of Pluto. “Children, it’s time to go,” said Luo Ji.
“Let’s go together,” said Cheng Xin.
“What’s the point?” Luo Ji shook his head and smiled. He pointed at the monolith with his cane. “I’m more comfortable over there.”
“All right. We’ll wait until Uranus is flattened so that we get to spend more time with you,” AA said. There really didn’t seem to be any point in insisting. Even if Luo Ji got on Halo, it would only delay the inevitable by another hour. He didn’t need that bit of time. Indeed, if Cheng Xin and AA didn’t have a mission to carry out, they wouldn’t care for that bit of time either.
“No. You must go now!” Luo Ji said. He struck the ground with his cane forcefully, which made him float up under the low gravity. “No one knows how much faster the collapse is happening now. Carry out your mission! We can stay in contact, and that’s no different from being together.”
Cheng Xin hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “All right. We’ll leave. Stay in contact!”
“Of course.” Luo Ji lifted his cane in farewell and turned to walk toward the monolith. With the light gravity, he almost floated over the snow on the ground and had to use the cane to slow himself. Cheng Xin and AA watched until the aged figure of this Wallfacer, Swordholder, and humanity’s final grave keeper disappeared behind the door of the monolith.
Cheng Xin and AA went back inside Halo. The yacht took off right away, its thrusters tossing up snow everywhere. Soon, the ship achieved Pluto’s escape velocity—just a hair above one kilometer per second— and reached orbit. From the porthole and the monitor they could see that swaths of white now joined the blue and black patches of the Plutonian surface. The giant words “Earth Civilization,” written in multiple scripts and languages, had been covered by the snow and were almost illegible. Halo passed through the gap between Pluto and Charon as though flying through a canyon, the two celestial bodies were so close.
In this “canyon” there were now many other moving stars—the escaping spaceships. They all moved far faster than Halo. One ship swept past Halo at a distance of no more than a hundred kilometers, and the glow from its nozzles lit up Charon’s smooth surface. They could clearly see its triangular hull and the nearly ten- kilometer-long blue flame shooting out of its nozzles.
The AI explained, “That’s Mycenae, a midsized planetary ship without an ecological cycling system. After leaving the Solar System, a passenger would not last five years, even if all the ship’s supplies were used to sustain only them.”
The AI didn’t know that Mycenae would not be able to leave the Solar System. Like all the other escaping ships, it would continue to exist for no more than three hours in three-dimensional space.
Halo flew out of the Pluto-Charon canyon and left the two dark worlds for open space. They saw the entirety of the two-dimensionalized Sun and Jupiter, whose flattening process was almost over. Now, except for Uranus, the vast majority of the Solar System had fallen into the plane.
“Oh, heavens! Starry sky!” AA cried out.
Cheng Xin knew that she was referring to Van Gogh’s painting. True, the universe really did look like the painting. The painting in her memory was almost a perfect copy of the two-dimensional Solar System before her eyes. Giant planets filled space, the areas of the planets seeming to exceed even the gaps between them. But the immensity of the planets did not give them any sense of substantiality. Rather, they looked like whirlpools in space-time. In the universe, every part of space flowed, churned, trembled between madness and horror like fiery flames that emitted only frost. The Sun and the planets and all substance and existence seemed to be only hallucinations produced by the turbulence of space-time.
Cheng Xin now recalled the strange feeling she had experienced each time she had looked at Van Gogh’s painting. Everything else in the painting—the trees that seemed to be on fire, and the village and mountains at night—showed perspective and depth, but the starry sky above had no three-dimensionality at all, like a painting hanging in space.
Because the starry night was two-dimensional.
How could Van Gogh have painted such a thing in 1889? Did he, having suffered a second breakdown, truly leap across five centuries and see the sight before them using only his spirit and delirious consciousness? Or, maybe it was the opposite: He had seen the future, and the sight of this Last Judgment had caused his breakdown and eventual suicide.
“Children, is everything all right? What are you going to do next?” Luo Ji appeared in a pop-up window. He had taken off his space suit, and his white hair and beard floated in the low gravity like in water. Behind him was the tunnel that had been intended to last a hundred million years.
“Hello! We’re going to toss the artifacts into space,” AA said. “But we want to keep Starry Night.” “I think you should hold on to them all. Don’t toss any. Take them and leave.”
Cheng Xin and AA looked at each other. “Go where?” AA asked.
“Anywhere you like. You can go to any place in the Milky Way. In your lifetimes, you could probably get to the Andromeda Galaxy. Halo is capable of lightspeed flight. It is equipped with the world’s only curvature propulsion drive.”
Utter shock. AA and Cheng Xin couldn’t speak.
“I was a part of the group of scientists who worked on curvature propulsion in secret,” said Luo Ji. “After Wade died, those who had worked at Halo City didn’t give up. After those who had been imprisoned were released, they built another secret research base, and your Halo Group was revived and developed enough to keep it going. Do you know where the base was? Mercury, another place in the Solar System where few set foot. Four centuries ago, another Wallfacer, Manuel Rey Diaz, used giant hydrogen bombs to blast a crater there. The base was built in that crater, and its construction took over thirty years. The whole base was covered with a dome. They claimed that it was a research institute to study solar activity.”
A bright shaft of light pierced the porthole. AA and Cheng Xin ignored it, but the ship’s AI explained that Uranus had also undergone “state change,” meaning that it had also collapsed into two dimensions. By now, nothing stood between them and Pluto.
“Thirty-five years after Wade’s death, the research into curvature propulsion picked up at the Mercury base. They continued from the point where they were able to move a two-millimeter segment of your hair
two centimeters. The research continued for half a century—though they were interrupted a few times for various reasons—and they gradually moved from theoretical research to technological development. During the last stages of the development process, they had to perform experiments on large-scale curvature propulsion. This was a problem for the Mercury base because the base’s resources were limited, and an experiment would produce massive trails, which would expose the Mercury base’s true goals. In reality, based on the comings and goings at the base for more than fifty years, it was inconceivable that the Federation Government had no clue what the Mercury base was really up to, but due to the small scale of the experiments and the fact that all the research was done under cover of other projects, the government had tolerated the base’s activities. Large-scale experiments, however, required the government’s cooperation. We sought it out, and the collaboration went very well.”
“Did they repeal the laws proscribing lightspeed ships?” Cheng Xin asked.
“No, not at all. The government collaborated with us because…” Luo Ji tapped his cane against the ground and hesitated. “Let’s not get into that for now. A few years ago, we completed three curvature engines and conducted three unmanned tests. Engine Number One entered lightspeed about one hundred and fifty astronomical units from the Sun, and returned here after flying at lightspeed for a while. For the engine itself, the experiment lasted only ten minutes or so, but for us, it was three years before the engine returned. The second test involved Engines Number Two and Number Three simultaneously. Right now, both of them are outside the Oort Cloud, and should return to the Solar System in six years.
“Engine Number One, which has already been tested, is installed in Halo.”
“But how could they have sent Cheng Xin and I alone?” AA shouted. “There should at least be two men with us.”
Luo Ji shook his head. “There was no time. The collaboration between the Halo Group and the Federation Government occurred in secret. Very few people knew of the existence of the curvature engines, and even fewer knew where the only engine left in the Solar System was installed. And it was too dangerous. Who knows what people are capable of when the end is nigh? Everyone would fight over Halo, and maybe nothing would be left afterward. And so we had to get Halo away from the Bunker World before releasing news of the dark forest strike to the public. There really wasn’t any time left. Cao Bin sent Halo to Pluto because he wanted you to take me with you. He should have just had Halo enter lightspeed at Jupiter.”
“Why didn’t you come with us?” AA shouted.
“I’ve lived long enough. Even if I get onto the ship, I won’t live much longer. I’d rather stay here as a grave keeper.”
“We can come back for you!” Cheng Xin said. “Don’t you dare! There’s no time!”
The three-dimensional space they were in accelerated toward the two-dimensional plane. The two- dimensional Sun, which had now completely extinguished and appeared as a vast, dark red, dead sea, took up most of the view from Halo. Cheng Xin and AA noticed that the plane was not completely flat, but undulating! A long wave slowly rolled across the plane. It was a similar wave in three-dimensional space that had allowed Blue Space and Gravity to find warp points to enter four-dimensional space. Even in places where there were no two-dimensional objects in the plane, the rippling wave was apparent. The waves were
a visualization of two-dimensional space in three dimensions that occurred only when the two-dimensional space was large enough.
On Halo itself, the space-time distortion produced by the accelerated fall had started to become apparent as space was stretched in the direction of the fall. Cheng Xin noticed that the circular portholes now appeared as ovals, and the slender AA now looked short and squat. But Cheng Xin and AA felt no discomfort, and the ship’s systems were operating normally.
“Return to Pluto!” Cheng Xin ordered the AI. Then she turned to Luo Ji’s window. “We’re  going to  come back. There’s time—Uranus is still being flattened.”
The AI replied stiffly, “Among all authorized users in communication range, Luo Ji has the highest authorization level. Only he can order Halo to return to Pluto.”
Luo Ji smiled before the tunnel. “If I wanted to go, I would have gotten on the ship with you earlier. I’m too old for voyages far from home. Do not worry about me, children. Like I said, I don’t think I’ve missed anything. Prepare for curvature propulsion!”
Luo Ji’s last words were directed at the ship’s AI. “Course parameters?” asked the AI.
“Continue along the current heading. I don’t know where you want to go, and I don’t think you know, either. If you do think of a destination, just point it out on the star map. The ship is capable of automatic navigation to most stars within fifty thousand light-years.”
“Affirmative,” said the AI. “Initiating curvature propulsion in thirty seconds.”
“Do we need to be immersed in deep-sea fluid?” AA asked—though rationally, she knew that under conventional propulsion, such acceleration would compress her into a pancake no matter what kind of fluid she was immersed in.
“You don’t need any kind of preparation. This propulsion method relies on manipulating space, so there’s no hypergravity. Curvature propulsion drive online. System is operating within normal parameters. Local space curvature: twenty-three point eight. Forward curvature ratio: three point forty-one to one. Halo will enter lightspeed in sixty-four minutes, eighteen seconds.”
For Cheng Xin and AA, the AI’s announcement was like a Full Stop order, because everything suddenly quieted down. They understood that the silence was due to the nuclear fusion engine being shut off, but the humming produced by the fusion reactor and the thrusters disappeared without being replaced by any other noise. It was hard to believe that some other engine had been started.
But signs of curvature propulsion did appear. The distortion in space gradually disappeared: The portholes returned to being circles, and AA looked slender again. Looking through the portholes, they could still see other escaping ships passing by Halo, but they now passed far more slowly.
The ship’s AI began to play some of the messages passing between the escaping ships—perhaps because the messages concerned Halo.
“Look at that ship! How is it able to accelerate so fast?” a woman screamed. “Oh! The people inside must have been crushed into meat pies,” a man said.
Another man spoke up. “You idiots. The ship itself would be crushed under that kind of acceleration. But look at it: It’s perfectly fine. That’s not a fusion drive, but something entirely different.”
“Curvature propulsion? A lightspeed ship? That’s a lightspeed ship!”
“The rumors were true, then. They were building secret lightspeed ships so that they could escape.…” “Aaahhhhh…”
“Hey, any ships ahead? Stop that ship! Crash into it. No one should live if we all have to die!”
“They can reach escape velocity! They can run away and live! Ahhhh! I want the lightspeed ship! Stop them; stop them and kill everyone inside!”
Another scream—this one from AA inside the ship. “How can there be two Plutos?”
Cheng Xin turned to the information window AA was looking at. The window showed a view of Pluto taken by the ship’s monitoring system. Although Pluto was some distance away, it was clear that both Pluto and Charon had been duplicated, and the twins were lined up side by side. Cheng Xin noticed that some of the flattened objects in the two-dimensional space had also been duplicated. The effect was like selecting a portion of a picture using image-processing software, cloning it, and then moving the clone a bit to the side.
“That’s due to the fact that light slows down inside the trail left by Halo,” Luo Ji said. His image was growing distorted, but his voice still came through clearly. “Pluto is still moving. One of the Plutos you are seeing is the result of slow light. Once Pluto has moved outside of Halo’s trail, light traveling at standard speed provides you with a second image. That’s why you’re seeing double.”
“The light slows down?” Cheng Xin sensed a great secret was being revealed.
Luo Ji continued, “I understand that you figured out curvature propulsion from a small boat propelled by soap. Let me ask you: After the ship reached the other side of the bathtub, did you pull it back and try again?”
They hadn’t. Due to the fear of sophons, Cheng Xin had tossed the paper boat aside. But it was easy to figure out what would have happened.
“The ship would not move, or at least it would only move slowly,” Cheng Xin said. “After the first trip, the surface tension of the water in the tub had already been reduced.”
“That’s right. It’s the same principle with lightspeed ships. The very structure of space itself is changed by the trail of a curvature-propelled ship. If a second curvature-propelled ship were placed inside the trail of the first, it would hardly move. Within the trails of lightspeed ships, one must use a more powerful curvature propulsion drive. It would still be possible to use curvature propulsion to achieve the highest speed possible within such a space, but the maximum velocity is much lower than the maximum velocity of the first ship. In other words, the speed of light through vacuum is lowered within the trail of lightspeed ships.”
“How much lower?”
“Theoretically, it could be reduced to zero, but that’s not achievable in reality. But if you adjust the curvature ratio of Halo’s engine to the maximum, you can lower the speed of light in its trail down to exactly what we’ve been looking for: sixteen point seven kilometers per second.”
“Then you’d have…” AA said, staring at Luo Ji. The black domain, Cheng Xin thought.
“The black domain,” Luo Ji said. “Of course, a single ship is insufficient to produce a black domain containing an entire star and its planetary system. We calculated that it would take more than a thousand curvature propulsion ships to accomplish such a thing. If all these ships started near the Sun and spread out in every direction at lightspeed, the trails they produced would expand and connect to each other, forming a
sphere that contained the entire Solar System. The speed of light within this sphere would be sixteen point seven kilometers per second—a reduced-lightspeed black hole, or a black domain.”
“So the black domain can be a product of lightspeed ships.…”
In the cosmos, the trail of a curvature propulsion drive could be a sign of danger, as well as a safety announcement. A trail far away from a world was the former; a trail that shrouded a world the latter. It was like a noose, indicating danger and aggression when held in the hand, but safety when wrapped around the holder’s own neck.
“Correct, but we found out about it too late. While studying curvature propulsion, the experimenters plowed ahead of the theoreticians. You should know that was Wade’s style. Many experimental discoveries could not be explained by theory, but without a theoretical framework, some phenomena were simply ignored. During the earliest years of research—when their biggest achievement was moving your hair—the trails produced by curvature propulsion were thin and small, and hardly anyone paid any attention, even though there were plenty of signs of something strange going on: For instance, after the trail expanded, the low speed of light caused quantum integrated circuits in nearby computers to malfunction, but no one sought to investigate. Later, after the experiments grew in scale, people finally discovered the secret of lightspeed trails. It was because of this discovery that the Federation Government agreed to collaborate with us. They did, in fact, pour all the resources they could command into the development of lightspeed spaceships, but there just wasn’t enough time.” Luo Ji shook his head and sighed.
Cheng Xin said what he couldn’t bring himself to say. “There were thirty-five years between the Halo City Incident and the completion of the Mercury base. Thirty-five precious years were lost.”
Luo Ji nodded. Cheng Xin thought the way he looked at her was no longer kind, but rather resembled the fires of the Last Judgment. His gaze seemed to say, Child, look at what you’ve done.
Cheng Xin now understood that of the three paths of survival presented to humanity—the Bunker Project, the Black Domain Plan, and lightspeed ships—only lightspeed ships were the right choice.
Yun Tianming had pointed this out, but she had blocked it.
If she hadn’t stopped Wade, Halo City might have achieved independence. Even if the independence was short-lived, they could have discovered the effects of lightspeed trails and changed the government’s attitude toward lightspeed ships. Humanity might have had time to construct a thousand lightspeed ships and build the black domain, to avoid this dimensional strike.
Humanity could have divided into two parts: those who wanted to fly to the stars, and those who wanted to stay within the black domain and live in tranquility. Each would have gotten what they wanted.
In the end, she had committed another grave error.
Twice, she had been placed in a position of authority second only to God, and both times she had pushed the world into the abyss in the name of love. This time, no one could fix her mistake for her.
She began to hate someone: Wade. She hated that he had kept his promise. Why? Out of his masculine pride, or for her? Cheng Xin understood that Wade did not know the effects of curvature propulsion trails. His goal in researching lightspeed ships was stated eloquently by that anonymous Halo City soldier: a fight for freedom, for a chance to live as free men in the cosmos, for the billions and billions of new worlds out there. She believed that if he had known that lightspeed spaceflight was the only path to life for humanity, he would
not have kept his promise.
She could not shirk her responsibility. It didn’t matter whether she really was second only to God—if she was in that position, she had to carry out her duty.
Not long ago on Pluto, Cheng Xin had experienced one of the most relaxed moments of her life. Indeed, it was easy to face the end of the world: All responsibilities were gone, as were all worries and anxieties. Life was as simple and pure as the moment when one first emerged from the mother’s womb. Cheng Xin just had to wait in peace for her poetic, artistic end, for her moment to join the giant painting of the Solar System.
But now, everything had been turned upside down. Early cosmology had presented a paradox: If the universe was infinite, then every spot in the universe would feel the cumulative effects of the infinite gravity exerted by an infinity of celestial bodies. Cheng Xin really did feel an infinite gravity now. The power came from every corner of the universe, ruthlessly tearing at her soul. The horror of her last moments as the Swordholder 127 years ago resurfaced as four billion years of history pressed down on her and suffocated her. The sky was full of eyes staring at her: the eyes of dinosaurs, trilobites, ants, birds, butterflies, bacteria … just the number of men and women who had lived on the Earth possessed a hundred billion pairs of eyes.
Cheng Xin saw AA’s eyes, and understood the words in her gaze: You’ve finally experienced something worse than death.
Cheng Xin knew that she had no choice but to live on. She and AA were the last two survivors of human civilization. Her death would mean the death of half of all that was left of humanity. Living on was the appropriate punishment for her mistake.
But the course ahead was a blank. In her heart, space was no longer black, but colorless. What was the point of going anywhere?
“Where should we go?” Cheng Xin muttered.
“Go find them,” Luo Ji said. His image was even more blurred and now only black and white.
His words illuminated Cheng Xin’s dark thoughts like lightning. She and AA looked at each other and immediately understood who “them” meant.
Luo Ji continued, “They’re still alive. The Bunker World received a gravitational wave transmission from them five years ago. It was a short message, and didn’t explain where they were. Halo will periodically hail them with gravitational waves. Maybe you’ll find them; maybe they’ll find you.”
Luo Ji’s black-and-white image disappeared as well, but they could still hear his voice. He said one last thing, “Ah, it’s time for me to go into the picture. Safe travels, children.”
The transmission from Pluto was cut off.
On the monitor, they could see Pluto light up and expand in two dimensions. The part of Pluto containing the museum was the first to touch the plane.
The Doppler effect of Halo’s speed was now visible. The light from the stars ahead shifted to bluish, while the light from the stars behind shifted to reddish. The color shift was apparent in the two-dimensional Solar System.
Outside, no other fleeing spaceships could be seen; Halo had passed them all. All the fleeing spaceships were now falling onto the two-dimensional space like drops of rain against glass.
Very few transmissions could now be received from the direction of the Solar System. Due to the Doppler
effect, the brief bursts of voices sounded strange, like singing.
“We’re very close! Are you behind us?” … “Don’t do this! No!” … “There’s no pain. I’m telling you, it’ll be over in a flash.” … “You still don’t believe me, after all this? Fine, don’t believe me.” … “Yes, sweetie, we’ll become very thin.” … “Come here! We should be together.”
Cheng Xin and AA listened. The voices became fewer and fewer, and separated by longer gaps. After thirty minutes, they heard the last voice coming out of the Solar System:
The voice was cut off. The giant painting called the Solar System was complete.
Halo continued to fall toward the plane. The speed it had already achieved was slowing down its fall, but the ship still hadn’t achieved escape velocity. By now, Halo was the only man-made three-dimensional object in the Solar System, and Cheng Xin and AA were the only people not in the painting. Halo was very close to the plane, and from this angle, looking at the two-dimensional Sun was like looking at the sea from shore: the dim, dark red surface stretched into the distance without bounds. The freshly flattened Pluto was now very large, and still expanded at a rate that was visible to the naked eye. Cheng Xin examined the exquisite “tree rings” of Pluto and tried to find traces of the museum, but she couldn’t see anything—it was too small. The giant waterfall that was three-dimensional space tumbling into the flat plane seemed inexorable. Cheng Xin began to doubt whether the curvature propulsion engine really was capable of propelling the ship to lightspeed. She hoped for everything to be over.
But then, the ship’s AI spoke.
“Halo will enter lightspeed in one hundred and eighty seconds. Please select a destination.” “We don’t know where to go,” said AA.
“You can select a destination after we’ve entered lightspeed. However, you won’t subjectively be spending much time in lightspeed, and it’s easy to overshoot your destination. It’s best if you select it now.”
“We don’t know where to find them,” Cheng Xin said. Their existence gave the future some light, but she still felt lost.
AA clutched Cheng Xin’s hands. “Have you forgotten? Other than them, he also exists in the universe.”
Yes, he still exists. Cheng Xin was overwhelmed by heartache. She had never yearned to see anyone as much as him.
“You have a date,” AA said.
“Yes, we have a date,” Cheng Xin repeated mechanically. The torrents of emotion left her numb. “Then let’s go to your star.”
“Yes, let’s go to our star!” Cheng Xin turned to the ship’s AI. “Can you find DX3906? That was the assigned number back at the beginning of the Crisis Era.”
“Yes. The star is now numbered S74390E2. Please confirm.”
A large holographic star map appeared before them. It showed everything within five hundred light-years of the Solar System. One of the stars glowed bright red, and a white arrow pointed at it. Cheng Xin was very familiar with it.
“That’s the one. Let’s go there.”
“Course set and confirmed. Halo will enter lightspeed in fifty seconds.”
The holographic star map disappeared. In fact, the ship’s entire hull disappeared, and Cheng Xin and AA seemed to be floating in space itself. The AI had never employed this display mode before. In front of them was the starry sea that was the Milky Way, which was now pure blue, reminding them of the real sea. Behind them was the two-dimensional Solar System, suffused with a bloody red.
The universe shuddered and transformed. All the stars in front of them shot straight ahead, as though that half of the universe had transformed into a black bowl and all the stars were falling into the bottom. They clustered ahead of the ship and fused into a single glow, like a giant sapphire in which it was not possible to distinguish individual stars. From time to time, individual stars shot out of the sapphire and swept past the pure black space to fall behind the ship, changing color the whole way: from blue to green, then yellow, and turning red once they were behind the ship. Looking back from the ship, the two-dimensional Solar System and the stars fused into a red ball like a campfire at the end of the universe.
Halo flew at the speed of light toward the star that Yun Tianming had given Cheng Xin.


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