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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Dark Forest

The Three-Body Problem Series (Volume 2)

Cixin Liu, Translated by Joel Martinsen

Tor Books


Year 3, Crisis Era

Distance of the Trisolaran Fleet from the Solar System: 4.21 light-years

It looks so old....

This was Wu Yue's first thought as he faced Tang, the massive ship under construction in front of him, bathed in the flickering of electric arcs. Of course, this impression was simply the result of countless inconsequential smudges on the manganese steel plates of the ship's nearly completed body, left behind by the advanced gas-shield welding used on the hull. He tried unsuccessfully to imagine how sturdy and new Tang would look with a fresh coat of gray paint.

Tang's fourth offshore fleet training session had just concluded. During that two-month session, Tang's commanders, Wu Yue and Zhang Beihai, who was standing just beside Wu Yue, had occupied an uncomfortable role. Formations of destroyers, submarines, and supply ships were directed by battle group commanders, butTang was still under construction in the dock, so the carrier's position was either occupied by the training shipZheng He or simply left empty. During the sessions, Wu Yue often stared vacantly at an empty patch of sea where the surface of the water, disturbed by crisscrossing trails left by passing ships, undulated uneasily, much like his mood. Would the empty spot ever be filled? he asked himself more than once.

Looking now at the unfinished Tang, what he saw was not just age but the passage of time itself. It seemed like an ancient, giant, discarded fortress, its mottled body a stone wall, the shower of welding sparks falling from the scaffolding like plants covering the stones ... like it was less construction than archeology.

Afraid of pursuing these thoughts, Wu Yue turned his attention to Zhang Beihai next to him. "Is your father any better?" he asked.

Zhang Beihai gently shook his head. "No. He's just holding on."

"Ask for leave."

"I did when he first went to the hospital. Given the situation, I'll deal with it when the time comes."

Then they went silent. Every social interaction between the two of them was like this. Where work was concerned they had more to say, of course, but something always lay between them.

"Beihai, work isn't going to be like it was. Since we're sharing this position now, I think we ought to communicate more."

"We've communicated just fine in the past. Our superiors put us together on Tang, no doubt thanks to our successful cooperation aboard Chang'an." Zhang Beihai laughed as he said this, but it was the sort of laugh that Wu Yue couldn't read. Zhang Beihai's eyes could easily read deep into the heart of everyone aboard the ship, be they captain or sailor. Wu Yue was entirely transparent to him. But Wu Yue could not read what was inside Zhang. He was certain that the man's smile came from within him, but had no hope of understanding him. Successful cooperation does not equate to successful understanding. There was no question that Zhang Beihai was the most capable political commissar on the ship, and he was forthright in his work, exploring every last issue with complete precision. But his internal world was a bottomless gray to Wu Yue, who always felt like Zhang Beihai was saying:Just do it this way. This way's best, or most correct. But it's not what I really want. It began as an indistinct feeling that grew increasingly obvious. Of course, whatever Zhang Beihai did was always the best or most correct, but Wu Yue had no idea what he actually wanted.

Wu Yue adhered to one article of faith: Command of a warship was a dangerous position, so the two commanders must understand each other's minds. This presented Wu Yue with a knotty problem. At first, he thought that Zhang Beihai was somehow on guard, which offended Wu. In the tough post of captain of a destroyer, was anyone more forthright and guileless than he was? What do I have worth guarding against?

When Zhang Beihai's father had briefly been their superior officer, Wu Yue had spoken with him about his difficulties talking to his commissar. "Isn't it enough for the work to be done well? Why do you need to know how he thinks?" the general had said, gently, then added, perhaps involuntarily, "Actually, I don't know either."

"Let's get a closer look," Zhang Beihai said, pointing to Tang through the sparks. Then both their phones chirped at the same time: a text message recalling them back to their car. This usually meant an emergency, since secured communications equipment was only available in the vehicle. Wu Yue opened the car door and picked up the receiver. It was a call from an advisor at battle group HQ.

"Captain Wu, Fleet Command have issued you and Commissar Zhang emergency orders. The two of you are to report to General Staff immediately."

"General Staff? What about the fifth fleet training exercise? Half the battle group is at sea, and the rest of the ships will join them tomorrow."

"I'm not aware of that. The order is simple. Just that one command. You can look at the specifics when you get back."

The captain and commissar of the still-unlaunched Tang glanced at each other, then had one of the rare moments throughout the years where their thoughts aligned: Looks like that patch of water will remain empty.

* * *

Fort Greely, Alaska. Several fallow deer ambling along the snowy plain grew alert, sensing vibrations in the earth beneath the snow. Ahead of them, a white hemisphere opened. It had been placed there long ago, a giant egg half-buried beneath the ground, but the deer always felt it didn't belong to this frozen world. The egg split open and issued forth thick smoke and flames, then, with a roar, it hatched a cylinder that accelerated upward, spurting flames from its bottom. The surrounding snowdrifts were thrown by the fire into the air, where they fell again as rain. When the cylinder gained enough height, the explosions that had terrified the deer were again replaced by peace. The cylinder vanished into the sky trailing a long white tail behind it, as if the snowscape was a giant ball of yarn from which a giant invisible hand had pulled a strand skyward.

"Damn it! Just a few more seconds and I'd have confirmed a launch interrupt!" said Target Screening Officer Raeder as he tossed aside his mouse. Raeder was thousands of kilometers away in the Nuclear Missile Defense Control Room at the NORAD Command Center, three hundred meters beneath Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs.

"I figured it was nothing as soon as the system warning came up," Orbital Monitor Jones said, shaking his head.

"Then what's the system attacking?" asked General Fitzroy. Nuclear Missile Defense was just one of the duties of his new position, and he wasn't entirely familiar with it yet. Looking at the monitor-covered wall, the general attempted to locate the intuitive graphical displays they'd had at the NASA control center: a red line snaking across the world map, forming a sine wave atop the map's planar transformation. Novices found this inexplicable, but at least it let you know that something was shooting into space. But there was nothing so simple here. The lines on the screens were a complicated abstract jumble that was meaningless to him. Not to mention all the screens with swiftly scrolling numbers that had meaning only to the NMD duty officers.

"General, do you remember when they replaced the reflective film on the ISS multipurpose module last year? They lost the old film. That's what this was. It balls up and then unfurls in the solar wind."

"But ... it ought to be included in the target screening database."

"It is. Here." Raeder brought up a page with his mouse. Below piles of complicated text, data, and forms, there was an inconspicuous photograph, probably taken with an Earth telescope, of an irregular white patch against a black background. The strong reflection made it difficult to make out details.

"Major, since you've got this, why didn't you terminate the launch program?"

"The system ought to have searched the target database automatically. Human reaction times aren't quick enough. But data from the old system hasn't been reformatted for the new one, so it wasn't linked in with the recognition module," Raeder said. His tone was a little aggrieved, as if to say, I've demonstrated my proficiency by managing to pull this up so quickly in a manual search when the NMD supercomputer couldn't, but I still have to put up with your clueless questions.

"General, the order came to switch over to actual operational state after the NMD moved its intercept headings into space, but before software recalibration was completed," a duty officer said.

Fitzroy said nothing. The chatter of the control room annoyed him. Here in front of him was humanity's first planetary defense system, but it was nothing more than an existing NMD system whose intercepts had been redirected from various terrestrial continents and into space.

"I say we should take a photo for a memento!" Jones said. "This has got to be Earth's first strike at a common enemy."

"Cameras are prohibited," Raeder said coldly.

"Captain, what are you talking about?" Fitzroy said, angry all of a sudden. "The system didn't detect an enemy target at all. It's not a first strike."

After an uncomfortable silence, someone said, "The interceptors carry nuclear warheads."

"Yeah, one point five megatons. So what?"

"It's nearly dark outside. Given the target location, we ought to be able to see the flash!"

"You can see it on the monitor."

"It's more fun from outside," Raeder said.

Jones stood up nervously. "General, I ... my shift's over."

"Mine too, General," Raeder said. This was just a courtesy. Fitzroy was a high-level coordinator with the Planetary Defense Council and had no command over NORAD and the NMDs.

Fitzroy waved his hand: "I'm not your commanding officer. Do as you please. But let me remind all of you that in the future, we may be spending a lot of time working together."

Raeder and Jones headed topside at a run. After passing through the multi-ton antiradiation door, they were out on the peak of Cheyenne Mountain. It was dusk and the sky was clear, but they didn't see the flash of a nuclear blast in outer space.

"It should be right there," Jones said, gesturing skyward.

"Maybe we've missed it," Raeder said. He didn't look upward. Then, with an ironic smile, he said, "Do they really believe the sophon will unfold in lower dimensions?"

"Unlikely. It's intelligent. It won't give us that chance," Jones said.

"NMD's eyes are pointed upward. Is there really nothing to defend against on Earth? Even if the terrorist countries have all turned into saints, there's still the ETO, right?" He snorted. "And the PDC. Those military guys clearly want to chalk up a quick accomplishment. Fitzroy's one of them. Now they can declare that the first stage of the Planetary Defense System is complete, even though they've done practically nothing to the hardware. The system's sole purpose is to stop her from unfolding in lower dimensions near to Earth's orbit. The technology's even simpler than what's needed for intercepting guided missiles, because if the target really does appear, it'll cover an immense area.... Captain, that's why I've asked you up here. Why were you acting like a child, what with that first-strike photograph business? You've upset the general, you know. Can't you see he's a petty man?"

"But ... wasn't that a compliment?"

"He's one of the best hype artists in the military. He's not going to announce at the press conference that this was a system error. Like the rest of them, he'll say it was a successful maneuver. Wait and see. That's how it's gonna be." As he was speaking, Raeder sat down and leaned back on the ground, looking up with a face full of yearning at the sky, where the stars had already emerged. "You know, Jones, if the sophon really does unfold again, she'll give us a chance to destroy her. Wouldn't that be something!"

"What's the use? The fact is that they're streaming toward the Solar System right now. Who knows how many of them.... Hey, why did you say 'she' rather than 'it' or 'he'?"

The expression on Raeder's upturned face turned dreamy: "Yesterday, a Chinese colonel who just arrived at the center told me that in his language, she has the name of a Japanese woman, Tomoko."2

* * *

The day before, Zhang Yuanchao filed his retirement papers and left the chemical plant where he had worked for more than four decades. In the words of his neighbor Lao Yang,3 today was the start of his second childhood. Lao Yang told him that sixty, like sixteen, was the best time in life, an age where the burdens of one's forties and fifties had been laid down, but the slowdown and illness of the seventies and eighties had not yet arrived. An age to enjoy life. Zhang Yuanchao's son and daughter-in-law had steady jobs, and although his son had married late, he would be holding a grandson before long. He and his wife wouldn't have been able to afford their current house except that they had been bought out when their old place had been demolished. They had been living in the new place for a year now....

When Zhang Yuanchao thought about it, everything was completely satisfactory. He had to admit that as far as affairs of state were concerned, Lao Yang was right. Still, as he looked out from his eighth-story window at the clear sky over the city, he felt like there was no sunlight in his heart, much less a second childhood.

Lao Yang, first name Jinwen, was a retired middle school teacher who frequently advised Zhang Yuanchao that if he wanted to enjoy his waning years, he ought to be learning new things. For example: "The Internet. Even babies can learn it, so why don't you?" He even pointed out that Zhang Yuanchao's biggest failing was that he had absolutely no interest in the outside world: "Your old lady can at least brush aside her tears while sitting in front of the TV watching those trashy soaps. But you, you don't even watch TV. You should pay attention to national and world affairs. That's part of a full life." Zhang Yuanchao may have been an old Beijinger, but he didn't seem like one. A taxi driver could hold forth with cogent analyses of domestic and world situations, but even if Zhang Yuanchao knew the current president's name, he certainly didn't know the premier's. This was actually a point of pride for him. He lived the steady-going life of a commoner, he said, and couldn't be bothered to care about such irrelevant things. They had nothing to do with him, and ignoring them rid him of a significant number of headaches in life. Yang Jinwen paid attention to affairs of state and made a point of watching the evening news every day, arguing with online commenters till he was red in the face over national economic policy and the tide of international nuclear proliferation, but what had it gotten him? The government hadn't increased his pension by even a cent. He said, "You're being ridiculous. You think it's irrelevant? That it's got nothing to do with you? Listen, Lao Zhang. Every major national and international issue, every major national policy, and every UN resolution is connected to your life, through both direct and indirect channels. You think the US invasion of Venezuela is none of your concern? I say it's got more than a penny's worth of lasting implications for your pension." At the time, Zhang had merely laughed at Lao Yang's wonkish outburst. But now he knew that his neighbor was right.

Zhang Yuanchao rang Yang Jinwen's doorbell, and Yang answered, looking like he had just gotten back home. He seemed particularly relaxed. Zhang Yuanchao looked at him like a man in the desert who has encountered a fellow traveler and won't let him go.

"I was just looking for you. Where did you go off to?"

"I took a trip to the market. I saw your old lady shopping for food."

"Why is our building so empty? It's like a ... mausoleum."

"It's not a holiday today. That's all." He laughed. "Your first day of retirement. That feeling is totally normal. At least you weren't a leader. They've got it worse when they retire. You'll soon get used to it. Come on, let's check out the neighborhood activity center and see what we can do for fun."

"No, no. It's not because I've retired. It's because ... how should I put it? Because of the country, or rather, the world situation."

Yang Jinwen pointed at him and laughed. "The world situation? I never thought I'd hear those words come out of your mouth...."

"That's right, I didn't use to care about the big issues, but they've gotten too huge. I never thought anything could get so big!"

"Lao Zhang, it's actually really funny, but I've started to come around to your way of thinking. I don't care about those irrelevant issues anymore. Believe it or not, I haven't watched the news in two weeks. I used to care about the big issues because people matter. We could have an effect on the outcome of current events. But no one has the power to overcome this. What's the point of troubling yourself about it?"

"But you can't simply not care. Humanity will be gone in four hundred years!"

"Hmph. You and I will be gone in forty-odd years."

"What about our descendants? They'll be wiped out."

"That doesn't concern me as much as it does you. My son in America is married but doesn't want children, so I don't really care. But the Zhang family will last another dozen generations, right? Isn't that enough?"

Zhang Yuanchao stared at Yang Jinwen for a few seconds, then looked at his watch. He turned on the television, where the news channel was airing the day's major stories:

The AP reports that at 6:30 P.M. EST on the twenty-ninth, the US National Missile Defense System successfully completed the test destruction of a lower-dimensional unfolded sophon in near-Earth orbit. This is the third test of an NMD intercept since targets were shifted to outer space. The latest target was the reflective film discarded from the International Space Station last October. A Planetary Defense Council spokesman said that the warhead-equipped interceptor successfully destroyed the three-thousand-square-meter target. This means that well before the sophon's three-dimensional unfolding reaches sufficient area, and before it presents a reflective surface that is a threat to human targets on the ground, the NMD system will be able to destroy it....

"What pointlessness. A sophon's not going to unfold," Yang said as he reached for the remote in Zhang's hand. "Change the station. There might be a repeat of the European Cup semifinals. I fell asleep on the sofa last night...."

"Watch it at home." Zhang Yuanchao gripped the remote and didn't let him have it. The news continued:

The physician at 301 Military Hospital in charge of the treatment of academician Jia Weilin confirmed that Jia's death was due to a hematological malignancy, also known as leukemia, the proximate cause of death being organ failure and loss of blood in the advanced stage of the disease. No abnormalities were present. Jia Weilin, a noted expert in superconductivity who made major contributions in the field of room-temperature superconductors, died on the tenth. Stories claiming that Jia died in a sophon strike are pure rumor. In a separate report, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health confirmed that several other deaths supposedly due to sophon strikes were in fact due to ordinary illnesses or accidents. The station spoke with noted physicist Ding Yi about the matter.

Reporter: What's your take on the emerging panic over the sophons?

Ding Yi: It's due to a lack of common knowledge about physics. Representatives of the government and the scientific community have explained this on numerous occasions: A sophon is just a microscopic particle which, despite possessing a high intelligence, has the potential for only a limited effect on the macroscopic world due to its microscopic scale. The primary threats they pose to humanity lie in their erroneous and random interference to high-energy physics experiments, and in the quantum entanglement network that monitors Earth. In its microscopic state, a sophon cannot kill, and it cannot engage in any other offensive attack. If a sophon wants to produce a larger effect on the macroscopic world, it can only do so in a lower-dimensional unfolded state. And even in that situation, its effects are highly limited, because a sophon unfolded in lower dimensions on a macroscopic scale is very weak. Now that humanity has established a defense system, sophons cannot do this without providing us with an excellent opportunity to destroy them. I believe that the mainstream media ought to do a better job of disseminating this scientific information to the public to rid it of a panic that has no basis in science.

Zhang Yuanchao heard someone enter the living room without knocking, calling "Lao Zhang" and "Master Zhang." He knew who it was from the footsteps he'd heard hammering up the staircase just before. Miao Fuquan, another neighbor on their floor, came in. A Shanxi coal boss who ran a fair number of mines in that province, Miao Fuquan was a few years younger than Zhang Yuanchao. He owned a larger home in another part of Beijing and used this apartment as a place to keep a mistress from Sichuan who was about the same age as his daughter. When he had first moved in, the Zhang and Yang families had basically ignored him save for an argument over the stuff he left strewn about the hallway, but they eventually discovered that although he was a little vulgar, he was a decent, friendly man. Once building management had smoothed over a dispute or two, harmony was gradually established among the three families. Although Miao Fuquan said he had turned over his business affairs to his son, he was still a busy man and rarely spent any time at this "home," so the three-bedroom place was usually only occupied by the Sichuan woman.

"Lao Miao, you haven't been around for months. Where have you struck it rich this time?" asked Yang Jinwen.

Miao Fuquan casually picked up a glass, filled it halfway from the water dispenser, and gulped down the water. Then he wiped his mouth and said, "No one's getting rich.... There's trouble at the mine, and I've got to go clean it up. It's practically war time. The government really means it this time. The laws on wildcat mining never used to work, but the mines aren't going to be running for much longer now."

"Bad days are here," Yang Jinwen said, without taking his eyes from the game on television.

* * *

The man had been lying on the bed for several hours. The light shining through the basement window, the room's only source of illumination, was moonlight now, and the cool rays cast bright spots on the floor. In the shadows, everything looked like it was carved from gray stone, as if the entire room was a tomb.

No one ever knew the man's true name, but eventually, they called him the Second Wallbreaker.

The Second Wallbreaker had spent several hours looking back on his life. After confirming that there had been no omissions, he twisted the muscles of his numb body, reached under the pillow, and drew out a gun, which he slowly aimed at his temple. Just then, a sophon text appeared before his eyes.

Don't do that. We need you.

"Lord? Every night for a year I dreamt that you called, but the dreams went away recently. I figured I'd stopped dreaming, but that doesn't seem to be the case now."

This is not a dream. I am in real-time communication with you.

The Wallbreaker gave a chilly laugh. "Good. It's over, then. There definitely aren't any dreams on the other side."

You require proof?

"Proof that there aren't dreams on that side?"

Proof that it's really me.

"Fine. Tell me something I don't know."

Your goldfish are dead.

"Hah! That doesn't matter. I'm about to meet them in a place where there's no darkness."

You should really take a look. This morning when you were distracted, you flicked away a half-smoked cigarette and it landed in the fishbowl. The nicotine that leached into the water was fatal to your fish.

The Second Wallbreaker opened his eyes, put down his gun, and rolled out of bed, his lethargy completely wiped away. He groped for the light and then went over to look at the fishbowl on the small table. Five dragon eye goldfish were floating in the water, their white bellies at the surface, and in their midst was a half-smoked cigarette.

I'll perform an additional confirmation. Evans once gave you an encrypted letter, but the encryption has changed. He died before he was able to notify you of the new password, and you've never been able to read the letter. I'll tell you the password: CAMEL, the brand of cigarette you poisoned your fish with.

The Second Wallbreaker scrambled to retrieve his laptop, and as he waited for it to start up, tears streamed down his face. "Lord, my Lord, is it really you? Is it really you?" he choked out through his sobs. After the computer booted up, he opened the e-mail attachment in the Earth-Trisolaris Organization's proprietary dedicated reader. He entered the password into the pop-up box, and when the text was displayed he no longer had any mind to read it carefully. Throwing himself to his knees, he cried out, "Lord! It really is you, my Lord!" When he had calmed down, he raised his head and said, his eyes still wet, "We were never notified of the attack on the gathering the commander attended, or of the ambush at the Panama Canal. Why did you cast us aside?"

We were afraid of you.

"Is it because our thoughts aren't transparent? That doesn't matter, you know. All of the skills that you lack-deceit, trickery, disguise, and misdirection-we use in your service."

We don't know if that's true. Even supposing it is true, the fear remains. Your Bible mentions an animal called the snake. If a snake crawled up to you and said it would serve you, would your fear and disgust cease?

"If it told the truth, then I would overcome my disgust and fear and accept it."

That would be difficult.

"Of course. I know that you've already been bitten once by the snake. Once real-time notification became possible and you gave detailed answers to our questions, there was no reason for you to tell us quite a bit of that information, such as how you received the first signal from humanity, and how the sophons are constructed. It was hard for us to understand: We were not communicating via transparent display of thoughts, so why not be more selective in the information you sent?"

That option did exist, but it doesn't cover up as much as you imagine it might. In fact, forms of communication do exist in our world that don't require displays of thought, particularly in the age of technology. But transparent thought has become a cultural and social custom. This might be hard for you to understand, just like it's hard for us to understand you.

"I can't imagine that deceit and scheming are totally absent in your world."

They exist, but they are far simpler than in yours. For example, in the wars on our world, opposing sides will adopt disguises, but an enemy who becomes suspicious about the disguise and inquires about it directly will usually obtain the truth.

"That's unbelievable."

You are equally unbelievable to us. You have a book on your bookshelf called A Story of Three Kingdoms.

"Romance of the Three Kingdoms4. You won't understand that."

I understand a small part, like how an ordinary person who has a hard time understanding a mathematics monograph can make out some of it through enormous mental effort, and by giving full play to the imagination.

"Indeed, that book lays out the highest levels of human schemes and strategy."

But our sophons can make everything in the human world transparent.

"Except for people's own minds."

Yes. The sophon can't read thoughts.

"You must know about the Wallfacer Project."

More than you do. It is about to be put into action. This is why we have come to you.

"What do you think of the project?"

The same feeling you get when you look at the snake.

"But the snake in the Bible helped humans gain knowledge. The Wallfacer Project will set up one or several mazes that will seem to you to be particularly tricky and treacherous. We can help you find your way out."

This difference in mental transparency gives us all the more resolve to wipe out humanity. Please help us wipe out humanity, and then we will wipe you out.

"My Lord, the way you express yourself is problematic. Clearly, it's determined by how you communicate through the display of transparent thoughts, but in our world, even if you express your true thoughts, you must do so in an appropriately euphemistic way. For example, although what you just said is in accord with the ideals of ETO, its overly direct formulation might repel some of our members and cause unanticipated consequences. Of course, it may be that you'll never be able to learn to express yourself appropriately."

It is precisely the expression of deformed thoughts that makes the exchange of information in human society, particularly in human literature, so much like a twisted maze. As far as I am aware, ETO is on the brink of collapse.

"That's because you abandoned us. Those two strikes were fatal, and now, the Redemptionists have disintegrated and only the Adventists have maintained an organized existence. You're certainly aware of this, but the most fatal blow was a psychological one. Your abandonment means that the devotion of our members to our Lord is being tested. To maintain that devotion, ETO desperately needs our Lord's support."

We can't give you technology.

"That won't be necessary, so long as you go back to transmitting information to us through the sophons."

Naturally. But what ETO must do first is execute the critical order you just read. We issued it to Evans before his death, and he ordered you to execute it, but you never solved the encryption.

The Wallbreaker remembered the letter he had just decrypted on his computer and read it over carefully.

Simple enough to carry out, is it not?

"It's not too difficult. But is it truly that important?"

It used to be important. Now, because of humanity's Wallfacer Project, it is incredibly important.


The text did not show for a while.

Evans knew why, but evidently he didn't tell anyone. He was right. This is fortunate. Now, we don't need to tell you why.

The Wallbreaker was overjoyed. "My Lord, you have learned how to conceal! This is progress!"

Evans taught us much, but we are still at the very beginning, or in his words, only at the level of one of your five-year-old children. The order he gave you contains one of the strategies we can't learn.

"Do you mean this stipulation: 'To avoid attention, you must not reveal that it was done by ETO'? This ... well, if the target is important, then this requirement is only natural."

To us it is a complicated plan.

"Fine. I will take care of it in accordance with Evans's wishes. My Lord, we will prove our devotion to you."

* * *

In one remote corner of the vast sea of information on the Internet, there was a remote corner, and in a remote corner of that remote corner, and then in a remote corner of a remote corner of a remote corner of that remote corner-that is, in the very depths of the most remote corner of all-a virtual world came back to life.

Under the strange, chilly dawn was no pyramid, UN building, or pendulum, just a broad and hard expanse of emptiness, like a giant slab of frozen metal.

King Wen of Zhou came over the horizon. Wearing tattered robes, he carried a tarnished bronze sword, and his face was as filthy and wrinkled as the pelt he was wrapped in. But there was energy in his eyes, and his pupils reflected the rising sun.

"Is anybody here?" he shouted. "Anyone?"

King Wen's voice was swallowed up immediately by the wilderness. He shouted for a while, and then sat wearily on the ground and accelerated the passage of time, watching the suns turn into shooting stars, and the shooting stars turn back into suns, and the suns of the Stable Eras sweep across the sky like clock pendulums, and the days and nights of the Chaotic Eras turn the world into a vast stage where the lighting was out of control. Time sped by, but nothing changed. It remained the eternal, metallic wasteland. The three stars danced in the heavens, and King Wen turned into a pillar of ice in the cold. Then a shooting star turned into a sun, and when that fiery giant disc passed overhead, the ice on his body melted and his body became a pillar of fire. Just before turning entirely to ash, he let out a long sigh, and then exited.

* * *

Thirty army, navy, and air force officers fixed their eyes on the insignia on the deep-red screen, a silver star shooting rays in four directions. The rays, in the shape of sharp swords, were flanked by the Chinese characters for eight and one5. It was the insignia of the Chinese Space Force.

General Chang Weisi motioned for everyone to be seated. Then, placing his cap squarely down upon the conference table, he said, "The ceremony formally establishing the space force will be held tomorrow morning, at which time you will be issued uniforms and pins. However, comrades, as of this moment we belong to the same branch of the military."

They looked at each other, noting that among the thirty people there were fifteen dressed in navy uniforms, nine in air force uniforms, and six in army uniforms. When they turned their attention back to General Chang, they had a hard time disguising their confusion.

With a smile, Chang Weisi said, "It's an odd ratio, isn't it? You can't use the scale of today's aerospace program to assess space forces of the future. Spaceships, when their day comes, will probably be even bigger and carry a larger crew than today's aircraft carriers. Future space warfare will be based on large-tonnage, high-endurance combat platforms, and engagements will resemble naval battles more than air combat, with a battlefield in three dimensions instead of two. So the military's space branch must be based upon the navy. I know, we all assumed that the foundation would be the air force, which means our naval comrades might be ill prepared. You've got to adapt as quickly as possible."

"Sir, we had no idea," Zhang Beihai said. Wu Yue sat ramrod straight and motionless beside him, but Zhang Beihai acutely sensed that something in his level eyes had been extinguished.

Chang Weisi nodded. "In fact, the navy's not all that far removed from space. Don't they call them 'space ships' rather than 'space planes'? That's because space and the ocean have long been linked together in the popular mind."

The mood of the room relaxed somewhat. He continued, "Comrades, at this moment, the thirty-one of us are all that makes up this new branch of the military. As for the future space fleet, basic research is being conducted in all scientific disciplines, with a particular focus on the space elevator, and on fusion engines for large-scale space ships.... But this isn't the work of the space force. Our duty is to establish a theoretical framework for space warfare. It's a daunting task, since we have zero knowledge of this type of warfare, but the future space fleet will be built atop this foundation. In its preliminary stage, then, the space force will be more like a military academy. The primary task of those of us seated here is to organize that academy, and then invite a sizeable group of scholars and researchers to join up."

Chang stood up and walked over to the insignia, where he addressed the assembled officers with words they would remember for the rest of their lives: "Comrades, the space force has a tough road ahead of it. Initial predictions see basic research taking at least fifty years across all disciplines, with at least another hundred years before practical use of the technology required for large-scale space travel becomes possible. Then, after its initial construction, the space fleet will require another century and a half to achieve its planned scale. That means that full combat capacity will take the space force three centuries from its establishment. Comrades, I'm sure you all understand what that means. None of us sitting here will make it to space, much less have the chance to see our space fleet, and we may not even see a credible model of a space warship. The first generation of officers and crew won't be born until two centuries from now, and two and a half centuries from that, Earth's fleet will meet the alien invaders. Aboard those ships will be the fifteenth generation of our grandchildren."

The assembly fell into a prolonged silence. Ahead of them stretched the leaden road of time, terminating somewhere in the mists of the future, where all they could see were flickering flames and luster of blood. The brevity of a human lifespan tormented them as never before, and their hearts soared above the vault of time to join with their descendants and plunge into blood and fire in the icy cold of space, the eventual meeting place for the souls of all soldiers.

Copyright © 2008 by (Liu Cixin)