10180 words, novelette
Away from Home
I. New San Francisco
Planetship Phaeton, New San Francisco City, sunny skies.
A young man with a flat top and an earring sat in the Chinatown substation, face to face with the station chief. Zhao had seen his type before—old enough to dress like a thug, but not quite ballsy enough to act like one.
“Quit looking at me like I’m a criminal,” he said. “I’m here to file a report. My motorcycle was stolen.”
Chief Zhao logged onto the police network and entered the license plate number. After a short pause, the current location of the motorcycle appeared on the screen.
“Zheng Weihan,” Zhao said. “This bike of yours must really be a piece of junk! This is the second time it’s been picked up by the cleaning crews . . . Looks like they thought it was abandoned. Leave a note that says ‘Not Trash’ next time, you hear?”
Weihan laughed. “You guys must get pretty bored around here, huh?”
New San Francisco wasn’t all that large, after all. From Hsia Street, Shang Street, Chow Street to Chinatown and Sung Street—you could count the number of streets in the whole dang city on two hands. Compared to some cities it was an easy beat.
“We have our days,” Zhao said. “There was an accident on Shang Street—two bicycles collided. That was the only ‘incident’ this month. How about you? Argue with your dad again last night?”
“Old bastard is going nuts from boredom over on Planetship Europa,” Weihan said. “He keeps coming over here and trying to force me to sign up for the graduate exam for military school.”
Determined to stay out of military school, Weihan had run away from home and came to New San Francisco to live with his uncle. Wei’s uncle had been Zhao’s neighbor, before he died. Zhao remembered that he was a big drinker. He’d charged through several marriages, failing at them all, finding himself alone in the end, without even a child of his own to keep him company . . . Then, one winter two years back, he’d gone out to the bars right before a big snowstorm hit town. They didn’t find his body under the snow until the next morning.
“Speaking of joining up . . . Well, I can’t say I didn’t think about it when I was your age,” Zhao said. “Back then, I really admired guys who enlisted, so that’s why I decided to enroll in military school. Took the test same year as your dad, actually. Only, he passed and I flunked. So I went to the police academy instead.” He patted his belt holster. “It’s been twenty years now, but this gun hasn’t fired a single bullet in all that time.”
“Dad only went to military school because his family was poor and they could give him room and board. Plus, they didn’t charge him any money to go. He always said being in the military was like gambling with your life. Fifteen years ago, his whole class of fifty guys went into combat. Only five came back . . . I don’t get it! It’s like he wants me to go get myself killed!”
“You want my two cents? Your dad is thinking that it wasn’t easy for him to get promoted to the top brass, but now that he’s there he’s got lots of friends. If you go and get your degree, he’ll be able to arrange a civilian post for you. Way safer than being out on the front lines like the other grunts. And you’re more likely to get promoted, too.”
“That’s got nothing to do with me,” Weihan said. “Anyways, my motorcycle’s gone. When you get off work don’t forget you’ve got to give me a ride home, okay?”
Chinatown had a lot of fake historical things that seemed out of place in the modern age, like traditional characters on the signs, banks that were made up to look like old-fashioned pawn shops, and ’verse-famous Chinese restaurants. And of course, there were the teahouses.
The Camel Teahouse had a name all its own, though. There was a storyteller, and Master Tunwuge, who’d show up every day without fail, holding a palm-leaf fan, dressed in the long robes of an old-timey aristocrat. Sometimes there’d even be a group of “foreigners” (ETs). Business had been even better lately, after the Hump-backed Horse had gone out of business. Once news had gotten out that they’d been using android wait staff their customers had dried right up. People who came to places like this were paying for tradition. Going to a teahouse to drink tea had become a status symbol—whether the tea was any good or not wasn’t important.
Worried that their son wasn’t making enough to take care of himself, Weihan’s grandma and grandpa had put Weihan’s uncle in charge of the teahouse. Receipts weren’t enough to make him rich by any means, but he hadn’t had to struggle so much either.
I should probably hire some more performers, Weihan thought to himself. That erhu player at the job fair didn’t seem half bad. They were saying he’d retired from some art academy—only problem was that he wanted too much money.
Later that evening Weihan was surprised to hear a soft voice call out to him as he locked the front door to the teahouse:
“Excuse me sir, are you hiring?”
Weihan almost let the door slam on his foot. In the cold light of the man-made moon he would have sworn the girl looked like a living succubus.
She was wearing a loose robe, with long hair. She seemed a little shy, with an erhu slung over her shoulder. He guessed she was still a student, looking for part-time work.
He composed himself and said, “Play ‘Moonlight on the Second Spring’ for me.”
The girl sat on a stone seat near the doorway. As the strings began to hum with the melody of the ancient tune, a stately story flowed forth:
A long, long time ago, during the Age of Earth, a blind man sat on a street corner, calmly playing the erhu. His clouded eyes stared blankly out at the masses of people, many passing out broadsheets. Deliberately ignoring the noisy excitement of the crowded street, the blind man could feel the coming storm deep in his bones, but he still he sat, in silent reverence, like a silent spring full of the dark reflections of gathering clouds. A storm is all sound and fury, but clouds are mute—and so even on the verge of a raging tempest, the spring remains as silent as ever.
The girl’s voice suddenly pulled Weihan back to the real world.
“That’s all there is to that tune. Can you give me a job or not?”
“Hrm? Oh, yes, a great tune, very impressive,” Weihan said, distracted. “I’m afraid I can’t offer you much money, though . . . If you don’t mind moving in with us, we can at least take care of your room and board.”
He was surprised to find himself trying to win her over. “Oh, that’s right, what’s your name?”
Weihan quickly justified his concern: how would he ever be able to bear the thought of a defenseless woman wandering around an unfamiliar city?
“Have we met before?” He really did think she looked a little familiar.
Han Dan was carrying an old notebook, the kind with an e-ink display that could be rolled up when not in use. The notebook looked just like an ancient scroll. To attract customers, the manufacturer had painted the outside to look like fancy writing paper—it was rather convincing.
Later, in the privacy of her room, she unrolled the notebook and began to type, her fingers dancing lightly across the screen:
. . . I’ll probably live here for a while making a few bucks doing this and that. If I stay too long he’ll start asking questions . . . and then I’ll be right back where I started, on the road again . . .
III. Meteor Shower
During the next month at the Camel, Han Dan performed daily. The teahouse was open from eleven to ten. Decent work had been hard to find lately, so it was good enough for the time being.
Around closing time, Weihan said he had to go out to take care of something. After about an hour he still hadn’t come back, so Han Dan went up to her room and switched on the computer. Entering her long password with practiced elegance, a 3D map filled the screen. Han Dan quickly located New San Francisco on the map, using the mouse to manipulate the image. Continuing to zoom in on the web of streets and alleyways, she enlarged the map until even stray leaves from the greenbelts were visible. She soon found him, standing in line in a 24-hour convenience store.
The Meteorology Board had put out a meteor shower warning earlier that day, so Weihan wasn’t alone. All the stores had had lines out the door, full of people rushing to buy supplies.
Han Dan fretted nervously, wanting to do something to get prepared. She went down into the storeroom and found some pieces of wood she thought she might use to board up the windows. But then she realized it was pointless.
She thought about the old Earth Age tradition: Close your eyes, wish on a star, and all your dreams will come true! Nowadays people wished under the stars too—they just wished that the damn meteor showers would end sooner rather than later!
Weihan came back at eleven-thirty carrying two bottles of purified water and some other things.
“We’re staying in the basement tonight,” he said, catching sight of Han Dan.
The bunker underneath Weihan’s home had two bedrooms connected by a main room. Aside from the stairway that led up to the living room of the house, there was also a blast door that led to the air raid shelter under the street.
When the meteor shower finally began at three-thirty in the morning, its arrival was announced with a violent shaking. Great fragments of rock broke and splintered through the air like artillery shells, and buildings collapsed with a deafening roar. Weihan tossed and turned in the pale light of the emergency shelter, unable to sleep.
“Can’t sleep too, huh?” he asked when he saw Han Dan enter the room.
Weihan sat up and switched on the TV. The signal was cruddy, but through the static they could just make out the meteor’s great swath of destruction—it was an up-to-the-minute report. Countless meteors were falling into the atmosphere, leaving long tails of material in their wake which fell to ground like great torrents of rain, smashing the city under a hail of debris. The extreme temperatures had set everything that could burn aflame, leaving the night sky illuminated by the blaze of New San Francisco.
Despite the powerful air conditioners and oxygen recyclers that had been installed in the bunker, they could already feel the heat of the conflagration above radiating through the ceiling. A minor meteor shower might make for a good school-girl romance, but a major meteor shower like this had the potential to carpet bomb a city back to the Stone Age.
“I heard that way back when we were still in the Solar System, Jupiter and Saturn helped block the Earth from all sorts of dangerous flying objects,” Han Dan said.
“We sure ain’t in the Solar System anymore . . . ” Weihan muttered, taking out an old photograph of a group of men in military uniforms.
“I had two uncles,” he said after a long pause. “The older one was an officer in the Seventeenth Fleet, he died back in ’fifteen. Second uncle was in the closest rescue ship. They’d gotten their engines knocked out by a meteor, though, so all second uncle could do was watch his brother’s ship go down in flames. Afterwards second uncle was a total wreck. He started drinking and pretty soon that was it for him, too . . . ”
The TV crackled with a final burst of static before going silent. A great rumble echoed from above their heads and dust rained down from the ceiling.
“Yep! This has got to be just about the worst meteor shower I’ve ever seen,” Weihan mused with obvious detachment. Meteors showers were, after all, a fact of life for the residents of New San Francisco, coming once every couple of years.
A sudden explosion shook the bunker, with a roar that seemed to crack the heavens and split the earth. Moments later, urgent knocking could be heard outside the blast doors. Weihan opened the doors, coming face to face with Police Chief Zhao. His two hairy legs sticking out from under his nightshirt, he waved a still-holstered pistol in Zheng’s face, shouting, “You have to get to the emergency escape pods! The meteor shower broke the sun!”
Every planetship had its own massive, fusion-powered artificial sun that orbited in a fixed path, providing a never-ending stream of light and heat. Without its sun, a planetship would freeze solid.
“T-that’s impossible!” Weihan sputtered. But from Zhao’s expression he knew that the old geezer wasn’t kidding around.
Zhao left them to notify others of the evacuation order. Weihan and Han Dan, meanwhile, rushed to the nearest emergency pods. From the thick layer of dust, it was obvious that no one had been here in a long, long time. They were just like the life rafts on a boat—you couldn’t do without them, but nobody thought that you’d ever actually need them. The ancient LCD screens flickered with the latest news: Chow Street’s bunker had suffered a direct hit, bringing the lake of fire from above directly into the oxygen-rich shelter below. More likely than not, all lives in the sector had been lost—at any rate no one was willing to open the blast doors to check for survivors. Experience had taught them that if they opened it even a crack, smoke and flames would pour out into the next sector, killing even more people.
The ground shook like a massive beast shaking from the pain of some great wound.
The escape pods were in the process of refueling. In accordance with the ancient protocols detailed in the “Emergency Escape Plan for Planetships,” infants, children, and teenagers were boarding ahead of older residents. Of course, renowned scholars, professors, and other ‘mission critical’ personnel could board the first wave of pods along with the children. Although the police in charge of maintaining public order kept stressing that there was more than enough space for everyone, they all knew that the later you left your chances for survival were that much lower.
One man tried to push his way onto a pod, shouting, “I’ll give half of all my money—all hundred million dollars of it—to the man who gives me his spot on this escape pod!”
The only response was the dull thud of a policeman’s bullet.
The oldest among them volunteered to stay behind to help the police, telling their children and grandchildren to hurry onto an escape pod. Saying goodbye, they promised that they would catch one of the later pods.
Of course, there was a good chance that the last wave of escape pods might very well never take flight.
When it was Weihan’s turn to board an escape pod, he discovered a young woman weeping behind him. Her two children had already boarded the previous wave, but she’d been separated from them. By now, the flames had nearly reached the launch bay.
“Can I let her board in my place?” Zheng shouted at a nearby police officer. Unspeaking, the man simply pointed the gaping black hole of his gun directly at Weihan’s chest. Zheng hurriedly averted his gaze and boarded the escape pod.
Han Dan had boarded just before him, and was now sitting by his side. He was surprised to see her fasten the thin metal restraints with practiced efficiency.
“Put on your seatbelt! An old spacecraft like this won’t have artificial gravity or any of the other comforts of those passenger barges you’re probably used to!”
The escape pod suddenly lurched into motion, the painful acceleration pinning them into their seats and the hull creaking like it was going to fall apart. The mouths of the launch silos were located directly under the streets and public squares of New San Francisco—rather than build blast doors they had opted to blow up the surface structures if it ever became necessary for the escape pods to be put into use.
While the city gave into the inferno, the rain of meteors continued to fall across the face of the great planetship. From the escape pod window they watched the flow of spacecraft issuing forth from the silos that pocked the landscape like volcanos. Along the bustling thoroughfares of New San Francisco grand old buildings stood like sentinels over the looping greenbelts . . . and then one by one they fell in upon themselves, turning to ash under the searing blaze.
More than a ship, Phaeton had been a planet unto itself, equivalent in size and mass to the Earth of old, with an atmosphere, azure seas, and vast continents—a complete biosphere. Of course, befitting a planetship, it was also outfitted with a massive engine, capable of pushing the artificial world through the galaxy. Unlike a real planet, Phaeton had therefore never been bound to orbit a single star—earning it the title of “planetship.”
Planetship Phaeton was by no means alone in the universe: after Planetship Europa had been completed, mankind had built two more ships, with Planetship Asia and Planetship America gradually taking shape. Since the original Earth only had seven continents, by the eighth planetship they had run out of names, and so they began to borrow the names of mythical figures from the various nations of Earth—Gaea, Phaeton, Perseus, Kronos.
Enormous, with wispy white clouds under the thin atmosphere hanging over great oceans and wide continents, the planetships were vessels of not only incomparable beauty, but also great fragility—in the boundless expanse of the universe, thin planetary atmospheres are as fleeting as soap bubbles. Viewed in this light, it was unsurprising that the Planetship Alliance had established a great military, with ring upon ring of defensive lines designed to protect the ships of the alliance.
Sadly, this massive military and its many lines of defense had been unable to prevent the onslaught of the meteor shower on Planetship Phaeton. The losses were too great this time—according to news reports, when the massive asteroid had entered the airspace of the Planetship Alliance the government had sent out a strike team to change the trajectory of the great rock. Its velocity proved too great, however, and so they tried instead to break it apart into smaller pieces. According to the data provided by the news channels, the asteroid struck with a level of force that would have pushed Earth out of its orbit.
And so the military had done their best to pulverize the object, and as Han Dan gazed down upon fragments floating outside the window of the escape pod, she caught sight of the wreckage of military ships, even the remains of some unknown war heroes . . . The planetship of course had its own anti-meteor system—but if the damage became too great, then the only remaining option was to fall back on the military.
After losing its artificial sun, the temperature of Planetship Phaeton had plummeted abruptly. The sudden shift in temperature had created tremendous windstorms, while torrential rains froze in midair, falling to the ground as hail. The inclement weather had slowed the passage of the escape pods, leaving a great number of people behind on the planetship. Not long after the torrential floods covering the surface of the great ship froze, trapping men and ships alike in solid ice.
As the temperature continued to drop, the temperature on the surface of the ice quickly became lower than below the ice, the hundred-meter-thick sheet of frozen water began to rupture with great thundering cracks. Long fissures in the ice stretched from one end of the planetship to the other, the stress forming great valleys and high mountains from the once level ice sheet, utterly destroying the cities, fields, forests, and even the oceans. Finally, great flakes of snow began to fall—frozen C02. After a few days, blue snow would begin to fall—oxygen and nitrogen. Without the artificial sun, the entire atmosphere would freeze solid.
In the escape pods, some of the refugees were crying while images of old Earth played on the screens, as if to remind them that this was not the first time humanity had lost its home. In a strange way, it did seem to lessen the blow of losing Planetship Phaeton a little.
Han Dan turned on her notebook and wrote a few lines:
As refugees, we seem to have completely forgotten our former lives of leisure . . . We’ve gone back to the way our ancestors lived—running from disaster to disaster. The moment we boarded this escape pod we were making a gamble with our lives. We were putting our lives in the hands of this ship, giving up our control over our ability to escape. Just behind us, two escape pods just collided with a meteor fragment and exploded. So many parents who will never see their children again, so many children who have lost their parents forever . . .
V. Chang’an, “Europe”
Older folks were used to calling Planetship Europa by its old Earth name “Europe.” The oldest of all the planetships, Europa was home to Chang’an, the largest city in the universe, and capital of the Planetship Alliance.
Downtown Chang’an was thronged with rescue workers and medical personnel gazing up at the towering minaret of the Sky Tower—Europa’s primary space elevator. To keep the crowds and journalists out, the police had cordoned off the public square with bright yellow tape. Meanwhile, wave after wave of refugees were brought down from space via the Sky Tower.
After Weihan left the escape pod, a doctor examined him to see if he had been injured during his escape from the Phaeton. A nearby clerk pulled up his record from the Ministry of Civil Affairs database and printed his temporary ID card, which could be used as both a credit card and driver’s license.
“According to our records, your parent’s house is on Planetship Europa, right? Looks like you won’t be needing a bed in the refugee camp, then. Sorry to say so, but our space is limited.”
When the clerk pulled up Han Dan’s records, however, his jaw dropped, leaving his mouth open wide enough to stuff an ostrich egg inside.
After emerging from the Sky Tower into Chang’an’s main square, the refugees ignored the calls of the rescue workers and began a crazed search for their relatives.
Weihan saw Police Chief Zhao’s wife standing with her two children by the Sky Tower exit. Policemen had left the Phaeton last of all, so it was unlikely that Zhao’s family would ever see him again.
There was a certain lane in the outskirts of Chang’an, beside which was a certain village. Opposite the village was a watermelon patch, the melons still far from ripe. Most of the young people had left to find work in the big city, leaving fewer and fewer behind in countryside. To earn a few bucks in his retirement, an old man had opened a small restaurant in the front part of his house. Gaunt and malnourished, the old man seemed to be suffering from a case of rickets.
This was Weihan’s grandfather. After arriving at the Zheng family house, Weihan and Han Dan had volunteered to help out in the restaurant. Although the old man loved his grandson dearly, Han Dan knew better than bring up Zheng Dong, his unfilial son. Twenty years ago, Grandpa Zheng had fiercely opposed his son’s decision to enter military school. It was a dangerous career to embark on—one could never say for sure whether or not you’d end up taking a bullet on the front line. Better to have a living son farming a few barren acres, quietly making do.
There were hundreds of thousands of acres of good land in the countryside, their crops nurtured by the artificial sun and irrigated by the (nearly) natural rains and snows. They were far more expensive than the synthetic foodstuffs from the factories, but the taste wasn’t much better.
“I’ve never taken one cent of his money, you know. I do well enough to take care of myself,” Zheng’s grandfather said out of nowhere one day. “I have nothing but respect for those who serve. I just didn’t want to see my flesh and blood taking those kinds of risks.”
An all-terrain SUV modeled on the automobiles of the Earth Age had just parked in front of the little shop. The license plate indicated that it was a military vehicle. Having seen it coming from a long way away, the old man had pulled a “Closed” sign from under the counter and hung it on the door before going back into the house.
A soldier stepped out of the SUV. He was perhaps fifty, with grey hair around his temples. Han Dan recognized him right away as Weihan’s father.
Zheng Dong walked to the front gate of the house and stood there, stiffly. He made no move to enter, however, and Han Dan wasn’t about to invite him in. She’d heard Weihan say that fifteen years ago his grandfather had gotten so mad that he told dad to leave and never come back. Even though all of that was in the distant past now, and Grandpa Zheng had long since forgiven him, the old man had never been willing to swallow his pride and say it out loud.
It was obvious that they were two stubborn old bulls. It was even said that every New Year’s eve Zheng Dong would leave his wife and son to celebrate alone while he stood out in the wind and snow, waiting for his father to finally say what he already felt.
“How many years has it been then?” Zheng Dong asked Han Dan, who quietly set aside her work.
“Too many. Weihan wasn’t even a year old when I left.”
They left the restaurant one after the other, walking along a quiet country lane.
“So in all these years you never settled down?” Zheng Dong asked finally.
“It wasn’t so bad. I’ve gotten used to it.”
“Run into old acquaintances much?”
“Now and again. Ten years ago, or maybe it was twenty, or even fifty . . . An old man grabbed me by the arm claiming that I was his childhood sweetheart from eighty years ago. His great-grandson apologized for him, saying that his great granddad was always getting confused.”
“You’re not planning to have my son to play the same role as that old man, are you?” Zheng Dong asked anxiously.
Han Dan stooped to pick a wild chrysanthemum from the edge of the field, placing it in her long hair.
“Your son reminds me of my brother.”
“I’m afraid I can’t see how,” Zheng Dong said. Her brother had been assassinated many years ago for political reasons.
“My little brother was one of a kind,” Han Dan said with a smile. She’d always been proud of him. “How about you? Thinking about becoming a general?”
“If fate wills it. That’s not the sort of thing you go asking for. These days, there aren’t many people who hang up their stars, even after they retire.”
Insiders all knew the two hardest ranks to get promoted to in the military were from high-level officer to brigadier general, and from major general to lieutenant general. As far as the highest ranks, like marshal, it wasn’t even worth dreaming about it. Most people only got promoted that high posthumously.
“I always thought that soldiers who didn’t want to become generals weren’t worth their salt as soldiers,” Han Dan said. “Anyways, we have other things to talk about, don’t we?”
“Did you know that I was responsible for coordinating the rescue mission on Planetship Phaeton? I sent my best troops to evacuate the government first,” Zheng Dong said, clenching his fists. “When the head of the local administration saw them all he did was light a goddamn cigarette. He turned to the window to watch the frozen C02 fall in great big flakes from the sky, and you know what he said to them? He said, ‘Go rescue the people first. I’m not leaving until each and every one of my people has been evacuated.’ He froze to death on Phaeton.”
“Even if he had survived the disaster, he would have just been counting the days until they sent him to prison,” Han Dan scoffed. “Planetships are supposed to have anti-meteor systems, aren’t they? Something went wrong and stopped the intercept system from kicking in. Nobody thought things were going to get as bad as they did—your son was sitting in the underground bunker watching the meteor shower like it was a TV show.”
“Another corrupt official,” Zheng Dong scoffed. “Everyone is saying that he was plundering the special fund for the anti-meteor system.”
“We live in special times,” Han Dan replied, feeling a vague fury rise within her chest as she spoke. “The only way to deal with these bastards is to give ’em the old one-two. Natural disasters don’t scare me half as bad as man-made ones! You’ve seen the internal military report that’s been circulating, right? We’ve got more meteor showers coming our way—we can’t afford to make any mistakes!”
The report has been handed out to all of the top-level commanders in the armed forces. As the captain of a warship, Zheng Dong had of course been provided a copy.
“As a soldier, I’ll follow my orders, whatever they are, unconditionally. But as a civilian, I want to know what the hell they were thinking when they chose this route!”
Han Dan crouched by the edge of the field and peered into the crystal clear water of the irrigation ditch. Duckweed grew in the muddy channel bottom, and small fish played in the thick grass. Bucolic scenes like this made it hard to believe that they were on a planetship wandering the universe.
“In the vastness of the universe, technology is our one and only defense,” Zheng Dong said, suddenly recalling the favorite saying of the famous General Han Lie, passed down by the men and women of the military for millennia.
“That’s exactly right,” Han Dan said. “The universe is so big—who knows what dangers might lie in store for us? Better to invest our resources in the development of more perfect technology, rather than find ourselves unable to affect a rescue in our darkest hour of need.”
Weihan had been out all day on the old motorcycle he’d bought at the flea market, delivering food from the restaurant. He’d wasted a lot of time swapping out the old battery, so it was late when he got back. Most of the vehicles on the planetships were powered by antimatter, but spacecraft used fusion reactors. Batteries had been getting more and more expensive lately. There hardly seemed anything to them—palm-sized cylinders with powerful magnets to keep their tiny antimatter crystals trapped inside a vacuum. Even so, they still cost eight bucks—about as much as a meal in Chang’an.
When he got back, Weihan saw his dad standing in the field, talking to Han Dan.
“You two know each other?”
“Just met,” Zheng Dong lied. “Is this your girlfriend?”
“We’re more than friends, but I can’t say we’ve got that kind of relationship going on.”
Weihan was telling the truth. Han Dan was a melancholy sort. The girls he fell for tended to be more like him—full of vim and vinegar.
“Ah, well. That’s probably for the best,” Zheng Dong said, relieved. “Oh, that reminds me. Have you thought at all about going to grad school? Or military school?”
Weihan frowned. “Even if you pointed a gun at my chest I wouldn’t go! Not on my life!”
Well, at least I know where he got his stubborn streak from, Han Dan thought to herself.
VII. Seventh Avenue Square
The most exciting thoroughfare in all of Chang’an was Seventh Avenue, running from North to South. Along the northern stretch of the broad street one could find the very highest government offices: consulates, offices of the military, legislative buildings, and in the center of them all the most important structure in the entire Planetship Alliance: the mysterious “All Planetship High Command.” The southern stretch of Seventh Avenue, meanwhile was known as the “Golden Mile,” a place of endless activity and never-ending crowds. Located in the nexus of the two was the Seventh Avenue Square, said to be the largest in all the cities of the planetships. A massive statue of General Han Lie towered off to one side. Some said that he had been a cruel dictator, while others said he was a leader of great skill and intelligence. Even though more than a thousand years had passed since his death, even now he remained a controversial figure.
In the southern part of the great square was the Chang’an Municipal Theater. For reasons immediately obvious to anyone who saw it, locals called it the “steamed bun theater.” Today’s scheduled performance was the opera Wandering Earth, an adaption of Liu Cixin’s ancient science fiction tale. Thanks perhaps to the striking similarity of the real life experiences of the people of the planetships to the plot of this hoary old story, the thousand-year-old opera was as popular as ever.
Just past nightfall Weihan and Han Dan emerged from the theater and walked out into the square. Owing to the recent disaster on Phaeton there was less activity in the square than usual, which was filled with countless funeral wreaths commemorating the dead, along with collection stations where concerned citizens could donate to the ongoing relief efforts. The nearby shops seemed as busy as ever, however. Refugees and death had already become an unavoidable part of their long journey through the universe and the people of Europa had become accustomed to the presence.
Han Dan, however, seemed incredibly moved by the opera, and it was a long time after they left the theater before she stopped brushing the tears from her eyes.
“Alright already, here,” Weihan said, handing her an ice cream cone he’d just bought. “Don’t cry.”
Suddenly feeling self-conscious, Han Dan stopped crying and took a small bite of ice cream.
“Oh! It’s really good. When I was little, I wouldn’t have dreamed it could have tasted this good!”
“When you were little?” he asked, looking puzzled. “Did your parents not let you eat junk food or something?”
“They didn’t have this sort of thing on the spaceship . . . ” she said quietly.
“I’d heard that before we built the planetships all mankind lived on spaceships,” Weihan said, looking up at the imposing statue of General Han Lie. “I even visited some of the actual ships from the Age of Exile that were saved as historical relics. Twenty thousand people crammed onto a single busted down ship just over one kilometer long. Their rooms were like narrow little pigeon cages—families of four had to find a way to fit into a room that must have been, what? Twenty square meters? They say General Han Lie grew up on a ship like that . . . ”
While Han Dan waited for him in the square, Weihan went and fetched his motorcycle.
“Hop on. We should be getting back.”
As the motorcycle sped down the broad avenue, the street lights on either side of the street swept past. Chang’an at night was splendid to behold, with its myriad of lights zipping about like snakes of liquid silver or dancing fire—or shooting stars, a perfect mirror of the heavens above.
According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the shooting stars which had been appearing in the skies of the planetships were coming from a small but incredibly dense asteroid belt which they happened to be passing through at the moment. Whirling around a massive neutron star with truly unsettling velocity, the asteroid belt was the kind of place that few civilizations dared to tread. But humanity wasn’t just any civilization.
Han Dan held Weihan tightly around the waist, resting against his firm back, her eyes softly closed. She couldn’t remember when she last had someone like this—someone who set her mind at ease. In a dreamlike voice she said, “When I was a little girl, it was my favorite thing in the whole world to hold my dad just like this . . . He was a miner. Every day I would lie on the floor of the spaceship by one of the viewing windows and watch the mining ships moving the asteroids around, building planetships from nuclear slag, or repairing broken down spacecraft . . .
The year I turned ten, there was an accident. Dad’s ship was pulling an asteroid to install into a prototype planetship that was taking shape—the future Planetship Asia—when there was sudden movement in the molten magma on the surface . . . Later on mom remarried and found me a stepdad, but he didn’t make much of an impression. He was an engineer who always left for work before I woke up and got back after I was asleep. That’s how life was for a while, until mom got sick and died. Stepdad found a stepmom, and found me a job, too, doing odd chores in the research center where he worked . . . When I finally left home my little brother was only five months old . . . ”
Han Dan would have been surprised to see that Weihan was hanging on her every word, despite the loud roar of his clunky old motorcycle and the softness of her voice. Perhaps she’d kept these secrets for too long and found herself unconsciously longing for the opportunity to share them with someone.
“The next time I saw my brother, he was already an old man, gray at the temples, with general’s epaulets on his shoulders. He had no idea I was his older sister . . . Or maybe he knew after all. I can’t say for sure . . . When I asked why he had joined the military he just said, ‘There are some things that you have to be willing to put your life on the line for.’ ”
Hearing these words, Weihan felt something twitch inside his chest.
His mother, Qin Weiyue, was a teacher in the history department of one of Chang’an’s universities. In her free time, she liked to write light-hearted short essays for current affairs websites.
It was Friday, and already quite late. Since she didn’t need to work the next day, she was sitting in front of her computer thinking about what to write on next.
When Weihan got back home, he was drunk, leaning on Han Dan. He had originally been planning to ply her with booze—the better to extract the secrets of her past. He had become convinced that there was more to this young girl than met the eye. Only, Han Dan had quickly turned the tables on him—the living incarnation of the God of Drinking, that girl!
For her part, Weihan's mother was shocked to see the state her son was in—well, probably any mother would be shocked to see her own son bringing back some floozy from the bar with him. But she was even more shocked to see who he had come home with.
“Is it really you?”
Weihan woke to find himself lying on the couch with a splitting headache from the booze.
The moon hung low in the sky outside the window, a smoldering coal ember giving off a soft red glow. Only, the clock in the kitchen said that it was already nine o’clock in the morning.
“You up? Here, hangover cure,” his mother said, handed him some pills.
Weihan suddenly realized that the “moon” was actually the extinguished artificial sun. The engineers had turned it off for an inspection. Artificial suns like this usually needed regular repairs every three years or so.
Weihan hadn’t been back in over a year, but even after all this time, the carnations that he’d given his mother for his last visit were still sitting in the imitation Kangxi vase. The flowers had been specially treated so that they’d never wilt.
“Mom, will the Earth’s sun ever go out?” He sighed. “Never mind. Who knows what the Earth is like now . . . ” In school, Weihan had been on the science and math track, so he hadn’t learned much history.
After a long pause, his mother finally said: “Many years ago, the Earth starting using robots on a massive scale. Employees were fired and a long spell of high unemployment led to an even longer crime wave. After the ‘criminals’ were exiled to space only two types of ‘people’ were left on Earth: rich people and robots. And that’s all I want to say about that.”
“In the end, though, didn’t the robots rise up—like the slaves of Sparta?” he asked. “I heard that by the time our military got there to save the day there wasn’t much of anything left to save.”
His mother blanched.
“Where did you hear about the rebellion?”
“No wall is without chinks through which the wind may pass,” Weihan said. “Just look at our planetships and you can figure it out. Even though we’ve obviously already developed advanced artificial intelligence we still use human operators for all of the most critical jobs. Even steering the planetships themselves! It’s hard to think of a more complicated job than that.”
Not having succeeded in prying anything out of Han Dan the night before, Weihan was forced to resort to plan B: stealing her notebook.
He quietly opened the door to her room and, hearing nothing in response, tiptoed inside where he discovered Han Dan deep in thought in front of the computer.
All the girls in the alliance seemed to be going nuts for the 3D mapping apps. They used them to zoom in on different locations and find where they could buy the cutest stuffed animals, or which pedestrian mall had the best snacks. Shopping destination set, off they’d go.
Han Dan was looking for a place to buy instruments—she’d lost her erhu on Phaeton.
Han Dan chose the first erhu that caught her fancy and paid via their website. After carefully typing in the address of the restaurant she closed out the purchase window and zoomed out. The bustling streets flashed by, quickly becoming a spider’s web of lanes and alleyways. Gradually, the flat plane of the map gave way to the convex outline of the planetship. Chang’an had long since disappeared from sight, leaving only the blue of the ocean, the green of the continents, the white of the North Pole, and red-hot glow of the thrusters of the South Pole, as innumerable as they were massive.
Continuing to zoom out, the planetship shrank into a tiny globe, small enough to be held in the palm of one’s hand, with a long tail of ions streaming out behind it. Some of these, charged with electricity, lingered in the atmosphere of the South Pole, forming majestic auroras of green light. As the planetship continued to shrink, now the size of a soybean, other planetships began to appear on the screen, dozens of them, all moving through space in unison with Europa. Countless spacecraft scarcely the size of sesame seeds could be seen swimming in schools, as if fish, between the planetships.
Han Dan manipulated the map with practiced ease, becoming so absorbed in the task at hand that she failed to detect Weihan’s presence behind her.
In the middle of the planetships a mass of what appeared to be a pool of mist or clouds could be seen. This was the famous “Shipyard” of the Planetship Alliance. Outfitted with its own propulsion system, the Shipyard could move through the universe along with the planetships—truly, they built nothing stationary.
Han Dan zoomed in, and the clouds gradually resolved into distinct forms: countless fragments of ice and asteroids, along with space stations, and engineering ships. A large group of spacecraft were in the process of collecting nuclear waste, garbage, and chunks of space rock which another group was forming into an object the size of a small asteroid, perhaps ten kilometers in diameter. Of course, this wasn’t the only planetship under construction in the Shipyard at the moment—others were almost halfway complete, having begun to compress under the force of their own gravitational pull. The extreme heat of these embryonic planetships gave rise to rivers of liquid magma around continents of jet black rock, with their immature atmospheres rich in sulfur and carbon dioxide.
On the more complete planetships, meanwhile, artificial suns had already been installed and seas of the deepest blue could be made out. Although their surfaces were still scalding hot, thunderstorms were already brewing in the dark clouds blocking their skies, the better to cool the nearly complete planetships. Rings of engineering ships could be made out, apparently preparing to impregnate the primordial seas with blue-green algae, origin of all life, while massive earthmovers prepared to move into action. In the distance, the badly damaged Phaeton could be seen limping back to the Shipyard to undergo repairs.
Han Dan changed locations on the map so that she was now facing outward, toward the asteroid belt. Beyond it, further asteroid belts could be made out, not to mention a handful of planets. Most star systems had more than one asteroid belt—the Solar System where they had come from had three. So broad, and so far-reaching, they seemed more like horizontal walls in the fabric of space and time itself, lacking clearly defined limits. A large number of warships could be seen stationed there, ready to destroy any asteroid that might threaten the planetships at a moment’s notice.
From the images on the screen it was doubtless that they found themselves in the wreckage of a massive supernova: in the midst of the ice-cold interstellar dust a collapsed neutron star spun in absolute isolation. From time to time they had been known to discover the remains of alien civilizations in places like this.
It was starting to look like the meteor shower which had fallen on Planetship Phaeton several days earlier was but a drizzle before the storm. Han Dan opened her inbox where she found a new message waiting for her, addressed to her official station, “All Planetship High Command.” Just as Han Dan was about to open the email, she finally realized that someone had been standing behind her all along. She spun around, feeling a cold shock run from her toes to her fingertips.
Weihan froze, nailed to the spot.
IX. The Alliance Awakens
After the incident, it became obvious their remaining time together would not be long. In way of apology, Weihan pooled his meager savings from the previous week to buy a cheap necklace from a famous Chang’an hawker’s market.
Under the star-filled sky of Riverside Park, the waters were silent and seemingly unmoving.
“Close your eyes,” he said. Han Dan obliged him, and he fastened the necklace around her neck. Her skin was cold to the touch, practically corpse-like.
“I want to know who you are,” he said.
“If you want to know that, then you’ll need to go way back at the beginning,” Han Dan said. “When mankind first began building the planetships, the nightmares of the recent past set the planners against the idea of building high-powered robots ever again . . .
“Eventually they arrived at a compromise: they would develop an advanced cyborg operating system so that these augmented men might become the ‘brains’ of the planetships. The experiments were incredibly dangerous—in the months before they found me, I was told that over one hundred volunteers died had for the cause. When the lead scientist reached out to me though, I said, ‘Sure, why not? I’m all alone in the world anyway, so it’s not like anyone will miss me when I’m gone.’ ”
Weihan understood what she meant. Han Dan was a drifter, so for her it might not be the worst thing in the world if the experiment failed. But instead it was a success . . . To live as a young girl without companionship for over a thousand years—was this a blessing or a curse?
After a long pause, Weihan said: “There’s a neutron star just beyond the asteroid belt that we’re passing through. But we aren’t changing course.”
Neutron stars were known to rotate extremely quickly, sending off powerful radiation and having powerful electromagnetic fields. Although the gravitational pull of a neutron star was considerably less than that of a black hole, it was still enough to tear apart any spacecraft foolish enough to approach. Getting this close to a neutron star was an extremely dangerous maneuver to undertake on a whim.
“We’ve been studying neutron stars in our labs for a long time now. Our scientists are stuck, so we decided to capture a neutron star, study it, and make use of it. Just like when we opened the moon up for development thousands of years ago, or when we first landed on Mars, or when we finally completed our first-hand explorations of Jupiter. Each served as catalyst to propel our technological advancement ever higher.”
Weihan couldn’t help himself. “But our tech is already good enough . . . We’ve survived this far in the universe, haven’t we? It’s stupid to risk everything like this for something that we don’t even need!”
“If humanity had been willing to stay in the Stone Age eating raw flesh and drinking blood then there would have been no need for us to develop the technology to make fire, either,” Han said, seeming to have been expecting his outburst. “I once read that in before the 18th century the French Academy of Sciences was dead set on denying the existence of meteors. According to their best of science at the time, they believed that all of the stars and planets (including the sun) were made of gas, since solid objects were obviously heavier than air and therefore had no way of floating way up in the middle of nothing. Later on, when they developed better science not only did they accept the existence of asteroids, but they also came to understand that asteroids are incredibly common in the universe. Most terrifying of all, they discovered that the Earth, previously presumed to be a safe home for humanity, had actually been struck by asteroids many times in the past . . . And then, even later, without the ‘unnecessary technology’ of astronomy, when disaster struck in Czechoslovakia they wouldn’t have had any idea what happened, never mind making the necessary preparations.”
Weihan paused. “I-I think of you like a sister, Han Dan.”
“That’s an honor I can’t accept,” Han Dan replied after a long silence. In the moonlight, Weihan saw that Han Dan’s eyes were filled with tears.
He walked her to the bus stop and watched her get on a bus bound for North Seventh Avenue.
After sending off Han Dan, Weihan went home to pack his bags. Walking past his parents’ door he saw that it was shut tight. Instead of waking them, he tore a sheet of paper off the pad in the kitchen and scratched out a few lines. He stuck it on their door: “Dad, I’m off to apply to military school.”
Looking up at the sky that night, the planetships seemed to have come alive. Their massive forms were suddenly as lively as a school of fish. Great thrusters accelerated in fits and starts, moving this way and that, weaving through the dense asteroid belt encircling the neutron star.
X. Neutron Star
After graduating from military school, Zheng Weihan became a pilot. Sitting in the cockpit of his star fighter and looking out on the crowded launch bay, he always felt as if at one with the planetship, depending on it for survival but also protecting it from danger.
The planetships would soon emerge from the asteroid belt and the neutron star could be seen directly ahead now. Not surprisingly, the substantial gravity of the neutron star had attracted a number of large celestial bodies to its immediate proximity, indicating its advanced age.
A fleet of research vessels were in orbit around the star, sending probe after probe into its yawning maw, while technicians hurriedly scrutinized the data sent back by the autonomous craft before they were completely destroyed. The gravitational pull was truly terrible to behold, strong enough to tear apart the very atomic bonds of any matter known to man, giving birth to the neutron by forging an unbreakable union of proton and electron.
Only a short while earlier a research vessel had been lost, disappearing stern first into the great star without a trace. The scientists had borrowed a battle cruiser from the military, loosing firepower sufficient to destroy a planet onto the surface of the neutron star in the hope of studying its interior structure.
To the naked eye, the explosion managed only to blast a shallow depression into the neutron star. Even so, the blast managed to badly upset its internal balance. Although it was only a tiny area it had a gravitational pull equivalent to that of the Earth. The celestial bodies formerly in orbit around the neutron star were thrown into disarray, with some flying off into the abyss like kites with cut strings while others crashed back into the neutron star as if on a sudden whim; most terrifying of all was when a planet roughly the size of Jupiter suddenly changed course, heading directly for Europa, home to the central command of the Planetship Alliance. It was only after a great investment of resources that the military had been able to avoid disaster.
On the mothership, meanwhile, the logistics crew had just completed their overhauls. One by one, the fighters ignited their thrusters and blasted out of the hangar, tracing graceful trajectories in the inky black of the void as they waited to make formation. From his vantage point in the cockpit, Weihan enjoyed the view of the Odin, nucleus of the entire fleet. In mass, it was the size of the moon of old Earth, home berth to innumerable battle ships—a great hornet’s nest of military vessels of all shapes and size. Even so, Odin’s impressive resources could not guarantee the safety of the planetships.
XI. Return to Life
On Planetship Europa, a long, narrow rupture had split Chang’an into two separate cities. Some decades earlier, a fragment of a neutron star had grazed the outer crust of the planetship, nearly splitting the planetship in two with the force of its powerful kinetic energy. The wound had healed, but the scar remained, having since been transformed into a mighty river cutting horizontally through Chang’an to the sea. The people of the city had built bridges spanning the wide gap, and planted trees and flowering shrubs along its banks, with grassy meadows in between. A great many planetships were marked with similar scars. Under the snowy blanket of each and every mighty peak, and below the thick forest canopy of every mountain dell, meteorite scars pocked the surface of the planetships.
In the courtyard of a traditional Chinese home near Chang’an’s seaside district, a gray-haired Zheng Weihan sat in a rocking chair under a parasol tree, his eyes shut tight in quiet meditation. The epaulets on his military uniform bore the gold stars of a general. A young girl ran up from the seashore, carrying a glass jar filled with seawater.
“Grandfather,” she said. “Tell me your life story.”
“There’s nothing to tell, really,” Weihan said with a sigh. “If a regular soldier experiences enough war then he’ll advance through the ranks, sure enough; as long you’re able to survive to fight another day, then it’s not anything out of the ordinary to be awarded the rank of general. Take Napoleon’s Saint-Cyr Military School for example: of the four hundred or so graduates, the ones who didn’t die on the battlefield pretty much all became generals.”
He wasn’t wrong—but of all the students who graduated from military school the same year as Weihan, only three or four were still alive today.
The little girl winked mischievously.
“I heard grandma say that you only risked your life so that your rank would be high to go into the All Planetship High Command . . . ”
Weihan thought back to his first day in that dark underground bunker: at the time he was so scared that he sat staring at the complex web of cables, strung like spider webs through the so-called “brain center” of the Planetship Alliance—and the one hundred or so people, known as the “pathfinders” to which the cables led.
If a planetship could be said to be a living organism, then the pathfinders were its brain—a brain made up of over a hundred brains linked up to form a single super-brain. Han Dan’s sleeping form was easy to pick out among the pathfinders. In the cavernous hall of the “brain center” she seemed even scrawnier than usual. Weihan wasn’t trained in medicine, so he didn’t have even the faintest clue what they’d done to make it possible for Han Dan to stay alive for over a thousand years.
The people who worked here were already used to thinking of the planetships more as evolved humans, rather than spacecraft. For the sake of survival, some of their number had no choice but to allow themselves to be transformed into a cyborg command center. Innumerable fiber optic cables and signal towers were arranged like nerves in the human body, linking them directly to every spacecraft in the fleet and joining the entire Planetship Alliance into an enormous, unified organism.
In the ancient Earth Age, whether one looks at the goddess Gaea in the occidental tradition, or great spirit of Pangu in the oriental tradition, the people of the world all saw the land itself as an embodiment of the spiritual realm. History had taken a strange turn here, because the “land” beneath their feet—the planetship—was actually an embodiment of man himself, weaponized and developed with the most cutting-edge technology.
After dissecting the neutron star, the Planetship Alliance had continued their slow journey through space, with a skeleton crew of “pathfinders” staying behind in the “brain center.” Han Dan had proudly shouldered her beat-up old erhu and set off to wander the alliance—as some might put it, she was “observing popular sentiment.” Two months earlier she had returned from Planetship Africa to Europa, where she had been getting to know Weihan’s granddaughter.
It was the fifth day of the fifth lunar month—Dragon Boat Festival. Some thousands of years earlier on this very day, Qu Yuan, educator and head of the three noble clans of the kingdom of Chu, had been driven to suicide. To celebrate his memory, the Zheng family had made a great many zongzi—sticky rice balls with date or meat filling. Tradition held that the heartbroken people of Chu could throw zongzi into the river where Qu drowned himself, to entice the fish away from his corpse.
And so, on a planetship drifting through space, Han Dan found herself throwing zongzi into the sea.
“Sometimes I think it’s a shame that after old school master Qu wrote Questions to Heaven with all those important scientific questions, nobody thought to take him seriously and figure out the answers. Otherwise our tech would’ve developed way past where we are right now . . . ”
“You’re supposed to throw zongzi into a river, not the ocean, you know,” Weihan said.
“I know, I know. But the river is full of dragon boats today, and the banks are full of people. No room for little old me.”
“Haven’t you ever thought about finding somewhere to settle down?”
“Isn’t everywhere home on a planetship?” Han Dan said with a smile. “The planetships are my home. Our home.”
“Grandpa, what’s in here?” Weihan’s granddaughter said, handing him the jar of seawater.
“Nothing right now,” Weihan said.
“Wrong!” Han Dan said. “There’s blue-green algae, humanity’s oldest ancestor.”
“Looks like grandpa should listen to big sis Han,” his granddaughter said. “When I grow up I wanna be a biologist.”
“Why’s that?” Weihan asked.
His granddaughter leaned forward onto the armrest of the rocking chair and propped up her face with two hands.
“I’ve been thinking about how that Earth planet we’re always hearing about was like a desert island in the sea of space . . .
“But we were also like a single-celled organism, you know? The whole ecosystem was one single cell. And now we’ve evolved so that we can move around the universe and go wherever we want, like one great big space-dust eating animal.
“Aren’t you curious where we’ll go next?”
Originally published in Chinese in Science Fiction World, 2007.
Translated and published in partnership with Storycom.