Authors: Liu Cixin
Tags: #Science Fiction
The Wandering Earth
Author: Liu Cixin
Editor: Kim Fout, Verbena C.W.
Copyright © 2011 by Liu Cixin.
The English edition copyright © 2012 by Beijing Guomi Digital Technology Co., Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Beijing Guomi Digital Technology Co., Ltd. is a young and vigorous publisher based in China, whose goal is to bring the best Chinese books to global readers.
Contact: [email protected]
The Reining Age
ve never seen the night, nor seen a star; I’ve seen neither spring, nor fall, nor winter. I was born at the end of the Reining Age, just as the Earth’s rotation was coming to a final halt.
The Reining lasted for 42 years, three years longer than the Unity Government had projected. My mother once told me about the time our family witnessed the last sunset. The Sun had ever so slowly crept toward the horizon, almost as if it had stopped moving altogether. In the end, it took three days and three nights to finally set. Naturally, that was the end of all “days” and all “nights”. The Eastern Hemisphere was shrouded in perpetual twilight for a long time then, perhaps for a dozen years or so — with the Sun hiding just beyond the horizon — its rays reflected by half of the sky. It was during that long sunset that I was born.
Dusk did not mean darkness. The Northern Hemisphere was brightly illuminated by the Earth Engines. These giant generators had been raised all across Asia and North America; only the solid and stout tectonic plates beneath those two continents could withstand the enormous thrust forces they exerted. There were about 12,000 Earth Engines built and distributed across the Asian and American plains.
From my home I could see the bright plasma plumes of several hundred Earth Engines. Just imagine a gigantic palace, one as large as the Parthenon on the Acropolis. Now imagine countless colossal pillars raising from that palace, reaching to the heavens, each emitting brilliant, bluish-white light like a titanic fluorescent tube. And then there is you; you are a microbe on the palace’s floor. This only begins to paint the picture of the world we lived in.
This picture, however, is not yet complete. Only the forces acting tangentially to the Earth’s rotation could slow it, so the Earth Engines’ jets had to be aligned to a specific angle. Those gigantic pillars of light were slanted to that angle. Now imagine what that meant for our palace, with its pillars all leaning on the very verge of toppling down! Many who came from the Southern Hemisphere went mad when suddenly confronted with this awesome vista.
Worse than the view was the scorching heat emitted by the Earth Engines. Outdoors the temperature was stuck at around 160 to 180 degrees, forcing us to wear thermal suits just to leave the house. The extreme, nearly suffocating temperatures often brought torrential rains. It was always a nightmarish scene when the beam of an Earth Engine cut through dark clouds. The clouds scattered the brilliant, bluish-white light of the beam, erupting it into countless frenzied, surging halos of rainbow light that covered the entire sky like white-hot magma. One time my senile grandfather — tormented by the unrelenting heat — couldn’t take it anymore; when a heavy downpour arrived, he was so elated that he ran outside, bare to the waist. We couldn’t stop him in time and the top of his skin was scalded off by the raindrops which were heated to a boil by the Earth Engines’ plasma beams.
To my generation, born in the Northern Hemisphere, all of this was perfectly normal and natural, just like the Sun, stars and Moon had been to generations before the Reining Age. We called the entire history of the human race that had come before us the Pre-Solar Age; what an enthralling and golden era that had truly been!
When I started primary school, my curriculum included a journey around the world. I went on this journey with my teachers and a class of thirty. At the time, the Earth’s rotation had already come to a complete halt. The Earth Engines were only being used to maintain the planet’s equilibrium and to make a few minor adjustments. Because of this, the beams were significantly throttled during the three years from when I was three until I turned six. It was due to this throttling that we were able to take our trip, giving us a chance to get to know our world better.
First, we visited an Earth Engine up close. The engine was in Shijiazhuang, near the foot of the Taihang Mountains. The engine was a towering metallic mountain, looming over us, filling half the sky. To the west of it the Taihang Mountains seemed to be no more than a ridge of small hills. Some of us children exclaimed in wonder that it must be as tall as Mount Everest. Our beautiful teacher, Ms. Xing, smiled as she told us that it was in fact 36,000 feet tall, a good 6,000 feet taller than Mount Everest.
“People call it ‘God’s Blowtorch’,” she said.
We stood in its enormous shadow, feeling its tremors shake the very Earth.
There were two major types of Earth Engines. The larger ones were dubbed “Mountains”, while the smaller ones were called “Summits”. We ascended North China Mountain 794. Let me tell you, it took a lot longer to scale a “Mountain” than to ascend a “Summit”. The top of a Summit could be reached via a giant elevator, while you could only go up a Mountain in a car, snaking your way up a coiled road. Our bus weaved into the endless procession of other vehicles, following the smooth steel road up the outer side of the Mountain. To our left, there was only a blank face of azure metal; to our right, a yawning abyss.
The traffic mostly consisted of 50-ton dump trucks, fully loaded with rocks from the Taihang Mountains. Our bus quickly ascended to 16,000 feet as the Earth below almost completely disappeared, obscured by the reflection of the Earth Engine's greenish blue light. Ms. Xing then told us to put on our oxygen masks. As we approached the plasma plume, the light and heat increased immensely, causing the visors we wore to gradually dim and the mini-compressors in our thermal suits to whir along with all their might. At 20,000 feet we came upon the material intake. Truckload after truckload of large rocks was dumped into the faint, red sparkling light of its giant maw. It devoured the rocks without sound.
Fascinated, I asked my teacher about it. “How is the Earth Engine able to turn those rocks into fuel?”
“Heavy element fusion is a very arcane field of study,” she told me, “too difficult to understand at your age. You can content yourself to understand that the Earth Engines are the most powerful machines mankind has ever built. The one we are standing on, North China 794, operating at full power has the capability of exerting 15 billion tons of thrust on the Earth.”
Finally, our bus reached the very top of the engine. Here the mouth of the plasma jet was directly above us. The beam emanating from it was so enormous that, when we tilted our heads up, all we could see was a gargantuan wall of blue plasma reaching into infinity above us. Looking far up at that blue, I then recalled a riddle posed to us in philosophy class:
“You are walking along on a plain when you suddenly come across a wall,” I told my teacher. “It stretches endlessly upward, endlessly downward, endlessly to your left and endlessly to your right. What is this wall?” Our haggard teacher had asked our class that riddle. I now asked Ms. Xing, curious at her answer. Even the memory of that question made me shudder as we stood atop the engine.
Ms. Xing stood next to me, thinking of the answer. After a perplexed moment, she shook her head as she contemplated my query.
Leaning close, I whispered the riddle’s terrible answer into her ear. “Death.”
For a few seconds she stared at me in silence, and then she suddenly embraced me. As she held me tight, I gazed over her shoulder into the distance. Rising from the hazy Earth below, I could see a range of gigantic metal peaks. The range stretched in all directions as far as the eyes could see, each peak shooting forth a beam of bright plasma. It looked just like a gigantic, slanting cosmic forest, puncturing our teetering sky.
After a while, we made our way to the ocean. Standing on the seashore we could see the pinnacles of submerged skyscrapers reaching up out of the waves with the ebb of the tide. We beheld the gleaming whitewash of water rush out of their windows, forming cascades of waterfalls.
Back then the Reining Age had only just come to an end, leaving the Earth with the horrifying aftermath of its passing. The tides, quickened by the Earth Engines, had swallowed two out of every three cities in the Northern Hemisphere; then the global increase in temperatures melted the polar icecap, turning the ensuing floods into a deluge that spread to the Southern Hemisphere. Thirty years earlier my grandfather had witnessed giant 300-foot waves that had engulfed Shanghai. Even now, he could never tell us about it without his gaze slipping into a thousand-mile stare.
Our planet had already changed beyond recognition before it even set out on its journey. Who knew what hardships awaited us on our long travels through outer space?
At the seashore we boarded an archaic vessel called “ship”. As we departed the coast, the Earth Engines grew ever more distant. Within a day’s travel, they had disappeared altogether behind us. Before us the ocean was bifurcated by light; in the west, the azure glow of the Earth Engines' jets; in the east, the shimmering pink water, illuminated by the Sun's rays. We sailed straight down the glittering seam where the two glows met on the ocean's surface. It was a truly marvelous sight to witness. As our voyage continued, the azure glow slowly waned, while the pink light gradually waxed. With its waxing, unease began to spread across the ship. We children could no longer be seen on deck. Seeking shelter in the belly of the ship, we even drew the porthole blinds tight.
One day later, the moment we dreaded most finally arrived. We all gathered in the large cabin that we used as our classroom to hear Ms. Xing's announcement.
“Children,” she said, “we will now go and watch the Sun rise.”
None of us moved a muscle; we all stared at her in blank disbelief. She attempted several times to get us going, but we refused to move.
Seeing our fear, another teacher pointed out the problem to Ms. Xing. “It's just as I said,” the teacher told her. “The world-trip should be scheduled before we teach them modern history. It would make it easier for the students to adapt.”
“It's not that simple,” Ms. Xing retorted. “They learn it all from their surroundings, long before we teach them any modern history.” She then turned to some of the class monitors. “You children go first and don't be afraid. When I was a little girl, I was very nervous before seeing my first sunrise, just like you are now. But it was all good.”
Finally, we got up and one by one made our way to the cabin door. As we shuffled along, I felt a small, clammy hand grip my own. I looked down and saw it was Ling.
“I’m scared,” she whispered, her voice trembling.
“We've seen the Sun on TV. It will be just like that,” I told her consolingly.
“Just like what?” she countered. “Is a snake on TV like seeing a real snake?”
For a second I searched for the right words, but then decided not to give an answer. “... Anyway, we should get a move on or we'll get marked down for the course!”
Ling and I grasped each other's hands tightly as we made our way onto the deck with the other children.. Shaken by fear and full of trepidation, we faced our first sunrise.
“Consider this,” Ms. Xing told us. “We only began fearing the Sun three or four centuries ago. Before that, humanity was not afraid of the Sun. In fact, on the contrary; in their eyes the Sun was both dignified and magnificent. Back then, the Earth still turned and people saw the Sun rise and set every single day, cheering the dawn and praising the beauty of sundown.”
Ms. Xing stood with us as we watched at the ship's bow. Her long hair was caught by a gust as the first rays of light shot over the horizon, and for a moment I could not shake the thought of some monstrous sea creature breathing up the front of the ship.
Then, finally we beheld that soul-chilling blaze. At first it was only a point of light on the horizon, but it quickly grew into an expanding arc. My breath caught in my throat as I felt myself falling into the clutches of terror. It felt as if the deck below my feet had disappeared. I imagined myself plummeting into the watery abyss below; and I fell … Ling fell with me, her wispy frame clinging to my shaking body. The other children, everyone else — the entire world — all fell.
And then I remembered the riddle.
When I first heard it, I had asked my philosophy teacher what color that wall was.
He had told me: “It must be black.”
The answer had seemed off to me. I always thought that a wall of death ought to shine. That was why I had remembered it when I saw the wall of plasma. In that era, death was no longer black; it was the glare of a flash, for it would be a final flash that would vaporize the world.
Three centuries ago, astrophysicists discovered that the fusion of hydrogen to helium inside the Sun had abruptly accelerated. In response, they launched more than 10,000 probes straight into the Sun. Ultimately they managed to establish a precise mathematical model describing the celestial body. Using this model, supercomputers calculated that the Sun was already on the verge of evolving away from the main sequence, ending its hydrostatic equilibrium and with it, its life-giving heat and light. It was projected that there was only a short time before the fusion of helium would spread through the entire Sun, causing a runaway explosion, the so-called helium flash. After the flash, the Sun would transform into a huge but dim red giant. It would grow so large that the Earth would be inside the Sun, as if swallowed into the Sun!