A Science Fiction Story by Liu Cixin
He could still recall his feelings the first time he saw the Siyun Mountain Observatory thirty-four years ago, when the ambulance crossed the mountain ridge and the main peak appeared in the distance, its domed telescope roofs reflecting the golden light of the setting sun like pearls inset into the peak.
Back then he had just graduated from medical school and was a trainee brain surgeon. He had come to the Observatory as a physician’s assistant to rescue a patient too critically injured to be transported. A visiting scholar from England had accidentally fallen off a cliff while out for a walk and had severely injured his head. When they arrived, they performed a cranial perforation to drain excess blood and relieve pressure on the brain, and once the patient’s condition had improved to the point he was able to be moved, the ambulance took him to a hospital in the provincial capital for additional surgery.
It was quite late when they left the Observatory. While the others were maneuvering the patient into the ambulance, he turned a curious eye toward the surrounding telescope domes, arranged as if according to some obscure plan, like a moonlit Stonehenge. Compelled by a force he was never afterwards able to explain, he walked over to the closest telescope, pushed open the door, and entered.
The inside was unlit except for countless small signal lights. He felt as if he had passed into a moonless outer space. Only one slender moonbeam penetrated the slit at the top of the dome, and where it struck the tall telescope its silver thread described a partial outline, resembling a piece of abstract art occupying the center of an urban plaza at midnight.
He tentatively approached the base of the telescope. In the dim light he saw a mass of equipment of bewildering complexity, and as he searched for a lens that would accommodate his eye, a soft female voice called from the doorway:
“That’s a solar telescope. There is no eyepiece.”
A slender figure dressed in a white uniform entered gracefully, a feather drifting on the moonlight. As she approached him, he felt the gentle breeze she brought with her.
“Traditional sun telescopes project an image on a backing curtain, but most of them are viewed on a display screen these days … Doctor, you seem to have quite an interest in this place.”
He nodded. “An observatory is a place of freedom and detachment. I like that feeling.”
“So what are you doing in medicine? Oops, that’s a rude question.”
“Medicine is not just frivolous technology. It can be freeing too, for instance my studies on the brain.”
“Oh? When you open up a brain with your scalpel, can you see thoughts?” she said, her smile visible in the dim light. It reminded him of something he had never seen before, the projection of the sun on a curtain—its threatening flames eliminated, leaving behind only a warm brilliance. His heart warmed involuntarily. He smiled, and he hoped that she saw his smile.
“As best I can. But think about it: that mushroom-shaped object that fits in your hand is an elaborate universe, a universe that from a philosophical viewpoint is far grander than the one you are observing here, because while your universe may span millions of light years, I believe it’s been shown to be bounded. But my universe is unbounded, because thoughts are infinite.”
“Ah, it’s not everyone whose thoughts are infinite. But you seem to be someone of limitless imagination, doctor. As for astronomy, it is not as freeing as you imagine. Thousands of years ago on the banks of the Nile, and on sailing ships a few centuries ago, it was a highly practical technology. Astronomers in those days were forever recording the positions of thousands upon thousands of stars in their charts. Entire lives were spent on a census of the stars. Even today, most specialized astronomical research is dull and empty of poetry. For example, the project I’m working on is stellar scintillation, and it’s basically endless observation and recording and more observation and more recording. Hardly transcendent or freeing.”
He raised an eyebrow in disbelief: “Stellar scintillation? What we see as twinkling?” When she smiled without speaking, he shook his head with a self-mocking grin. “I know that’s just atmospheric refraction, of course.”
She nodded. “Still, it’s a visually striking metaphor. Take away the base constant and display only the difference in output energy fluctuation, and a scintillating star looks a lot like it’s twinkling.”
“Is it because of sunspots or solar flares or something like that?”
She stopped smiling and shook her head solemnly. “No, these are fluctuations in the overall energy output of the star, and their causes go deeper than that. The brightness of an electric lamp, for example, does not depend on the moths surrounding it but upon voltage fluctuations. Of course the fluctuations and scintillations of a star are far more miniscule and require extremely precise instruments to detect. Otherwise we’d be burnt to a crisp by solar scintillation. This research is one way to understand the deep structure of a star.”
“So what have you discovered?”
“We’re a long way from actually discovering anything. To date, we have only been observing the scintillations of the most easily observable star, the sun. Our observations may continue for many years, and we many find farther targets as we expand our range to other stars. You know, we could spend a decade or more collecting samples from the cosmos before we are able to talk about conclusions or discoveries. This is the subject of my dissertation, but I suspect that I’ll keep on working at it, maybe for the rest of my life.”
“If that’s the case, you must not think that astronomy is dull at all.”
“I feel like I’m working on a beautiful endeavor. Entering the world of stars means entering a vast garden where every flower is unique….you’ll probably find that metaphor peculiar, but that’s really the way I feel.”
As she spoke, she gestured almost unconsciously toward the wall. Following her finger, he noticed a painting hanging there. It was abstract, just one continuous, thick, rising and falling line. When she saw what he was looking at, she headed over to the wall, took down the painting, and handed it to him. He saw that the line was inlaid with yuhua stones, the “rain flower” pebbles of Siyun Mountain.
“It’s pretty, but what does it mean? Is it a range of neighboring mountains?”
“We recently observed a solar scintillation with a very rare intensity and fluctuation type, according to our past few years of observations. This picture is the radiation fluctuation curve of that scintillation. I, uh, like to pick up yuhua stones during my walks on the mountain, so …”
But it was a different curve that attracted him. The dim light of the signal lamps limned the contour of her body, while the rest of her melded with the surrounding shadows. It was as if the confident hand of a master of traditional painting had laid out a flowing line of ink on a blank sheet of xuan paper, and the grace of that single line instantly imbued the rest of the spotless white paper with life and meaning … down the mountain, in the metropolis where he lived, millions of pretty young women chased incessantly after glitz and vanity. A great cluster of particles in Brownian motion, none of them setting aside even the slightest moment of silence for thought. Away from all of that on Siyun Mountain, who would have thought that a quiet young woman would have her gazed fixed upon the heavens …
“Being able to find such beauty in the universe is a rare thing, and a fortunate one.” He stopped staring, conscious of his lapse. He handed the picture back to her, but she declined with a gesture.
“Keep it as a memento, doctor. Professor Wilson is my advisor. Thank you all for saving him.”
Ten minutes later, the ambulance departed the Observatory under the moonlight. Later, he came to realize that he had left something of himself behind on Siyun Mountain.
It was only when he married that he finally stopped trying to fight time. He moved everything from his bachelor dorm to his newlywed apartment, except for a few things that were inappropriate for sharing between a couple. Those things he took to his office in the hospital. Flipping casually through them, he noticed the picture inlaid with yuhua stones. Examining its colorful line, he was struck by the realization that his trip to Siyun Mountain had taken place ten years ago.
It was a spring outing organized by the young staff at the hospital, an opportunity he treasured because in the future he would be invited to participate in such activities less and less frequently. The organizers were deliberately mysterious about the trip and kept the curtains tightly closed the entire way until they reached their destination and disembarked. They had to guess their location, and a decent prize was offered for the first correct guess. He knew the answer as soon as he got out, but he kept silent.
The main peak of Siyun Mountain was directly ahead, and the pearls of the telescope roofs gleamed in the sunlight.
Once someone had guessed correctly, he informed the group leader that he was going up to the Observatory to visit an acquaintance, and then without telling anyone else he went off on foot along the winding road to the peak.
He did not lie, but he knew in his heart that the woman whose name he did not even know, and who was not an Observatory employee, wasn’t likely to be there ten years on. He did not even intend to go inside. He just wanted to look at the place from a distance, the place where ten years ago his sun-baked soul had bathed in its first moonbeam.
One hour later he reached the mountaintop. Beside the fence, whose white paint was mottled and faded, he gazed in silence at the telescope buildings. Little had changed. He quickly recognized the domed structure he had once entered. He sat down upon a rock slab, lit a cigarette, and stared at the time-scarred iron door, his mind replaying over and over the scene he cherished deep within his memory: the iron door ajar, a liquid moonbeam, a feather drifting gently in … he was so totally immersed in that dream that he felt no shock at all when the miraculous occurred in the real world. The iron door actually opened, and the feather that had once appeared in the moonlight emerged into the sunshine. Her lithe figure hurried past and entered a neighboring telescope building. The whole process may have lasted ten seconds, but he knew he was not mistaken.
Five minutes later, they met again.
This was his first time seeing her in adequate light. She was entirely as he had imagined, which did not surprise him in the least, but then, considering that after ten years her appearance ought to have changed from that first meeting in the dim light of the signal lamps and the moon, he felt puzzled.
She was pleasantly surprised to see him, but pleasant surprise was the extent of it. “You know doctor, I travel a circuit of various observatories in the course of my projects, and I’m only here for two weeks each year. Yet we meet again. It must be fate!” This last sentence she tossed off casually, lending further evidence to his feeling that she felt nothing special toward him. Still, that she recognized him after a decade was a sliver of comfort.
They exchanged a few words about the condition of the English academic with the head injury, and then he asked, “Are you still studying stellar scintillation?”
“I am. We observed solar scintillation for two years and then turned to other stars. You can understand that we had to employ observation methods completely different from those we’d used for the sun. Then the project couldn’t find new funding, so it was suspended for several years. We resurrected it just three years ago, and now we’re observing twenty-five stars. We’re still expanding in number and scope.”
“You must have created quite a few more pictures from yuhua stones.”
The moonlit smile which had surfaced from the depths of his memory countless times over the past decade now emerged in the sunlight: “Oh, you still remember that! Yes, every time I come to Siyun Mountain I still like to collect yuhua stones. Come, have a look.”
She took him to the telescope building where they had met ten years ago. He looked up at what may or may not have been the same solar telescope; the computer equipment surrounding it was brand new and certainly not a relic of that time. She led him to a tall curved wall hung with some familiar things: pictures of various sizes inlaid with yuhua stones. Each picture contained a single curve. Lengths varied. Some were gentle, like ocean waves, while others were steep, like a line of irregular Himalayan cedars.
One by one she told him which waveforms came from which stars. “These we call Type-A stellar scintillations. They appear relatively less frequently than other types. The difference between Type-A scintillations and more common stellar scintillations is that their energy level is several orders of magnitude more intense, and on a mathematical level, their waveforms are more aesthetically pleasing.”
He shook his head in confusion. “You fundamental-theory scientists always talk about the beauty of mathematics, as if you have a patent on it. Those Maxwell Equations you find so beautiful—I was able to grasp them but I found nothing of beauty in them …”
Just as she had ten years before, she abruptly turned serious: “This sort of beauty is like a crystal. It’s hard, pure, and transparent.”
One picture in particular caught his attention: “Hey, did you remake this one?” Noticing her puzzled expression, he added, “It’s the waveform of the solar scintillation you gave me ten years ago.”
“But … this is the waveform of the first Type-A scintillation from Alpha Centauri. It was observed, oh, last October.”
He was sure the confusion on her face was sincere, but he was even surer of his own judgment. He was all too familiar with that waveform. He was even able to recall, in order, the color and shape of every stone that made up the line. He did not want her to know that for ten years, apart from this past year following his wedding, that painting had hung on the wall of his dorm. Every month there would be a few days in which, once the lights were out, the moonlight outside the window was sufficient for him to see the picture clearly from where he lay on the bed. Then he would begin silently to count the stones that made up the line, his eyes crawling along the line like a beetle. Most of the time, he would be asleep when he had completed one length and was halfway back, and he would continue striding across the solar line in his dreams, stepping from one colored stone to another across a river whose opposite shore was forever unseen …
“Can you look up a solar scintillation line from ten years ago? The date was April twenty-third.”
“Of course I can,” she said, giving him a curious glance, apparently surprised at his clear recall of the date. She went over to the computer and quickly called up the solar scintillation waveform, and then pulled up the waveform for the Alpha Centauri scintillation. Then she stood mute before the screen.
The two waveforms overlapped perfectly.
When the silence became unendurable, he ventured, “Perhaps the two stars share an identical structure, so their waveforms are identical. You did say that the Type-A scintillation is a reflection of a star’s deep structure.”
“They may both be main sequence stars, class G2, but their structure is entirely different. But the point is that this would never occur even in two stars with identical structure. Have you ever seen two completely identical banyan trees? A perfect overlap in such a complex waveform is like two banyan trees that are identical down to the last twig.”
“Maybe there really are two identical banyan trees,” he said by way of consolation, even though he knew it was meaningless.
She shook her head gently, but then a thought struck her and she jumped up. In her eyes there was fear in addition to shock.
“My god,” she said.
“What?” he asked in concern.
“Have … have you thought about time?”
His mind was nimble, and he quickly latched onto her idea: “As far as I am aware, Alpha Centauri is the closest star to our own, at a distance of … about four light years.”
“1.3 parsecs. 4.25 light years.” She was still in the grip of shock, and the words seemed to be spoken by a different person.
Things were clear now: two identical scintillations had appeared eight years and six months apart, the time it would take for light to make a round-trip between the stars. The light from the solar scintillation reached Alpha Centauri, which experienced an identical scintillation, and after the same length of time, the light from that scintillation returned and was observed.
She bent over the computer and performed a series of calculations while talking to herself: “Accounting for recessional motion, the results match precisely.”
“I apologize for making you uncomfortable. But since there’s no way to verify this, it’s not worth getting so worked up about.” Once again he wanted to console her.
“No way to verify it? Not necessarily. The light from that solar scintillation is still spreading through space. It might still cause another star to produce an identical scintillation.”
“And next further star after Alpha Centauri is …”
“Barnard’s Star. 1.81 parsecs. But it’s too dim, there’s no way to detect its scintillation. The next star is Wolf 359, at 2.35 parsecs. Also too dim. Undetectable. Then there’s Lalande 21185, at 2.52 parsecs. Also too dim. The light has to reach Sirius.”
“And that’s the brightest visible star. How far away is it?”
“2.65 parsecs. 8.6 years.”
“The light from that solar scintillation has been traveling through space for ten years now and has reached Sirius. Maybe there’s already been a scintillation.”
“But we have to wait another seven years before it reaches us.”
Abruptly she seemed to awaken from a dream. She shook her head and laughed. “My god. What am I doing? This is ridiculous!”
“You mean that it’s a ridiculous idea for an astronomer to have?”
She looked at him intently: “You don’t think so? As a brain surgeon, how would you like to have a discussion with someone about whether thoughts are located in the brain or in the heart?”
There was nothing for him to say. She looked at her watch, so he got up and said goodbye. She made no move to stay him, but she did walk with him a ways down the mountain road. He restrained the impulse to ask her for her telephone number, because he knew that in her eyes he was just a stranger whose path had happened to cross hers for the second time in ten years.
After saying goodbye, she turned and headed back to the Observatory, and the mountain wind flicking her white work uniform recalled in a rush the feeling he’d had when they parted a decade ago. The sunlight seemed to be transformed into moonlight, and a graceful feather drifted away from him … Like a drowning person grasping with all his might at a piece of straw, he resolved to preserve the slender thread of their relationship. Almost instinctively he called after her retreating form: “What if, in seven years, you find out that Sirius really did scintillate?”
She stopped, turned back toward him, and replied with a slight smile, “Then we’ll meet back here.”
Marriage may have introduced him to a completely new way of life, but what truly and utterly changed his life was the child. After the birth, the local train of his life suddenly became an express, speeding past one station after another without halting its forward motion. The dullness of the journey numbed him, so he shut his eyes against the monotonous scenery and let his fatigue carry him off to sleep. But like many sleeping passengers on the train, deep within his heart a small clock continued to tick, ready to wake him up a minute before arriving at his destination.
Late one night, when his wife and son were sleeping soundly but he was still wide awake, a strange impulse drove him out onto the balcony. He looked up at the smog-dimmed starry sky as if searching for something, but what? It was a long while before his heart answered: Sirius. He shivered involuntarily.
Seven years had passed. Only two days remained until the date the two of them had set.
The day after the first snowfall of the year the road was slick, so the taxi could not travel the last stretch. Once again he had to climb the peak of Siyun Mountain on foot.
Along the road, he questioned more than once whether he was in a normal state of mind. Realistically, the probability that she would show up was zero, for one simple reason: Sirius could not possibly scintillate as the sun had seventeen years ago. For seven years he had dabbled a great deal in astronomy and astrophysics, and had grown sheepish about his ludicrous “discovery” of seven years before. She had not mocked him to his face, and for this he was eternally grateful. Looking back on it now, her seriousness was merely good manners, and in his many recollections of the promise she had given him at their parting, he was increasingly able to identify a mocking tone … Astronomical observation had gradually migrated into outer-space orbits, and the Siyun Mountain Observatory had ceased to exist four years ago. The buildings had been converted into vacation villas, now vacant for the season. What was he doing here? The thought brought him to a halt. Time demonstrated its power: he was no longer that young man who could climb a mountain with ease. He paused for a moment, but eventually rejected the thought of going back. He pressed onward.
At the midpoint of life, why not chase one final dream?
So when he saw that white silhouette, he genuinely thought it was an illusion. Dressed in a white windbreaker, the figure at the old Observatory blended into the snow-covered mountain and was initially hard to make out. When she saw him she headed over at a run, and at a distance he watched that feather fly across the snowy ground. He stood still until she reached him. She was out of breath and unable to speak, and he saw that apart from cutting her hair, she had not changed much. Seven years was not a long time—barely a snap of the fingers in the lifetime of a star. And she was a student of the stars.
She looked into his eyes. “Doctor, I didn’t have much hope of seeing you. I came just to fulfill a promise. Or maybe to satisfy a wish.”
“Me too.” He nodded.
“I nearly … I nearly missed the observation time. I didn’t really forget. I just buried it somewhere deep within my memory, and a few nights ago it suddenly came back to me …”
“Me too.” He nodded again.
They were silent. The only sound was the wind in the pines, which echoed across the mountain.
“Did Sirius scintillate?” he asked at last in a soft and trembling voice.
She nodded. “The scintillation waveform was an exact overlap of the sun’s seventeen years ago, and of Alpha Centauri’s seven years ago. Identical, and occurring precisely at the expected moment. These are the results from the Confucius III space telescope. There was no mistake.”
They lapsed into another extended silence. The wind whipped through the trees, and he felt as if the sound was spiraling upward from the mountains, filling the space between heaven and earth, as if some power in the cosmos was engaged in a deep, mysterious chorus … he shivered involuntarily. She evidently had the same feeling and seemed to break the silence only as a way to banish the terror.
“But this thing is an oddity that is beyond our current theories. If the scientific community is to treat it seriously, more evidence and observations are required.”
He said, “I know. The next observable star is …”
“Procyon in Canus Minor would have been observable, but five years ago its luminosity decreased dramatically, dropping below observable values, perhaps because it drifted into a nearby interstellar dust cloud. The next observable star is Altair, in the constellation Aquila.”
“How far is that?”
“5.1 parsecs. 16.6 light years. The light from the solar scintillation seventeen years ago has only just reached it.”
“Which means we have to wait for nearly seventeen more years?”
She gave a slow nod. “Life is too short.”
This touched him somewhere deep within his heart, and his wind-dried eyes felt moist all of a sudden: “Yes, life is too short.”
She said, “But at least we will be able to meet like this one more time.”
He stared at her. Would they be separated for another seventeen years?
“Please forgive me. My mind is a mess, and I need some time to think.” She brushed a strand of hair from her forehead, and then read his thoughts. She laughed: “Of course. I’ll give you my phone number and email address, and if you want, we can get in touch later.”
He let out a long breath. His ship adrift at sea had at long last sighted a lighthouse on the shore, and his mind was full of an indescribable happiness. “Then … I’ll walk you down the mountain.”
She shook her head with a smile, and then pointed at the domed holiday villa behind her. “I’d like to stay here for a while. Don’t worry, there’s electricity, and a nice family that keeps a permanent ranger post. I really need some quiet time. A long quiet time.”
After that they parted. He took the snow-covered road down the mountain, leaving her standing on the peak where she watched him for a long while. Both of them were prepared for a seventeen year wait.
Returning from Siyun Mountain for a third time, he suddenly saw the far end of life. They did not have many more seventeen year periods left. Light traveled at a snail’s pace across the cosmic expanse, turning life into an insignificant speck of dust.
The first five of those seventeen years he kept in touch with her. They exchanged emails, and even phone calls at times, but they never met in person. She lived in a distant city. As time went on, they both reached the pinnacles of their respective lives. He became a renowned brain specialist and the director of his hospital, and she became a member of the national academy of sciences. They had an increasing number of things to worry about, and he also realized that it was inappropriate to discuss with a leader in the field the mysterious thing that had brought them together. So their interactions tapered off, and by the halfway mark of those seventeen years, they had stopped communicating entirely.
But he was unperturbed. He knew that they shared an unbreakable bond. As the light from Altair traveled night and day across the vastness of outer space toward Earth, they both awaited its arrival in silence.
It was late at night when they met on the main peak of Siyun Mountain. They had both arrived early so as not to keep the other waiting, so they climbed the mountain at a little past three in the morning. Their flying cars could easily have ascended the peak, but they decided independently to park at the foot of the mountain and make the ascent on foot in an obvious attempt to recover a sensation of the past.
Ever since its designation as a nature preserve a decade ago, Siyun Mountain had become one of the increasingly rare wilderness areas on Earth. The Observatory and holiday homes of yesteryear were now overgrown ruins, and the two of them met amid the ruins under the starlight. He had seen her on TV recently, so he knew that the years had left their mark, but on this moonless night, by whatever trick of the imagination, he felt that she was the same young woman from the moonlight thirty-four years ago. Her eyes reflected the starlight and melted his heart with past feelings.
She said, “Let’s not talk about Altair at first, okay? The past few years I’ve been directing a research project to observe the transmission of Type-A stellar scintillations.”
“Oh, I’d have thought you wouldn’t have anything to do with this discovery. Or that you’d have totally forgotten it.”
“How could I do that? Something that actually exists should be tackled head on. The universe described by the classic theory of relativity and quantum mechanics is actually unimaginably weird and strange … observations over the past few years have revealed that Type-A scintillations transmitted between stars are a common phenomenon. Innumerable stars are generating Type-A scintillations every second, to be retransmitted by the stars that surround them. Any star can be an originator or transmitter, turning intergalactic space itself into pond rippling under the raindrops … what, you’re not surprised?”
“There’s one thing I don’t understand. If observing just four scintillation transmissions took more than three decades, how did you …”
“You’re an intelligent man. You ought to be able to come up with a way.”
“Maybe. Did it go something like this? First, you chose to observe stars that are relatively close to each other—a star A and B. Perhaps they’re ten thousand light years away from Earth, but they are just five light years apart from each other. Then, in the space of five years, you could observe a scintillation transmission that took place ten thousand years ago.”
“Clever! There are more than a hundred billion stars in the galaxy, so you can imagine there is a fair number of this type of star pair.”
He smiled, and as he had thirty-four years ago, he hoped she would see his smile in the darkness.
“I brought you a gift.” As he spoke, he opened up the backpack he had carried up the mountain and took out a strange object about the size of a football. At first glance it resembled a balled up bunch of fishnet, and when he held it up to the sky, fragmented starlight could be seen through its holes. He turned on a flashlight, and she saw that the object was made up of countless small balls the size of rice grains. Extending from each ball were various numbers of fibers so thin as to be practically invisible, connecting them all in an incredibly complex grid system. He turned off the flashlight, and in the darkness he flicked a switch at the base of the grid. All of a sudden it was filled with swiftly moving points of light that dazzled the eye. She seemed to be viewing a hollow glass orb filled with tens of thousands of fireflies. Taking a closer look, she discovered that the points of light emanated from certain balls and then transmitted to the surrounding balls. At every moment a proportion of the balls was originating or transmitting points of light. She seemed to be watching her own metaphor: a pool in the rain.
“Is this a model of stellar scintillation transmission? It’s stunning. Did you … did you predict all of this?”
“I did guess that stellar scintillation transmission is a common phenomenon in the universe. Based on nothing but intuition, of course. But this object is not a model of that. A research project at our institute uses molecular microscopy and three-dimensional holographic positioning technology to study neural signaling in the brain. This is a model of signal transmission in a small part of the right cerebral cortex. Naturally it’s just a very, very small part.”
She watched rapt as the stars traversed the globe: “Is this consciousness?”
“That’s right. Just like computing power is produced from a massive grouping of zeroes and ones, consciousness is formed out of a massive number of simple linkages. The simple links between neurons gathered together in massive numbers produce consciousness. In other words, consciousness is the transmission of signals among an ultra-massive number of nodes.”
They looked the glittering starry model of the brain in silence, while the galaxy’s billions of stars, and the billions upon billions of stars outside the galaxy, drifted through the far reaches of the universe. And between these uncountably many stars, countless Type-A scintillations were being transmitted.
She said softly, “It’s almost dawn. Let’s wait and watch the sunrise.”
So they sat down against a low wall and watched the brain model in front of them. Its flashing phosphorescence was hypnotic, and she drifted off to sleep.
She flew upstream along a vast gray river, the river of time, in the direction of its source, as the stars drifted through space like frozen glacial debris. She flew fast. One flap of her wings sent her across a hundred million years. The universe was contracting, stars were converging, background radiation was intensifying. Ten billion years passed. The moraine of stars began to melt into a sea of energy, dissipating quickly into free particles, and those particles in turn transformed into pure energy. Space began to glow, dark red at first, and she seemed to be creeping through an energy bloodbath. Then the light intensified and turned from red to orange, and then to a blinding blue, as if she were flying inside an immense neon lamp tube. Matter had now totally dissolved into the sea of energy. Across this dazzling space she saw the spherical boundary of the universe closing inward like an immense palm. Suspended at the center of a universe that had shrunk to a size no larger than a living room, she waited for the arrival of the singularity. At last, all was plunged into darkness, and she knew that she was at the singularity.
A chill assaulted her. She discovered she was standing on an expansive white plain with the unbounded black void above her. Beneath her feet, the ground was pure white and covered with a layer of slippery transparent glue. She walked forward until she arrived at a crimson river covered with a layer of transparent film through which she could see the red water surging below. She took to the air and saw that not far off there were forks in the blood river, its many branches forming a complex network. From higher up, the rivers narrowed down to blood threads upon the white ground, which remained unbounded. She flew onward. A black ocean appeared up ahead, but when she flew over it she discovered that it was not black. Its blackness was due to its total transparency, through which she could see vividly the mountain ranges on the ocean floor. The crystalline ranges radiated from the center of the ocean and extended to its shores … she flew desperately upward for ages, and then looked down again upon the entire universe.
The universe was a giant eye watching her in silence.
She awoke with a start, her forehead damp with sweat, or dew. He had not slept, but had been watching her quietly all this time. In front of them on the grass, the brain model had exhausted its batteries, and the starlight passing through it had been extinguished.
Above them the stars remained as before.
“What is ‘he’ thinking?” she asked abruptly.
“For the past thirty-four years.”
“The scintillation that originated in the sun was just a primitive neural impulse. These impulses occur all the time. Most of them are like the tiny ripples left by mosquitoes on the surface of a pond, and they dissipate immediately. Only when an impulse is transmitted throughout the universe does it become a complete sensation.”
“We’ve used up our entire lives and have only seen one impulse, which he may not even have felt?” she said as if dreaming.
“You could spend the entirety of human civilization without seeing even one complete sensation.”
“Life is too short.”
“Yes, life is too short …”
“A loner in the truest sense of the word,” she said.
“What?” He looked at her in confusion.
“I mean, apart from ‘him’, the rest is nothingness. He is everything, and he is thinking. Or maybe dreaming. Dreaming of what …”
“Let’s not try to be philosophers,” he said with a wave of his hand.
A thought occurred to her, and she straightened away from the wall she’d been leaning against. “According to modern cosmic inflation theory, in an expanding universe, light emitted at one point will never spread throughout the entire universe.”
“Which means that he will never have a complete sensation.”
She leveled her gaze into the infinite and was silent for a long time. Then she asked suddenly, “And us?”
Her question pitched him into a memory of yesterday. Then the first cry of a bird sounded from the forest of Siyun Mountain, and a ray of dawn appeared on the eastern horizon.
“I have,” he said with confidence. Yes, he had, once. Thirty-four years ago, a still night on this very peak, a feather-light figure in the moonlight, and a young woman’s eyes gazing at the heavens … a scintillation had been generated in his mind and had swiftly spread throughout his entire mental universe, never to disappear in the years that followed. The process was grander still: his mind contained a universe far more magnificent than the glittering universe outside, which had been expanding for fifteen billion years. Although the outside universe was vast, it had been proven to be bounded. But thoughts were infinite.
As the eastern sky grew brighter, the stars began to vanish, and a silhouette of Siyun Mountain began to emerge. Atop its high main peak, amid the vine-covered ruins of the Observatory, two people nearing sixty years of age watched the east in anticipation, waiting for a dazzling brain cell to rise above the horizon.
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