Eight light years away, a star has died, creating a supernova event that showers Earth in deadly levels of radiation. Within a year, everyone over the age of thirteen will die.
And so the countdown begins. Parents apprentice their children and try to pass on the knowledge they’ll need to keep the world running.
But the last generation may not want to carry the legacy of their parents’ world. And though they imagine a better, brighter world, they may bring about a future so dark humanity won’t survive.
A WORD IN A VALLEY
The Dead Star was unquestionably a major event in human history. The earliest recorded supernova was on an oracle bone inscription from 1300 BCE; the most recent from 1987, a supernova outside the galaxy in the direction of the Large Magellanic Cloud, at a distance of roughly 170,000 light-years from us. In astronomical terms, it was imprecise to call this latest supernova “neighboring”; it was practically on top of us.
Still, the world’s fascination endured for just a fortnight. As science was just beginning its investigation, and with the worlds of philosophy and the arts well below a critical mass of inspiration, ordinary people had already turned back to their ordinary lives. Their interest in the supernova was limited to how large the Rose Nebula might grow and how its shape might change, but this attention was mostly casual in nature.
Two of the most important discoveries, as far as humanity was concerned, went practically unnoticed.
In an abandoned mine shaft in South America, an enormous cistern holding more than ten thousand tons of still water was monitored day and night by a host of precise sensors, part of humanity’s neutrino-detection effort. The neutrinos, after penetrating five hundred meters of rock, would cause minute flashes in the cistern water, detectable only by the most sensitive of instruments. On duty in the mine that day were Anderson, a physicist, and Nord, an engineer. Bored out of his mind, Nord was counting the water stains that glittered under the dim lights on the rock walls and breathing in the dank subterranean air, imagining he was in a tomb.
He took a bottle of whiskey out of a drawer as Anderson extended a glass. The physicist used to hate drinking on duty and had once fired an engineer for it, but now was past caring. During their five years half a kilometer beneath the surface, not a single flash had made itself known, and they had lost all faith. But now the flash buzzer went off, heavenly music to their ears after the five-year wait.
The whiskey bottle fell to the ground and shattered as they threw themselves over to the monitor. It was totally black. They gaped at it for several seconds, and then the engineer recovered enough to race out of the control room to the side of the cistern, which resembled a tall, windowless building. Peering through a small porthole, he saw with his own eyes the ghostly blue spark in the water, so powerful it had oversaturated the sensitive instruments, which was why nothing was visible onscreen. The two men returned to the control room, where Anderson bent over another instrument for a closer inspection.
“Neutrinos?” the engineer asked.
Anderson shook his head. “The particle’s got obvious mass.”
“There’s no way it would make it here. It would stop after interacting with the rock.”
“It did interact. We detected its secondary radiation.”
“Are you insane?” Nord shouted straight at Anderson. “How powerful would it need to be to produce secondary radiation through five hundred meters of rock?”
At the Stanford University Medical Center, hematologist Grant arrived at the lab to pick up the test results for two hundred samples he had submitted the previous day. Handing Grant a stack of forms, the lab chief said, “I didn’t know you had so many beds.”
“What do you mean?”
The chief pointed at the forms. “Where’d you come across all those poor bastards? Chernobyl?”
Grant inspected a few pages, and went into a rage. “Did you screw this up again! Aiming to get fired? These were control samples from normal people, for a statistical study!”
The chief stared at Grant for a moment, his eyes betraying a growing terror that made Grant’s skin crawl. Then he seized Grant and dragged him back into the lab.
“What are you doing! You imbecile!” Grant protested.
“Draw blood! I’ll do mine. And you all!” he shouted to the technicians. “Blood samples from everyone!”
Two days before school restarted after the summer holiday, halfway through a faculty meeting, the principal was summoned away for a phone call. He returned wearing a grave expression, motioned to Zheng Chen, and the two of them exited the conference room as the other faculty looked on in shock.
“Xiao Zheng,” the principal said, “gather your class at once.”
“Why? Classes haven’t even started yet.”
“Your graduating class, I mean.”
“That’s even harder. They’re split up among five different high schools, and I don’t know if they’ve even started class. Besides, how are we still involved with them?”
“The registration office will assist you. The director of education called in person.”
“Did Director Feng say what to do after I’ve gotten them together?”
Realizing Zheng Chen hadn’t fully understood, the principal added, “Not Director Feng. The director of the national Ministry of Education!”
Assembling the graduating class was not as hard as Zheng Chen imagined, and it wasn’t long before the forty-three students returned to their school, spurred by an urgent notice when they arrived to register at their high schools. The children were overjoyed at this reunion of their disbanded class.
Zheng Chen and the children waited in their classroom for around half an hour, unsure of what was to happen. Eventually a coach and two cars pulled up outside and three people got out. The principal introduced their leader as Zhang Lin, and said they were from the Central Extraordinary Commission.
“Extraordinary Commission?” said Zheng Chen.
“It’s a newly established agency,” Zhang Lin said without elaborating. “The students in your class will be away from their families for a while. We’ll assume responsibility for notifying their guardians. Since you know the class pretty well, you’ll come along. There’s no need to take anything. We’ll leave at once.”
“What’s the hurry?” Zheng Chen asked in surprise. “Time is of the essence.”
Carrying the forty-three students, the coach left the city headed west. Zhang Lin sat next to Zheng Chen, began examining the student register as soon as he boarded, and stared straight ahead without speaking once he finished. The two other men did the same. Zheng Chen noticed their solemn expressions but felt awkward mentioning it. The atmosphere infected the children, who said little along the way. They passed the Summer Palace and continued westward toward the Western Hills, and then traveled a ways down a forested road farther into the mountains until they entered a large compound whose gate was guarded by three armed sentries. In the center of the compound was a cluster of buses identical to theirs, and groups of children disembarking. They looked roughly the same age as her class.
Zheng Chen had just stepped out of the bus when she heard someone call her name. It was a teacher from Shanghai she had met once at a conference. She took stock of his charges: clearly another class of middle school graduates.
“That’s my class,” the teacher said.
“You came from Shanghai?”
“Yes. We were notified late last night, and spent the night calling up every house to gather the children together.”
“Last night? How’d you get here so fast? Even a plane would take longer.”
They stared at each other silently for a moment, and then the Shanghai teacher said, “I don’t know anything else.”
“Neither do I,” Zheng Chen said. She remembered that the Shanghai teacher was in charge of a pilot class in the Ministry of Education’s character program. Four years ago, the ministry had launched Project Star, a large-scale education experiment for which classes were chosen in major cities across the country to adopt instructional methods well removed from the mainstream; the program was primarily intended to foster children’s overall competence. Zheng Chen’s class had been one of them.
She looked around her. “These all seem to be Star classes.”
“That’s right. Twenty-four in all. Around a thousand kids from five cities.” That afternoon, staffers gathered more information from the classes and drew up a detailed register for each student. The evening was mostly unplanned, so the children phoned home and told their families they were at summer camp, even though the summer was over.
Before daybreak the next morning, the children boarded the buses and set off again.
After a forty-minute drive through the mountains, they reached a valley ringed by gentle slopes. Come autumn the hills would be ablaze with red, but now they were still green. A stream ran down the valley floor, shallow enough to cross with trousers hiked up. The children exited their buses and gathered in an open area beside the road, a thousand of them in a big group. One of the leaders stood on a boulder and began to speak.
“Children, you’ve come here from all over the country. Now let me tell you the purpose of this journey: We’re going to play a big game!”
He clearly was not someone who frequently interacted with kids. His manner was severe, nothing of the feel of a game, but his words prompted rustles of excitement among the children anyway.
“Look,” he said, pointing at the valley. “That’s where we’ll play. Each of your twenty-four classes will be given some land around three to four square kilometers. That’s not a small plot! Every class will use that land—now listen—every class will establish a little country!”
That last line seized the children’s attention. A thousand pairs of eyes focused on him.
“The game will last for fifteen days. For fifteen days you’ll live off the territory you’ve been granted!”
The children cheered.
“Quiet down and listen. These twenty-four territories have been stocked with necessities like tents, camp cots, fuel, food, and drinking water, but these goods haven’t been equally divided. One territory, for example, might have more tents but less food; another might be the opposite. But be certain of one thing: the total amount of provisions on these territories is insufficient for so many days. You have two avenues at your disposal to obtain provisions:
“First, trade. You can trade your own surplus materials for those in short supply. But even so, your little countries won’t be able to last the full fifteen days, because the total quantity is insufficient. This means:
“Second, engage in production. This is your country’s primary duty and chief activity. Production means opening up undeveloped land on your territory, and then planting seeds and irrigating them on the cleared land. It’s not feasible to wait for grain to grow, of course, but based on your land clearing, sowing, and irrigation figures, you’ll be able to obtain equivalent food from the game’s directorate. The twenty-four countries are distributed along this stream, which will serve as your water source. You’ll use that water to irrigate your cleared land.
“You’ll choose your own national leaders, three paramount leaders to share power equally. They will jointly exercise the highest decision-making authority. You will set up your country’s own administrative organs, and make all the decisions for your country, development plans, foreign policy, and so forth. We will not interfere. Citizens have free mobility; you can choose to go to any country you think best.
“Now we’ll divvy up territory for you. First thing, choose a name for your country and report it to the directorate. The rest is up to you. I’ll only tell you that the game has very few rules. Children, the fate and future of these countries is in your hands. I hope that you’ll make your little countries flourish and grow strong!”
It was the grandest game the children had ever seen, and they raced off toward their own territories.
Zheng Chen’s class followed Zhang Lin to their territory, an area surrounded by a white fence straddling the riverside and a slope, with tents and various provisions neatly stacked where the two met. The children ran on ahead to tear through the supplies, and then Zheng Chen heard exclamations of surprise as they crowded round. She hurried over and made her way forward through the children, and what she saw left her momentarily stunned.
On a square of green canvas lay a neatly arranged row of machine guns.
Although she was unfamiliar with weapons, she was still certain they were not toys. She bent down and picked one up, felt its heft, caught a whiff of gun oil, saw the cold blue glint of its steel barrel. Three green metal boxes sat next to the canvas; a child had opened one to reveal gleaming golden bullets inside.
“Are the guns real, uncle?” a child said to Zhang Lin, who had just arrived.
“Of course. These submachine guns are the army’s newest issue. They’re small and lightweight. Their foldable stock makes them well-suited for children.”
Children cooed with awe as they excitedly picked up the guns. But Zheng Chen shouted sharply, “Stop! No one is to touch those things.” Then she turned to Zhang Lin. “What is the meaning of this?”
“Surely weapons are one of a country’s essential supplies,” he said lightly. “You said they’re well-suited for . . . use by children?”
“Oh, you needn’t worry,” he said with a chuckle, and bent down to lift a string of shells from the ammo case. “These bullets are nonlethal. They’re actually just two small balls of wire stuck to a piece of plastic, light enough that they lose velocity rapidly after firing and won’t cause any bodily injuries. But the balls of wire carry a strong static charge and will release tens of thousands of volts into the target upon impact, enough to cause a fall and momentary loss of consciousness. The current is quite low, so the target will recover quickly and will suffer no lasting harm.”
“Electrocution won’t cause any harm?”
“This ammunition was first developed for police use and has undergone numerous animal and human tests. Police in the West were first equipped with it in the 1980s, and there have been no casualties in the many times it has been used.”
“And if they strike an eye?”
“If the person hit falls from a high place?”
“We’ve chosen a relatively level geography precisely for that reason. . . . I have to admit of course that it’s impossible to guarantee absolute safety, but there will be minimal chances for harm.”
“Do you really intend to give these weapons to the children, and permit them to use them on other children?”
Zhang Lin nodded.
Zheng Chen blanched. “Can’t they use toy guns?”
He shook his head. “War is an indispensable part of a country’s history. We have to create as real an atmosphere as possible to obtain reliable results.”
“Results? What results?” She stared at him with fear in her eyes, as if he were some kind of monster. “What are you all really after?”
“Calm down, Ms. Zheng. We’re being pretty restrained already. Reliable intelligence says that some countries are allowing their children to use live ammo.”
“Other countries? Is the whole world playing this game?”
She glanced absently around her, as if to ascertain whether or not she was dreaming. Then, with effort, she calmed herself down, straightened her hair, and said, “Please send me and the children back home.”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible. This region is now under martial law. I told you that this is extremely important work . . .”
She lost control of her calm again. “I don’t care about that. I will not permit you to do this. I am a teacher. I have my own duty and conscience.”
“We have the same conscience, and an even greater duty. And those are the two things that force us to act.” He turned his sincere face toward her. “Please trust us.”
“Send the children home!” she shouted.
“Please trust us.”
A quiet voice from behind her sounded familiar, although she couldn’t immediately place it. The children were staring in shock at a spot behind her, so she turned around to discover a sizable crowd of people who, once she took them all in, only increased her sense of being outside of reality. Paradoxically, this calmed her again. She could identify a few in back as senior national leaders who often appeared on television, but the first two she recognized were standing right in front of her.
The president and the premier.
“It’s like having a nightmare, right?” the president asked gently.
She nodded, unable to speak.
The premier said, “That’s nothing unusual. That was our feeling at first, too. But we adjusted quickly.”
“Your work is very important, and involves the fate of the country and its people,” the president said. “Later, we’ll explain everything, and at that time, comrade teacher, you’ll feel pride in the work you’ve done and are doing.” His words eased her mind to an extent.
When the group started off toward a neighboring territory, the premier took a step back and said to Zheng Chen, “All you need to understand right now is this: The world isn’t what it used to be.”
“Let’s give our little country a name, everyone,” Specs said.
The morning sun was peeking over the ridge, painting the valley in gold. “Let’s call it Sunland!” Huahua said, and after unanimous approval, added, “We need to paint a flag.”
So the children found a piece of white canvas among the supplies, and Huahua took a thick marker from his schoolbag and drew a circle with it. “That’s a sun. Who’s got a red one, so we can fill it in.”
“Won’t that be the Japanese flag?” a child asked.
Xiaomeng took the marker and drew a pair of large eyes and a laughing mouth on the sun, and added radiating lines for rays of light. The children approved of this flag. In the Supernova Era, this clumsily artful flag was preserved in the National History Museum as a priceless historic artifact.
“And a national anthem?”
“Let’s use the song of the Young Pioneers.”
When the sun had fully cleared the mountains, the children held a flag-raising ceremony in the center of their land.
After the ceremony, Zhang Lin asked Huahua, “Why did you first think of setting out a flag and anthem?”
“A country needs them as . . . a symbol. The students have to be able to see the country in order for us to cohere.”
Zhang Lin made a few notes in his notebook.
“Did we do something wrong?” a child asked.
“Like I said before, you will be making all the decisions. You do things as you see fit. My duty is to observe, but never to interfere.” Then to Zheng Chen, he said, “That goes for you, too, Ms. Zheng.”
Next, the children elected national leaders, choosing Huahua, Specs, and Xiaomeng in a painless process. Huahua had Lü Gang form a military, for which twenty-five children volunteered. Twenty of them received submachine guns, and Lü Gang consoled the five who were furious at not getting any that the guns would be rotated over the next few days. Xiaomeng appointed Lin Sha as health minister and put her in charge of all medication in their provisions, and of treating any patients. The children decided that other state institutions would be set up as needed.
Then they started to settle into their new territory. They cleared some space and went to work on the tents, but when a few kids entered the first one they set up, it collapsed on top of them and they had a tough time digging their way out of the canvas. But they were enjoying it. By noontime, they had managed to erect a few tents and move the cots inside, basically settling the lodging issue.
Before they started making lunch, Xiaomeng suggested that they ought to take an inventory of all food and water and come up with a detailed plan for its daily use: conserve on food the first two days, since once land clearing began, their workload would increase and they would need to eat more. And they had to keep in mind that if agriculture ran into problems, there would be delays in getting food from the directorate. The children had worked up a considerable appetite over the course of the morning and were quite upset that they couldn’t dig in immediately, but Xiaomeng patiently explained the situation to them as best she could.
Zhang Lin stood quietly off to the side watching all of this, making more notes in his notebook.
After lunch, the children visited their neighbors to barter a few excess tents and tools to bolster their limited food supply, and took stock of their surroundings. Upstream from them was the Galactic Republic, downstream was Giant Country. Opposite them was Emailand, bordered upstream by Caterpillaria, and downstream by Blue Flower Land, both taking their names from local flora and fauna. There were eighteen other microcountries in the valley, but they were far enough away that the children weren’t much interested in them.
The next day and two nights were the golden age for this valley world. The children overflowed with enthusiasm for the new life. On day two, all countries began clearing land on the hillside with simple tools—shovels and hoes—and carried water from the river in plastic buckets to irrigate the land. At night, campfires sprang up all along the riverbank, and the valley echoed with the children’s songs and laughter. It was a veritable pastoral wonderland out of a fairy tale.
But the fairy tale soon evaporated as gray reality returned to the valley.
As the novelty wore off, the pace of land-clearing declined. Children returned from work utterly exhausted and collapsed into their cots as soon as they were back in their tents. No longer were there nighttime fires and singing in the valley. Silence reigned.
The resource gap between the countries was becoming apparent. Though they weren’t far apart, some countries had rich, soft land that was easy to cultivate, while in others, the rocky ground refused to give up much usable land even after strenuous effort. Sunland was among the most barren, but even worse than the extremely poor quality of the hillside soil was the fact that their riverbank was incredibly broad. The directorate had stipulated that the level floodplain could only be used as residential land, and all cultivation had to be done on the hillside. Any cultivation on the floodplain would be excluded from the count. In some countries, the hillside was so close to the river that a chain of children could pass water buckets up for irrigation, a great labor-saving strategy. But Sunland’s wide floodplain meant a huge distance between the river and the hillside, so individuals had to tire themselves out carrying buckets up on their own.
Then Specs made a proposal: Dam the river with large stones. The water could still flow over or between the stones, but the water level would be raised. Then a pit could be dug at the base of the hillside, and a small channel cut to bring in river water. So Sunland transferred ten hard workers to undertake the project. No sooner had it started, however, than it met with fierce protests from Giantland and Blue Flower Land downstream, and despite Specs’s repeated explanations that the dam would raise the river level without blocking its flow, thus posing no threat to the downstream flow rate or water level, the two countries were staunch in their opposition. Huahua maintained that they should ignore the protests and proceed with the project. But Xiaomeng, after careful consideration, decided that they ought to work on improving relations with their neighbors, taking the long view so as not to lose out on bigger things for short-term gains. The river was a shared resource for all countries in the valley, so anything involving it was a sensitive matter. Sunland ought to work on establishing a favorable reputation.
Specs approached the issue from a strength standpoint, and although Lü Gang insisted that the army could guarantee national security in the case of a conflict with their downstream neighbors, he noted that it was irrational to recklessly provoke conflict with two countries at once. And so Sunland abandoned its original plan. Without building a dam, a channel twice as deep was dug, bringing far less water to the pit at the foot of the hill than originally intended. But it substantially increased the efficiency of cultivation nonetheless.
Sunland seemed to have caught the directorate’s eye; another observer was now stationed next to Zhang Lin.
All manner of conflicts and disputes increased dramatically in the valley on the fourth day, mostly sparked by resource allocation and bartering. The children had little facility or patience for conflict resolution, and so shots began to ring out. Still, the conflicts remained limited in scale and had not spread to the entire valley. The situation remained relatively stable in Sunland’s vicinity, but a conflict sparked by drinking water on the seventh day would completely upset this stability.
River water was stale and undrinkable, and although a quantity of drinking water had been included among the provisions, it was unevenly distributed, leaving some countries with ten or more times as much water as others, a difference far greater than any of the other provisions and clearly done by design. Cultivation figures could only be redeemed for food, not water, so by the fifth day, water had become a critical question for national survival, and hence a focal point for conflict.
Among the five countries in Sunland’s region, the Galactic Republic had the largest share of water, nearly ten times the others. Caterpillaria, across the river, was the first to run out. Its children were wasteful and short-sighted, and even used drinking water to wash up when they were too lazy to fetch water from the river, eventually landing themselves in this predicament. Their only option was to hold talks with their opposite neighbor and propose bartering for water, but the Galactic Republic countered with an unacceptable solution: Caterpillaria had to trade its land for water.
That night, Sunland was informed by a child from Emailand that Caterpillaria had demanded a loan of guns, ten of them, as well as ammunition, threatening to attack if the loan was denied. Caterpillaria reckoned that with thirty-seven soldiers, its military was strong enough to take on Emailand, which had few military-minded children and wouldn’t put up much of a fight. Not wanting trouble, Emailand reached a favorable agreement with Caterpillaria and lent them the weapons. Shots rang out at midday in Caterpillaria as its soldiers practiced shooting.
Sunland called an emergency State Council meeting where Huahua laid out the situation: “Caterpillaria is certain to start a war against the Galactic Republic. Looking at military power alone, the Galactic Republic is bound to lose, and will be taken over by Caterpillaria. Caterpillaria has a large expanse of fertile hillside, and it will be especially powerful with the Galactic Republic’s drinking water and weapons. That means trouble for us, sooner or later. We should prepare for sooner.”
Xiaomeng said, “We should form an alliance with Emailand, Giant Country, and Blue Flower Land.”
Huahua said, “If that’s our approach, then we should include the Galactic Republic in the alliance before war breaks out. That way Caterpillaria won’t risk starting a war.”
Specs shook his head. “Balance of power is a basic principle of the world order. You’re violating that principle.”
“Would you mind explaining that, professor?”
“An alliance is only stable when facing a threat comparable in strength. It will dissolve when faced with a threat that’s too big or too small. The countries farther upstream are too far away, so the six of us form a relatively independent system. If the Galactic Republic joins the alliance, Caterpillaria has no one to ally with and is the absolute weakest power, posing no threat to the alliance. So the alliance will dissolve. Besides, the Galactic Republic has so much drinking water of its own it will arrogantly believe we’re after its water, and won’t join an alliance in earnest.”
Everyone agreed with this assessment. Xiaomeng asked, “So will the other three countries be willing to ally with us?”
Huahua said, “Emailand’s not a problem. They’ve already felt Caterpillaria’s threat. As for the other two, let me persuade them. An alliance is to their benefit, and we left a good impression after the dam conflict, so I think it won’t be a problem.”
That afternoon, Huahua visited three neighboring countries where, with superlative eloquence, he quickly convinced the leadership. On the riverside at their common border, they held a meeting formally establishing the Four Country Alliance.
Another member joined the observers stationed in Sunland.
The directorate established itself inside a TV repeater station at the top of the hill, where it had a bird’s-eye view of the entire valley. That evening, after the founding of the Four Country Alliance, Zheng Chen arrived at the repeater compound and looked out at the nighttime valley for a long while, as she had done on previous evenings. The children were asleep after an exhausting day of work, so a few scattered lanterns were all that was visible.
By this point she had thrown herself fully into the project and no longer asked what it all was for. Not a single one of the countless answers she had dreamed up made sense, and the previous day she had heard a few kids in Sunland discussing the issue, too.
“It’s a science experiment,” Specs said to a few other children. “Our twenty-four little countries are a model of the world, and the adults want to see how this model develops. Then they’ll know what our country should do in the future.”
“Then why don’t they run the experiment with adults?” someone asked.
“If the adults know it’s a game, they won’t play it seriously. We’re the only ones who’ll play a game seriously, and that’s what makes the outcome real.” It was the most reasonable explanation Zheng Chen had heard. But the premier’s words still echoed in her brain: “The world isn’t what it used to be.”
Now Zhang Lin walked out of the door to the cabin that once had served as the lodgings for repeater station workers and came over next to Zheng Chen to survey the valley. He said, “Ms. Zheng, your class has been the most successful of all of them. Those children are made of good stuff.”
“What do you mean by success? As I hear it, at the western end of the valley there’s a country that has absorbed its five neighbors and now has six times its original land area and population, and it’s still expanding.”
“No, Ms. Zheng. That’s not important to us. What we’re looking at is a country’s success in building itself, in cohesion, and in its judgment of the makeup of the world it inhabits, as well as the long-term decisions those lead to.”
The game in the valley allowed free exit, and over the past couple of days children from practically every country had come to the directorate to say they were finished playing, that the game was getting boring, that the work was too tiring, and that the gun fighting was too scary. The directors said the same thing to each of them: “That’s okay. Go home.” And they were returned home at once. When they later found out what they had missed, some of them stayed angry the rest of their lives, while others were secretly glad. Sunland was the only country that didn’t lose any children, a key data point for the directors.
Zhang Lin said, “Ms. Zheng, I’d like to learn more about those three young leaders.”
Zheng Chen said, “They’re from ordinary families. But if you look more closely, their families really are a little different.”
“Start with Huahua.”
“His father is an engineer with an architecture institute, and his mother’s a dance instructor. He takes after his father, who also comes across as open-minded, taking the long view toward things with little regard for the details of his own life. When I went to their home, he held forth on global affairs and the strategy China ought to adopt in the future, but didn’t ask any questions about his son’s performance at school.”
“No, not aloof. He wasn’t discussing those things for disinterested amusement. He talked about national and world affairs with a powerful sense of participation. He had a strong initiative, and that excessive broad-mindedness and disregard for his immediate surroundings might be why he’s been unsuccessful in his career. Huahua does take after him, but one major difference is that the kid has charisma and an inclination to action, enough to bring together other children to accomplish unbelievable things. For example, he’s gotten the class to set up a street stall, to build and fly a hot-air balloon, and to take a boating trip on a river in the distant suburbs. He’s got motivation and resourcefulness far beyond his years. His weakness is a tendency toward fantasy and impulsiveness.”
“You know your students very well.”
“They think of me as a friend. Yan Jing—that’s Specs—comes from a typical family of intellectuals. His parents are college professors, his father in the humanities and his mother in science.”
“He seems to me to be very knowledgeable.”
“That’s right. But his greatest strength is how thoroughly he considers a problem, far more carefully than other children. He can pick up things from all angles that no one else notices. You might not believe it, but when I’m preparing my lessons I’ll often seek his feedback. His weakness is obvious: He’s introverted and isn’t good at social interaction.”
“The other students in your class don’t seem to mind that.”
“True. His erudition appeals to them and wins him their respect. Specs is always involved in discussions of major problems, and in any decision-making. That’s why they elected him.”
“Her background is unusual. Her family was a good one: her father was a reporter, and her mother a professional writer. When she was in the second grade, her father died in a car accident pursuing a story, and then her mother had kidney failure and needed dialysis. And she had a grandparent in bed at home. Both of them died last year, but for the past three years Xiaomeng basically has had to run the household. Still, she managed to get the best marks in class. She was right in the worst of it when I came on as homeroom teacher, and each morning when I came into class I’d look for signs of fatigue on her face, but there never were. Just . . .”
“Right. Maturity. You’ve seen her expression, mature beyond her years. One thing I remember most clearly was when I took the class on a tour of the Aerospace Command and Control Center in western Beijing last semester. The other kids immersed themselves in all the high-tech marvels, and during a forum with the center’s engineers, they all said that we should put an astronaut in space, and then build a huge space station, and land on the moon, all at once. Xiaomeng was the only one who asked how much a space station would cost, and when she was given a rough estimate, said that the money could fund the education of every poor child in the country through middle school. Then she rattled off statistics for unschooled children, and how much it would cost to educate them through middle school, taking into account regional differences and price increases. All of the adults in the forum were stunned.”
“Is there anything about her that makes her popular with the others?”
“Trustworthiness. She is the most trusted kid in class. She can sort out tons of problems the kids have, even complicated ones that have me stumped. She’s got management talent. She’s very methodical in carrying out her duties as the class’s studies monitor.”
“There’s one more student I’d like to know a little more about: Lü Gang.”
“I don’t know him very well. He’s a transfer from the second half of last semester. He comes from an unusual family, too. His father’s a general. And under his father’s influence, he likes weapons and the military. The one thing that impressed me most about him is that when he joined the sports committee after transferring to our class, in just one week he took our soccer squad from second-to-last to first. School rules prohibit adding extracurricular practices, but he didn’t run any practices at all, he just made some adjustments to our strategy. The surprising thing is that his previous school lacked the facilities for him to have much exposure to soccer at all, and he doesn’t really play. His indomitable spirit is another impressive characteristic. During a cross-country race, he twisted his ankle and his foot swelled up so big he couldn’t put his shoe on, but he finished the race anyway, even though there was no one left at the finish line when he came in. You don’t see that kind of resolve in many children.”
“One last question, Ms. Zheng. . . . Ah, you go first.”
“What I’d like to say is that if you think their little country is the most successful, then it’s due to collective effort. There may be a few standout kids in the class, but their biggest advantage is their collective strength. They might not amount to anything if you divide them up.”
“That’s just the question I wanted to ask. I’ve gotten the same feeling, and it’s a very important point. My greatest regret, Ms. Zheng, is that my son was never your student.”
“How old is he?”
“Twelve. One of the lucky ones.”
It was several days later that she found out what his words meant. The Rose Nebula was now rising over the eastern horizon, its blue light rendering the valley in sharp relief.
“It’s gotten bigger. And the floral shape has changed,” she said.
“It’ll continue to grow for the next few decades. Astronomers predict that at its largest it will occupy a fifth of the sky, and will be as bright as an overcast day. Night will disappear.”
“My god. What will that be like?”
“I’d really like to know, too. Take a look at this,” Zhang Lin said, pointing to a nearby scholar tree whose flower-laden branches were visible in the nebula light.
“It shouldn’t be blooming this time of year. The past few days I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff with the hillside vegetation. Lots of blooming flowers, in all sorts of strange shapes.”
“We’re sequestered from the outside world here so we haven’t seen the news for a few days, but I’ve heard that bizarre fruits and vegetables have been turning up in the marketplace, like grapes as big as apples.”
From the valley came a burst of gunfire.
“It’s from Sunland!” Zheng Chen shouted in alarm.
“No,” Zhang Lin said after a moment, “it’s farther upstream. Caterpillaria is attacking the Galactic Republic.”
The gunshots grew thicker, and they could see muzzle flashes in an area of the valley.
“Do you really intend to let things go on like this? I don’t think I can take it,” Zheng Chen said in a trembling voice.
“The entirety of human history is war. There are figures showing that in five thousand years of civilization, there’s been a total of just one hundred and seven years of genuine peacetime. Even as we speak humanity is at war. But doesn’t life still go on?”
“But they’re only children!”
“Not for long.”
That afternoon, Caterpillaria agreed to the Galactic Republic’s demand to exchange the best parcel of its untilled land for drinking water, but proposed holding a land-handover ceremony to which each side would dispatch an honor guard of twenty children. The Galactic Republic agreed. As leaders for both sides and their honor guards were carrying out the ceremony, a dozen Caterpillaria soldiers lying in ambush staged a surprise attack on the Galactic Republic honor guard, and at the same time the Caterpillaria honor guard also opened fire, taking out all twenty guard members with their electric charges. They came to ten minutes later and discovered they were prisoners and their territory had fallen into enemy hands, for while they were unconscious, the Caterpillaria army had assaulted the Galactic Republic. Their guns had all been sent off with the honor guard, and their remaining six boys and twenty-odd girls were ill-equipped for even an unarmed fight.
As soon as Caterpillaria merged with the Galactic Republic, it demanded land from the Four Country Alliance. Unprepared to launch a military attack, it played the water card. The downstream countries didn’t have much left, and Caterpillaria planned to squeeze the Four Country Alliance until they ran out of water.
Now Specs’s vast store of knowledge found an application in a method he proposed. Tiny holes were punctured all across the bottom of five washbasins, which were then filled with layers of stones, decreasing in diameter top to bottom, to form a water filter. Lü Gang suggested a second method: Smashing grasses and leaves into a paste and stirring it into the water would leave the water clean once it settled. He said he’d learned the technique from his father during outdoor training. Water subjected to these two methods was sent to the directorate for testing, and it turned out to be drinkable. The Four Country Alliance now had access to so much water it could even export its surplus to Caterpillaria.
And so Caterpillaria started planning an attack on the alliance. Its children had no interest in agriculture and cared only for territorial expansion. But they soon discovered there was no need for this, either.
From upstream came the news that the Nebula Empire, at the western-most edge of the valley, had absorbed thirteen other countries to form a superstate with an army four hundred strong that was now marching downstream on a mission to unite the valley. In the face of such a powerful enemy, the resolve Caterpillaria’s leaders had shown toward the conquest of the Galactic Republic evaporated. They panicked, and without a plan their country collapsed into chaos and ultimately disbanded. Some of the children fled upstream to the Nebula Empire, but most went to the directorate to be sent home. In the Four Country Alliance, Giant Land, Blue Flower Land, and Emailand dissolved, and most of their children also exited the game apart from a minority that joined their ally, leaving Sunland to face a powerful enemy alone.
All citizens of Sunland were determined to defend it to the end. Over the past two weeks they had grown fond of the tiny country into which they’d poured their sweat, and this emotion gave them spiritual strength that amazed the adults in the directorate.
Lü Gang drew up a battle plan: Sunland’s children would knock down all the tents on the broad floodplain and put in two defensive lines on the eastern and western sides, formed from various materials. On the western side, the first front the enemy troops would reach, only ten children would be stationed. Lü Gang instructed them, “When you’ve finished the first volley, shout ‘We’re out of ammo!’ and then run back.”
The defensive lines had just been completed when the army of the Nebula Empire came surging along the valley floor, and soon it covered the entire territory of the former Galactic Republic and Caterpillaria. A boy shouted through a loudspeaker, “Hey, Sunland kids! The Nebula Empire has united the valley. Do you losers still want to play? Surrender! Have some dignity!”
The challenge was met with silence. And so the Nebula Empire began its assault. The children on Sunland’s front defense line opened fire, and the invading army hit the ground immediately and returned fire. Shots from Sunland’s side petered out, and then a kid shouted, “We’re out of ammo! Run!,” and all the kids on the line beat a fast retreat.
“They’re out of ammo! Charge!” The Nebula Empire army surged forward with a roar, but when they were halfway across the floodplain, the guns of Sunland’s second defensive line let loose. The invaders were caught totally unaware and huge numbers fell. Those behind them turned and ran. The first assault was beaten back.
When the shocks wore off and the kids crawled to their feet, the Nebula Empire organized a second attack. This time, Sunland was actually running low on ammo. As they watched an imperial force ten times their size advance carefully along the river toward them, a kid exclaimed, “God, they’ve even got helicopters!”
A helicopter was approaching over the hill, and when it stopped and hovered over the battlefield, an adult’s voice over a loudspeaker said, “Children! Hold your fire! The game is over!”
It had just turned dark when three helicopters carrying fifty-four children took flight toward the city. Eight of the children on board, including Huahua, Specs, Xiaomeng, and Lü Gang, were from Zheng Chen’s class, and they were accompanied by Zheng Chen and four other teachers.
They landed in front of a plain 1950s-style building whose lights were blazing. Zhang Lin and the leader of the valley-game directorate led the fifty-four children through the main gate and down a long corridor, at the end of which stood a large leather-covered door with a gleaming brass handle. When the children neared, two guards eased it open and they entered a huge hall, one that had witnessed so many historic events whose shadows even now seemed to dance between the columns.
There were three people in the hall: the president of the country, premier of the State Council, and chief of staff of the army. They seemed to have been there a while, and were talking in low voices when the door opened and they turned to look at the children.
The two leaders went on ahead to make a brief, whispered report to the president and premier.
“Hello, children!” the president said. “This is the last time I’ll treat you as children. History requires that you grow from thirteen to thirty over the next ten minutes. The premier will outline the situation for you now.”
The premier said, “As you’re all aware, a month ago there was a supernova in the vicinity of Earth. You’re all familiar with the details so I won’t go into them. Instead, I’ll tell you some things you don’t know. After the supernova, health agencies the world over studied its effects on humans. We’ve received reports from authoritative medical institutions on all continents that match the conclusions of our own domestic institutions: namely, the supernova’s high-energy radiation destroys chromosomes in human cells. This radiation has a penetrative power never seen before. No one was unaffected, even if they were indoors or down a mine shaft. But in one population group, chromosomes have the ability to repair themselves when damaged, ninety-seven percent in thirteen-year-olds, and one hundred percent in those aged twelve and under. Damage suffered by everyone else is irreversible. They’ll survive only for another ten months to a year at most. Visible light from the supernova lasted for a little over an hour, but the invisible radiation continued for an entire week—that’s when the sky was filled with aurora borealis. The Earth completed seven revolutions during that time, so the whole world was affected identically.”
The premier spoke with a calm solemnity, as if discussing something more ordinary. The children listened numbly for a while as his words sank into their minds. For a long time it didn’t make sense, and then all of a sudden it did.
Decades later, when the second generation of the Supernova Era was growing up, they were curious about how their parents’ generation felt when they first heard the news, since after all it was the most shocking piece of information in human history. Historians and astronomers had made countless attempts to re-create that scene, none of them accurate. The following conversation between a young reporter and an elder took place forty-five years after the incident:
REPORTER: Can you describe how you felt when you first heard the news?
ELDER: I didn’t feel anything, because I still didn’t understand. reporter: How long did it take for you to understand?
ELDER: It depended on the person. No one got it immediately. Some people took half a minute, others several minutes, and others a few days. Some kids stayed in a trance all the way up until the Supernova Era actually began. It’s weird thinking back on it. Why was such a simple piece of information so hard to digest?
REPORTER: And yourself?
ELDER: I was lucky. I got it in three minutes.
REPORTER: Can you describe the shock?
ELDER: It wasn’t a shock.
REPORTER: Then . . . was it fear?
ELDER: No, not fear.
REPORTER: (laughs) That’s what they all say. I do understand, of course, how it might be hard to put that degree of fear and shock into words.
ELDER: There were no feelings like shock and fear back then. Please believe me, even if it might be hard for you to under- stand now.
REPORTER: Then what did you feel?
REPORTER: . . .
ELDER: Back in our day, we had this story: A man blind from birth accidentally fell down the stairs one day, and the impact somehow jostled the nerves in his brain enough to restore his sight. He looked at the world around him brimming with curiosity. . . . That’s how we felt. The world was going to turn strange for us, as if we’d never seen it before.
From Ya Ke, Born in the Common Era. Beijing, SE 46.
In the huge hall, the beating heart of the country, fifty-four children shared the experience of this powerful unfamiliarity, as if an invisible razor had dropped, severing the past from the future, and they were staring into a strange new world. Through the wide window they could see the newly risen Rose Nebula, which projected its blue radiance on the floor like an enormous cosmic eye staring into this inexplicable world.
For an entire week high-energy rays had traversed every part of the solar system, and high-energy particles battered the Earth like a rainstorm pouring down on land and sea, tearing through human bodies at unimaginably high velocity, penetrating every cell. And the tiny chromosomes in each of those cells were buffeted like fragile crystalline threads by those high-energy particles, which unraveled the DNA double helix and sent nucleotides spinning away. Damaged genes continued to operate, but the precise chain that had evolved through hundreds of millions of years of copying life had been snapped, and the mutated genes now spread death. Earth revolved humanity through a deadly shower, winding up the death clock in billions of bodies that now ticked slowly away. . . .
Everyone above the age of thirteen would die, and Earth would become a children’s world.
The fifty-four children were different from the rest. A second piece of information would take the world that had just been made unfamiliar and shatter it into pieces, leaving them hanging in a bewildered void.
Zheng Chen came round first. “These children, Premier, if I’m not mistaken . . .”
The premier nodded, and said calmly, “You’re not mistaken.” “That’s impossible,” she cried out in alarm.
The state leaders looked at her in silence.
“They’re just kids. How can they . . .”
“What do you think we ought to do, young lady?” the premier asked.
“. . . You at least ought to have held a nationwide search for candidates.” “Do you really think that’s possible? How would we select them? Kids aren’t adults. They don’t belong to a hierarchical national social structure, so in such a short time frame it’s frankly impossible to choose the most talented and best suited from among four hundred million children to take on this responsibility. Ten months is just an estimate; we might actually have far less time than that. The adult world could become inoperative at any moment. This is humanity’s darkest hour. We must not leave our country headless at a time like this. Did we have any other choice? Like every other country in the world, we adopted exceptional methods to make the selection.”
“My god. . . .” She was close to fainting.
The president came up to her and said, “Your students may not agree with you. You only know them in ordinary times, but not in extreme situations. In times of crisis, people, children included, can become superhuman.”
The president turned to address the children, who had not yet entirely grasped the situation. “Yes, children. You’re going to lead this country.”
Copyright © 2019 by Cixin Liu
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