“Today is the day I’m finally going to get you to tell me what is up with you never going on land,” the Captain declared, arching an eyebrow. “It’s been five years and the Bluewater has docked in heaven knows how many ports in more countries than I can count, yet you have never gone ashore; not even when we docked back in China. And not even last year, back in Qingdao when we were in for overhauls. You’re the last person I’d need to tell that the ship was a complete mess, and noisy, and still you stayed put, holed up in your cabin for two months,” the Captain continued, eying Feng Fan intensely he spoke.
“Do I remind you of that guy Tim Roth played in ‘The Legend of 1900’?” Fan asked in return.
“Are you insinuating that if we ever scuttle the Bluewater, you plan on going down with the ship like he did?” the Captain countered, himself not sure if Fan was joking or not.
“I’ll change ships. Oceanographic vessels always have a place for a geological engineer who’ll never leave ship,” Fan replied.
The Captain returned to his original point. “That naturally begs the question: Is there something on land that keeps you away?”
“On the contrary,” Fan answered, “there is something that I yearn for.”
“And what’s that?” the Captain asked, curious and now a bit impatient.
“Mountains,” Fan uttered, his gaze dissolving into a thousand-mile stare.
“You like the mountains? So that’s where you grew up then?” The Captain ended Fan’s reminiscing.
“No, not at all,” Feng Fan explained. “People who live their entire life surrounded by mountains usually care nothing for them. They end up seeing the mountains as the thing that stands between them and the world. I knew a Sherpa who had scaled Everest forty-one times, but every time his team would get close to the peak, he’d stop and watch the others climb the final stretch. He just couldn’t be bothered to make it to the top. And make no mistake about it; he could have easily pulled off both the northern and southern ascent in ten hours.
“There are only two places where you can really feel the true magic of the mountains: On the plains from far away and standing on a peak,” Feng Fan continued. “My home was the vastness of the Hebei Plain. In the West, I could see the Taihang Mountains, but between them and my home lay an immense expanse of perfectly flat land, without obstructions or markers. Not long after I was born, my mother carried me outside the house for the first time. My tiny neck could barely carry my head, but I already turned to the West and babbled my heart out. As soon as I learned to walk, I took my first tottering steps toward those mountains. When I was a bit older, I set out one early morning and walked along the Shijiazhuang-Taiyuan Railway. I walked until noon before my grumbling stomach made me turn back, yet the mountains still seemed endlessly far away. In school, I rode my bicycle toward the mountains, but no matter how fast I peddled, the mountains seemed to withdraw just as quickly. In the end, it never felt as if I had gotten even an inch closer to them. Many years later, far mountains would again become a symbol of my life. Like so many things in life that we can clearly see but never reach; a dream crystallized in the distance.”
“You probably know what happened next: When the storm hit, we were close to the so-called ‘Chinese Ladder’ of the Second Step on a vertical rock face that rises from twenty-eight thousand five-hundred feet. The peak was almost within reach, and save for a strand of cloud rising from the other side of the summit, the sky was still perfectly blue. I can still clearly remember thinking that the peak of Everest looked like a knife’s edge cutting open the sky, drawing forth its billowing, pale blood.” Fan paused at the memory before returning to his tale. “It only took moments before we lost all visibility; when the storm hit us out of nowhere, it whipped up the snow. Everything was shrouded in impenetrable white that left only murky darkness. In a dread instant, I felt the other four members of my team blown off the cliff. They were left hanging by my rope. And all I was clinging to was my ice ax wedged into a crack in the wall. It simply could not have held the weight of five. I acted on instinct, cutting the buckle strap that held the rope. I let them fall.” He paused again, swallowing hard. “They still haven’t found the remains of two of them.”
“So four died instead of all five,” the Captain noted dryly.
“Sure, I acted in accordance to the mountaineering safety guidelines. Even so, it remains my cross to bear.”
“Do I have to spell it out? You must remember the overwhelming condemnations and the crushing contempt the media heaped on me back then,” Fan reminded. “They said that I acted irresponsibly, that I was a selfish coward, that I sacrificed my four companions for my own life.” He was clearly still pained. “I thought that I could at least clear myself of that last accusation, so I donned my climbing gear and put on my mountain goggles. Ready for a climb, I went to my university’s library and scaled a pipe straight up to its roof. I was just about to jump when I heard the voice of one of my teachers; I hadn’t noticed him come up to the roof behind me. He asked me if I was really willing to let myself off the hook that easily and if I was just trying to avoid the much harsher punishment awaiting me. When I asked what he meant he told me that of course it would have to be a life as far away as possible from mountains. To never again see a mountain – would that not be a harsher punishment?
“So I did not jump. Of course, I attracted even more ridicule, but I knew that what my teacher had told me was right: It would be worse than death for me. To me, mountain climbing had been my life; it was the only reason I studied geology. To now live a life, eternally separated from the object of my passion, tormented by my own conscience – it really felt just. That was the reason why I applied for this job after graduation, why I became the geological engineer of the Bluewater. On the ocean,” he said with a sigh, “I am as far as I can be from mountains.”
“If that is what it’s going to be, we might as well get on with it and make the best of the time we have left,” Feng Fan noted, a sudden edge of enthusiasm in his voice. His entire body was readying to the occasion, flush with the energy of excitement.
“And what is it that you want to do?” the Captain asked.
“Climb a mountain,” Fan answered with a smile.
“Climb a mountain? Climb…?” The First Mate’s face suddenly twisted from puzzlement to outright shock. “That mountain?” He gasped, pointing at the mountain of water looming above them.
“Yes; now it is the world’s tallest peak. Where there’s a mountain, there will be someone to climb it,” Fan replied calmly.
“And how do you plan to climb it?” the First Mate asked.
“Isn’t it obvious? Mountain climbing is something one does with hands and feet; so I will swim,” Fan said with a smile.
“It looks like today fortune smiles upon you,” the Captain said with a wry smile, giving Feng Fan a slap on the shoulder.
“I believe so,” Fan replied. “Captain, there is one thing I haven’t yet told you: One of the four climbers on Everest was my girlfriend. A single thought flashed through my mind when I cut that rope: I don’t want to die; there is still another mountain to climb,” he said, pain and bright enthusiasm merging in his eyes.
“Why did you come here?” he asked the sphere above.
We are just passing by and we wanted to see if there was intelligent life here with which we could have a chat. We talk to whoever first climbs this mountain.
“Where there’s a mountain, there will always be someone to climb it,” Fan intoned, nodding.
Indeed, it is the nature of intelligent life to climb mountains. They all want to stand on ever higher ground to gaze ever farther into the distance. It is a drive completely divorced from the demands of survival. Had you, for example, been only concerned with staying alive, you would have fled from this mountain as fast and far as you could. Instead, you chose to come and climb it. The reason evolution bestows all intelligent life with a desire to climb higher is far more profound than mere base needs, even though we still do not understand its real purpose. Mountains are universal and we are all standing at the feet of mountains.
“I am on the top of the mountain,” Feng Fan interjected. He would not stand for anyone, not even aliens, challenging the glory of having climbed the world’s tallest mountain.
You are standing at the foot of the mountain. We are all always at the foot. The speed of light is the foot of a mountain; the three dimensions of space are a foot of a mountain. You are imprisoned in the deep gorge of light-speed and three-dimensional space. Does it not feel … cramped?
“We were born this way. It is what we are familiar with,” Fan replied, clearly in thought.
Then the things that I will tell you next may be very unfamiliar. Look at the universe now. What do you feel?”
“It is vast, limitless; that kind of thing,” Fan answered.
Does it feel cramped to you?
“How could it? The universe stretches out endlessly before my eyes; scientists can even peer as far as twenty billion light years into space,” Fan explained.
Then I shall tell you: It is no more than a bubble world 20 billion light years in radius.
Fan had no words.
Our universe is an empty bubble; a bubble in something more solid.
Feng Fan looked up at the stars, thinking of that distant world so very, very far away – so remote that even the light of that day must have reeled from exhaustion before reaching Earth. There, in that ocean long ago, Gagarin of the Bubble World had raised his head to the stars as Fan did now; and through the vast barrenness of space and the desolation of time, he felt a deep bond of kinship unite their spirits.
When he was atop the summit, Feng Fan had felt his life fulfilled. Up there he could have died in peace. Now suddenly, there was no one on the planet who could have been more afraid to die than he was. He had climbed to the rocky roof of our planet and now he had also climbed the highest watery peak the world had ever known.
What kind of mountain was left for him to climb?
He would have to survive; he had to find out. The primal fear of the Himalayan blizzard returned. Once, this fear had made him cut the rope connecting him to his companions and his lover. He had sealed their fate and left them dead to the world. Now he knew that he had done the right thing. If there had been anything left for him to betray to save his life, he would have betrayed it.
He had to live. There was a universe of mountains out there.
Mountain by Cixin Liu