Long is my thought process; short is the plot, if there is any.
With my certainty, I could tell that this story actually happened, with many more pieces of “my” life harmoniously unfolding in the same universe that views ours as a distant dream — as though momentum wasn’t conserved in our space.
And that is how exactly momentums are conserved.
12 Jun 2017
I wrote this short story for last year’s Science story collection, with a central aim to highlight how the world might have been changed if something was slightly different. The words below are copied exactly from the 2016 submission, so you know that they’re unadulterated, might contain minor errors and do not reflect the current mind state of me.
Perhaps the differences in my fictional world are more than Nuance, and yet, in there, our history only seems slightly different. On a cosmic scale, my hopes for both worlds stay the same.
By taking small steps, we live on to understand the workings of nature.
A short story by Frank Wang
In response to the prompt “What if things went differently in history?”
I. The Strange Waters
[August 15th, 1415 CE, Mombasa, Kenya]
Some clouds just flew over the eastern horizon. Beyond them, towards the rising sun, the crew aboard are straining to find their homeland. A massive Chinese fleet of ships stretched shadows onto the sea, onto the harbour adjoining the beach, and onto the land behind. There, thousands of civilians and guards of honour are gathering to see them off. On the ancient and smooth East African coastline, the ships look like sharp crests protruding straight from the seabed.
The 40 treasure ships and nearly 27,000 sailors and soldiers have come far. Before their arrival in Kenya, they set out from Eastern China three years ago, went to the Philippines, encompassed the Arabic Peninsula and visited the Strait of Hormuz. Along the way, many countries assumed allegiance to the mighty nation that had sent such enormous ships right before their eyes.
If one hasn’t been in the treasure ships’ ornamented chambers, the exterior is readily an engineering marvel. Wood from Southeastern China, after a brief season filled with ripening berries and intermittent drizzles, was crafted into vessels so endurable and immense that, some speculate, might even survive many extra trips of such distance and still accommodate findings from the new countries they approach.
The tribal chiefs at the banquet last night have already left the flagship. Now, workers are bustling to load the last batch of freight onto the deck. Among the cargos are animals and handicrafts from many countries – emissaries from across this continent have brought gifts and regards from their kings.
It is the fleet’s fourth exploration and indeed the longest one yet. Apart from a safe homeward sail, the purpose of this voyage has now been promptly fulfilled.
Time steadily passes, and the fleet’s shadows shorten. The tide is quiet this morning, and so are the crew members. Everyone is waiting for the command to set off and return – after another long but definite cruise to the northeast, they can get back to their familiar world, embracing their old lives, liberated from the current, endless vagabond days.
A man, his cachet definite, walks to the bow of the flagship and looked at his ships, now fully prepared and calmly arrayed. Having gone this far, well beyond the verge of the nation’s known world, surely, it is time to go. Surely.
Then, walking around the deck, he proceeds to pass on his order.
“Set sail …”
From between the ships, he glimpses the African settlement for one more time and wonders briefly. Before his crew’s endeavour, Africa was at best a place in legends, but now, he has been here.
Also in this brief moment, an idea, one that’s probably been with him since long, long ago, bursts into existence.
What else can be out there?
Along a coastline that still seems to extend indefinitely, what else could be out there? His eyes teem with not only resolution but endless curiosity.
Steadfast, he wants an answer.
“Sail on, don’t turn back.”
He called, as he reaches out to bow once again “We won’t stop until we approach the edge of the land” … “Sail on until we see the end of the sea!”
Nearly immediately, this decision is met with objections. “I don’t want to stay any longer in the strange waters!”, “We accomplished our designated ops already!”, “This act is forbidden … We’ll be denounced…”, “We are only allowed to go forward for three years! How dare you go beyond the emperor’s mandate?!”
Those are the words from the personnel nearby. Afar on other ships, only the sound of swords and splashes can be heard.
No help. The man calmly passes his order on to every officer and pays no attention to the chaos.
In the morning of August 15, 1415, Admiral Zheng He, the commander of Ming Dynasty’s overseas expeditions, refused to return after exceeding the mandatory time limit of three years. Under his command, cleaving the gentle waves of Western Indian Ocean, 31 ships sailed onwards along the coastline of Africa.
II. The New Continent
[May 4th, 2016 CE, New Continent II]
The orange sky is going to turn cyan-blue in an hour or so, and I still have time before my day officially starts. I feel like turning off my small lamp again – part in the hope to finally fall asleep; part because the ambient lighting outside will soon become sufficiently bright.
There are not curtains before the window at the far end of my room. I like to glance at the city from that direction as often as I can. Meanwhile, I usually cannot help but notice that the horizon’s curvature far surpasses that on planet Earth in my distant memory; Earth felt flat – flatter, at least – and less slippery and more colourful. Here, within the “New Continent II Station”, me and another 7.693 million people – some, but obviously not all, do come from the real New Continent on Earth – live together on Enceladus.
At present, even if I strain to, I can not see my home planet – Earth hasn’t risen alongside the sun yet. I remember that the broadcast told me that there was an Earth transit in the year that I arrived, and one should expect to witness a transit again soon. Generally, broadcasters on Earth call that event a “Saturn opposition”.
Speaking of the broadcast… I like the Solar System Radio Network, especially its show titled Earthlings. Ever since the commencement of human residence of the outer solar system 150 years ago, radio signal sent from space stations either near the Earth or at Earth L3 covers an 84-minute journey to reach here, and get demodulated, amplified and eventually heard by us. Last evening, the show reiterated that May 4th was the 600th anniversary of the First Encounter, between civilisations on the Eurasian Continent once profoundly segregated – and that the dedicated itinerant exhibition across the solar system would begin today in my city. They kept mentioning a name that dotted my middle school history, geography and art lessons…
Admiral Zheng He, he is called, I presume. To me, his tale seems relatively easy to summarise and recount. After all, he is just another explorer bold and lucky enough to make his name a piece of general knowledge, and my subject of interest of the day. I remember that I didn’t bother to listen more after that.
In the midst of May’s warm winter or mild summer, Saturn froze in the sky outside my room. Saturn, along with its modified, highly-reflective ring, starts to pour light into this city and the surrounding waters. Occasionally – not now, though – another moon might as well rise above the horizon and join Saturn’s service to emulate street lamps, illuminating the translucent dome above – apparently I remain more lucid than sleepy… which means that I should get up.
I could be late! The museum visit, I suddenly realise, cannot be “optional” in the next few hours at all. I recall that asked Caroline to go out today. Was it on Sunday afternoon …? … how clumsy of me to forget it already!
My apologies for mentioning all that so late, and for considering inviting her to go to the museum with me. In my mind, however, the museum visit could be equally about Caroline and Admiral Zheng. It’s a reason to hang out with her in the city – with free admissions. Why not? Is it going to be two large servings of history studies to slake our curiosity? Who knows?
I hear door bells – sounds charmingly skeuomorphic – Caroline is here now.
“Ready to get going?”
“Not quite…” I answer, “I still have to pack up.”
She smiles and waits outside my door.
The sky turns deep blue, and Saturn slowly reduces to a large silver crescent. While I am rushing, I think more. Caroline is my friend here. Her family have been here a lot longer than me, and I was told that she was really from the New Continent. Her parents are both scientists at the station – a kind of job I used to long for – but not everyone should be a scientist. I have decided to write for a living for 2016.
For every resident, food and energy are plenty; happiness is mediocre; gravity is artificial; current technology sketches its next generation… There’s really nothing to complain about. She and I step into a car.
Despite our extraordinary altitude, we needn’t look for the ground. After a short decent from my house’s launching pad, the car soon gains speed and merges into the traffic in mid-air below.
If you look around, all buildings are surrounded by the busy air traffic at various attitudes. Among them, the new buildings in town are shaped like trees, adorned by fractal-like branches originating from the centre, some of the branches penetrate below the surface, yet some expand to reach for the dome. Old buildings, on the other hand, are history outside museums. For instance, they built bridges everywhere before the hover car was invented.
Our vehicle surfs through small clouds and occasionally buildings. I remember that, near me, reflected by her fair hair, the blue skies seems like liquid sapphire along Saturn’s ring. Beautiful … I’d say. “The city is certainly a splendid place.” I diverted my eyes.
“Sure. We wonder at this all the time, don’t we?”
Across nearly a sixth of the circumference of Enceladus, not long after my apartment vanishes behind, we are at the museum.
III. The Collision of Worlds
Dedicated to the human race’s history, technology and arts, and, obviously, the development of “New Continent II”, the museum is in an old-styled three-story building with glass and old concrete walls.
“OK, I should’ve been here more often!”
“Same! I haven’t been here at all.” I said. Although I am unfamiliar with the area, it is certainly more crowded than usual. We arrived pretty early, but the entrance hall seems to be full.
The special display about Zheng is on the floor above us; we don’t plan to head straight upstairs yet, the hall is readily full of posters about that particular exhibition, celebrating.
“Today in 1416, Zheng with 24,000 personnel reached Britain. His treasure ships’ unexpected appearance interrupted the war between England and France. The adrift Oriental explorers first contacted the Europeans.”
That matches my general knowledge… I suggest we briefly go through the rooms on the first floor and take the stairs at the far end of the alley. Regular exhibits reside here. Records of the past are meticulously framed or shelved in their silent arrays all the time, as though time itself is the thing on display.
The things on the first floor come around Earth, they range from the prehistoric artefacts to photography from human’s pre-space eras.
Not much to our surprise, apart from the itinerant stuff on the next floor, there are regular, local exhibits from Zheng’s era. Most of them are weaponry, paintings and copies of documents.
I’ve learned about allopatric speciation; that’s the closest concept I can think about. Security and trust are hard to rebuild when people separate and reunite. For the first time, a sequence of ancient events is no longer only year numbers. I see a big, stunning picture. Shortly after Zheng’s arrival, a war was initiated between the worlds that ran into each other. Even though Ming Dynasty triumphed soon, with its highly centralised government, it gained no real control in any of the new lands they had found. The eastern and western cultures have found their balance in the 1490s, where law became the ultimate guideline of life in every nation, and, no longer at the mercy of the fearful unknown, knowledge became available to all.
The new connection was in many ways an augment to both sides. For example, European techniques such as gyroscope navigation and precise map drawing enabled the Oriental Navy to discover the New Continent and finish their journey around the Earth – without such an encounter, they would still think of it as flatland. China’s primitive beliefs in relativity were examined and formulated by Western mathematicians, and so on.
Caroline is essentially able to discern the old languages, while I prefer browsing the pictures and labels. As we walk along the pictures and paintings, Chinese drawings become less and less dominant – silver-plate photos and oil paintings gained global prevalence over time.
“The Exploration Age”, “The Great Exchange”, “Columbus’s first manned flight”… “Large Magallanes Galaxy”… “advanced farming”, “productivity drives people”. “Establishment of Contemporary Mathematics”; Physics; Metaphysics, laws of universal motion… “Industry”, “Tele-Communicator”; “‘Humans are born equal.'”, “Humans in Low Earth Orbit.”, “The 17th Century.”
To make, if any, fabulous use of the new technology, some materials are exhibited simultaneously across the solar system using some new VR technology. In the panoramic pictures taken 360 years ago, thrusters cast shadows over the major cities like aurorae every night. Also depicted are engineers collaborating and working with copper and iron (Pure aluminium, doped silicon and materials that we see today were not mass produced until the 1740s).
I also learn that it was in 1789 when astrophysicists Herschel and Segundo designed the first probe to investigate Saturn system. Enceladus was later decidedly terraformed – modified to (partially, for now) look or function like Earth. Saturn’s atmospheric hydrogen was collected from here and there, along with the water ice and liquid ammonia, to sustain lives on its moons. Real genius.
Somewhere in the middle, there is a golden plate commemorating the opening of our New Continent II, human race’s ninth space colony. It was written by some historian of the 1800s … whose name caused zero resonance in my mind. Caroline saw my vacant-looking eyes and read it as if she were the historian herself,
“…We met people there. Our people will conceive and share their beliefs and wisdom, fears and sorrows; we will welcome them into our hopeful amenities. Humans now communicate with each other…We are finally sovereign. Through all our failings and difficulties, we are finally capable of living up to our New Continent.”
“We have indeed come a long way.” I sigh as I realise that we still have the special exhibition to head to. So far, through war and peace, the air in the building felt lovely again.
Earlier, as we entered the museum, I saw an oil painting depicting some ships casting shadows on a beach, where many tiny figures were gathering. There were too many of them, rendering each individual’s appearance nondescript. Some characters seem to be startled soldiers, and some are frightened civilians.
The painting’s perspective is perfect, and the artist has left a footnote that reads, “ENCOUNTER – On May 4th, 1416, a fleet of enormous ships arrived at the east end of Atlantics.”
“A 16th-century recreation of the moment that Ming’s treasure ships arrived at Antrim, Ireland in 1416” The organisers added, and we walk on.
“I want to be like him when I grow up! Daddy.” A child with his parents walks past a nearby statue,
Admiral, Diplomat and Explorer. Zheng He,
While strange to me, we feel that the man’s look and build are well-portrayed. A surge of emotion occurs as I witnessed the man that shaped our history. Amid the winds and storms, during mutinies on the ships; when the first pilot broke away from the home atmosphere and when humans first photographed his sailing route through a telescope on Mars… It felt like that he’d always stand somewhere, stiffly and calmly.
After a short deviation on the first floor, we are finally here. We have entered the second floor from the far side, and therefore perhaps will have to go through the exhibition against the crowd.
1416… 600 Years indeed! Wondering and following Caroline, I vaguely imagine how things worked 600 years ago.
Are we going to see just more details, or is a new story awaiting us?
IV. Admiral Zheng He
However, the feeling of strangeness that I had when I saw the statute persists as I go through the biography of Zheng. Additionally, there are studies of Zheng across the eras. Concealed records, recovered remnants. A conversation nearby hints that it is the first time for some of the materials to go public.
When Caroline stops in front of one. Automatically, so do I.
“To him, his discovery could be not victorious at all. Maybe since the hero himself is far from us, what we take as granted are not so correct to the hero himself.”
“History has bold strokes…” I continue her statement. That is the way I feel.
We part into another alley and walk on to continue our investigation.
“Look at this book,” Caroline translates. This one is a notebook, full of characters I cannot quite discern, but in elegant handwriting. Zheng He has led China’s Overseas Expeditions for four times. In the last one, after visiting Eastern Africa, he did not stop as was mandated. In December 1415, after a storm that lasted half a month, Zheng He found himself reaching the end of the land. The place felt as if it’s still mid-summer. Later revisited by countless voyagers worldwide, the location was named Cape of Good Hope. There are other facts among the document. “Zheng He was born in south-west China, presumably into an Islamic background. In a war, his lost his family, and himself was forced to become a eunuch – how to explain ..” I get it. He suffered an extreme pain to become a permanent servant.
HERE ARE RECORDS OF ZHENG DURING HIS VISIT TO EUROPE’S CITIES, signpost says. In the arts, he looked like but a sight-seeing traveller today, gazing at the buildings and people. I really sense something questionable. – “So I’ve read before,” I didn’t really expect Caroline’s reply,
Perhaps, a feeling of insignificance came to his mind. In Europe, where Zheng witnessed artistic embodiment Greek mythological gods in perfect humans bodies. He perhaps simply wanted to go home; it was such an ordeal for him not to feel deficient or incomplete. He was culturally alienated to begin with.
“- … it will explain why he left Europe too soon!” I can also pick up things fast.
“Maybe, I am just speculating. When he first acquired the position as the Admiral officer, perhaps he was only hoping to go back to where he was born, or to find Makkah.”
Under a new perspective, it looks as if the characters in the previous artworks just popped back to 3D, and so is our impression of Admiral Zheng. In the reflections of the glass shelves, our eyes flicker with empathy and suspense. I know that they are for the stark reality of our hero.
Information is beginning to coalesce as we go through more documents on display. We come across writings saying that Admiral Zheng decided to leave soon after the First Encounter. A memoir of a European geographer says that he told Zheng that the earth is round, prompting him to hastily regather his crew and sail to the West.
“The discovery of New Continent!” We exclaim. An exciting discovery logically followed, just like that. “However, it was sad for the heroes that created history.” she carried on reading that medieval manuscript. When the homegoing Chinese fleet ended up in somewhere filled with only cactus and tequila, Zheng’s hope nearly broke. He struggled to venture westwards and crossed the New Continent for the first time in human history.
In 1422 when they fleet returned to China, Ming Dynasty has already closed its maritime borders. This time, it was China to be surprised to see ships appear at its harbour. However, the fleet did not bring good news.
The real Zheng soon faded into history, suffering from unexpected illness and endless self-pity and critiques from the emperor. In the midst of a war that rapidly spread across the Pacific, our hero passed away in the capital city in 1423. An idealised version of him took his place, to oversee the causal chains he had actuated but was never able to witness.
Shocked at our collaborative conclusion, we could memorise the story perpetually. Admiral Zheng did change the world, but that’s as much as truth. The adventures of his life failed to bring himself anything but sorrow. The scientists’ daughter is composed as always, “We are all blessed by the legacy of one man, who, albeit afflicted by this, changed the world deeply.”
“Had Zheng followed the emperor’s orders, things could be different. But there still will be someone later playing Zheng’s role to connect people… perhaps that person will suffer as well.” A distant tree building’s shadow tries to divide us, as Caroline smiles at me again.
Things dash all the way; history is a giant train. Whoever bends the rail, whenever, wherever, it keeps its momentum. History is so indifferent to its people, and I feel frustrated to apprehend that fact too late. I thought to myself.
“Should we leave the museum now?” Now, I think I won’t come back too soon.
“Even if it were much later, I’d say, old world would still reach the New Continent; compassion and understanding would come after conflicts, and adventures similar to ours would be experienced by a generation to follow, say maybe hundreds of years after us.”
Thanks to her, the hover car has been waiting at the door to pick us up.
“THINK OF THE POSSIBILITIES.” – One slogan near the museum gate reads. I find that suggestion helpful whilst a little disturbing.
Those are the words I hear, “In the post-Zheng/post World-War ages, people recovered from the conflicts and crisis around the globe and felt that new food and international trades were just the beginning. Across the vast seas and lands on earth, humans for the first time understood that no power can propagate into every heart but understanding.”
Until today I haven’t realised, in the slightest, that history could be entirely different while everything remains perfectly cold and logical; I haven’t realised, in the slightest, that for how much of the human history that individuals were forcefully, yet ridiculously, isolated by nationalities and races; I haven’t realised, in the slightest, that for how much pain and suffering it takes for the preceding heroes of our species to break the borders between people and to set sail for the sky.
Anyways, I do not feel very stable, for our hero’s real fate, and for the cruel momentum of history. Line by line, I strive to write a poem to read it to Caroline.
Amid the seas
we were voyagers to the infinite.
Voyagers to serenities
where oceans extend their verge,
just like us,
Voyagers to every sight
to every span of land,
countless wonders there await.
Under the stars
we are voyagers to the future.
Voyagers to worlds
where a soul is longing for light
just like us,
Voyagers to every life
to every mechanism,
real worlds behind mysteries.
Every now and then
knowing each other,
We suffer no more.
V. The Serendipity
[The Same Day, New Continent II, Administration Sector]
“How about coming over to our lunch?” She seems to be cheering me up. I think that I nodded, a little wishing to be soothed maybe.
Caroline’s parents warmly welcome me. Their house is structured exactly like mine, except for that I live in a monolithic metal tree, while they live amid a field of green grass and real trees. I have travelled a lot around in the school days, but I really haven’t been here before.
Half way through a scintillating meal, I begin to join Caroline’s recount about our findings today, as well as telling them what my troubles are, and reading them my new poem. I believe that they, as prominent scientists, can at least give me some explanations. Why the reality appears so fragile, and a great achievement nothing but serendipity.
Caroline’s father thinks for a while and tells me an interesting story.
“By the 5th century C.E., the Chinese regime had devised an entire agenda of how people should act in a solar eclipse, believing that the ruler’s virtue can prevent the sun from disappearing forever.” There is some gentle laughter at the table, “What added to the belief is that eclipses were gone every time after the ritual was performed. Things seemed reasonable! Therefore the rules solidified over the years with no one doubting.”
“But what really did the magic if you’d ask?”, asked her mother, “It is just celestial motion, with or without anyone on earth, eclipses just occur.”
“Humans were once profoundly confused about causal relationships between events, especially in the eras where the global cognizance of science and critical thinking haven’t been established.”
In the history of our civilisation. Had Rome 1st Century BCE, marched to the far East and encountered the collapsing Western Han Dynasty of China; or had Zheng decided to follow his emperor’s order to return on his 1415 expedition, what would the year 2016 look like? We remorse at the barriers between people in the past, what if that disconnection is maintained today? … No matter how close we were to the other possibilities, we are on our unique paths all the time. All your trouble is just a historical curiosity. To imagine the world where humans did not unite in the 1400s only serves this purpose.”
Briefly pausing our talk, he goes to search his office and hands me a printed photo of some star field. It doesn’t look like any usual stars; near it is a small point that appeared blue, like a dust spot on the camera.
“This is earth, taken in the 1789 Saturn Mission.” He smiles, as he makes the table,
“Our existence is the ultimate serendipity.”
My mind’s been wandering, strangely, in accordance to what Caroline told me at the museum. Like all life forms we know, marine, terrestrial, sub-glacial and aerial; simple, compound or technological, we are here today because that we build up our history on them – near misses, slim chances, sudden changes. The past will fossilise, hiding the fact that the future is a construct of playing cards.
Serendipities – I recalled my life’s story so far, up to the fact that I am born – could they be a vivid realisation of logics? Are they causal chains acting on a scale so magnificent that any observation focusing on any subset of it is left only one meaningful thing to find, probability?
History writes its own poems, and life as we know it has unwittingly come this far. A peculiar person in our history changed us, so did logics. Free wills embedded somehow in the fabrics of the cosmos, just in the way what 16th Century physicists said that we are somehow imprisoned in space-time. We set off ripples in the places we can’t see all the time. Perhaps we are connected, therefore. It’s a strange mixture of feelings.
VI. The Wanderers
“Could I go for a walk around your garden and this block?”, I expressed the gratitude to her family for the food and story.
The sun looks miniature but still brilliant. Newly cut grass gives away the fresh smell – Right, Caroline’s parents are also having a day off today… I was just wondering about that, why they had time to talk with me.
My wandering mind walks faster than me. The cosmos used to feel too static to be conjured up in a mundane consideration, but not this time. I feel as though I were witnessing the big beginning, in which I floated in the protoplanetary nebula surrounding a young star. Powerful – due to proximity – solar winds swept across the dust and me, connecting my senses with its octillions of siblings. Spontaneously, based purely on the exact distribution of every infinitesimally weighed spot, one particle began to fall into another to articulate into bigger clumps and form an accretion disc, from which will later come a new planetary neighbourhood.
I reached the control centre of New Continent II, giant dams filter air and collect water from geysers. There’s no more paved road. I should return.
Touching one of the billions of possibilities, I firmly held all of them. The disturbance produced by a single breath of mine may result in one more satellite for Jupiter or one less continent on the earth. What could be different? What else? I merely don’t know.
The conversation continues into the afternoon – perhaps the scientist family relax in that way. As I return, Caroline tells me they were just debating whether differential equations are the true essence of reality. I am far away from her parent’s science frontiers, but I feel that I am largely able to recognise the feelings and hopes they carry in their words.
Obeying traditional etiquette and curiosity, I am silently listening while also constantly attempting to join the conversations.
“… a new standard model. Someone found it recently… ”
“Apparently the discoverer is not one of us, but soon we will know who that person.”
A lake I’ve just been to reflects wavering sunshine, from behind the garden into the room. The dome starts to appear orange, giving our city a beautiful colour gradient.
“That was a small progress for everyone, and many will follow after.”
“Like always.” The atmosphere feels cosy and bright.
“- That’s right. Every small move is a new beginning leading somewhere else.”
Everything feels so cheerful here. I live here, one that is ever-new, reliable and real, one with a busy and booming human race setting foot in its planetary neighbourhood, and one with stories to happen between all people – between them and me – between us. I feel grateful for today’s experience.
Saturn’s silver-stroked silhouette leads my eyes to spot Mimas. An incomplete smiley face that they form marks the beginning of artificial illumination, and a night full of dreams that will follow soon after.
“There could always be a better future.”
“What a nice day that we just had!” I said.
“Yes. What a nice day.”
 Hormuz was likely only visited by a division of the Chinese fleet. i.e. they splitted before heading for Africa.
 Saturn II, Saturn’s tiny, shiny moon.
 Earth’s 3rd Lagrangian Point is located directly opposite the sun in earth’s orbit.
 To be more accurate, American Indians discovered the Americas. The second discoverer, on the other hand, could be the Vikings.
 Required to manufacture microprocessors
 Central or North America
 In the real 15th century, the policy of China became increasingly isolationist.
 Saturn I, another moon of Saturn. It looks like the Death Star from Star Wars.