Deterrence Era, Year 62 November 28, 4:00 P.M. to 4:17 P.M.: Deterrence Center
With a deep rumble, the meter-thick heavy steel door opened and Cheng Xin and the others walked into the heart of the dark forest deterrence system.
More emptiness and openness greeted Cheng Xin. This was a semicircular hall, with the curved wall facing her. The surface was translucent, resembling ice. The floor and ceiling were pure white. Cheng Xin’s first thought was that she stood in front of an empty, iris-less eye, exuding a desolate sense of loss.
Then she saw Luo Ji.
Luo Ji sat cross-legged on the ground in the middle of the white hall, facing the curved wall. His long hair and beard, combed neatly, were also white, almost merging with the white wall. The whiteness everywhere contrasted strongly with his black Zhongshan suit.5 Sitting there, he appeared as a stable upside-down T, a lonely anchor on a beach, immobile under the winds of time howling overhead and before the roaring waves of the ages, steadfastly waiting for a departed ship that would never return. In his right hand, he held a red ribbon, the hilt of his sword: the switch for the gravitational wave broadcast. His presence gave the empty eye of this room an iris. Though he was but a black dot, the desolate sense of loss was relieved, giving the eye a soul. Luo Ji sat facing the wall so that his own eyes were invisible, and he did not react to his visitors.
It was said that Master Batuo, the founder of Shaolin Monastery, had meditated in front of a wall for ten years until his shadow was carved into the stone. If so, Luo Ji could have inscribed his own shadow into this wall five times.
The PDC chair stopped Cheng Xin and the fleet chief of staff. “Still ten minutes until the handover,” he whispered.
In the last ten minutes of his fifty-four-year career as the Swordholder, Luo Ji remained steadfast.
At the beginning of the Deterrence Era, Luo Ji had enjoyed a brief period of happiness. He had been reunited with his wife, Zhuang Yan, and daughter, Xia Xia, and relived the joy of two centuries ago. But within two years, Zhuang Yan took the child and left Luo Ji. There were many stories told about her reasons. A popular version went like this: While Luo Ji remained a savior in the eyes of the public, his image had already transformed in the minds of those he loved the most. Gradually, Zhuang Yan had come to realize that she was living with a man who had already annihilated one world and held the fate of two more in his hand. He was a strange monster who terrified her, and so she left with their child. Another popular story said that Luo Ji left them, instead, so that they could live a normal life. No one knew where Zhuang Yan and their child had gone—they were probably still alive, living tranquil, ordinary lives somewhere.
His family had left him at the time when gravitational wave transmitters took over the task of deterrence from the circumsolar ring of nuclear bombs. Thereafter, Luo Ji embarked on his long career as the Swordholder.
In this cosmic arena, Luo Ji faced not the fancy moves of Chinese sword fighting, resembling dance more than war; nor the flourishes of Western sword fighting, designed to show off the wielder’s skill; but the fatal blows of Japanese kenjutsu. Real Japanese sword fights often ended after a very brief struggle lasting no more than half a second to two seconds. By the time the swords had clashed but once, one side had already fallen in a pool of blood. But before this moment, the opponents stared at each other like statues, sometimes for as long as ten minutes. During this contest, the swordsman’s weapon wasn’t held by the hands, but by his heart. The heart-sword, transformed through the eyes into the gaze, stabbed into the depths of the enemy’s soul. The real winner was determined during this process: In the silence suspended between the two swordsmen, the blades of their spirits parried and stabbed as soundless claps of thunder. Before a single blow was struck, victory, defeat, life, and death had already been decided.
Luo Ji stared at the white wall with just such an intense glare, aimed at a world four light-years away. He knew that the sophons could show his gaze to the enemy, and his gaze was endowed with the chill of the underworld and the heaviness of the rocks above him, endowed with the determination to sacrifice everything. The gaze made the enemy’s heart palpitate and forced them to give up any ill-considered impulse. There was always an end to the gaze of the swordsmen, a final moment of truth in the contest. For Luo Ji, one participant in this universal contest, the moment when the sword was swung for the first and last time
might never arrive.
But it could also happen in the next second.
In this manner, Luo Ji and Trisolaris stared at each other for fifty-four years. Luo Ji had changed from a carefree, irresponsible man into a true Wallfacer, who faced his wall for more than half a century; the protector of Earth civilization who, for five decades, was ready to deal the fatal blow at a moment’s notice.
Throughout this time, Luo Ji had remained silent, not uttering a single word. As a matter of fact, after a person ceased to speak for ten or fifteen years, he lost his powers of speech. He might still be able to understand language, but he would not be able to speak. Luo Ji certainly could no longer speak; everything he had to say, he put into his gaze against the wall. He had turned himself into a deterrence machine, a mine ready to explode on contact at each and every moment during the long years of the past half century, maintaining the precarious balance of terror between two worlds.
“It is time to hand over the final authority for the gravitational wave universal broadcast system.” The PDC chair broke the silence solemnly.
Luo Ji did not move from his pose. The fleet chief of staff walked over, intending to help him get up, but Luo lifted a hand to stop him. Cheng Xin noticed that the motion of his arm was strong, energetic, without a hint of the hesitation one might expect in a centenarian. Then, Luo Ji stood up by himself, his posture steady. Cheng Xin was surprised to see that Luo Ji did not push against the ground with his hands as he uncrossed his legs and stood up. Even most young men couldn’t perform such a motion effortlessly.
“Mr. Luo, this is Cheng Xin, your successor. Please pass the switch to her.”
Luo Ji stood tall and straight. He looked at the white wall, which he had stared at for more than half a
century, for a few more seconds. Then he bowed slightly.
He was paying his respects to his enemy. To have stared at each other across an abyss of four light-years for half a century had bonded them by a link of destiny.
Then he turned to face Cheng Xin. The old and new Swordholders stood apart, silently. Their eyes met for only a moment, but in that moment, Cheng Xin felt a sharp ray of light sweeping across the dark night of her soul. In that gaze, she felt as light and thin as a sheet of paper, even transparent. She could not imagine what kind of enlightenment the old man in front of her had achieved after fifty-four years of facing the wall. She imagined his thoughts precipitating, becoming as dense and heavy as the crust above them or as ethereal as the blue sky above that. She had no way to know, not until and unless she herself had walked the same path. Other than a bottomless profundity, she could not read his gaze.
With both hands, Luo Ji handed over the switch. With both hands, Cheng Xin accepted this heaviest object in the history of the Earth. And so, the fulcrum upon which two worlds rested moved from a 101-year-old man to a 29-year-old woman.
The switch retained the warmth from Luo Ji’s hand. It really did resemble the hilt of a sword. It had four buttons, three on the side and one at the end. To prevent accidental activation, the buttons required some strength to press, and they had to be pressed in a certain order.
Luo Ji backed up two steps and nodded at the three people in front of him. With steady, strong strides, he walked toward the door.
Cheng Xin noticed that, throughout the entire process, no one offered a word of thanks to Luo Ji for his fifty-four years of service. She didn’t know if the PDC chair or the fleet chief of staff meant to say something, but she could not recall any of the rehearsals for the ceremony including plans for thanking the old Swordholder.
Humankind did not feel grateful to Luo Ji.
In the lobby, a few black-suited men stopped Luo Ji. One of them said, “Mr. Luo, on behalf of the Prosecution for the International Tribunal, we inform you that you have been accused of suspected mundicide. You are under arrest and will be investigated.”
Luo Ji did not even spare them a glance as he continued to walk toward the elevator. The prosecutors stepped aside instinctively. Perhaps Luo Ji did not even notice them. The sharp light in his eyes had been extinguished, and in its place was a tranquility like the glow of a sunset. His three-century-long mission was finally over, and the heavy load of responsibility was off his shoulders. From now on, even if the feminized humankind saw him as a devil and a monster, they all had to admit that his victory was unsurpassed in the entire history of civilization.
The steel door had remained open, and Cheng Xin heard the words spoken in the lobby. She felt an impulse to rush over and thank Luo Ji but stopped herself. Dejectedly, she watched him disappear into the elevator.
The PDC chair and the fleet chief of staff left as well, saying nothing.
With a deep rumble, the steel door closed. Cheng Xin felt her previous life seep out of the narrowing crack in the door like water escaping from a funnel. When the door shut completely, a new Cheng Xin was born.
She looked at the red switch in her hand. It was already a part of her. She and it would be inseparable from
now on. Even when she slept, she had to keep it by her pillow.
The white, semicircular hall was deathly silent, as though time was sealed in here and no longer flowed. It really did resemble a tomb. But this would be her entire world from now on. She decided that she had to give life to this place. She didn’t want to be like Luo Ji. She wasn’t a warrior, a duelist; she was a woman, and she needed to live here for a long time—perhaps a decade, perhaps half a century. Indeed, she had been preparing for this mission her whole life. Now that she stood at the starting point of her long journey, she felt calm.
But fate had other ideas. Her career as the Swordholder, a career she had been preparing for since her birth, lasted only fifteen minutes from the moment she accepted the red switch.
do you like《Death's End》? do you likeliu? like to praise