Post-Deterrence Era, First Hour A Lost World
Cheng Xin walked toward the officers and asked them to take her to the site of the eruption. A lieutenant colonel in charge of security for the compound immediately dispatched two cars: one to take her, the other to carry a few guards for security. Cheng Xin asked AA to stay and wait for her, but AA insisted on coming and got into the car.
The flying cars hovered barely above the ground and headed to the mushroom cloud at a low speed. AA asked the driver what was wrong, but he didn’t know. The volcano had erupted twice, a few minutes apart. He thought it might be the first time in recorded history that a volcano had erupted within China’s borders.
He couldn’t have imagined that the “volcano” had once hidden the strategic fulcrum for the world: the gravitational wave antenna. The first eruption was caused by the impact of the droplet penetrating the crust. After destroying the antenna, it retraced its path and emerged from the ground, causing a second eruption. The eruptions were due to the droplet releasing its tremendous kinetic energy in the ground, not an outburst of material from the mantle, so they were very brief. The extremely high velocity of the droplet meant that it could not be observed by the naked eye as it penetrated or emerged from the ground.
Small smoking pits dotted the Gobi as it passed beneath the car: mini-impact craters from the lava and heated rocks that had been thrown up by the eruption. As they proceeded, the pits grew denser, and a thick layer of smoke hovered over the Gobi, revealing burning stands of tamarisk here and there. Though few people lived out here they occasionally saw old buildings collapsed by the quake. The whole scene resembled a battlefield where the fighting had just finished.
The cloud had dissipated a bit by now and no longer looked like a mushroom—it was more like a head of unkempt hair whose tips were colored crimson by the setting sun. A security line stopped the cars as they approached, and they had to land. But Cheng Xin persisted, and the sentries let her through. The soldiers didn’t know that the world had already fallen, and they still respected Cheng Xin’s authority as the Swordholder. They did, however, stop AA, and no matter how she screamed and struggled, they would not let her pass.
The steady wind had already driven most of the dust away, but the smoke broke the light of the setting sun into a series of flickering shadows. Cheng Xin walked about a hundred meters through the shadows until she reached the edge of a giant crater. Shaped like a funnel, the crater was forty or fifty meters deep at the center. Thick clouds of white smoke still poured out of it, and the bottom of the crater gave off a dim red molten glow: a pool of lava.
Forty-five kilometers below, the gravitational wave antenna, a cylinder with a length of fifteen hundred meters and a diameter of fifty meters suspended in an underground cave with magnetic levitation, had been smashed into smithereens and swallowed by the red-hot lava.
This should have been her fate. It would have been the best ending for a Swordholder who had given up the power to deter.
The red glow at the bottom of the crater attracted Cheng Xin. Just one more step, and she would achieve the release that she desired. As waves of heat buffeted her face, she stared at the dim red pool, mesmerized, until peals of laughter from behind her shook her out of her musing.
She turned around. In the flickering sunlight filtered by the smoke, a slender figure approached her. She didn’t recognize the newcomer until she was very close: Sophon.
Other than the pale, lovely face, the robot looked completely different from the last time Cheng Xin had seen her. She was dressed in desert camouflage, and her hair, once tied up in a neat bun decorated with flowers, had been cut in a short and efficient style. Around her neck was the black scarf of a ninja, and on her back was strapped a long katana. She looked valiant and heroic, but the extreme femininity that she exuded had not vanished completely: Her postures and movements were still soft and gentle like water, but now they were also suffused with a glamorous air of killing and death, like a pliant but fatal noose. Even the heat spilling from the crater could not dispel the chill she brought.
“You acted just as we anticipated,” Sophon said, sneering. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. The fact is that humankind chose you, and they chose this result. Out of all the members of the human race, you’re the only innocent.”
Cheng Xin’s heart jumped. She didn’t feel comforted, but she had to admit that this lovely devil had a power that penetrated her soul.
Cheng Xin saw AA approach. She had apparently found out or guessed what had really happened. AA’s eyes burned with fury as she stared at Sophon; she picked up a rock from the ground with both hands and smashed the back of Sophon’s skull with it. But Sophon turned around and brushed the rock away like a mosquito. AA cursed at Sophon using every profane word she could think of, and went for another rock. Sophon unsheathed the katana on her back, easily pushing off the pleading Cheng Xin with her other hand, and twirled the katana. It sliced through the air, faster than the blades of an electric fan, whining loudly. When she stopped, strands of AA’s hair drifted down around her head. AA stood frozen in place, terrified, her shoulders hunched.
Cheng Xin remembered that she had seen Sophon’s katana in that eastern leaf-house shrouded in fog and cloud. Back then, it, and two shorter swords, had rested on a refined wooden stand next to the tea table, looking more decorative than deadly.
“Why?” Cheng Xin muttered, as if asking herself. “Because the universe is not a fairy tale.”
Rationally, Cheng Xin understood that, had the balance maintained by deterrence continued, the brighter future belonged to humankind, not Trisolaris. But in her subconscious, the universe remained a fairy tale, a fairy tale about love. Her biggest mistake was not looking at the problem from the perspective of the enemy.
From Sophon’s gaze, Cheng Xin finally understood why she had been kept alive.
As the gravitational wave broadcast system had been destroyed and the sun’s ability to amplify radio waves had been suppressed, a living Cheng Xin posed no threat. On the other hand, in the unlikely event that humans still possessed some other method of broadcasting to the universe unknown to Trisolaris, eliminating the Swordholder might cause others to activate the broadcast. As long as the Swordholder was alive, however, the probability of that happening was virtually nil: Others would have a reason and excuse to shirk their responsibility.
Instead of the deterrer, Cheng Xin had been turned into a safety shield. The enemy had seen through her completely.
She was a fairy tale.
“Don’t celebrate too early,” AA said to Sophon, having recovered some of her courage. “We still have the spaceship Gravity.”
Sophon returned the katana to its sheath on her back in a single, smooth motion. “Foolish girl, Gravity has been destroyed. It happened an hour ago, when the handover occurred a light-year away. I regret that I can’t show you the wreckage because the sophons are in a blind zone.”
The Trisolarans had been planning and preparing for this moment for a long time. The exact time for the handover had been determined five months ago, before the sophons accompanying Gravity had entered the blind zone. The two droplets with Gravity had already received the order to destroy the ship at the moment of the handover.
“I’m leaving,” said Sophon. “Please convey to Dr. Luo Ji the deepest respect of all of Trisolaris. He was a powerful deterrer, a great warrior. Oh, and if you get the chance, also give Mr. Thomas Wade our regrets.”
Cheng Xin looked up, surprised.
“In our personality studies, your degree of deterrence hovered around ten percent, like a worm wriggling on the ground. Luo Ji’s degree of deterrence was always around ninety percent, like a fearsome cobra poised to strike. But Wade—” Sophon gazed at the setting sun behind the smoke, only a sliver of which now was above ground. Terror glinted from her eyes. She shook her head vigorously, as though trying to chase away a mirage in her mind. “He had no curve at all. No matter what the other environmental parameters were, his degree of deterrence stayed at one hundred percent! What a devil! If he had become the Swordholder, none of this would have been possible. This peace would have had to last. We’ve already waited sixty-two years, but we’d have had to keep on waiting, maybe for fifty more years, or even longer. And then Trisolaris would face an Earth equal to us in technology and power. We’d have to compromise.… However, we knew that humanity would choose you.”
Sophon walked away, taking large strides. She paused some distance away and turned around, calling out to the silent Cheng Xin and AA. “Get ready to go to Australia, you pitiful bugs.”
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