The Final Ten Minutes of the Deterrence Era, Year 62 November 28, 4:17:34 P.M. to 4:27:58 P.M.: Gravity and Blue Space, Deep Space
When the klaxons announced the droplet attack, only one man aboard Gravity felt a sense of relief: James Hunter, the oldest on the crew. He was seventy-eight, and everyone called him Old Hunter.
Half a century ago, at Fleet Command in Jupiter’s orbit, a twenty-seven-year-old Hunter had received his mission from the chief of staff.
“You will be the culinary controller aboard Gravity.”
This position was just a glorified name for the ship’s cook. But since AI programming did most of the cooking on a warship, the culinary controller was responsible only for operating the system. This meant, for the most part, inputting the menu for each meal and choosing the staples. Most culinary controllers were petty officers, but Hunter had just been promoted to the rank of captain; in fact, he was the youngest captain in the fleet. But Hunter wasn’t surprised. He knew what he was really supposed to do.
“Your real mission is to guard the gravitational wave transmitter. If the senior officers aboard Gravity lose control of the ship, you must destroy the transmitter. In unexpected situations, you may use whatever means you deem necessary to accomplish your goal.”
Gravity’s gravitational wave broadcasting system included the antenna and the controller. The antenna was the ship’s hull, impossible to destroy, but disabling the controller was enough to stop transmission. Given the materials available on Gravity and Blue Space, it would be impossible to assemble a new controller.
Hunter knew that men similar to himself had served on nuclear submarines in ancient times. Back then, in the ballistic missile submarine fleets of both the Soviet Union and NATO, there were seamen and low-ranked officers serving in humble posts who also had such missions. If anyone had come close to seizing control of a submarine and the missiles it carried, these men would have emerged, unexpectedly, to take drastic action to stop such plots.
“You must pay attention to everything happening on the ship. Your mission requires you to monitor the situation during every duty cycle. Thus, you cannot hibernate.”
“I don’t know if I can live until I’m a hundred.”
“You only need to live until you’re eighty. By then, the degenerate matter vibrating string in the ship will have reached its half-life, Gravity’s gravitational wave transmission system will fail, and you’ll have completed your mission. Thus, you just need to stay out of hibernation for the voyage out, but may return asleep. However, the mission will essentially require you to devote the rest of your life to it. You have the right to
The chief of staff asked a question that commanders in past eras would not have bothered with. “Why?” “During the Doomsday Battle, I was a PIA intelligence analyst stationed aboard Newton. Before the
droplet destroyed my ship, I escaped in a life pod. Though it was the smallest kind of life pod, it was capable of holding five. At the time, a group of my crewmates were headed toward me, and I was alone in my pod. But I released it—”
“I know about that. The court-martial results are unequivocal. You did nothing wrong. Ten seconds after jettisoning your life pod, the ship exploded. You had no time to wait for anyone else.”
“Yes. But … I still feel it would have been better if I had stayed with Newton.”
“I understand how our failures haunt us with survivor’s guilt. But this time, you have a chance to save billions.”
The two were silent for a while. Outside the window of the space station, the Great Red Spot of Jupiter stared at them like a gigantic eye.
“Before I explain to you the details of your task, I want you to understand one thing: Your highest priority is preventing the system from falling into the wrong hands. When you cannot ascertain the degree of risk with confidence, you should err on the side of destroying the transmission system—even if you should turn out to be mistaken. When you do decide to act, don’t worry about collateral damage. If necessary, destroying the entire ship would be acceptable.”
Hunter was in the first duty cycle when Gravity left Earth. During those five years, he regularly took a certain kind of small blue pills. At the end of the duty cycle, when he was scheduled to go into hibernation, a physical revealed that he had cerebrovascular coagulation disorder, which was also called “no-hibernation disease.” Patients with this rare condition suffered no ill effects in daily life, but could not enter hibernation because the awakening process would cause massive brain damage. It was the only medical condition discovered so far that could prevent someone from going into hibernation. When the diagnosis was confirmed, everyone around Hunter looked at him as though they were at his funeral.
Thus, throughout the whole voyage, Hunter had remained awake. Every time someone emerged from hibernation, they saw he had aged more. He told all the newly awakened the interesting things that had happened in the dozen or so years that had passed while they slept. The lowly cook became the most beloved figure on the ship, and he was popular with officers and enlisted men alike. Gradually, he turned into a symbol of the long voyage of Gravity. No one suspected that this easygoing, generous man held the same rank as the captain and was also the only man other than the captain with the authority and ability to destroy the ship in the event of a crisis.
During the first thirty years of the journey, Hunter had several girlfriends. In this matter he held an advantage others did not possess: He could date women in different duty cycles, one after the other. But after a few decades, as Hunter became Old Hunter, the women, still young, treated him as only a friend with interesting stories.
During this half century, the only woman Old Hunter ever truly loved was Reiko Akihara. But most of that time, more than ten million AU separated them. This was because Sublieutenant Akihara was aboard Blue
Space, where she was a navigator.
The hunt for Blue Space was the only undertaking where Earth and Trisolaris truly shared the same goal, because this lone ship heading into deep space was a threat to both worlds. During the Earth’s attempt to lure back the two ships that had survived the dark battles, Blue Space had learned the dark forest nature of the universe. If Blue Space someday mastered the ability to broadcast to the universe, the consequences would be unimaginable. The hunt thus received the total cooperation of Trisolaris. Before entering the blind region, the sophons had provided Gravity with a real-time, continuous view of the interior of the prey.
Over the decades, Hunter was promoted from petty officer second class to petty officer first class, and then, as a special promotion, became a commissioned officer. Starting as an ensign, he was promoted all the way up to lieutenant. But even at the end, he never had the formal authorization to view the live feed of the interior of Blue Space transmitted by the sophons. However, he did possess the backdoor codes to all the ship’s systems, and he often viewed a palm-sized version of the video feed in his own cabin.
He saw that Blue Space was a completely different society from Gravity. It was militaristic, authoritarian, and governed by strict codes of discipline. Everyone devoted their spiritual energy to the collective. The first time he saw Reiko was two years after the start of the chase. He was instantly smitten by this East Asian beauty. He would watch her for hours every day, and sometimes even thought he knew her life better than he knew his own. But a year later, Reiko went into hibernation, and the next time she woke up for duty was thirty years later. She was still young, but Hunter was already near sixty.
On Christmas Eve, after a wild party, he returned to his cabin and brought up the live feed from Blue Space. The view began with a diagram of the complex overall structure of the ship. He tapped the location of the navigation center, and the view zoomed in to show Reiko on duty. She was looking at a large holographic star map, on which a bright red line traced the course of Blue Space. Behind it was a white line that almost coincided with the red line, indicating the path taken by Gravity. Hunter noticed that the white line deviated slightly from Gravity’s true course. Right now, the two ships were still a few thousand AU apart. At this distance, it was difficult to track a target as small as a spaceship with certainty. The white line probably only indicated their best guess, although the estimate of the distance between the two ships was pretty accurate.
Hunter zoomed in some more. Reiko suddenly turned to face him, and, with a smile that made his heart clench, said, “Merry Christmas!” Hunter knew that Reiko wasn’t talking to him, but to all those hunting her ship. She was aware that she was being watched by sophons, though she couldn’t see her pursuers. Regardless, this was one of the happiest moments of Hunter’s life.
Because the crew aboard Blue Space was large, Reiko’s duty cycle didn’t last long. One year later, she entered hibernation again. Hunter looked forward to the day he would meet Reiko face-to-face, when Gravity finally caught up to Blue Space. Sadly, he knew that he would be almost eighty by the time that happened. He hoped he would get to tell her he loved her and then watch as she was taken away for trial.
For half a century, Hunter faithfully carried out his mission. He remained alert for any unusual conditions aboard the ship, preparing in his mind action plans for various crises. But the mission didn’t really put too much pressure on him. He knew that another form of insurance, utterly reliable, accompanied Gravity. Like many others, he often watched the droplets cruising at a distance from the portholes. But the droplets, in his eyes, held another meaning. If anything unusual occurred on Gravity, especially if there were signs of a mutiny
or illegal attempts to seize control of the gravitational wave transmission system, he knew that the droplets would destroy this ship. They could move far faster than he—a droplet could accelerate from a few thousand meters away and reach a target in no more than five seconds.
Now, Hunter’s mission was almost over. The degenerate matter vibrating string at the heart of the gravitational wave antenna, less than ten nanometers in diameter but running the entire length of the fifteen- hundred-meter hull, had almost reached its half-life. In another two months, the density of the string would fall below the minimum threshold for gravitational wave transmissions, and the system would fail completely. Gravity would turn from a broadcast station that posed a threat to two worlds to an ordinary stellar spaceship, and Hunter’s work would be done. He would reveal his true identity at that time. He was curious whether he would face admiration or condemnation from his crewmates. In any case, he would stop taking those blue pills, and his cerebrovascular coagulation disorder would disappear. He would enter hibernation and awaken on the Earth to live out the rest of his days in a new era. But he would hibernate only after seeing Reiko, which should happen soon.
But then the sophons fell blind. During the voyage, he had imagined hundreds of possible crises, and this was one of the worst possibilities. The loss of the sophons meant that the droplets and Trisolaris no longer knew everything happening aboard Gravity. If the unexpected happened, the droplets could not react in time. This made the situation far more dangerous, and Hunter felt the weight on his shoulders increase tenfold, as though he had only started his mission.
Hunter now paid even closer attention to happenings on the ship. The entire crew of Gravity had been awakened from hibernation, and that made monitoring difficult. But Hunter was the only member of the crew everyone was familiar with, and he was popular and had an abundance of social connections. Moreover, his easygoing manner and his insignificant post meant that most were not on guard in his presence. The enlisted men and junior officers, especially, told him things they wouldn’t dare say to senior officers or the psych corps. This allowed Hunter to have a full grasp of the situation.
After the sophons were blinded, strange things began to happen all over the ship: An ecological area in the middle of the ship was struck by a micrometeoroid; more than one person claimed to have seen openings suddenly appear in bulkheads, accompanied by the disappearance of certain objects that reappeared later, undamaged.…
Out of all these oddities, the experience of Commander Devon, head of the MP, made the deepest impression on Hunter. Devon was one of the senior officers on the ship. Normally Hunter did not interact with them much. But when he saw Devon seek out the psychiatrist—whom most people on the ship avoided
—he grew alert. Over a bottle of vintage whiskey, he finally got Devon to spill the story of his strange encounter.
To be sure, other than the micrometeoroid strike, the most reasonable explanation for all the strange goings-on was that the crew was suffering from hallucinations. The loss of the sophons might have, in some unknown way, triggered a kind of mass mental disorder—at least that was how Dr. West and the psych corps explained it. Hunter’s duty did not allow him to accept this explanation easily; but other than hallucinations or a mass mental disorder, the strange stories told by the crew seemed impossible. However, Hunter’s mission was to respond to impossibilities that somehow became possible.
Despite the massive antenna, the controller unit for the gravitational wave transmitter took up little space. Situated in a small spherical cabin at the stern, the controller was completely independent and not connected to the other parts of the ship. The spherical cabin was like a reinforced safe. No one aboard Gravity had the codes for entry, not even the captain. Only the Swordholder on Earth could activate the gravitational wave broadcast—in such an event, a beam of neutrinos would be transmitted to Gravity and switch on the transmitter. Right now, such a signal would take a year to arrive from the Earth.
But if Gravity were hijacked, the safety measures around the spherical cabin would not last long.
Hunter’s watch had a special button. When pressed, it would trigger a heat bomb inside the spherical cabin, which would vaporize everything inside. His job was very simple: No matter what the crisis, as soon as he judged the risk to be in excess of a certain threshold, he would press the button and destroy the controller, rendering the gravitational wave transmitter inoperable.
In a sense, Hunter was an “Anti-Swordholder.”
Hunter didn’t put all his trust in the button on his watch and the heat bomb in the cabin, which he had never laid eyes on. Ideally, he wanted to keep watch outside the control cabin day and night, but of course that would draw suspicion, and his hidden identity was his biggest advantage. Still, he wanted to be as close to the control cabin as possible, so he tried to regularly visit the astronomical observatory, also located at the stern. Since the entire crew was out of hibernation, Hunter had assistants to take care of his culinary duties, which gave him plenty of time to himself. In addition, as Dr. Guan Yifan was the only civilian scientist aboard and thus not subject to military discipline, no one thought it strange that Hunter often went to Guan to share the liquor that he was able to obtain due to his position. Dr. Guan, in turn, enjoyed the drinks, and lectured Hunter on the “universe’s three and three hundred thousand syndrome.” Soon, Hunter spent most of his time in the observatory, separated from the gravitational wave transmission controller by only a short corridor about twenty meters long.
Hunter was on his way to the observatory again when he passed Guan Yifan and Dr. West heading for the bow of the ship. He decided that he would take a peek at the control cabin. When he was about ten meters away, the klaxons for the droplet attack started blaring. Due to his rank, the information window appearing before him displayed very few details, but he knew that the droplets were, at this time, farther away from the ship than when they had flown in formation. He had about ten to twenty seconds until impact.
During these final moments, Old Hunter felt only relief and joy. No matter what happened next, he would have completed his mission. He looked forward not to death, but to his victory.
This was why, half a minute later, when the klaxons stopped, Hunter became the only one aboard who felt no relief from his extreme terror. The cessation of the alarm indicated, for him, great danger: In a situation of great uncertainty, the gravitational wave transmitter was still intact. Without hesitation, he pressed the button on his watch.
Nothing happened. Even though the control cabin was tightly sealed, he should have been able to feel the tremors from the detonation. A line of text appeared on his wristwatch display:
Failure: The self-destruct module has been dismantled.
Hunter wasn’t even surprised. He had already intuitively anticipated that the worst had happened. He had
been but a few seconds from relief, but the relief would never come.
* * *
Neither droplet struck their respective targets. Both brushed by Gravity or Blue Space at extremely close range—only a few tens of meters.
Three minutes after the attack alert was lifted, Joseph Morovich, captain of Gravity, finally managed to gather his senior staff at the combat center, in the middle of which was a giant situation map. No stars were shown against the dark expanse of space, only the positions of the two ships and the attack trajectories of the droplets. The two long white trails appeared as straight lines, but the data indicated they were parabolas with very low curvature. As the two droplets accelerated toward their targets in the simulation, their headings began to drift. The changes were small, but cumulatively, they resulted in the droplets barely missing their targets. Many of the senior officers had participated in the Doomsday Battle, and their memory of the sharp turns the droplets were capable of executing while moving at extremely high velocities still brought heart- stopping terror. However, the trajectories on the display were completely different: It was as though some outside force perpendicular to the attack vectors of the droplets had steadily pushed them out of the way.
“Replay the recording,” the captain ordered. “Visible light range.”
The stars and the galaxy appeared. This was no longer a computer simulation. In one corner, flickering numbers showed the passage of time. Everyone relived the terror of a few minutes ago, when all they could do was wait for death because evasive maneuvers and defensive shots were all meaningless. Soon, the numbers stopped changing. The droplets had already swept past the ships, but because they were moving so fast, no one could see them.
The display shifted to slow-motion replay of the high-speed recording. Since the complete recording, over ten seconds long, would take a long time to play through, only the last few seconds were shown. The officers saw a droplet pass in front of the camera like a faint meteor across the sea of stars in the background. The recording was played again, and froze when the droplet was in the middle of the screen. The image zoomed in until the droplet took up most of the display.
Half a century of cruising in formation with the droplets made everyone familiar with their appearance, and what they saw now shocked them. The droplet on the display was still shaped like a teardrop, but its surface was no longer a perfectly smooth mirror. Instead, it was dim and coppery yellow, as though full of rust. It was as if a magician’s spell of eternal youth had failed, and the marks left by three centuries of spaceflight had all appeared at once. Instead of a shining spirit, the droplet had turned into an ancient artillery shell drifting through space. Communications with the Earth during the last few years had given these officers some basic insight into the principles of strong-interaction materials. They knew that the surface of a droplet was held in a force field generated by mechanisms inside. This force field counteracted the electromagnetic force between particles, allowing the strong nuclear force to spill out. Without the force field, strong-interaction material reverted to ordinary metal.
The droplets had died.
Next, they reviewed the post-attack data. The simulation showed that after the droplet brushed by Gravity, the mysterious perpendicular force making small heading changes vanished, and the droplet coasted along its
final vector. But this only lasted a few seconds. Thereafter, the droplet began to decelerate. The combat analysis computer concluded that the force decelerating the droplet was equal in magnitude to the force that had changed its heading. The obvious conclusion was that the source of the force had shifted from pushing at the side of the droplet to pushing from the front.
Since the recording was made by high-magnification telescopic lens, it was possible to see the back of the departing droplet. The droplet turned ninety degrees so that it was perpendicular to its own direction of motion and continued to coast. Then it began to decelerate. The next scene seemed to be taken from a fairy tale—good thing Dr. West was also present, or else he would again declare the others to be suffering from hallucinations. A triangular object, about twice as long as the droplet, appeared in front of it. The staff immediately recognized it as a shuttle from Blue Space! In order to increase its propulsive power, multiple small fusion drives were attached to the hull of the shuttle. Although the nozzles of the drives all pointed away from the camera, it was still possible to see the glow they made as they operated under maximum output. The shuttle was pushing against the droplet to slow it down. And it was easy to deduce that it was also the source of the force that caused the droplets to deviate from their attack vectors.
After the shuttle’s appearance, two human figures wearing space suits appeared on the other side of the droplet—the side closest to the camera. The deceleration caused the figures to stick to the surface of the droplet; one of them held some kind of instrument in his hands and appeared to be analyzing the droplet. In the past, droplets had seemed almost divine in the eyes of humankind, not belonging to this world and not approachable. The only people who had ever come close to touching a droplet had been vaporized in the Doomsday Battle. But now, the droplet had lost all its mystery. Without its mirrorlike sheen, it seemed ordinary, broken-down, older and less advanced than the shuttle and the astronauts—some antique or piece of trash collected by the latter. A few seconds later, the shuttle and the astronauts disappeared, and the dead droplet was once again alone in space. But it continued to decelerate, indicating that the shuttle was still there pushing against it, only now invisible.
“They know how to disable the droplets!” someone cried out.
Captain Morovich could think of only one thing. Like Hunter a few minutes ago, he didn’t hesitate to push the button on his watch. The error message appeared in a red information window that appeared midair:
Failure: The self-destruct module has been dismantled.
The captain dashed out of the combat center and headed for the stern. The other officers followed.
* * *
The first person from Gravity to arrive at the gravitational wave transmission control room was Old Hunter. Though he had no authorization to enter the cabin, he wanted to try to break the link between the controller and the antenna. This would at least temporarily disable the transmission system until he figured out how to destroy the controller itself.
But someone was already there, examining the control cabin.
Hunter took out his sidearm and aimed it at the man. He wore the uniform of a sublieutenant on Gravity, not the uniform dating from the Doomsday Battle that Hunter expected to see—the man had stolen it. Hunter
recognized him from the back. “I knew Commander Devon was right.”
Lieutenant Commander Park Ui-gun, head of the marines on Blue Space, turned around. He looked no older than thirty, but his face showed that he had endured experiences that no one aboard Gravity could imagine. He was slightly surprised. Perhaps he didn’t expect anyone here so soon; perhaps he didn’t expect to see Hunter. Yet, he remained calm. With both hands half raised, he said, “Please let me explain—”
Old Hunter wasn’t interested in an explanation. He didn’t want to know how this man had boarded Gravity, and didn’t even want to know if he was a man or a ghost. Whatever the facts, the situation was too dangerous. All he wanted was to destroy the transmission controller unit. It was his only goal in life, and this man from Blue Space stood in the way. He squeezed the trigger.
The bullet struck Park in the chest, and the impact threw him against the cabin door. Hunter’s gun was loaded with special bullets designed for use inside the ship: They wouldn’t damage the bulkheads or other equipment, but they also weren’t as deadly as laser beams. Some blood oozed out of the wound, but Park managed to stay erect in the weightlessness and reached into his bloody uniform for his own weapon. Hunter shot again, and there was a fresh wound in Park’s chest. More blood oozed out, floating in the gravity-less air. Finally, Hunter took aim at Park’s head, but he didn’t get a chance for the third shot.
This was the scene that greeted Captain Morovich and the other officers when they arrived: Hunter’s gun was floating far away from him. The old cook’s body was stiff, his open eyes showing only white, his limbs twitching. Blood erupted forth from his mouth like a fountain, coagulating into spheres of various sizes drifting around him in a cloud. In the middle of the bloody, translucent spheres was a dark red object about the size of a fist, dragging two tubes behind it like tails.
Rhythmically, it pulsed in midair, and with every pulse, more blood was squeezed out of its two tubular tails. The object propelled itself forward like a crimson jellyfish swimming through the air.
It was Hunter’s heart.
During the struggle a few moments earlier, Hunter had slammed his right hand against his chest, and then, desperately, torn open his clothes. Thus, his bare chest lay revealed, and everyone could see that the skin was perfect, with not a single scratch.
“He can be saved if we get him into surgery right away,” Sublieutenant Park said with some difficulty, his voice very hoarse. Blood continued to spill from the two wounds in his chest. “Good thing that doctors don’t need to open his chest to reattach his heart anymore.… Don’t move! It’s as easy for them to pluck out your heart or brain as it is for you to pick an apple dangling from a branch in front of you. Gravity has been captured.”
Fully armed marines rushed in from another corridor. Most of them wore the dark blue lightweight space suits dating from before the Doomsday Battle—apparently they were all from Blue Space. All the marines were equipped with powerful laser assault rifles.
Captain Morovich nodded at his officers. Without speaking, they tossed their weapons away. Blue Space had ten times more people than Gravity, and just their detachment of marines numbered more than a hundred. They could easily control Gravity.
There was nothing beyond belief anymore. Blue Space had turned into a supernatural warship wielding magic. The crew of Gravity again experienced the shock they had last suffered during the Doomsday Battle.
* * *
More than fourteen hundred people floated in the middle of Blue Space’s spherical great hall. The largest portion, over twelve hundred, belonged to the crew of Blue Space. Sixty years ago, the officers and enlisted men of this ship had also lined up here to accept Zhang Beihai’s command, and most of them were still here. Since only a few individuals needed to be awake and on duty for regular cruising, the crew had aged only three to five years on average. They hadn’t experienced the bulk of the intervening years, and the searing flames of the dark battles and the cold funerals held in space remained fresh in their minds. The remainder belonged to the one-hundred-strong crew of Gravity. The two crews—one large, one small, wearing distinct uniforms and suspicious of each other—gathered into two clusters far apart from each other.
Before the two crews, the senior officers of the two ships were mixed together. Captain Chu Yan of Blue Space drew the most attention. He was forty-three, but looked younger, and he was the model of the scholarly military officer. Refined and calm in his speech and mannerisms, he even gave off a hint of shyness. But on Earth, Chu Yan was already a figure of legend. During the dark battles, he was the one who had given the order to turn the interior of Blue Space into a vacuum, thereby preventing the crew from death in the infrasonic nuclear bomb attack. Even now, public opinion on Earth remained divided as to whether Blue Space’s actions during the dark battle should be classified as self-defense or murder. After the founding of dark forest deterrence, he was the one who had resisted the heavy pressure of majority opinion aboard and delayed Blue Space’s return, thus giving the ship sufficient time to escape after the warning from Bronze Age. There were many other rumors concerning Chu Yan. For instance, when Natural Selection had chosen to defect and escape the Doomsday Battle, he was the only captain to ask to give chase. Some claimed that he had a different purpose in mind, wanting to hijack Blue Space and escape along with Natural Selection. Of course, those were just rumors.
“Almost everyone from the two ships is gathered here,” said Chu Yan. “Although much still divides us, we prefer to think of everyone as belonging to the same world, formed from Blue Space and Gravity. Before we plan the future of our world together, we need to take care of an urgent matter.”
A large holographic display window appeared midair, showing somewhere in space where the stars were sparse. In the middle of the region was a faint white fog, and the fog was etched with several hundred straight parallel lines, like brush bristles. The white lines had clearly been enhanced and stood out in the image. In the past two centuries, these “brushes” had become very familiar to people, and some brands even used them in their logos.
“These trails were observed eight days ago in the stellar dust cloud near Trisolaris. Please pay attention to the video.”
Everyone stared at the image, and the trails could be seen to grow in the fog. “How many times have you sped up the video?” an officer from Gravity asked. “It’s not sped up at all.”
The crowd grew agitated, like a forest struck by a sudden rainstorm.
“By a rough estimate … these ships are moving at close to the speed of light,” Captain Morovich of Gravity said. His voice was very tranquil. He had experienced too many incredible sights in the last two days.
“That’s right. The Second Trisolaran Fleet is heading for Earth at lightspeed, and should arrive in four
years.” Chu Yan looked at Gravity’s crew with caring eyes, as though sorry that he had to deliver this news. “After you left, the Earth sank into a dream of universal peace and prosperity, and completely misjudged the situation. Trisolaris has been waiting patiently, and now they’ve finally seized their chance.”
“How do we know this is authentic?” someone from Gravity called out.
“I can attest to it!” said Guan Yifan. Among the small gathering in front of the crews, he was the only one not in a military uniform. “My observatory had also detected the same trails. However, since I was focused on large-scale cosmological observations, I didn’t pay much attention to them. But I’ve gone back and retrieved the recorded data. The Solar System, the Trisolaran system, and our ships form a scalene triangle. The side between the Solar System and the Trisolaran system is the longest. The side between the Solar System and us is the shortest. The side going from the Trisolaran system to us is in between. In other words, we are closer to the Trisolaran system than the Solar System is to the Trisolaran system. About forty days from now, the Earth will also detect the trails we’re seeing.”
Chu Yan took over. “We believe that something has already taken place on the Earth. More specifically, it happened about five hours ago, when the droplets attacked our two ships. Based on information provided by Gravity, that was the scheduled time for the Swordholder to transfer his authority to his successor. This was the opportunity Trisolaris had been waiting for for half a century. The two droplets had clearly been given orders before entering the blind zone. This was a long-planned, coordinated attack.
“I must conclude that the peace brought by dark forest deterrence has been breached. There are only two possibilities: The gravitational wave universal broadcast has been initiated, or it hasn’t.”
Chu Yan tapped in the air and brought up Cheng Xin’s picture on the holographic display. This picture of the new Swordholder had also just been obtained from Gravity. Cheng Xin stood in front of the UN Secretariat Building, holding a baby. Her picture had been blown up to be as large as the “brush” bristles, and the contrast between the two images couldn’t be sharper. The basic color scheme of space was black and silver
—the depth of space and the cold light of the stars. But Cheng Xin resembled a Madonna from the East. A warm, golden glow bathed her and the baby, giving all those present the feeling of being close to the sun, a sensation that they had missed for half a century.
“We believe the latter scenario is true,” Chu Yan said.
“How did they pick such a person to be Swordholder?” someone from Blue Space asked.
Captain Morovich answered. “It’s been sixty years since you left home, and fifty for us. Everything on Earth has changed. Deterrence made a comfortable cradle, and as humanity napped inside, it regressed from an adult to a child.”
“Don’t you know that there are no more men on Earth?” someone from Gravity shouted.
“Humans on Earth lost the ability to maintain dark forest deterrence,” Chu Yan said. “We had planned to capture Gravity and re-establish dark forest deterrence. But we’ve just found out that due to decay in the antenna, the ability to broadcast gravitational waves will only last two more months. Believe me, this has been an incredible blow to all of us. We have only one choice: immediately activate the universal broadcast.”
The crowd erupted. Next to the view of cold space showing the lightspeed trails of the Trisolaran Fleet, Cheng Xin gazed at them, full of love. The two images portrayed their two choices.
“Are you really willing to commit mundicide?” Captain Morovich demanded.
Chu Yan maintained his serenity against the chaos. Ignoring Captain Morovich, he spoke to the crowd. “For us, initiating the broadcast is meaningless. Neither the Earth nor Trisolaris can catch us now.”
Everyone understood this. The sophons were permanently severed from home, and the droplets had been destroyed. Earth and Trisolaris thus had no way to trace them. In the vast, deep space beyond the Oort Cloud, even Trisolaran ships operating at lightspeed would never be able to find two motes of dust.
“Then you’re just seeking revenge!” an officer from Gravity said.
“Vengeance against Trisolaris is our right. They must pay for the crimes they’ve committed. In war, it is right and just to destroy one’s enemies. If my deduction is correct, humankind’s gravitational wave transmitters have all been destroyed, and the Earth is now under occupation. It’s very likely that the genocide of the human race is underway.
“Activating the universal broadcast would give the Earth one last chance. If the location of the Solar System is revealed, it would no longer have any value to Trisolaris because it could be destroyed at any moment. This would force the Trisolarans to leave the Solar System, and their lightspeed fleet would have to turn away. We may be able to save the human race from immediate annihilation. To give them more time, our broadcast will include only the location of Trisolaris.”
“That’s the same as revealing the Solar System! It’s too close.”
“We all know that, but hopefully this will give the Earth a little more time and allow more humans to escape. Whether they will choose to do so is up to them.”
“You’re talking about destroying two worlds!” said Captain Morovich. “And one of them is our mother.
This decision is the Last Judgment. It cannot be made so lightly.” “I agree.”
A holographic rectangular red button about a meter long appeared between the two existing information windows. Below it was a number: 0.
Chu Yan continued. “As I said earlier: together, we are one world. Everyone in this world is an ordinary person, but fate has put us into the position of making the last judgment about two worlds. This decision must be made, but a single person or even a few persons shouldn’t make it. This will be the decision of the whole world through a referendum. All in favor of broadcasting the location of Trisolaris to the universe, please press this red button. All opposed or abstaining, do nothing.
“Right now, the total number of people aboard Blue Space and Gravity, including all present and those on duty, is one thousand four hundred and fifteen. If the ayes reach or exceed two-thirds of the total, nine hundred forty-four, the universal broadcast will begin immediately. Otherwise, we will never activate the broadcast and let the antenna decay and fail.
Chu Yan turned and pressed the giant red button hovering in air. The button flashed, and the number below it turned from 0 to 1. Next, the two vice-captains of Blue Space pressed the buttons in quick succession. The tally went up to 3. Then the other senior officers of Blue Space, followed by the junior officers and enlisted men, filed past the red button in a long line, pressing the button again and again.
As the red button flashed, the tally crept up. These were the final beats of the heart of history, the final steps taken toward the terminal point.
When the number reached 795, Guan Yifan pressed the button. He was the first person from Gravity to support the broadcast. After him, several more officers and enlisted men from Gravity also pressed the button.
Finally, the number reached 943, and a large line of text appeared above the button:
The next affirmative vote will activate the universal broadcast.
The next person to vote was an enlisted man. Many others were lined up behind him. He placed his hand above the button, but didn’t push. He waited until the ensign behind him put his hand on his, and then more hands joined theirs in a thick stack.
“Please wait,” Captain Morovich said. He drifted over and, as everyone watched, placed his hand atop the pile.
Then dozens of hands moved together, and the button flashed one more time.
Three hundred fifteen years had passed since that morning in the twentieth century when Ye Wenjie had pushed another red button.
The gravitational wave broadcast began. Everyone present felt a strong tremor. The feeling seemed to come not from without, but from within each body, as though every person had become a vibrating string. This instrument of death played for only twelve seconds before stopping, and then everything was silent.
Outside the ship, the thin membrane of space-time rippled with the gravitational waves, like a placid lake surface disturbed by a night breeze. The judgment of death for both worlds spread across the cosmos at the speed of light.
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