Broadcast Era, Year 7 Sophon
For the first time, humanity witnessed the extinction of a civilization, and realized such a fate might befall Earth at any moment. The threat of Trisolaris, a crisis that had lasted close to three centuries, dissipated overnight, yet what took its place was an even crueler universe.
However, the anticipated mass hysteria did not occur. Faced with the catastrophe four light-years away, human society became strangely quiet. Everyone seemed to be waiting, but at a loss as to what they were waiting for.
Ever since the Great Ravine, although history had taken multiple big turns, humanity, as a whole, had always lived in a society that was highly democratic, with ample welfare. For two centuries, the human race had held on to a subconscious consensus: No matter how bad things got, someone would step in to take care of them. This faith had almost collapsed during the disastrous Great Resettlement, but on that darkest of mornings six years ago, a miracle had nonetheless taken place.
They were waiting for another miracle.
On the third day after witnessing the destruction of Trisolaris, Sophon invited Cheng Xin and Luo Ji to tea.
She said that she had no ulterior motives. They were old friends, after all, and she missed them.
The UN and Fleet International were intensely interested in the meeting. The expectant, lost attitude prevalent in society posed a terrible danger. Human society was as fragile as a sand castle on the beach, prone to collapse with a passing gale. The leaders wanted the two former Swordholders to gather some information from Sophon that would reassure the people. In an emergency session of the PDC convened for this purpose, someone even hinted to Cheng Xin and Luo Ji that even if they couldn’t get such intelligence from Sophon, perhaps it was acceptable to manufacture some.
After the universal broadcast of six years ago, Sophon had retreated from public life. Once in a while, she might appear in public, but only to serve as an expressionless speaking tube for Trisolaris. She had remained in that elegant dwelling hanging from a tree branch, though most of the time she was probably in standby mode.
Cheng Xin met Luo Ji on the bough leading to Sophon’s house. Luo Ji had spent the Great Resettlement with the Resistance. Although he did not directly participate or lead any operations, he remained the spiritual center of the resistance fighters. The Earth Security Force and the droplets had made every effort to seek him out and kill him, but somehow, he had managed to evade them. Not even the sophons could locate him.
To Cheng Xin’s eyes, Luo Ji appeared to have retained his upright, cold demeanor. Other than the fact that his hair and beard appeared even whiter in the breeze, the past seven years seemed to have left no mark on
him. But then, without speaking, he smiled at her, and the gesture made her feel warm. Luo Ji reminded Cheng Xin of Fraisse. Though the two were completely different, they both brought with them some mountainlike strength from the Common Era, and gave Cheng Xin the sense that they could be relied on in this strange new time. Wade, the Common Era man who was as evil and vicious as a wolf and who had almost killed her, also had it—so she found herself relying even on him. It was an odd feeling.
Sophon welcomed them in front of her house. Once again, she was dressed in a splendid kimono, and she wore fresh flowers in her bun. That vicious ninja dressed in camouflage had disappeared completely, and she was once again a woman who resembled a bubbling spring nestled among flowers.
“Welcome, welcome! I wanted to pay a visit to your honored abode, but then I wouldn’t be able to properly entertain you with the Way of Tea. Please accept my humble apologies. I am so delighted to see you.” Sophon bowed to them, and her words were as gentle and soft as the first time Cheng Xin had met her. She led the two through the bamboo grove in her yard, across the little wooden bridge over the trickling spring, and into the pavilionlike parlor. Then the three sat down on tatami mats, and Sophon began to set out the implements for the Way of Tea. Time passed tranquilly, and clouds rolled and unfurled across the blue sky outside.
A complex mix of feelings flooded Cheng Xin’s heart as she watched Sophon’s graceful movements.
Yes, she (or they?) could have succeeded in wiping them out, and had almost succeeded several times. But each time, humanity had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat through tenaciousness, cunning, and luck. After a three-century-long march, all Sophon had managed was to see her home annihilated in a sea of flames. Sophon had known of the destruction of Trisolaris four years ago. Three days earlier, after the light from the explosion had reached the Earth, she had given a brief speech to the public. She recounted the death of Trisolaris in simple words, and made no denunciation or judgment of the cause—the gravitational wave broadcast initiated by two human ships. Many suspected that four years ago, when Trisolaris had been wiped out, those who had controlled her from four light-years away had perished in the fiery flames, but her current controllers were more likely on the spaceships of the Trisolaran Fleet. During the speech, Sophon’s tone and expression had been calm. This wasn’t the same as the woodenness she had shown when she had merely acted as a speaking tube, but a manifestation of her controllers’ soul and spirit, a dignity and nobility in the face of annihilation that humanity could not hope to equal. People now felt an unprecedented awe toward this
civilization that had lost its home world.
The limited information provided by Sophon and the Earth’s own observations drew a rough picture of Trisolaris’s destruction.
At the time of the catastrophe, Trisolaris was in a stable era, orbiting around one of the three stars in the system at a distance of about 0.6 AU. The photoid struck the star and tore a hole through the photosphere and the convection zone. The hole was about fifty thousand kilometers in diameter, wide enough for four Earths laid side by side. Whether as a result of a deliberate choice by the attacker or coincidence, the photoid struck the star at a point along the line where the star intersected Trisolaris’s ecliptic plane. Viewed from the surface of Trisolaris, an extremely bright spot appeared on the surface of the sun. Like a furnace with its door open, the powerful radiation generated by the core of the sun shot through the hole; passed through the convection zone, the photosphere, and the chromosphere; and struck the planet directly. All life outdoors on the
hemisphere exposed to the radiation was burnt to a crisp within a few seconds.
Next, material from the core of the sun erupted from the hole, forming a fifty-thousand-kilometer-thick fiery plume. The spewed material was tens of millions of degrees in temperature, and while some of the material fell back onto the surface of the sun under the influence of gravity, the remainder reached escape velocity and shot into space. Viewed from Trisolaris, a brilliant tree of fire grew from the surface of the sun. About four hours later, the ejected solar material reached 0.6 AU from the surface of the sun, and the tip of the flaming tree intersected the orbit of Trisolaris. After another two hours, the orbiting planet reached the tip of the fire tree and continued to pass through the ejected solar material for about thirty minutes. During this time, the planet might as well be moving through the interior of the sun—even after the journey through space, the spewed material was still at a blazing temperature of tens of thousands of degrees. By the time Trisolaris emerged from the fire tree, it glowed with a dim red light. The entire surface had liquefied, and an ocean of lava covered the planet. Behind the planet was a long white trail through space—steam from the boiled-off ocean. The solar wind stretched the trail out, making the planet appear as a long-tailed comet.
All signs of life on Trisolaris had been cleansed away, but only the fuse of the catastrophe had been lit.
The ejected solar material caused drag against the planet. After passing through the material, Trisolaris slowed down, and its orbit fell lower toward the star. The fire tree acted like a claw extended from the sun, pulling Trisolaris down with each revolution. After about ten more revolutions, Trisolaris would fall into the sun itself, and the cosmic football game played between three suns would come to its end. But this sun wouldn’t survive long enough to see itself emerge as the victor.
The solar eruption also lowered the pressure inside the sun, temporarily slowing down the fusion within the core. The sun dimmed rapidly until it was but a hazy outline. The giant fiery tree growing from the surface, in contrast, appeared even more striking, more brilliant, like a sharp scratch made against the inky black film of the universe. The diminished fusion meant that the core radiation no longer exerted sufficient pressure against the weight of the solar shell, and the sun began to collapse. The dim shell fell into the core, triggering a final explosion.
This was the sight witnessed by humankind three days ago on Earth.
The solar explosion destroyed everything within the planetary system: The vast majority of spaceships and space habitats trying to escape were vaporized. Only a few extremely fortunate ships that happened to be behind the two other suns, which acted as shields, were safe.
Thereafter, the remaining two suns formed a stable double-star system, but no life would witness the regular sunrises and sunsets. The cinders of the exploded star and the incinerated Trisolaris formed two vast accretion discs around the two suns, like two gray graveyards.
“How many escaped?” Cheng Xin asked softly.
“Counting the Trisolaran Fleets far from home, no more than one-thousandth of the entire population.” Sophon’s reply was even softer than Cheng Xin’s query. She was focused on the Way of Tea, and did not raise her head.
Cheng Xin had much more to say, words from one woman to another, but she was a member of the human race, and the chasm that now divided her from Sophon could not be crossed. She resorted to the questions the leaders had wanted her to ask. The conversation that followed would come to be known as the Conversation
of the Way of Tea, which would profoundly change the subsequent progress of history. “How much longer do we have?” Cheng Xin asked.
“We can’t tell. The attack could come at any moment. But probabilistically, you should have a bit more time: maybe as long as one to two centuries, like your last experiment.” Sophon glanced at Luo Ji and then sat up straight, her face expressionless.
“Trisolaris was in a different situation from the Solar System. First, the broadcast only included the coordinates of Trisolaris. To discover the existence of Earth based on this requires examining the record of communications between the two worlds from three centuries ago. That will definitely happen, but it will take time. More important, from a distance, the Trisolaran system appears far more dangerous than the Solar System.”
Cheng Xin looked at Luo Ji in shock, but the latter showed no reaction. She asked, “Why?” Sophon shook her head determinedly. “We can never explain this to you.”
Cheng Xin returned to the planned questions. “The two attacks we’ve seen both used photoids striking the stars. Is this a common attack method? Will the future attack on the Solar System be similar?”
“Dark forest attacks all share two qualities: one, they’re casual; two, they’re economical.” “Elaborate, please.”
“These attacks are not part of some interstellar war, but a matter of conveniently eliminating possible threats. By ‘casual,’ what I mean is that the only basis for the attack is the exposure of the target’s location. There will be no reconnaissance or exploration conducted against the target beforehand. For a supercivilization, such exploration is more expensive than a blind strike. By ‘economical,’ what I mean is that the attack will employ the least expensive method: using a small, worthless projectile to trigger the destructive potential already present in the target star system.”
“The energy within the stars.”
Sophon nodded. “That is what we’ve seen so far.” “Any possible defenses?”
Sophon smiled and shook her head. She spoke patiently, as though to a naïve child. “The whole universe is in darkness, but we remain lit. We’re a tiny bird tied to a branch in the dark forest, with a spotlight trained on us. The attack could come from any direction, at any time.”
“But based on the two attacks we’ve seen, there may be a way to engage in passive defenses. Even some Trisolaran ships survived in the home star system behind the other suns.”
“Please believe me. Humankind has no chance of surviving a strike. Your only choice is to try to escape.” “Become refugees among the stars? But we cannot manage to get even one-thousandth of our population
“That’s still better than complete annihilation.”
Not by our values, Cheng Xin thought, though she said nothing.
“Let’s talk no more of this. Please don’t ask more questions. I’ve told you everything I can. I asked my friends here for tea.” Sophon bowed to the two, and then presented two bowls of green tea.
Cheng Xin had many more questions on her list. She was anxious as she accepted the tea, but she knew that
asking more questions would be useless.
Luo Ji, who had said nothing so far, seemed relaxed. He appeared familiar with the Way of Tea, and holding up his bowl in the palm of his left hand, he rotated it three times with his right hand before taking a drink. He drank slowly, letting time pass in silence, not finishing until the clouds outside the window were colored a golden yellow by the setting sun. He set down the bowl slowly, and said his first words. “May I ask some questions, then?”
Luo Ji’s respect among the Trisolarans had been shown through Sophon’s attitude. Cheng Xin noticed right away that while Sophon was gentle and friendly with her, she was awed by Luo Ji. Whenever she faced Luo Ji, her eyes revealed her feelings, and she always sat farther away from Luo Ji than Cheng Xin, and bowed to him slower and deeper.
In response to Luo Ji’s question, Sophon bowed again. “Please wait.” She lowered her eyes and sat still, as though deep in thought. Cheng Xin knew that several light-years away, on the ships of the Trisolaran Fleet, Sophon’s controllers were engaged in an urgent debate. About two minutes later, she opened her eyes.
“Honored Luo Ji, you may ask one question. I can only affirm, deny, or tell you I don’t know.”
Luo Ji set down the tea bowl again. But Sophon raised her hand, asking him to wait. “This is a gesture of respect from our world to you. My answer will be true, even if the answer could cause harm to Trisolarans. But you have only one question, and my answer must be from those three choices. Please consider it carefully before you speak.”
Cheng Xin gazed at Luo Ji anxiously, but the latter didn’t pause at all. In a decisive tone, he said, “I’ve considered it. Here’s my question: If Trisolaris showed certain signs of being dangerous when observed from a distance, does there exist some sign that can be shown to the universe to indicate that a civilization is harmless and will not threaten anyone else, thus avoiding a dark forest strike? Can Earth civilization broadcast such a ‘safety notice,’ if you will, to the universe?”
Sophon did not answer for a long time. Again, she sat still, pondering with her eyes lowered. Cheng Xin felt time flow more slowly than ever. With every passing second, her hope diminished, and she was certain that Sophon’s answer was going to be no or I don’t know. But abruptly, Sophon looked up at Luo Ji with clear eyes—before then, she had never even dared to meet his gaze directly—and answered without any doubt:
“How?” Cheng Xin couldn’t help herself.
Sophon looked away from Luo Ji, shook her head, and refilled their tea bowls. “I can tell you nothing more. Really. I can never tell you anything again.”
* * *
The Conversation of the Way of Tea gave the tiniest bit of hope for the expectant mass of humanity: It was possible to broadcast a safety notice to the cosmos to avoid dark forest strikes.
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