Broadcast Era, Year 7 Yun Tianming’s Fairy Tales
A jubilant AA said to Cheng Xin, “Before the Deterrence Era, clothes with animated images were popular. Back then, everyone looked like blinking Christmas trees, but now, only children dress like that. Classical looks are in vogue again.”
But AA’s eyes were saying something else entirely. Her eyes dimmed. This interpretation looks very good, but it’s still impossible to be certain. We can never get confirmation.
Cheng Xin said, “I’m most surprised that precious metals and gems no longer exist! Gold is now a common metal, and both of our drinking glasses are made of diamonds.… Did you know that where—er, when—I come from, owning a tiny diamond—like this big—would have been an unattainable dream for most girls.”
Her eyes were saying, No, AA, this time it’s different. We can be sure.
“Well, at least you had cheap aluminum. Before the invention of electrolysis, aluminum was a precious metal as well. I’ve heard that some kings even had crowns made of aluminum.”
How can we be sure?
Cheng Xin couldn’t express what she wanted with only her eyes. IDC had once offered to build her a sophon-free room in her apartment. That would have involved a large amount of noisy equipment, so she had turned them down. Now she regretted that decision.
“Snow-wave paper,” she whispered.
AA’s eyes lit up again. The flame of excitement burned even brighter than before.
“There’s really nothing else that will flatten this?”
“No. Only the obsidian from He’ershingenmosiken will do the job. I was hoping to get the obsidian slab back from Needle-Eye.”
The clock in the corner of the room sounded. Ethereal looked up and saw it was almost sunrise. He looked down and saw that only about a palm’s width of the snow-wave paper lay flat on the floor, not enough for a painting. He dropped the iron and sighed.
* * *
A scroll was a rolled-up sheet of paper with curvature; a section was pulled out and ironed flat, decreasing the curvature.
This was clearly a hint for the difference in space in front of and behind a ship driven by curvature
propulsion. It couldn’t mean anything else. “Let’s go,” said Cheng Xin as she got up.
“Yes,” AA said. They needed to get to the nearest sophon-free room.
* * *
Two days later, the IDC chair announced at a committee meeting that the heads of all the working groups had unanimously endorsed the curvature propulsion interpretation.
Yun Tianming was telling the Earth that the Trisolaran ships used space curvature drives.
This was an extremely important piece of strategic intelligence. Out of all the possible paths for researching lightspeed spaceflight, curvature propulsion was confirmed to be feasible. Like a beacon in dark night, this indicated the right direction for further development of human spaceflight technology.
Equally important was the fact that the interpretation provided the model for how Tianming had hidden his message in the three stories. He employed two basic methods: dual-layer metaphors and two-dimensional metaphors.
The dual-layer metaphors in the stories did not directly point to the real meaning, but to something far simpler. The tenor of this first metaphor became the vehicle for a second metaphor, which pointed to the real intelligence. In the current example, the princess’s boat, the He’ershingenmosiken soap, and the Glutton’s Sea formed a metaphor for a paper boat driven by soap. The paper boat, in turn, pointed to curvature propulsion. Previous attempts at decipherment had failed largely due to people’s habitual belief that the stories only involved a single layer of metaphors to hide the real message.
The two-dimensional metaphors were a technique used to resolve the ambiguities introduced by literary devices employed in conveying strategic intelligence. After a dual-layer metaphor, a single-layer supporting metaphor was added to confirm the meaning of the dual-layer metaphor. In the current example, the curved snow-wave paper and the ironing required to flatten it served as a metaphor for curved space, confirming the interpretation of the soap-driven boat. If one viewed the stories as a two-dimensional plane, the dual-layer metaphor only provided one coordinate; the supporting single-layer metaphor provided a second coordinate that fixed the interpretation on the plane. Thus, this single-layer metaphor was also called the bearing coordinate. Viewed by itself, the bearing coordinate seemed meaningless, but once combined with the dual- layer metaphor, it resolved the inherent ambiguities in literary language.
“A subtle and sophisticated system,” a PIA specialist said admiringly.
All the committee members congratulated Cheng Xin and AA. AA, who had always been looked down on, saw her status greatly elevated among the committee members.
Cheng Xin’s eyes moistened. She was thinking of Tianming, of the man who struggled alone in the long night of outer space and an eerie, sinister alien society. To convey his important message to the human race, he must have racked his brain until he had devised such a metaphorical system, and then spent ages in his lonely existence to create over a hundred fairy tales and carefully disguise the intelligence report in three of those stories. Three centuries ago, he had given Cheng Xin a star; now, he brought hope to the human race.
Thereafter, steady progress was made in deciphering the message. Other than the discovery of the metaphorical system, the effort was also aided by another guess that was commonly accepted, though
unconfirmed: While the first part of the message to be successfully deciphered involved escape from the Solar System, the rest of the message likely had to do with the safety notice.
The interpreters soon realized that compared to the first bit of intelligence, the rest of the information hidden in the three stories was far more complex.
At the next IDC meeting, the chair produced a custom-made umbrella that looked just like the one in the fairy tales. The black umbrella had eight ribs, and at the end of each was a small stone sphere. In this era, umbrellas were no longer in common use. To avoid the rain, modern people used something called a rainshield, a device about the size of a flashlight that protected the user by blowing air up to form an invisible canopy. People certainly knew about umbrellas and saw them in movies, but few had experience with the real thing. Curious, they played with the chair’s umbrella, and noticed that, just like in the stories, the canopy could be kept open by spinning. Spinning faster or slower resulted in corresponding alarm sounds.
“This is really tiring,” someone complained as he spun the umbrella.
Everyone gained new respect for the princess’s wet nurse, who’d managed to spin the umbrella nonstop for a whole day.
AA took over the umbrella. Her hands weren’t as strong, and the canopy began to fall. They all heard the warning birdsong.
Cheng Xin had kept her eyes on the umbrella since the chair had opened it. Now she cried out to AA, “Don’t stop!”
AA spun faster, and the birdsong stopped. “Faster,” said Cheng Xin.
AA put all her strength into spinning, and the wind chime began to play. Then Cheng Xin asked her to slow down, until the birdsong appeared. This went back and forth a few times.
“This is not an umbrella at all!” said Cheng Xin. “But I know what it is now.”
Bi Yunfeng, who stood to the side, nodded. “Me too.” Then he turned to Cao Bin. “Probably only the three of us can recognize this object.”
“Yes,” said an excited Cao. “But even in our time, this was rarely seen.”
Some of the attendees looked at these three individuals from the past; others looked at the umbrella. All were puzzled, but also expectant.
“It’s a centrifugal governor,” said Cheng Xin. “For steam engines.” “What’s that? Some kind of control circuit?”
Bi Yunfeng shook his head. “The world wasn’t electrified back when this was invented.”
Cao Bin explained. “This was a device from the eighteenth century for regulating the speed of a steam engine. It’s made of two or four lever arms equipped with spherical masses at the ends and a central spindle with a sleeve—it looks just like this umbrella, except with fewer ribs. The steam engine’s operation rotates the spindle. When it spins too fast, the metal balls lift the lever arms due to centrifugal force, which pulls up on the sleeve and reduces the aperture of the throttle valve connected to the sleeve, thereby reducing the fluid entering the cylinder and the engine’s speed. Conversely, when it spins too slowly, the lever arms fall due to the weight of the metal balls—like an umbrella closing—and the sleeve is pushed down, increasing the aperture of the throttle valve and the speed of the engine.… This was one of the earliest industrial automatic
Thus was the first level of the dual-layer metaphor in the umbrella decoded. But unlike the soap-propelled boat, the centrifugal governor didn’t seem to clearly point to anything. This second-layer metaphor could be interpreted in multiple ways, with two possibilities deemed most likely: negative-feedback automatic control and constant speed.
The interpreters began to look for the corresponding bearing coordinate for this dual-layer metaphor. Soon, they fixed on Prince Deep Water. The prince’s height didn’t change in the observers’ eyes regardless of distance. This could also be interpreted in multiple ways, with two possibilities being most obvious: a method of information transmission where the signal strength did not decay due to distance, or a physical quantity that remained constant regardless of the frame of reference used.
Taken together with the metaphorical meanings of the umbrella, the true meaning instantly emerged: a constant speed that did not change with the frame of reference.
Clearly, it referred to the speed of light.
Unexpectedly, the interpreters found yet another bearing coordinate for the metaphor of the umbrella.
The He’ershingenmosiken bath soap is made from those bubbles, but collecting the bubbles is no easy matter. The bubbles drift very fast in the wind.… Only if someone were running as fast as the bubbles, such that they’re at rest relative to the bubbles, would they be able to see them. This is possible only by riding the fastest horses.… The soap-makers ride these horses to chase after the wind and try to collect the bubbles with a thin gauze net.… The bubbles have no weight, which is why pure, authentic He’ershingenmosiken soap also has no weight. It’s the lightest substance in the world.…
The fastest; with no weight, or massless—this was a clear, single-layer metaphor for light.
Everything indicated that the umbrella stood in for light, but capturing the bubbles from the bubble tree had two possible interpretations: collecting the power of light or lowering the speed of light.
Most interpreters didn’t think the first interpretation had much to do with humanity’s strategic goals, so most of the focus was on the second interpretation.
Although they still couldn’t tell the exact meaning of the message, the interpreters debated the second interpretation, concentrating on the connection between lowering the speed of light and the cosmic safety notice.
“Suppose that we could lower the speed of light in the Solar System. That is, within the Kuiper Belt or Neptune’s orbit, we could produce an effect observable from a distance—at cosmic scales.”
This thought excited everyone.
“Suppose we reduced the speed of light by ten percent within the Solar System—would that make a cosmic observer think we’re safer?”
“Undoubtedly. If humans possessed lightspeed spaceships, it would take them longer to emerge from the Solar System. But it wouldn’t mean that much.”
“To really indicate to the universe that we’re safe, a reduction by ten percent is insufficient. We may have to reduce the speed of light to ten percent of its original value, or maybe even one percent. Observers would see that we’ve surrounded ourselves in a buffer zone that made certain that our ships would take a long time to
emerge from the Solar System. This should increase their feelings of safety.”
“But by that reasoning, lowering the speed of light to one-tenth of one percent would be insufficient. Think about it: Even at three hundred kilometers per second, it still wouldn’t take that long to get out of the Solar System. Also, if humans were capable of modifying a physical constant within a region of space with a radius of fifty astronomical units, then this would be tantamount to a declaration that humans possessed very advanced technology. Instead of a cosmic safety notice, it would be a cosmic danger warning!”
From the dual-layer metaphor of the umbrella and the bearing coordinates provided by Prince Deep Water and the bubble tree, the interpreters were able to ascertain the general tenor of their import, but not the specific strategic intelligence. The metaphor was no longer two-dimensional but three-dimensional. Some started to guess at the existence of yet another bearing coordinate, and the interpreters searched exhaustively through the stories, but they turned up nothing.
Just then, the mysterious name He’ershingenmosiken was finally deciphered.
* * *
A linguistic working group was added by the IDC specifically to deal with He’ershingenmosiken. A historical linguist and philologist, Palermo, had been added to the group because his expertise differed from the others’. Instead of focusing on one language family, he was familiar with the ancient languages of many linguistic families. But even Palermo could offer no insight on this strange name. That he succeeded was due to an unexpected stroke of good luck, and had little to do with his professional expertise.
One morning, after Palermo woke up, his girlfriend, a blond Scandinavian, asked him whether he’d ever been to her homeland.
“Norway? No, never.”
“Then why were you mumbling those two place names in your dream?” “What names?”
“Helseggen and Mosken.”
The names sounded vaguely familiar to Palermo. Since his girlfriend had nothing to do with the IDC, it was a little eerie to hear those sounds coming from her. “You mean He’ershingenmosiken?”
“Yes, though you’re running them together and not saying them quite right.”
“I’m saying the name of a single place. It’s a Chinese transliteration—so the sounds are approximate. If you break the syllables into arbitrary groups, they probably sound like the names of many places in different languages.”
“But both of these places are in Norway.” “A coincidence, that’s all.”
“Let me tell you, the average Norwegian isn’t likely to know those places either. They are ancient names, no longer used. I know of them only because my specialty is Norwegian history. Both are in Nordland County.”
“My dear, that’s still just a coincidence. You can break that string of syllables anywhere.”
“Oh please, stop teasing! You must have known that Helseggen is the name of a mountain, and Mosken is a tiny island in the Loften archipelago.”
“I really didn’t. Look, there’s a phenomenon in linguistics where a listener who doesn’t know the language will arbitrarily divide a series of syllables into groupings almost subconsciously. That’s what’s happening here.”
Palermo had encountered such arbitrary divisions numerous times during his work for the IDC, so he didn’t take his girlfriend’s “discovery” seriously. But what she said next changed everything.
“Fine, let me point out one more thing: Helseggen is located right next to the sea. You can see Mosken from the top—it’s the closest isle to Helseggen!”
* * *
Two days later, Cheng Xin stood on Mosken Island and looked over the sea at the craggy cliffs of Helseggen. The cliffs were black, and because the sky was overcast, the sea appeared black as well. Only a white line of surf appeared at the foot of the cliffs. Before coming here, Cheng Xin had heard that although this location was within the Arctic Circle, warm sea currents made the climate relatively mild. However, the wind coming off the sea still chilled her.
The steep, craggy Loften Islands were carved by glaciers, and formed a 160-kilometer-long barrier between the North Sea and deep Vestfjorden, like a wall that divided the Arctic Ocean from the Scandinavian Peninsula. The currents between the islands were strong and rapid. In the past, few people had inhabited the islands, and most were seasonal fishermen. Now that seafood mainly came from aquaculture, open-sea fishing had virtually disappeared. The islands had again grown desolate, and probably resembled how they had looked during the time of the Vikings.
Mosken was only a tiny isle in the archipelago, and Helseggen was a nameless mountain—these names had changed at the end of the Crisis Era.
Faced with the forlorn desolation at the world’s end, Cheng Xin nonetheless felt serenity in her heart. Not long ago, she had thought her own life had reached its terminus, but now there were many reasons to continue living. She saw a sliver of blue revealed at the edge of the leaden sky, and the sun peeked out of the opening for a few minutes, instantaneously changing this cold world. It reminded her of a line from Tianming’s stories:
… as if the painter of this world-picture scattered a handful of gold dust boldly over the surface of the painting. This was her life now, hope hidden in despair, warmth felt through frost.
AA had come with her, as well as a few IDC experts, including Bi Yunfeng, Cao Bin, and Palermo the linguist.
Mosken’s only inhabitant was an old man named Jason. He was more than eighty years of age and had come from the Common Era. His square face showed the marks left by the years and reminded Cheng Xin of Fraisse. When he was asked if there was anything special in the vicinity of Helseggen and Mosken, Jason pointed to the western edge of the island.
“Of course. Look there.”
They saw a white lighthouse. Although it was only dusk, the lighthouse was already lit and blinked rhythmically.
“What’s that for?” asked AA.
“Ha! Children these days…” Jason shook his head. “It’s an ancient navigation aid. Back during the Common Era, I was an engineer responsible for designing lighthouses and beacon lights. As a matter of fact,
many lighthouses remained in use until the Crisis Era, though they’re all gone by now. I built this lighthouse here so that kids would know that such a thing existed once.”
The IDC members were all interested in the lighthouse. It reminded them of the centrifugal governor for steam engines, another ancient technology that had disappeared. But a brief investigation showed that this couldn’t be what they were looking for. The lighthouse had been constructed recently and utilized modern building materials that were strong and light. It had taken only half a month to complete. Jason was also certain that historically, Mosken did not have a lighthouse. Thus, based on timing alone, the lighthouse had nothing to do with Tianming’s hidden message.
“Anything else interesting or special around here?” someone asked.
Jason shrugged at the cold sky and sea. “What could be here? I don’t like this bleak and dreary place, but they wouldn’t let me build a lighthouse anywhere else.”
So everyone decided to go to Helseggen and take a look around. Just as they were about to get into the helicopter, AA suddenly had the idea to go over on Jason’s tiny boat.
“Sure thing, but the waves are powerful today, child. You’ll get seasick,” Jason said. AA pointed to the mountain across the strait. “This is a really short ride.”
Jason shook his head. “I can’t sail straight across. Not today. We have to go the long way around.” “Why?”
“The maelstrom, of course. It will swallow up any boat.”
Cheng Xin’s party looked at each other and then turned to Jason as one. Someone asked, “I thought you said there was nothing special here.”
“The Moskstraumen is nothing special for us locals. It’s just part of the sea. You can often see it there.” “Where?”
“Right there. You may not be able to see it, but you can hear it.”
They quieted, and did hear a rumbling from the sea, like thousands of horses stampeding in the distance. The helicopter could take them to investigate the maelstrom, but Cheng Xin wanted to go over on a boat,
and the others agreed. Jason’s boat, the only one available on the island, could seat five or six safely. Cheng Xin, AA, Bi Yunfeng, Cao Bin, and Palermo got onto the boat while the others took the helicopter.
The boat left Mosken Island, bumping over the waves. The wind over the open sea was stronger and colder, and salty spray struck their faces without cease. The surface of the sea was a dark gray, and appeared eerie and mysterious in the dimming light. The rumbling grew louder, but they still couldn’t see the great whirlpool.
“Oh, I remember now!” Cao Bin shouted.
Cheng Xin also remembered. She had thought that perhaps Tianming had found out something new about this place through the sophons, but the real answer was far simpler.
“Edgar Allan Poe,” said Cheng Xin. “What? Who?” asked AA.
“A nineteenth-century writer.”
Jason said, “Right. Poe wrote a story about Mosken—‘A Descent into the Maelstrom.’ I read it when I was younger. It’s very exaggerated. I remember him writing that the surface of the whirlpool formed a forty-five-
degree angle. That’s absurd.”
Written narrative literature had disappeared more than a century ago. “Literature” and “authors” still existed, but narratives were constructed with digital images. Classical written novels and stories were now treated as ancient artifacts. The Great Ravine had caused the loss of the works of many ancient writers, including Poe.
The rumbling grew even louder. “Where’s the whirlpool?” someone asked.
Jason pointed at the sea surface. “The maelstrom is lower than the surface here. Look at that line: you have to cross it to see the Moskstraumen.” The passengers saw a fluctuating band of waves whose frothy tips formed a long, white arc that extended into the distance.
“Then let’s cross it!” Bi Yunfeng said.
Jason glared at him. “That’s a line separating life from death. A boat that crosses cannot return.” “How long could a boat circle around the inside of the whirlpool before being pulled under?” “Forty minutes to an hour.”
“Then we should be fine. The helicopter will save us in time.” “But my boat—”
“We’ll compensate you.”
“Cheaper than a bar of soap,” AA interjected. Jason didn’t know what she was talking about.
Carefully, Jason aimed the boat at the band of waves and navigated through. The boat swayed from side to side violently and then stabilized. Some invisible force seemed to seize it, and the boat began to glide along in the same direction as the waves as if riding on rails.
“The maelstrom has caught us,” Jason cried out. “My God, this is the first time I’ve been this close!”
The Moskstraumen revealed itself below them as though they stood on top of a mountain. The monstrous funnel-shaped depression was about a kilometer in diameter. The slanting sides were indeed not as steep as the forty-five degrees mentioned by Poe, but they were at least thirty degrees. The surface of the vortex was smooth as a solid. Since the boat was only at the edge of the whirlpool, the spin wasn’t very fast. But as they got closer to the center, the spin would become faster. At the tiny hole down in the center, the speed of the churning sea was highest, and the bone-shattering rumbling came from there. The rumbling expressed a mad power capable of grinding everything into pieces and sucking them out of existence.
“I refuse to believe we can’t force our way out,” said AA. She shouted at Jason, “Follow a straight line at maximum power!”
Jason did as she asked. The boat was electrically powered, and the quiet engine sounded like a mosquito in the rumbling of the whirlpool. The boat approached the wave band at the edge of the maelstrom and appeared to come close to leaving, but then lost momentum and turned away from the froth, like a tossed pebble that passed the apex of its trajectory. They tried a few more times, but each time, they slid back down farther into the maelstrom.
“Now you see: this is the gate of hell. No normal boat can return,” said Jason.
By now, the boat was so deep down in the whirlpool that the frothy waves at the rim were no longer visible. Behind them was the mountain formed of seawater, and they could only see the slow-moving top of the mountain at the other side of the whirlpool. Everyone felt the terror of being at the mercy of an irresistible
force. Only the helicopter hovering overhead gave them any measure of comfort.
“Let’s have supper,” said Jason. The sun had not yet set behind the clouds, but since it was the Arctic summer, it was already after 9 P.M. Jason took a large cod out of the hold and explained that it had been freshly caught. Then he took out three bottles of wine, placed the fish on a large iron platter, and poured a bottle of wine over the fish. With a lighter, he set the fish on fire, explaining that this was the local method of preparation. Five minutes later, he began to pull pieces off of the still-burning fish and eat them. The passengers imitated him, enjoying the fish, wine, and the magnificence of the maelstrom.
“Child, I recognize you,” Jason said to Cheng Xin. “You were the Swordholder. I’m sure you and your people came here for some important mission, but you must keep your cool. We can’t avoid the apocalypse, so we must enjoy the present.”
“I doubt you could keep your cool if that helicopter weren’t there,” said AA.
“Ha, kid, I would. I surely would. Back in the Common Era, I was only forty when I found out I had a terminal illness. But I wasn’t afraid, and I never even planned to go into hibernation. It was only after I went into shock that the doctors put me into hibernation. By the time I woke up, it was already the Deterrence Era. I thought I had been given a new life, but that turned out to be just an illusion. Death only backed off a little ways to wait for me on the road ahead.…
“The night I finished building the lighthouse, I took my boat out to the sea to look at it from a distance. And all of a sudden I had a thought: Death is the only lighthouse that is always lit. No matter where you sail, ultimately, you must turn toward it. Everything fades in the world, but Death endures.”
It had been twenty minutes since they entered the whirlpool, and the boat had slid about a third of the way down toward the bottom. The boat became more slanted, but due to centrifugal force, the passengers weren’t sliding toward the portside. The wall of water filled their field of view, and they could no longer see the top, even on the other side of the whirlpool. Everyone avoided looking up at the sky because, in the maelstrom, the boat moved along with the spinning wall of water, and it was almost impossible to feel the motion—the boat seemed to adhere to the side of a watery basin. But if they looked up, the motion instantly became evident. The cloud-filled sky spun overhead faster and faster, making them dizzy. Since the centrifugal force was stronger lower in the vortex, the water wall below the boat became even smoother and felt more solid, like ice. The rumbling from the eye of the maelstrom overwhelmed every other sound, and conversation was no longer possible. The Sun in the west peeked out of cracks in the cloud cover, and a ray of golden light shone into the swirling vortex. But the light couldn’t reach the maw at the bottom, and only illuminated a small part of the wall of water, making the bottom appear even more dark and menacing by contrast. Mist and fog swirled out of the eye at the center, forming a rainbow in the ray of sunlight that arced grandly across the rotating abyss.
“I remember Poe describing a rainbow in the maelstrom as well. I think it was even in moonlight. He called it a bridge between Time and Eternity.” Jason was shouting, but no one could hear what he was saying.
The helicopter came to their rescue. Hovering about two or three meters above the boat, it dangled a rope ladder so that everyone in the boat could climb out. Then the empty boat drifted away and continued to circle the monstrous vortex. The unfinished cod on the boat still glowed with the remnants of a blue flame.
The helicopter hovered above the maw of the maelstrom, and as everyone looked down at the spinning
funnel, they soon felt nauseated and dizzy. Someone entered directions into the navigation system for the helicopter to spin, matching the whirlpool’s rotation below. This way, the whirlpool appeared still, but the world outside—sky, sea, and mountains—began to spin around them. The maelstrom seemed to become the center of the world, and the observer’s nausea wasn’t reduced in the slightest. AA vomited up all the fish she had eaten.
As she gazed at the whirlpool below, another whirlpool appeared in Cheng Xin’s mind: It was made up of a hundred billion silver stars spinning in the sea that was the universe, taking 250 million years to complete one rotation—it was the Milky Way. The Earth was not even as big as a mote of dust in this whirlpool, and the Moskstraumen was but another mote of dust on the Earth-dust.
Half an hour later, the boat fell into the eye and disappeared abruptly. Amidst the unchanging rumbling, they seemed to detect the sound of the boat being ground apart.
The helicopter dropped Jason off at Mosken, and Cheng Xin promised to compensate him with a new boat as soon as possible. Then they said farewell and the helicopter headed for Oslo, the nearest city with a sophon- free room.
Everyone remained deep in thought through the voyage, not even conversing with their eyes. The Moskstraumen’s meaning was so obvious that no thought was required.
But the question remained: What did lowering the speed of light have to do with black holes? What did black holes have to do with the cosmic safety notice?
A black hole couldn’t change the speed of light; all it could do was to change the wavelength.
Lowering the speed of light in vacuum to one-tenth, one-hundredth, or even one-thousandth of its natural speed would mean thirty thousand kilometers per second, three thousand kilometers per second, and three hundred kilometers per second, respectively. It was hard to tell how black holes would be involved.
There was a threshold here that had to be crossed—hard to do for normal patterns of thinking, but not so for this group, among the most brilliant minds humanity had to offer. Cao Bin, in particular, was good at unconventional ideas. As a physicist who had crossed three centuries, he knew something else: Back during the Common Era, a research group had successfully reduced the speed of light through a medium in a lab to seventeen meters per second, slower than someone riding a bike. Of course, this was not the same as lowering the speed of light through vacuum, but at least it made what he imagined next seem not so crazy.
What if the speed of light were reduced even further, to thirty kilometers per second? Would that involve black holes? It still seemed essentially the same process as before … wait!
“Sixteen point seven!” Cao Bin shouted. The fire in his eyes quickly set the other eyes around him ablaze.
The third cosmic velocity of the Solar System was 16.7 kilometers per second. A spacecraft from the Earth could not leave the Solar System without exceeding this limit.
It was the same with light.
If the speed of light through vacuum in the Solar System were reduced to below 16.7 kilometers per second, light would no longer be able to escape the gravity of the Sun, and the Solar System would become a black hole. This was an inescapable consequence of the derivation of the Schwarzschild radius of an object, even if the object was the Solar System. More precisely, the necessary speed limit would be even lower if a larger Schwarzschild radius were desired.
Since nothing could exceed the speed of light, if light couldn’t leave the Solar System’s event horizon, nothing else could either. The Solar System would be hermetically sealed off from the rest of the universe.
And therefore completely safe—as far as the rest of the universe was concerned.
How would a distant observer see the Solar System black hole created by lowering the speed of light? There were two possibilities: for technologically primitive observers, the Solar System would simply disappear; and, for technologically advanced observers, they should be able to detect the black hole, but instantly understand that the system was safe.
Take a distant star, a barely visible dot. Anyone casually glancing at it would say: Oh, that star is safe; that star will not threaten us.
This was the cosmic safety notice. The impossible was possible, after all.
The interpreters thought of the Glutton’s Sea, thought of the Storyless Kingdom sealed off from the rest of the universe by the sea. This additional bearing coordinate really wasn’t necessary—they already understood.
Later, people would call a black hole formed by lowering the speed of light a “black domain.” Compared to black holes where the speed of light was unaltered, a reduced-lightspeed black hole had a much larger Schwarzschild radius. The interior was not a space-time singularity, but a fairly open region.
The helicopter continued above the clouds. It was now after 11 P.M., and the sun slowly set in the west, leaving only a slice visible. In the golden light of the midnight sun, everyone tried to imagine life in a world where light moved just below 16.7 kilometers per second, tried to imagine the creeping light of such a sunset.
* * *
By now, most of the puzzle pieces in Yun Tianming’s stories had fallen into place. But one piece remained: the paintings of Needle-Eye. The interpreters couldn’t figure out the dual-layer metaphor or find any bearing coordinates. Some thought that the paintings might be another bearing coordinate for the Moskstraumen, symbolizing the event horizon of the black domain. They reasoned that from an outside observer’s perspective, anything entering the black domain would be forever fixed at the event horizon, which resembled being painted into a picture. But most interpreters disagreed. The meaning of the Moskstraumen was very clear, and Tianming had used the Glutton’s Sea to act as a bearing coordinate. There was no need for another.
Ultimately, this last piece of the puzzle could not be deciphered. Like the missing arms of Venus de Milo, the paintings of Needle-Eye remained mysterious. But as this detail formed the foundation for all three stories and described an elegant ruthlessness, an exquisite cruelty, and a beautiful death, it must have hinted at a great secret of life and death.
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