Broadcast Era, Year 8 Fate’s Choice
Two days before the false alarm; Observation Unit #1
Observation Unit #1 was in fact just the Ringier-Fitzroy Station from the end of the Crisis Era. More than seventy years ago, it was this observation station that had first discovered the strong-interaction space probes— the droplets. The station was still located on the outer edge of the asteroid belt, but all its equipment had been updated. Take the visible light telescope, for instance: The lenses were even bigger, and the first lens’s diameter had increased from twelve hundred meters to two thousand meters, big enough for a small town to fit on it. These gigantic lenses were made from materials taken directly from the asteroid belt. The first one was a medium-sized lens five hundred meters in diameter. After that was finished, it was used to focus sunlight on asteroids so that the melted rock could be made into pure glass and then formed into additional lenses. In total, six lenses floated in a ten-kilometer-long column in space, far apart from each other. The observation station itself was located at the end of the column of lenses, and could only hold a crew of two.
The crew was still made up of a scientist and a military officer. The officer was responsible for monitoring photoid emissions, while the scientist conducted astronomical and cosmological research. Thus, the tradition of fighting for observation time begun three centuries ago by General Fitzroy and Dr. Ringier continued.
After this, the largest telescope in history, had completed its shakedown tests and successfully taken its first image—a star forty-seven light-years away—Widnall, the astronomer on the crew, was as excited as if he’d just had a son. Laymen did not understand that previous telescopes could only amplify the luminosity of stars outside the Solar System, not reveal any shapes. No matter how powerful the telescopes were, the stars always showed up as tiny point sources, only incrementally brighter than images taken by lesser telescopes. But now, in the view of this ultrapowerful telescope, a star showed up as a disk for the first time. Though it was small, like a Ping-Pong ball seen from tens of meters away, and one couldn’t see any details in the disk, this was still an epochal moment in the history of the ancient science of visible-light astronomy.
“The cataracts have been removed from the eyes of astronomy!” said Widnall dramatically, wiping his eyes. But Sublieutenant Vasilenko wasn’t impressed. “I think you need to remember our role here: We are sentries. In the old days, we’d be perched atop a wooden watchtower on the frontier, a desolate desert or snowfield around us. Standing erect in the frigid breeze, we’d be gazing in the direction of the enemy. As soon as we saw tanks coming up the horizon, or men on horses, we’d make a call or light smoke signals to inform the homeland that the enemy invasion had begun.… You need to get into that mental space. Don’t think of
yourself as being in an observatory.”
Widnall’s eyes temporarily left the terminal showing the image from the telescope and looked out the porthole of the station. He could see a few irregularly shaped rocks drifting at some distance: fragments of asteroids left from the glass-making operation. They spun slowly in the cold sunlight and seemed to emphasize the desolation of space. The scene did seem to evoke a sense of the “mental space” the sublieutenant described.
Widnall said, “If we really discover a photoid, it would be better to not issue a warning at all. It’s useless, anyway. To die suddenly without even knowing what hit you is actually a rather fortunate fate. But you’d rather torture a few billion people for twenty-four hours. I think that’s akin to a crime against humanity.”
“By that logic, you and I would be the most unfortunate people in the world since we would know about our fate the longest.”
The observation station received new orders from Fleet Command to adjust the telescope and observe the remnants of the Trisolaran system. Widnall didn’t argue with Vasilenko this time, because he was very interested in that ruined world as well.
The floating lenses began to move around and adjust their positions, the plasma thrusters at the rims of the lenses emitting blue flames. Only now did the lenses in the distance reveal themselves, the blue flames marking out the overall shape of the telescope. The ten-kilometer-long group of lenses slowly turned, stopping when the telescope was pointed in the direction of the Trisolaran system. Then the lenses shifted up and down the axis to focus. Finally, most of the flames went out, with only a few fireflies flickering now and then as the lenses engaged in precision focus adjustments.
In the unprocessed view of the telescope, the Trisolaran system looked very ordinary, just a small patch of white against the background of space, like a feather. But after the image had been processed and magnified, it appeared as a magnificent nebula that took up the entire screen. It had been seven years since the explosion of the star, so what they were seeing now was the scene three years after the explosion. Under the influence of gravity and the exploded star’s angular momentum, the nebula had turned from sharp radiating rays into a soft blur of clouds, which was then flattened by the centrifugal force of the spin into a spiral. Above the nebula, the two remaining stars could be seen. One of them showed up as a disk, while the other one, more distant, remained a point of light distinguished only by its motion against the background stars.
The two stars that survived the catastrophe achieved the dream of generations on Trisolaris and formed a stable double-star system, but no life would enjoy their light, as the entire system was now uninhabitable. It was now apparent that the dark forest strike had destroyed only one star out of the three, not only because of economics, but also to achieve a more sinister goal: As long as the system still retained one or two stars, the material in the nebula would be constantly absorbed by the stars, generating powerful radiation in the process. The Trisolaran system was now a radiation furnace, a domain of death for life and civilization. It was the powerful radiation that caused the nebula itself to glow and appear so clear and bright on the telescope.
“I’m reminded of the clouds viewed from atop Mount Emei,” said Vasilenko. “That’s a mountain in China. Viewing the moon from the peak is an exquisite sight. The night I was there, the peak floated in a boundless sea of clouds, turned pure silver by the moon above. It looked a lot like this.”
Seeing this silvery graveyard more than forty trillion kilometers away made Widnall wax philosophical. “From a scientific perspective, ‘destroy’ isn’t really accurate. Nothing has disappeared. All the matter that used
to be there is still there, and so is all the angular momentum. It’s only the arrangement of matter that has changed, like a deck of cards being reshuffled. But life is like a straight flush: Once you shuffle, it’s gone.”
Widnall examined the image some more and made an important discovery.
“What is that?!” He pointed at a spot in the image some distance from the nebula. By scale, it was about thirty AU from the nebula center.
Vasilenko stared at the spot. He lacked the trained eye of an astronomer, and couldn’t see anything unusual at first. But eventually, he saw a vague circular outline against the pitch-black background, like a soap bubble in space.
“It’s very large. The diameter is about … ten astronomical units. Is it dust?” “Absolutely not. Dust doesn’t look anything like that.”
“You’ve never seen it before?”
“No one could have seen it. Whatever it is, it’s transparent, with a very faint border. The largest telescopes in the past wouldn’t have been able to detect it.”
Widnall zoomed out a bit to get a better sense of the position of the strange new object with respect to the double stars, and to try to observe the spin of the nebula. On the screen, the nebula again turned into a small patch of white against the black abyss of space.
About six thousand AU from the Trisolaran system, he found another “soap bubble.” This one was much bigger than the first, with a diameter of about fifty AU, spacious enough to contain the Trisolaran system or the Solar System.
“My God!” Vasilenko cried out. “Do you know where that is?”
Widnall stared at the screen for a while and said, tentatively, “That’s where the Second Trisolaran Fleet went into lightspeed, isn’t it?”
“Exactly.” “You’re certain?”
“My old job was to observe this part of space. I know it better than the palm of my hand.”
The conclusion was inescapable: Ships using curvature propulsion left behind trails as they accelerated to lightspeed. The trails apparently did not fade with time, but expanded and altered the nature of the space around them.
The first, smaller bubble was inside the Trisolaran system. There were several possible explanations for its existence. Perhaps the Trisolarans did not know initially that curvature propulsion would leave behind such trails, and the bubble was an accident created during engine tests or test flights; or perhaps they did know about the trails, but left them within the star system by mistake. But it was certain that they wanted to avoid purposefully leaving such trails. Eleven years ago, the Second Trisolaran Fleet had cruised for a full year using conventional means, and only when they were six thousand AU from their home world did they engage the curvature engines to enter lightspeed. The purpose was to start the trails as far from the home world as possible, though by that time it was already too late.
At the time, the behavior of the Second Trisolaran Fleet had puzzled people. The most convincing explanation was that they were trying to avoid ill effects on the home world caused by 415 ships entering lightspeed. However, it was clear now that they were trying to avoid exposing the location of Trisolaris by the
trails of curvature propulsion. The Second Trisolaran Fleet had exited lightspeed when it was still six thousand AU from the Solar System for the same reason.
Widnall and Vasilenko stared at each other, and they could each see the terror building in the other’s eyes.
They had reached the same conclusion.
“We have to report this right away,” said Widnall.
“But it’s not time yet for our scheduled report. A report now would be treated as an alarm.” “This is an alarm! We have to tell people not to expose us.”
“That’s a bit of a stretch. We’ve just begun researching lightspeed ships. It would be impressive if we managed to build one in half a century.”
“But what if an initial test generates such a trail? Maybe they’re already conducting such trials somewhere in the Solar System!”
And so this information was transmitted to Fleet Command with an alarm-level neutrino beam, then passed on to the PDC. There, it was leaked and mistaken as a photoid attack alarm, which caused the global panic two days later.
The curvature trails were left behind when ships entered lightspeed, just as a rocket launching from the ground left burn marks on the launch pad. Once the ship was at lightspeed, it continued to coast by inertia, and left no more trails. It was a reasonable conjecture that dropping out of lightspeed would leave behind similar marks. It was still unknown how long such trails would persist in space. A guess was that the trails represented some kind of distortion in space due to curvature propulsion, and might last a long time—maybe even forever.
It was reasonable to conclude that Sophon had claimed Trisolaris appeared more dangerous than the Solar System when observed from a distance because of the ten-AU-diameter curvature propulsion trail left behind within the Trisolaran system, which is what caused the dark forest strike against Trisolaris to come so quickly. The trail and the broadcast of Trisolaris’s location mutually provided confirmation and made the danger value of the Trisolaran system skyrocket.
During the following month, Observation Unit #1 discovered six more curvature propulsion trails in different parts of space. All of these were approximately spherical, though their sizes varied widely, ranging from fifteen to two hundred AU. One of these bubbles was only six thousand AU from the Solar System, apparently the mark left by the Second Trisolaran Fleet as it dropped out of lightspeed. The directions and distances of the other trails, however, seemed to indicate that they had nothing to do with the Second Trisolaran Fleet. It appeared that curvature propulsion trails were common in the universe.
After Blue Space and Gravity’s discovery inside the four-dimensional space fragment, this provided yet more direct evidence that large numbers of highly intelligent civilizations existed in the cosmos.
One of the trails was only 1.4 light-years from the Sun, close to the Oort Cloud. A spaceship had apparently lingered there and then left by entering lightspeed. No one knew when this had happened.
The discovery of the curvature propulsion trail finally eliminated lightspeed space flight, already facing mounting skepticism, from consideration as a viable plan. Fleet International and the UN quickly enacted legislation prohibiting any further research and development of curvature propulsion, and the nation states followed suit. This was the most severe legal restriction against a technology since the nuclear nonproliferation
treaties of three centuries ago.
Humanity now had only two choices left: the Bunker Project and the Black Domain Plan.
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