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The Wallfacers Sixteenth parts

Novel:The dark forestauthor: pubdate:2019-03-01 23:25

When Tyler removed the blindfold, his eyes weren’t adjusted to the light and he had to squint. Despite the bright lights affixed to the rock walls of this mountain cave, it was dark here—quite dark, in fact—because the light was absorbed by the walls. He smelled antiseptic, and noticed the cave was set up like a field hospital, with lots of open aluminum cases containing neatly packed drugs, as well as oxygen tanks, small UV disinfectant cabinets, mobile shadowless operating lamps, and several portable medical devices that looked like X-ray machines and defibrillators. It looked like it had just been unpacked and could be re-boxed at any time. Tyler saw two assault rifles hanging on a rock wall, but their similarity in color to the rock behind made them easy to miss. A stony-faced man and woman walked past him. They weren’t in white lab coats, but they were definitely a doctor and a nurse.
The bed, near the cave entrance, was a sea of white: the curtains behind it, the old man under the bedsheets, the old man’s long beard, the scarf around his head, and even his face—all white. The light in that area was more like candlelight, obscuring some of the whiteness and casting a weak golden sheen across the remainder, turning the place into a classical oil painting of a saint.
Tyler spat inwardly. “Damn it to hell. How did it come to this?”
As he walked over to the bed, he tried to overcome the pain in his hip and inner thigh by adopting a stately, steady pace. He stopped at the bedside, before the man that he and his government had dreamed of finding for so many years. He could hardly believe he was real. He looked at the old man’s pale face, and it was like the media always said: This was the kindliest face in the world.
Man truly was a peculiar animal.
“I’m honored to meet you,” Tyler said with a slight bow.
“As am I,” the old man said politely. He didn’t move, but while his voice was reed-thin, it could render power inert but never snap, like spider silk. The old man gestured to the end of the bed, and Tyler sat down gingerly, not knowing whether or not it was intended as kindness. There was no chair, after all. The old man said, “You must be tired. Was it your first time on a mule?”
“Ah, no. I rode one when I visited the Grand Canyon.” Although his legs hadn’t hurt so much back then. “Are you doing well?”
The old man slowly shook his head. “Surely you can see that I don’t have long to live.” A playful light suddenly entered his deep eyes. “You’re about the least likely person to want me to die of illness. I am truly sorry.”
The irony in this last sentence pricked Tyler, but it was the truth. One of his greatest fears had once been that the man would die of illness or old age. The secretary of defense had prayed on many an occasion that an American cruise missile or Special Forces bullet would drop on the man’s head before he died of natural causes, even if it happened just a minute before death. Natural death would be the man’s greatest triumph, and mark the failure of the war on terror. Even now, the man was edging close to glory. There had been opportunities, of course: Once a Predator drone had snapped his picture in the courtyard of a mosque in the mountains of northern Afghanistan. Simply crashing the drone into him would have made history, not to mention the fact that it had been carrying Hellfire missiles that day. But the young officer on duty lacked the courage to make a unilateral decision once he made the positive ID. Instead, he had reported it up the command chain, and when they checked again the target was gone. Tyler, roused from his bed, had erupted in anger and shattered a precious piece of Chinese porcelain he had at home.
Tyler wanted to avoid the awkward subject, so he brought out his briefcase and set it on the bed. “I have a small gift for you,” he said, opening the case. He took out a set of hardcover books. “This is the latest Arabic version.”
With effort, the old man reached out a hand as thin as kindling and plucked out the bottommost volume. “Ah, I’ve only read the first trilogy. I had someone buy the others, but I never had the time to read them, and then I lost them.… Excellent, thank you. I like them very much.”
“There’s a legend that says you named your organization after these novels.”14
The old man set the book gently to one side and smiled. “Let it stay a legend. You have your wealth and technology. Legends are all we have.”
Tyler picked up the book the old man had set down, and faced him like a pastor holding a Bible. “I’ve come to make you into Seldon.”
The same playful light returned to the old man’s eyes. “Oh? What do I need to do?” “Let your organization be preserved.”
“Preserved until when?”
“Until four centuries from now. Until the Doomsday Battle.” “And you think that’s possible?”
“Yes, if it continues to develop. Let its soul and spirit permeate the space force so that your organization will be part of it forever.”
“And you value that so highly because?” The sarcasm in the old man’s voice grew stronger.
“Because it’s one of the few armed forces available to humanity that uses lives as a weapon. You know, fundamental science has been frozen by the sophons, and this imposes corresponding limitations on advances in computer science and artificial intelligence. In the Doomsday Battle, space fighters will still be piloted by humans, and that requires an army who possesses that spirit. Ball lightning requires a close-range attack.”
“What else have you brought with you besides those books?”
Tyler stood up excitedly from the bed. “That depends on what you need. So long as you can ensure the preservation of your organization, I can give you anything.”
The old man motioned for Tyler to sit down. “I sympathize with you. After so many years, you still don’t know what our needs truly are.”
“You can tell me.”
“Weapons? Money? No, no. What we need is far more precious. The organization doesn’t exist because of Seldon’s ambitious goals. You can’t get a sane, rational person to believe in and die for that. It exists because it possesses something, something that’s its air and blood, and without which the organization would wither away immediately.”
“What’s that?”
“Hatred.”   Tyler was silent.
“On the one hand, thanks to our common enemy, our hatred of the West has faded. On the other, the human race that the Trisolarans want to wipe out includes the hated West, so to us, perishing together would be a joy. So we don’t hate the Trisolarans.” The old man spread his hands. “You see, hatred is a treasure more precious than gold or diamonds, and a weapon keener than any in the world, but now it’s gone. It’s not yours to give back. So the organization, like me, does not have long to live.”
Tyler remained silent.
“As for Seldon, I’d say his plan is an impossible one.”
Tyler let out a sigh and sat back down on the bed. “You mean you’ve read the ending?”
The old man raised an eyebrow in surprise. “No, I haven’t read it. That’s just what I think. What? Does the Seldon Plan fail in the book? The author is an exceptional man, if that’s the case. I’d imagined he wrote a happy ending, may Allah protect him.”
“Asimov’s been dead for many years.”
“Ah, the wise always die young. May he find heaven, whichever one it is.…”
For most of the way back, Tyler was not blindfolded, giving him the opportunity to see the steep, barren mountains of Afghanistan. The young man who led his mule even trusted him enough to leave his assault rifle hanging from the saddle, right next to Tyler’s hand.
“Have you killed anyone with that gun?” he asked.
The young man didn’t understand, but an older, unarmed man riding next to them answered for him. “No.
There hasn’t been any fighting for a long time.”
The young man looked up questioningly at Tyler. He had no beard on his childlike face, and his eyes were as clear as the blue sky of western Asia.
Mom, I’m going to be a firefly.
*    *    *
At the Fourth PDC Wallfacer Hearing, Tyler appeared fatigued from his long journey as he submitted revisions to his mosquito swarm plan. “I want every fighter in the mosquito fleet to be equipped with two control systems: a pilot-operated mode and a drone mode. Switching to drone mode will allow me to control all of the fighters in the fleet.”
“You’re very hands-on.” Hines snickered.
“I’ll be able to instruct the fleet to form a mosquito group and voyage to the battle zone, then tell it to disassemble and reenter formation. When it engages the enemy fleet, I will command the weapons module on
each fighter to select its own target and attack automatically. I’d imagine that even with the lockdown on the fundamentals of physics, current AI technology will develop enough in the next three centuries to permit that.”
“Do you mean that you plan to hibernate until the Doomsday Battle, and then directly engage the Trisolaran Fleet?”
“Do I have a choice? You know I’ve just been to Japan, China, and Afghanistan and didn’t find what I’m looking for there.”
“And you paid someone a visit,” the US representative said.
“That’s right. I saw him. But…” Tyler gave a long, dejected sigh. “Nothing. I’ll keep trying to establish a force of dedicated space fighters, but if I can’t, then I’ll have to guide them into the final attack myself.”
No one spoke. Where the Doomsday Battle was concerned, people usually chose to be silent.
Tyler continued, “I have another supplement to the mosquito swarm plan. I want to conduct my own studies, of certain bodies in the solar system, in areas of my choosing. These bodies include Europa, Ceres, and several comets.”
“How is this related to the space fighter fleet?” someone asked.
“Do I need to answer that?” Tyler asked, looking at the rotating chair. No one spoke. Of course he didn’t have to answer.
“Finally, I have a recommendation. The PDC and every nation on Earth should scale back their attacks on the ETO.”
Rey Diaz jumped out of his chair. “Mr. Tyler, even if you claim that this is part of the plan, I strongly oppose this outrageous proposal!”
Tyler shook his head. “This is not part of the plan. It’s totally unconnected to the Wallfacer Project. The reason for my suggestion is obvious: If we persist in our attacks on the ETO, in two or three years we may wipe it out, and we will lose the only direct channel for communication between Earth and Trisolaris. We’ll have lost the most important source of enemy intelligence. I’m sure you understand what the consequences would be.”
Hines said, “I agree. But this proposal shouldn’t be made by a Wallfacer. The three of us are a unit in the minds of the public, so please keep our reputation in mind.”
The hearing ended in unresolved arguments, but an agreement was reached for the PDC to conduct further study of the three revisions to Tyler’s plan and put them to a vote at the next hearing.
Tyler remained seated until he was the last one in the assembly hall. He was exhausted and drowsy after his lengthy travels, and as he looked around the empty room, he suddenly realized a risk he had overlooked: He needed to find a doctor or a psychologist, and a specialist in sleep medicine.
He had to find someone to stop him from talking in his sleep.
*    *    *
Luo Ji and Zhuang Yan walked toward the main entrance of the Louvre at ten P.M. Kent had advised them to visit at night to facilitate more convenient security.
The first thing they saw was the glass pyramid, shielded from the nighttime din of Paris by the U-shaped
palace building, and standing quietly under the watery moonlight as if it were made of silver.
“Mr. Luo, don’t you get the feeling that it flew in from outer space?” Zhuang Yan asked, pointing to the pyramid.
“Everyone has that feeling,” Luo Ji said.
“At first it feels a little out of place, but the more you look at it, the more it seems to be an integral part of the place.”
The meeting of two vastly different worlds, Luo Ji thought, but did not say.
Then the whole pyramid lit up, turning from moonlit silver to a brilliant gold. At the same time the fountains came on in the surrounding pools, sending tall columns of water and light skyward. Zhuang Yan glanced at Luo Ji in alarm, unsettled by the Louvre’s awakening at their arrival. Accompanied by water sounds, they made their way down the pyramid into the Hall Napoléon, and then into the palace.
Their first destination was the largest exhibition hall. It was two hundred meters long and softly lit, and their footsteps echoed down the emptiness. Luo Ji quickly realized that it was only his footsteps echoing, for Zhuang Yan walked lightly on catlike steps, like a child in a fairy tale who enters a magic castle and is afraid of waking what slumbers there. He slowed his pace—not for the artwork, which didn’t interest him at all, but to let the distance between them grow and allow him to appreciate her among this world of art, gazing upon the beauty of this Eastern woman along with the full-figured Greek gods, angels, and the Blessed Virgin in the surrounding classical oil paintings. Like the glass pyramid in the courtyard, she soon blended into the environment and became part of the sacred realm of art. Without her, this place would be missing something. In a reverie or a dream or a vision, he let time pass by quietly.
After a time, Zhuang Yan finally remembered Luo Ji’s presence and flashed a smile back at him. His heart quaked at what felt to him like a bolt of light sent to the mortal realm from a painting of Mount Olympus.
“I’ve heard that with a trained eye, it would take you a whole year to see all of the pieces here,” he said.
“I know,” was her simple reply, but her eyes said, What should I do? Then she turned her attention to the paintings. In all this time she had seen only five of them.
“It doesn’t matter, Yan Yan. I can look at them with you every night for a year.” The words slipped out. She turned to look at him, visibly excited. “Really?”
“Well … Mr. Luo, have you ever been here before?”
“No. But I went to the Centre Pompidou when I came to Paris three years ago. At first I thought you would be more interested in going there.”
She shook her head. “I don’t like modern art.”
“Then, all this—” He glanced around at the gods, angels, and Blessed Virgin. “You don’t think it’s too old?”
“I don’t like it too old. I just like the paintings of the Renaissance.” “Those are pretty old, too.”
“But they don’t feel old to me. Those painters were the first to discover human beauty, and they painted God as a pleasing person. Looking at these works, you can sense their joy in painting, the same joy I felt when I first saw the lake and the snow peak.”
“That’s good, but the humanistic spirit pioneered by the Renaissance masters has become a stumbling block.”
“You mean, in the Trisolar Crisis?”
“Yes. You must have seen what’s been happening lately. Four centuries from now, the post-disaster world might return to the Middle Ages, with humanity once again subjected to extreme repression.”
“And art will enter a long winter’s night, right?”
Looking at her innocent eyes, he smiled wryly to himself. Silly kid, you talk about art, but if humanity does manage to survive, regressing to a primitive society would be a small price to pay. But he said, “When that time comes, there may be a second Renaissance, and you could rediscover forgotten beauty and paint it.”
She smiled a smile tinged with sadness, clearly understanding the meaning behind Luo Ji’s consoling words. “I’m just thinking: After doomsday, what will happen to these paintings and artworks?”
“You’re worried about that?” he asked. When she mentioned doomsday, his heart ached, but if his last attempt at comfort had failed, he was confident that he would succeed this time. So he took her hand and said, “Come on, let’s go to the Asian Art exhibit.”
Before the pyramid lobby was built, the Louvre was a giant maze. Getting to any particular gallery meant a long and winding detour. But now you could go directly from the Hall Napoléon beneath the pyramid to any point in the museum. Luo Ji and Zhuang Yan returned to the entrance hall, followed the signs leading to the Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, and wound up in an entirely different world from the galleries of classical European paintings.
Luo Ji pointed out the sculptures, paintings, and old documents from Asia and Africa, and said, “These were taken by an advanced civilization from a backward one. Some were looted, others were stolen or defrauded, but look at them now: They’re all well preserved. Even during the Second World War, these objects were transferred to a safe place.” They stood before a Dunhuang mural sealed in a glass case. “Think about how much turmoil and war that land of ours has seen since the time Abbot Wang gave these to the Frenchman.15 If the murals were left there, can you be certain they would have been this well preserved?”
“But will the Trisolarans preserve humanity’s cultural heritage? They have no regard for us at all.” “Because they said we’re bugs? But that’s not what that means. Yan Yan, do you know what the greatest
expression of regard for a race or civilization is?” “No, what?”
“Annihilation. That’s the highest respect a civilization can receive. They would only feel threatened by a civilization they truly respect.”
They passed silently through the twenty-four galleries housing Asian art, walking through the distant past while imagining a gloomy future. Without realizing it, they reached the Egyptian Antiquities gallery.
“Do you know who I’m thinking of here?” Luo Ji stood beside a glass case containing the golden mask of a mummified pharaoh and tried out a lighter topic of conversation. “Sophie Marceau.”
“Because of Belphegor, Phantom of the Louvre, right? Sophie Marceau is gorgeous. She’s got Eastern looks, too.”
For some reason, right or wrong, Luo Ji sensed traces of jealousy and offense in her voice.
“Yan Yan, she’s not as beautiful as you. That’s the truth.” He also wanted to say, One might be able to find
her beauty among these works of art, but yours eclipses them, but he didn’t want to come off as sarcastic. The hint of a shy smile flitted across her face like a cloud, the first time he had seen this smile he remembered from his dreams.
“Let’s go back to the oil paintings,” she said softly.
They returned to the Hall Napoléon, but forgot which entrance to use. The most visible signs pointed to the three jewels of the palace: the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory.
“Let’s see the Mona Lisa,” he suggested.
As they headed in that direction, she said, “Our teacher said that after he visited the Louvre, he was a little disgusted with the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo.”
“Why was that?”
“Because tourists come for those two objects but have no interest in less famous but equally great works of art.”
“I’m one of the great uncultured.”
They arrived at the mysterious smile, which was behind a thick wall of protective glass and much smaller than Luo Ji had imagined. Even Zhuang Yan didn’t seem particularly excited.
“Seeing her reminds me of all of you,” she said, pointing at the figure in the painting. “All of us?”
“The Wallfacers, of course.”
“What’s she got to do with the Wallfacers?”
“Well, I wonder—and this is just speculation, so don’t laugh—I wonder whether we could find a form of communication that only humans can comprehend, but which the sophons never will. That way, humanity can be free of sophon monitoring.”
Luo Ji looked at her for several seconds, and then stared at the Mona Lisa. “I get what you mean. Her smile is something that the sophons and the Trisolarans will never understand.”
“That’s right. Human expressions, and people’s eyes in particular, are subtle and complex. A gaze or a smile can transmit so much information! And only humans can understand that information. Only humans have that sensitivity.”
“True. One of the biggest problems in artificial intelligence is identifying facial and eye expressions. Some experts even say that computers may never be able to read the eyes.”
“So is it possible to create a language of expressions and then speak with the face and the eyes?”
Luo Ji thought this over seriously, then shook his head with a smile. He pointed at the Mona Lisa. “We can’t even read her expression. When I stare at her, the meaning of her smile changes every second and never repeats itself.”
Zhuang Yan jumped up and down excitedly, like a child. “But that means that facial expressions really can convey complex information!”
“And if the information is: ‘The spacecraft have left Earth, destination Jupiter’? How would you convey that using facial expressions?”
“When primitive man began to speak, surely it was only to convey simple meanings. It may even have been less complex than birdcalls. Language gradually grew in complexity after that.”
“Well, let’s try to convey a simple meaning through facial expressions.”
“Okay!” She nodded her head excitedly. “Here, let’s each think of a message, and then exchange them.” Luo Ji paused for a moment. “I’ve thought of mine.”
Zhuang Yan thought for a much longer time, and then nodded. “Then let’s begin.”
They stared at each other, but held that pose for less than half a minute before they burst out laughing at practically the same instant.
“My message was, ‘Tonight I’d like to invite you to have supper on the Champs-Élysées,’” he said. She doubled over with laughter. “Mine was, ‘You … need to shave!’”
“These are grave matters concerning the fate of humanity, so we ought to remain serious,” Luo Ji said, holding in his laughter.
“This time, no laughing allowed!” she said, as serious as a child redefining the rules of a game.
They stood back to back, each thinking of a message, and then turned around and locked eyes once again. Luo Ji felt the urge to laugh and strove to suppress it, but the task soon became much easier, for Zhuang Yan’s clear eyes had begun to pluck at his heartstrings again.
And so it was that the Wallfacer and the young woman stood, gazes locked, in front of the smile of Mona Lisa in the Louvre in the dead of night.
The dam in Luo Ji’s soul had sprung a tiny leak, and this trickle eroded it, expanding the tiny fissure into a turbulent stream. He grew afraid and strove to patch the crack in the dam, but was unable to. A collapse was inevitable.
Then he felt like he was standing on a towering cliff top, and the girl’s eyes were the vast abyss beneath, covered in a pure white sea of clouds. But the sun shone down from all directions and turned the clouds into a brilliance of color that surged endlessly. He felt himself sliding downward, a very slow slide, but one he could not arrest under his own power. In a panic, he shook his limbs to try to find a place to hold on. But beneath his body was nothing but slick ice. His slide accelerated, until, finally, with a burst of vertigo, he began to fall into the abyss. In an instant, the joy of falling reached the upper limit of pain.
The Mona Lisa was deforming. The walls were deforming, melting like ice as the Louvre collapsed, its stones turning to red-hot magma as they fell. When the magma passed over their bodies, it felt cool as a clear spring. They fell with the Louvre, passing through a melted Europe toward the center of the Earth, and when they reached it, the world around them exploded in a shower of gorgeous cosmic fireworks. Then the sparks extinguished, and in the twinkling of an eye, space became crystal clear. The stars wove crystal beams into a giant silver blanket, and the planets vibrated, emitting beautiful music. The starfield grew dense like a surging tide. The universe contracted and collapsed, until at last everything was annihilated in the creative light of love.
*    *    *
“We need to observe Trisolaris right now!” General Fitzroy said to Dr. Ringier. They were in the control room of the Hubble II Space Telescope, a week after its assembly was completed.
“General, I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“I have the feeling that the observations in progress right now are actually private work that you
astronomers are doing on the side.”
“I’d have done my own work if it were possible, but Hubble II is still in the testing phase.” “You’re working for the military. Carrying out orders is all you need to do.”
“No one here is military apart from you. We’re following NASA’s testing plan.” The general’s tone softened. “Doctor, can’t you just use Trisolaris as a test target?”
“Test targets have been carefully selected according to distance and brightness classes, and the test plan has been formulated to be maximally economical, so that the telescope completes all tests after just one rotation. In order to observe Trisolaris now, we would need to rotate through an angle of nearly thirty degrees and back, and spinning this bad boy uses up propellant. We’re saving the military money, General.”
“Let’s have a look at how you’re saving it, then. I just found this on your computer,” Fitzroy said as he brought a hand out from behind his back. He held a printout of a photograph, an overhead shot of a group of people looking upward excitedly. They were recognizably the crew from this very control room, Ringier in their midst, along with three women in sexy poses who might have been the girlfriends of some in the group. The location of the photo was evidently the roof of the control room building, and the photo was very clear, as if it had been shot from ten or twenty meters above. Where it differed from an ordinary photograph was in the complicated numbers overlaid atop it. “Doctor, you’re standing on the highest point of the building. It doesn’t have a rocker arm like a movie set, does it? You’re telling me that rotating Hubble II thirty degrees costs money. Well, how much does it cost to rotate it three hundred sixty degrees? Besides, that ten-million- dollar investment wasn’t made so you could snap photos of you and your girlfriends from space. Should I add that sum to your bill?”
“General, your order must of course be carried out,” Ringier said hastily, and the engineers immediately went to work.
Coordinate data was quickly called up from the target database. In space, the enormous cylinder, over twenty meters in diameter and more than a hundred meters long, slowly started to turn, panning across the starfield displayed on the screen in the control room.
“This is what the telescope sees?” asked the general.
“No, this is just the image returned by the positioning system. The telescope returns still photos that need to be processed before they’re viewable.”
Five minutes later, the panning stopped. The control system reported that positioning had been achieved, and after another five minutes, Ringier said, “Good. Now return to the test position.”
In surprise, Fitzroy asked, “What? Is it done?” “Yes. Now the images are being processed.” “Can’t you take a few more?”
“General, we’ve captured two hundred ten images at multiple focal lengths.” At that moment the first observation image finished processing, and Ringier pointed to the screen. “Look, General. There’s the enemy world you want to see so badly.”
Fitzroy saw nothing but a group of three halos against a dark background. They were diffuse, like streetlights through fog. These were the three stars that would decide the fate of two civilizations.
“So we really can’t see the planet.” Fitzroy couldn’t hide his disappointment.
“Of course we can’t. Even when the hundred-meter Hubble III is finished, we’ll only be able to observe Trisolaris at a very few set positions, and we’ll only be able to make it out as a dot, with no detail at all.”
“But there’s something else here, Doctor. What do you think this is?” asked one of the engineers, pointing to a spot close to the three halos.
Fitzroy leaned in but saw nothing. It was so faint that only an expert could catch it. “It’s got a diameter larger than a star,” an engineer said.
After enlarging the area several times, the thing covered the entire screen. “It’s a brush!” shouted the general in alarm.
The layman always comes up with better names than the expert, which is why when experts name things they, too, work from an outsider’s perspective. And thus “brush” became the figure’s name, because the general’s description was accurate: It was a cosmic brush. Or, to be more precise, a set of cosmic bristles without a handle. Of course, you could also see it as hair standing on end.
“It must be a scratch in the coating! I mentioned in the feasibility study that a paste-up lens would cause problems,” Ringier said, shaking his head.
“All the coatings have been through stringent testing. A scratch of this sort wouldn’t happen. And it’s not generated by any other lens flaw, either. We’ve already returned tens of thousands of test images, and it’s never come up before,” said an expert from Zeiss, the lens’s manufacturer.
A hush fell over the control room. They all gathered to stare up at the image on the screen until it got so crowded that some of them called up the image on other terminals. Fitzroy sensed the change in the room’s atmosphere: People who had grown lazy from the fatigue of lengthy tests were anxious now, like they had been hit by a curse that rooted everything in place but their eyes, which grew ever brighter.
“God!” exclaimed several people at the same time.
The frozen formation abruptly turned into excited activity. The snatches of dialogue Fitzroy picked up were a bit too technical for him.
“Any dust around the target’s position? Check it—”
“No need. I completed that item. Observing the absorption of the background stellar radial movement, there’s an absorption peak at two hundred millimeters. It may be a carbon microparticle, F-class density.”
“Any opinions on the effect of high-speed impact?”
“The wake diffuses along the impact axis, but the diffusion scope … Do we have a model of that?” “Yes. One moment.… Here it is. Impact speed?”
“A hundred times third cosmic velocity.” “Is it already that high?”
“That’s a conservative figure.… For the impact cross section, use … Right, that’s right. That’s just about it.
Just a rough estimate.”
With the experts busy, Ringier stood next to Fitzroy. “General, can you try your best to count the bristles  in the brush?”
The general nodded, and then bent over a terminal and began counting.
The computer needed four or five minutes to complete every calculation, but there were a number of errors, so it was half an hour before the results were ready.
“The wake diffuses the dust to a maximum diameter of two hundred forty thousand kilometers, or twice the size of Jupiter,” the astronomer running the mathematical model said.
“That makes sense,” Ringier said. He raised his arms and looked up at the ceiling, as if looking through it to the heavens. “And that confirms it.” There was a tremble to his voice, and then, as if to himself, he said, “So it’s been confirmed. Nothing wrong with that.”
Silence fell over the control room again, heavy and oppressive this time. Fitzroy wanted to ask a question, but at the sight of the solemn, bowed heads, he couldn’t open his mouth. After a while, he heard gentle sobs and saw a young man trying to hide his tears.
“Knock it off, Harris. You’re not the only skeptic here. It’s hard for everyone,” someone said.
The young man, Harris, lifted his teary eyes and said, “I know skepticism is just a way to comfort myself, but I wanted to live out my life in comfort. God, now I’m not even lucky enough for that.”
Silence returned.
At last Ringier remembered Fitzroy. “General, let me explain. The three stars are surrounded by interstellar dust. Previously, a number of bodies moving at high speed crossed that dust, and their high-speed impact with the dust left behind a wake. The wake continued to expand and has now reached a diameter twice that of the planet Jupiter. There are only subtle differences between the wake and the surrounding dust, so they are undetectable at close range. Only here, four light-years away, are they observable.”
“I’ve counted the bristles. There are about a thousand,” General Fitzroy said.
“Of course. That number confirms our intelligence reports. General, we’re looking at the Trisolaran Fleet.”
*    *    *
Hubble II’s discovery, the final confirmation of the reality of the Trisolaran invasion, extinguished the last of humanity’s fantasies. The descent of a new round of despair, panic, and confusion ushered the human race into life under the Trisolar Crisis. Then the hard times began. With a rocky change of direction, the vehicle of time veered off along a new track.
The only constant in a world of tremendous change is the swift passage of time. Five years passed like a blur.


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