Deterrence Era, Year 61 The Swordholder
Cheng Xin gazed up at her star from the top of a giant tree. It was why she had been awakened.
During the brief life of the Stars Our Destination Project, a total of fifteen individuals were granted ownership of seventeen stars. Other than Cheng Xin, the other fourteen owners were lost to history, and no legal heirs could be located. The Great Ravine acted like a giant sieve, and too many did not make it through. Now, Cheng Xin was the only one who held legal title to a star.
Though humanity still hadn’t begun to reach for any star beyond the Solar System, the rapid pace of technological progress meant that stars within three hundred light-years of the Earth were no longer of mere symbolic value. DX3906, Cheng Xin’s star, turned out to have planets after all. Of the two planets discovered so far, one seemed very similar to Earth based on its mass, orbit, and a spectrum analysis of its atmosphere. As a result, its value rose to stratospheric heights. To everyone’s surprise, they discovered that this star already had an owner.
The UN and the Solar System Fleet wanted to reclaim DX3906, but this couldn’t be done legally unless the owner agreed to transfer the title. Thus Cheng Xin was awakened from her slumber after 264 years of hibernation.
The first thing she found out after emerging from hibernation was this: As she had expected, there was no news whatsoever about the Staircase Program. The Trisolarans had not intercepted the probe, and they had no idea of its whereabouts. The Staircase Program had been forgotten by history, and Tianming’s brain was lost in the vastness of space. But this man, this man who had merged into nothingness, had left a real, solid world for his beloved, a world composed of a star and two planets.
A Ph.D. in astronomy named 艾 AA3 had discovered the planets around DX3906. As part of her dissertation, AA had developed a new technique that used one star as a gravitational lens through which to observe another.
To Cheng Xin, AA resembled a vivacious bird fluttering around her nonstop. AA told Cheng Xin that she was familiar with people like her, who had come from the past—known as “Common Era people” after the old calendar—since her own dissertation advisor was a physicist from back then. Her knowledge of Common Era people was why she had been appointed as Cheng Xin’s liaison from the UN Space Development Agency as her first job after her doctorate.
The request from the UN and the fleet to sell the star back to them put Cheng Xin in an awkward position. She felt guilty possessing a whole world, but the idea of selling a gift that had been given to her out of pure
love made her ill. She suggested that she could give up all claim of ownership over DX3906 and keep the deed only as a memento, but she was told that was unacceptable. By law, the authorities could not accept such valuable real estate without compensating the original owner, so they insisted on buying it. Cheng Xin refused.
After much reflection, she came up with a new proposal: She would sell the two planets, but retain ownership of the star. At the same time, she would sign a covenant with the UN and the fleet granting humanity the right to use the energy produced by the star. The legal experts eventually concluded that this proposal was acceptable.
AA told Cheng Xin that since she was only selling the planets, the amount of compensation offered by the UN was much lower. But it was still an astronomical sum, and she would need to form a company to manage it properly.
“Would you like me to help you run this company?” AA asked.
Cheng Xin agreed, and AA immediately called the UN Space Development Agency to resign.
“I’m working for you now,” she said, “so let me speak for a minute about your interests. Are you nuts?! Of all the choices available to you, you picked the worst! You could have sold the star along with the planets, and you would have become one of the richest people in the universe! Alternatively, you could have refused to sell, and kept the entire solar system for yourself. The law’s protection of private property is absolute, and no one could have taken it away from you. And then you could have entered hibernation and woken up only when it’s possible to fly to DX3906. Then you could go there! All that space! The ocean, the continents … you can do whatever you want, of course, but you should take me with you—”
“I’ve already made my decision,” Cheng Xin said. “There’s almost three centuries separating us. I don’t expect us to understand each other right away.”
“Fine.” AA sighed. “But you should reevaluate your conception of duty and conscience. Duty drove you to give up the planets, and conscience made you keep the star, but duty again made you give up the star’s energy output. You’re one of those people from the past, like my dissertation advisor, torn by conflict between two ideals. But, in our age, conscience and duty are not ideals: an excess of either is seen as a mental illness called social-pressure personality disorder. You should seek treatment.”
* * *
Even with the glow from the lights of the city below, Cheng Xin easily found DX3906. Compared to the twenty-first century, the air was far clearer. She turned from the night sky to the reality around her: She and AA stood like two ants on top of a glowing Christmas tree, and all around them stood a forest of Christmas trees. Buildings full of lights hung from branches like leaves. But this giant city was built on top of the earth, not below it. Thanks to the peace of the Deterrence Era, humanity’s second cave-dwelling phase had come to an end.
They walked along the bough toward the tip. Each branch of the tree was a busy avenue full of floating translucent windows filled with information. They made the street look like a varicolored river. From time to time, a window or two left the traffic in the road and followed them for a while, and drifted back into the current when AA and Cheng Xin showed no interest. All the buildings on this branch-street hung below.
Since this was the highest branch, the starry sky was right above them. If they had been walking along one of the lower branches, they would be surrounded by the bright buildings hanging from the branch above, and they would have felt like tiny insects flying through a dream forest, in which every leaf and fruit sparkled and dazzled.
Cheng Xin looked at the pedestrians along the street: a woman, two women, a group of women, another woman, three women—all of them were women, all beautiful. Dressed in pretty, luminous clothes, they seemed like the nymphs of this magical forest. Once in a while, they passed some older individuals, also women, their beauty undiminished by age. As they reached the end of the branch and surveyed the sea of lights below them, Cheng Xin asked the question that had been puzzling her for days. “What happened to the men?” In the few days since she had been awakened, she had not seen a single man.
“What do you mean? They’re everywhere.” AA pointed at the people around them. “Over there: See the man leaning against the balustrade? And there are three over there. And two walking toward us.”
Cheng Xin stared. The individuals AA indicated had smooth, lovely faces; long hair that draped over their shoulders; slender, soft bodies—as if their bones were made of bananas. Their movements were graceful and gentle, and their voices, carried to her by the breeze, were sweet and tender.… Back in her century, these people would have been considered ultra-feminine.
Understanding dawned on her after a moment. The trend had been obvious even earlier. The decade of the 1980s was probably the last time when masculinity, as traditionally defined, was considered an ideal. After that, society and fashion preferred men who displayed traditionally feminine qualities. She recalled the Asian male pop stars of her own time who she had thought looked like pretty girls at first glance. The Great Ravine interrupted this tendency in the evolution of human society, but half a century of peace and ease brought about by the Deterrence Era accelerated the trend.
“It’s true that Common Era people usually have trouble telling men and women apart at first,” AA said. “But I’ll teach you a trick. Pay attention to the way they look at you. A classical beauty like you is very attractive to them.”
Cheng Xin looked at her, a bit flustered.
“No, no!” AA laughed. “I really am a woman, and I don’t like you that way. But, honestly, I can’t see what’s attractive about the men of your era. Rude, savage, dirty—it’s like they hadn’t fully evolved. You’ll adjust to and enjoy this age of beauty.”
Close to three centuries ago, when Cheng Xin had been preparing for hibernation, she had imagined all kinds of difficulties she would face in the future, but this was something she was unprepared for. She imagined what it would be like to live the rest of her life in this feminine world … and her mood turned melancholic. She looked up and searched for her star.
“You’re thinking of him again, aren’t you?” AA grabbed her by the shoulders. “Even if he hadn’t gone into space and had spent the rest of his life with you, the grandchildren of your grandchildren would be dead by now. This is a new age; a new life. Forget about the past!”
Cheng Xin tried to think as AA suggested and forced herself to return to the present. She had only been here for a few days, and had just grasped the broadest outline of the history of the past three centuries. The strategic balance between the humans and the Trisolarans as a result of dark forest deterrence had shocked her
A thought popped into her mind. A world dedicated to femininity … but what does that mean for deterrence?
Cheng Xin and AA walked back along the bough. Again, a few informational windows drifted along with them, and this time, one drew Cheng Xin’s attention. The window showed a man, clearly a man from the past: haggard, gaunt, messy hair, standing next to a black tombstone. The man and the tombstone were in shadows, but his eyes seemed to glow brightly with the reflected light of a distant dawn. A line of text appeared on the bottom of the screen:
Back during his time, a killer would be sentenced to death.
Cheng Xin thought the man’s face looked familiar, but before she could look more closely, the image had disappeared. In his place appeared a middle-aged woman—well, at least Cheng Xin thought she was a woman. Wearing formal, non-glowing clothes that reminded Cheng Xin of a politician’s, she was in the middle of giving a speech. The text earlier had been a part of the subtitles for her speech.
The window seemed to notice Cheng Xin’s interest. It expanded and began to play the audio accompanying the video. The politician’s voice was lovely and sweet, as though the words were strung together by strands of blown sugar. But the content of the speech was terrifying.
“Why the death penalty? Answer: because he killed. But that is only one correct answer.
“Another correct answer would be: because he killed too few. Killing one person was murder; killing a few or dozens was more murder; so killing thousands or tens of thousands ought to be punished by putting the murderer to death a thousand times. What about more than that? A few hundred thousand? The death penalty, right? Yet, those of you who know some history are starting to hesitate.
“What if he killed millions? I can guarantee you such a person would not be considered a murderer. Indeed, such a person may not even be thought to have broken any law. If you don’t believe me, just study history! Anyone who has killed millions is deemed a ‘great’ man, a hero.
“And if that person destroyed a whole world and killed every life on it—he would be hailed as a savior!” “They’re talking about Luo Ji,” said AA. “They want to put him on trial.”
“It’s complicated. But basically, it’s because of that world, the world whose location he broadcast to the universe, causing it to be destroyed. We don’t know if there was life on that world—it’s a possibility. So they’re charging him with suspected mundicide, the most serious crime under our laws.”
“Hey, you must be Cheng Xin!”
The voice shocked Cheng Xin. It had come from the floating window in front of her. The politician in it gazed at Cheng Xin, joy and surprise on her face, as though she were seeing an old friend. “You’re the woman who owns that faraway world! Like a ray of hope, you’ve brought the beauty of your time to us. As the only human being ever to possess an entire world, you will also save this world. All of us have faith in you. Oh, sorry, I should introduce myself—”
AA kicked the window and shut it off. Cheng Xin was utterly amazed by the technology level of this age. She had no idea how her own image had been transmitted to the speaker, and no idea how the speaker was
then able to pick her out of the billions who were watching her speech.
AA rushed in front of Cheng Xin and walked backwards as they talked. “Would you have destroyed a world to create this form of deterrence? And, more importantly, if the enemy weren’t deterred, would you press the button to ensure the destruction of two worlds?”
“This is a meaningless question. I would never put myself in that position.”
AA stopped and grabbed Cheng Xin by the shoulders. She stared into her eyes. “Really? You wouldn’t?” “Of course not. Being put in such a position is the most terrifying fate I can think of. Far worse than death.”
She couldn’t understand why AA seemed so earnest, but AA nodded. “That puts me at ease.… Why don’t we talk more tomorrow? You’re tired and should get more rest. It takes a week to completely recover from hibernation.”
* * *
The next morning, Cheng Xin got a call from AA.
AA showed up on the screen looking excited. “I’m going to surprise you and take you somewhere cool.
Come on up. The car is at the top of the tree.”
Cheng Xin went up and saw a flying car with its door open. She got in but didn’t see AA. The door slid shut noiselessly and the seat molded itself around her, holding her tight like a hand. Gently, the car took off, merging into the streaming traffic of the forest-city.
It was still early, and shafts of sunlight, almost parallel to the ground, flickered through the car as it passed through the forest. Gradually, the giant trees thinned out and, finally, disappeared. Under the blue sky, Cheng Xin saw only grassland and woodland, an intoxicating green mosaic.
After the start of the Deterrence Era, most heavy industries had moved into orbit, and the Earth’s natural ecology recovered. The surface of the Earth now looked more like it did in pre–Industrial Revolution times. Due to a drop in population and further industrialization of food production, much of the arable land was allowed to lie fallow and return to nature. The Earth was transforming into a giant park.
This beautiful world seemed unreal to Cheng Xin. Though awakened from hibernation, she felt as though she were in a dream.
Half an hour later, the car landed and the door slid open automatically. Cheng Xin got out, and the car rose into the air and left. After the turbulence from the propellers subsided, silence reigned over everything, pierced by occasional birdsong from far away. Cheng Xin looked around and found herself in the midst of a group of abandoned buildings. They looked like residential buildings from the Common Era. The bottom half of every building was covered in ivy.
The sight of the past covered by the green life of a new era gave Cheng Xin the sense of reality that she had been missing.
She called for AA, but a man’s voice responded. “Hello.”
She turned and saw a man standing on an ivy-covered second-story balcony. He wasn’t like the soft, beautiful men of this time, but like the men of the past. Cheng Xin seemed to be dreaming again, a continuation of her nightmare from the Common Era.
It was Thomas Wade. He wore a black leather jacket, but he looked a bit older. Perhaps he had gone into
hibernation after Cheng Xin, or perhaps he had awakened before her, or both.
Cheng Xin’s eyes were focused on Wade’s right hand. The hand, covered by a black leather glove, held an old Common-Era gun that was pointing at Cheng Xin.
“The bullet in here was designed to be shot underwater,” said Wade. “It’s supposed to last a long time. But it’s been more than two hundred and seventy years. Who knows if it will work?” That familiar smile, the one he wore when he was taking delight in the despair of others, appeared on his face.
A flash. An explosion. Cheng Xin felt a hard punch against her left shoulder and the force slammed her against the broken wall behind her. The thick ivy muffled much of the noise from the gunshot. Distant birds continued to chitter.
“I can’t use a modern gun,” said Wade. “Every shot is automatically recorded in the public security databases now.” His tone was as serene as it had been when he used to discuss routine tasks with her.
“Why?” Cheng Xin didn’t feel pain. Her left shoulder felt numb, as if it didn’t belong to her.
“I want to be the Swordholder. You are my competitor, and you’re going to win. I don’t harbor any ill will toward you. Whether you believe me or not, I feel terrible at this moment.”
“Did you kill Vadimov?” she asked. Blood seeped from the corner of her mouth.
“Yes. The Staircase Program needed him. And now, my new plan does not need you. Both of you are very good, but you’re in the way. I have to advance, advance without regard for consequences.”
Another shot. The bullet went through the left side of Cheng Xin’s abdomen. She still didn’t feel pain, but the spreading numbness made her unable to keep standing. She slid down against the wall, leaving a bright trail of blood on the ivy behind her.
Wade pulled the trigger again. Finally, the passage of nearly three centuries caught up with the gun, and it made no sound. Wade racked the slide to clear the dud out of the chamber. Once again, he pointed the gun at Cheng Xin.
His right arm exploded. A puff of white smoke rose into the air, and Wade’s right forearm was gone. Burnt bits of bone and flesh splattered into the green leaves around him, but the gun, undamaged, fell to the foot of the building. Wade didn’t move. He took a look at the stump of his right arm and then looked up. A police car was diving toward him.
As the police car approached the ground, several armed police officers jumped out and landed in the thick grass waving in the turbulence thrown up by the propellers. They looked like slender, nimble women.
The last one to jump out of the car was AA. Cheng Xin’s vision was blurring, but she could see AA’s tearful face and hear her sobbing explanation.
“… faked my call…”
A fierce wave of pain seized her, and she lost consciousness.
When Cheng Xin woke up, she found herself in a flying car. A film clung to her and wrapped her tightly. She couldn’t feel pain, couldn’t even feel the presence of her body. Her consciousness began to fade again. In a faint voice that no one but herself could hear, she asked, “What is a Swordholder?”
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