Deterrence Era,Year 61 The Swordholder
On the day of Cheng Xin’s discharge, AA told her that Sophon wanted to meet her.
Cheng Xin understood that AA wasn’t referring to the subatomic particles endowed with intelligence sent by Trisolaris, but to a woman, a robot woman developed by the most advanced human AI and bionics technology. She was controlled by the sophons and acted as the Trisolaran ambassador to Earth. Her appearance facilitated a more natural interchange between the two worlds than having sophons manifest themselves by unfolding in lower dimensions.
Sophon lived on a giant tree at the edge of the city. Viewed from the flying car, the leaves on the tree were sparse, as though it were late autumn. Sophon lived on the branch at the top, where a single leaf hung, an elegant dwelling made of bamboo and surrounded by a white cloud. The day was cloudless, and it was clear that Sophon’s house generated the white mist.
Cheng Xin and AA walked along the branch until they reached the tip. The road was lined with smooth pebbles, and they saw lush lawns on both sides. They descended a spiraling staircase to reach the door of the house itself, where Sophon welcomed them. The gorgeous Japanese kimono on her petite figure resembled a layer of blooming flowers, but when Cheng Xin saw her face, the flowers seemed to lose color. Cheng Xin could not imagine a more perfect beauty, a beauty animated by a lively soul. She smiled, and it was as though a breeze stirred a pond in spring and the gentle sunlight broke into a thousand softly undulating fragments. Slowly, Sophon bowed to them, and Cheng Xin felt her entire figure illustrated the Chinese character 柔 , or soft, in both shape and meaning.
“Welcome, welcome! I wanted to pay a visit to your honored abode, but then I wouldn’t be able to properly entertain you with the Way of Tea. Please accept my humble apologies. I am so delighted to see you.” Sophon bowed again. Her voice was as gentle and soft as her body, barely audible, but it possessed an irresistible charm, as if all other voices had to pause and step aside when she spoke.
The pair followed Sophon into the yard. The tiny white flowers in her bun quivered, and she turned around to smile at them from time to time. Cheng Xin had completely forgotten that she was an alien invader, that she was controlled by a powerful world four light-years away. All she saw was a lovely woman, distinguished by her overwhelming femininity, like a concentrated pigment pellet that could turn a whole lake pink.
Bamboo groves lined both sides of the trail through the yard. A white fog hung among the bamboo, which reached about waist-high and undulated. They crossed a little wooden bridge over a trickling spring, and Sophon stepped to the side, bowed, and showed them into the parlor. The parlor was decorated in a pure
Eastern style, full of sunlight and wide openings in the four walls so that the space resembled a pavilion. They could see the blue sky and white clouds outside. The clouds were generated by the house itself and dissipated into tendrils. A small ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock print hung on the wall, along with a fan decorated with a Chinese-brush-painting landscape. The whole place exuded an air of simple elegance.
Sophon waited until Cheng Xin and AA were sitting cross-legged on the tatami mats, then sat herself down gracefully. Methodically, she laid out the implements for the tea ceremony in front of her.
“You’re going to have to be patient,” AA whispered in Cheng Xin’s ear. “It’ll be two hours before you get to drink any tea.”
Sophon retrieved a spotless white cloth from her kimono and began wiping the equally spotless implements. First, she carefully, slowly wiped each and every tea scoop, delicate spoons with long handles carved from single pieces of bamboo. Then she wiped each and every white porcelain and yellow copper tea bowl. With a bamboo ladle, she transferred the clear spring water from a ceramic container to a teapot and placed it above a refined copper brazier to boil. Then she scooped powdered green tea from the tea caddy into the tea bowls, brushing them with a bamboo tea whisk in a circular motion.…
She performed each step in a deliberate, slow manner, even repeating some of the steps. Just wiping the tea ceremony implements took nearly twenty minutes. Clearly, Sophon executed these actions not for their results, but for their ceremonial significance.
But Cheng Xin didn’t feel bored. Sophon’s graceful, gentle movements had a hypnotic, mesmerizing effect on her. From time to time, a light breeze wafted through the room, and Sophon’s pale arms seemed to move not of their own accord, but to drift with the breeze. Her hands, smooth as jade, seemed to be caressing not implements for making tea, but something softer, lighter, more cloudlike … like time. Yes, she was caressing time. Time turned malleable and meandered slowly, like the fog that drifted through the bamboo groves. This was another time. Here, the history of blood and fire had disappeared, and the world of everyday concerns retreated somewhere far away. All that was left were clouds, the bamboo grove, and the fragrance of tea. They had achieved wa kei sei jaku—harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility, the four principles of the Way of Tea.
After an unknown amount of time, the tea was ready. Following another series of complicated ceremonial procedures, Sophon finally handed the bowls of tea to Cheng Xin and AA. Cheng Xin took a sip of the lush, green drink. A fragrant, bitter sensation suffused her body, and her mind seemed to clear.
“When all of us women are together, the world is so beautiful.” Sophon’s voice was still slow and mild, barely audible. “But our world is also very fragile. All of us women must take care to protect it.” Then she bowed deeply, and her voice grew excited. “Thank you for your care in advance! Thank you!”
Cheng Xin understood very well what was meant but not said, as well as the true significance of the tea ceremony.
* * *
The next meeting pulled Cheng Xin back into the complex reality around her.
The day after Cheng Xin visited Sophon, six Common Era men came to see her. These were the candidates competing to succeed Luo Ji in the Swordholder position. They were between thirty-four and
sixty-eight years old. Compared to the beginning of the Deterrence Era, fewer Common Era individuals were emerging from hibernation, but they still formed a stratum of society on their own. All of them had some difficulty reintegrating into modern society. Most men from the Common Era tried to, consciously or otherwise, feminize their appearance and personality to adjust to the new feminine society. But the six men in front of Cheng Xin all stubbornly held on to their outdated masculine appearance and personality. If Cheng Xin had met them a few days ago, she would have found them comforting, but now, she felt only a sense of oppression.
She could see no sunlight in their eyes; their expressions appeared as masks that disguised their true feelings. Cheng Xin felt that she was facing a city wall built from six cold, hard rocks. The wall, roughened and toughened by the passing years, chilled her with its heaviness, and seemed to hint at death and bloodshed.
Cheng Xin first thanked the candidate who had warned the police. In this she was sincere—he had saved her life, after all. The forty-eight-year-old man was named Bi Yunfeng, and he had once been a designer for the world’s largest particle collider. Like Cheng Xin, he was sent as a liaison to the future in the hope that the particle collider would be restarted once humankind broke through the lock placed on them by the sophons. Unfortunately, none of the particle accelerators built during his time had survived to the Deterrence Era.
“I hope I haven’t made a mistake,” he said. Perhaps he was trying to be funny, but Cheng Xin and the others didn’t laugh.
“We’re here to persuade you to not compete for the Swordholder position.” Another man got right to the point. His name was Cao Bin, and he was thirty-four, the youngest of the candidates. At the start of the Trisolar Crisis, he had been a physicist, a colleague of the famous Ding Yi. After the truth of the sophons’ lock on fundamental research was revealed, he was disappointed by the thought that physics had turned into a mathematical game divorced from experimental basis, and entered hibernation to wait for the lock to be released.
“If I do declare my candidacy, do you think I will win?” asked Cheng Xin. She had been pondering this question nonstop since her return from Sophon’s home. She could barely sleep.
“If you do, it’s almost certain that you will win,” Ivan Antonov said. The handsome Russian was the next youngest of the candidates, at forty-three years old. He had an impressive résumé: Once the youngest vice- admiral in the Russian Navy, he later became the deputy commander of the Baltic Fleet. He had entered hibernation because of a terminal illness.
“Do I possess a lot of deterrent force?” asked Cheng Xin, smiling.
“You are not without qualifications. You once served in the PIA. During the last few centuries, that agency has actively gathered an enormous amount of intelligence about Trisolaris. Before the Doomsday Battle, it had even warned the human fleets about the imminent droplet attack, though the warning was ignored. Nowadays, the PIA is seen as a legendary organization, and this will give you points. In addition, you’re the only human to possess another world, which makes you able to save this world.… Never mind that the leap in logic is suspect; that’s how the public thinks—”
“Let me get to the point,” a bald man interrupted Antonov. He was named A. J. Hopkins—or at least that’s what he called himself. His identity had been completely lost by the time he emerged from hibernation, and he refused to divulge any information about himself, not even bothering to make it up. This made it difficult
for him to become a citizen of the new world—though his mysterious past also helped make him a competitive candidate. He and Antonov were considered to possess the most deterrent force. “In the eyes of the public, the ideal Swordholder looks like this: He should terrify the Trisolarans without terrifying the people of Earth. Since such a combination cannot exist, the people will lean toward someone who doesn’t terrify them. You don’t frighten them because you’re a woman, and a woman who seems angelic in their eyes, at that. These sissies are more naïve than even the children of our time; all they can see are superficial qualities.
… Look, they all think everything is developing wonderfully, and we are on the cusp of achieving universal peace and love. Deterrence is no longer so important, so they want someone with a gentler hand holding the sword.”
“Isn’t it true, though?” Cheng Xin asked. Hopkins’s contemptuous tone annoyed her.
The six men didn’t answer her, but they exchanged glances with each other. Their gazes now looked even darker and colder. Standing in their midst, Cheng Xin felt as if she were on the bottom of a well. She shivered.
“Child, you’re not suited to be the Swordholder.” At sixty-eight, the speaker was the oldest of the candidates. Before hibernation, he had been South Korea’s vice minister of foreign affairs. “You have no political experience, you are young, you lack the judgment to evaluate situations correctly, and you don’t possess the requisite psychological qualities to be the Swordholder. All you have is kindness and a sense of responsibility.”
The last candidate, an experienced attorney, now spoke up. “I don’t think you really want to be the Swordholder. You must know what kind of sacrifices are required.”
This last speech silenced Cheng Xin. She had just learned what Luo Ji had endured during the Deterrence Era.
* * *
After the six candidates departed, AA said to Cheng Xin, “I don’t think what the Swordholder goes through can be called living. It’s worse than being in hell. Why would these Common Era men want that?”
“To be able to determine the fate of all of humanity and another race with a single finger is very attractive to some men from that era. Some devote their entire lives to pursue such power. They become obsessed with it.”
“Um, are you obsessed, too?”
Cheng Xin said nothing. Things were no longer simple.
“It’s hard to imagine a man so dark, so crazy, so perverted.” AA meant Wade. “He’s not the most dangerous.”
This was true. Wade did not hide his viciousness deeply. The layers and layers of disguises that people of the Common Era wore to hide their real intentions and feelings were unimaginable to AA and contemporary humans. Who knew what was hidden behind the cold, expressionless masks worn by the six men? Who knew whether one of them might be another Ye Wenjie or Zhang Beihai? More terrifyingly, whether all of them were?
The beautiful world revealed its fragility to Cheng Xin, like a lovely soap bubble floating through a bramble
bush: A single touch was enough to destroy everything.
* * *
A week later, Cheng Xin came to the UN Headquarters to attend the handover ceremony for the two planets in the DX3906 system.
Afterwards, the PDC chair spoke with her. On behalf of the UN and the Solar System Fleet, he asked her to declare her candidacy for the Swordholder. He explained that there was uncertainty about the six existing candidates. For any of them to be elected would lead to mass panic, as a considerable portion of the population believed each of the candidates to be a tremendous danger and threat. The consequences of electing any of them were unpredictable. In addition, all of the candidates distrusted Trisolaris and exhibited aggressive tendencies toward it. If one of them were elected, the second Swordholder might collaborate with the hardliners on Earth and in Fleet International to impose harsher policies toward Trisolaris and demand more concessions from them. Such a move might terminate the developing peace and scientific and cultural exchange between the two worlds, leading to disaster.…
But Cheng Xin could prevent all of this.
After humanity ended its second cave-dwelling stage, the UN Headquarters moved back to its old address. Cheng Xin was familiar with it: The exterior of the Secretariat Building looked the same as three centuries ago, and even the sculptures on the plaza in front were perfectly preserved, as was the lawn. Cheng Xin stood and recalled that tumultuous night 270 years ago: the announcement of the Wallfacer Project; Luo Ji’s shooting; the chaotic crowd under the swaying spotlights; her hair blowing about in the turbulence from the helicopters; the ambulance departing with flashing red lights and shrill sirens … everything was as clear as yesterday. Wade stood with his back against the lights of New York City, and uttered the line that had transformed her life: “We’ll send only a brain.”
Without that statement, everything that was happening now would have nothing to do with her. She would be a common woman and would have died more than two centuries ago. Everything about her would have disappeared without a trace upstream in time’s long river. If she had been fortunate, her tenth-generation descendants would now be waiting for the selection of the second Swordholder.
But she was alive. She faced the crowd on the plaza. A hologram of her image floated above them like a colorful cloud. A young mother came up to Cheng Xin and handed her baby, only a few months old, to her. The baby giggled at her, and she held him close, touching her face to his smooth baby cheeks. Her heart melted, and she felt as if she were holding a whole world, a new world as lovely and fragile as the baby in her arms.
“Look, she’s like Saint Mary, the mother of Jesus!” the young mother called out to the crowd. She turned back to Cheng Xin and put her hands together. Tears flowed from her eyes. “Oh, beautiful, kind Madonna, protect this world! Do not let those bloodthirsty and savage men destroy all the beauty here.”
The crowd cried out in joy. The baby in Cheng Xin’s arms, startled, began to cry. She held the baby tighter.
Do I have another choice?
The answer came to her, brooking no doubt.
No. None at all.
There were three reasons.
First, being declared a savior was just like being pushed under the guillotine: There was no choice involved.
This had happened to Luo Ji, and now it was happening to her.
Second, the young mother and the soft, warm bundle in Cheng Xin’s arms made her realize something. She understood for the first time her own feelings toward this new world: maternal instinct. She had never experienced such a feeling during the Common Era. Subconsciously, she saw everyone in the new world as her child, and she could not bear to see them come to harm. Before, she had mistakenly thought of it as a sense of responsibility. But, no, maternal instinct was not subject to rationalization; she could not escape it.
The third fact stood in front of her like an unscalable wall. Even if the first two reasons did not exist, this wall would remain: Yun Tianming.
This situation was a hell, a bottomless abyss, the same as the abyss Yun Tianming had plunged into for her sake. She could not back off now. She had to accept karma. It was her turn.
Cheng Xin’s childhood had been full of her mother’s love, but only her mother’s love. She had asked her mother where her father was. Unlike some other single mothers, her mother responded calmly. She said she didn’t know, and then, after a sigh, added that she wished she did. Cheng Xin had also asked her where she had come from, and her mother had told her she was found.
This wasn’t a lie. Cheng Xin really had been found. Her mother had never married, but one night, while on a date with her boyfriend at the time, she saw a three-month-old baby abandoned on a park bench, along with a bottle of milk, a thousand yuan, and a slip of paper with the baby girl’s birthday. Her mother and the boyfriend had intended to bring the baby to the police, who would have turned the baby over to the city’s civil affairs department, who would have sent her to an orphanage.
Instead, her mother decided that she wanted to bring the baby home and go to the police in the morning. Perhaps it was the experience of being a mother for a night, or some other reason, but the next morning, she found that she couldn’t send the child away. Every time she thought of parting from the young life, her heart ached, and so she decided to become the child’s mother.
The boyfriend left her because of this. During the following decade, she dated four or five other men, but all of them ended up leaving her because of Cheng Xin. Later, Cheng Xin found out that none of the men had explicitly objected to her mother’s decision to keep her, but if any of them ever showed a trace of impatience or lack of understanding, her mother broke up with him. She refused to let any harm come to Cheng Xin.
When she was little, Cheng Xin never thought her family was incomplete. Instead, she thought it just the way it should be: a small world made up of mother and daughter. The small world possessed so much love and joy that she even suspected that adding a father would be extraneous. Later, she did miss having a father’s love
—at first, only a vague sensation, but later a growing ache. And that was when her mother did find a father for her, a very kind man full of love and a sense of responsibility. He fell in love with Cheng Xin’s mother in large part because of how much she loved Cheng Xin. And so a second sun appeared in Cheng Xin’s life. She felt that her small world really was complete, and so her parents did not have another child.
Later, Cheng Xin left her parents to go to college. After that, her life was like a runaway horse that carried her farther and farther until, finally, not only did she have to part from them in space, but also time—she had
to be sent to the future.
That night when she left her parents for the last time would be carved in her mind forever. She had lied to her parents and said that she’d be back the next day—she couldn’t bear to say good-bye, and so she had to leave without saying anything. But they seemed to know the truth.
Her mother had held her hand and said, “My darling, the three of us are together because of love.…”
Cheng Xin spent that night standing in front of her parents’ window. In her mind, the night breeze and the twinkling stars and everything else repeated her mother’s last words.
Three centuries later, she was finally ready to do something for love.
“I will be a candidate for the Swordholder,” she said to the young mother.
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