Death’s End: Cheng Xin

With The Three-Body Problem, English-speaking readers got their first chance to experience the multiple-award-winning and bestselling Three-Body Trilogy by China’s most beloved science fiction author, Cixin Liu. Now this epic trilogy concludes with Death’s End—translated by Ken Liu and available September 20th from Tor Books. Read an excerpt below, or head back to the beginning with Chapter One.

Half a century after the Doomsday Battle, the uneasy balance of Dark Forest Deterrence keeps the Trisolaran invaders at bay. Earth enjoys unprecedented prosperity due to the infusion of Trisolaran knowledge. With human science advancing daily and the Trisolarans adopting Earth culture, it seems that the two civilizations will soon be able to co-exist peacefully as equals without the terrible threat of mutually assured annihilation. But the peace has also made humanity complacent.

Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer from the early 21st century, awakens from hibernation in this new age. She brings with her knowledge of a long-forgotten program dating from the beginning of the Trisolar Crisis, and her very presence may upset the delicate balance between two worlds. Will humanity reach for the stars or die in its cradle?

 

 

Crisis Era, Years 1–4
Cheng Xin

 

The start of the Trisolar Crisis coincided with Cheng Xin’s completion of her graduate studies, and she was selected to join the task force working on the design of the propulsion system for the next generation of Long March rockets. To others, this seemed like the perfect job: important and high profile.

But Cheng Xin had lost the enthusiasm for her chosen profession. Gradually, she had come to see chemical rockets as similar to the giant smokestacks of the early Industrial Age. Poets back then had praised those forests of smokestacks, thinking that they were the same as industrial civilization. People now praised rockets the same way, thinking they represented the Space Age. But if humanity relied on chemical rockets, they might never become a true space-faring race.

The Trisolar Crisis simply highlighted this fact. Trying to build a Solar System defense system based on chemical rockets was pure lunacy. Cheng Xin had made an effort to keep her options open by picking some classes in nuclear propulsion. After the Crisis, all aspects of work within the aerospace system accelerated, and even the long-delayed first-generation space plane project was given the go-ahead. Her task force was also charged with designing the prototype for the engines that would be used by the plane in spaceflight. Professionally, Cheng Xin’s future seemed bright: Her abilities were recognized, and in China’s aerospace system, most chief engineers began their careers in propulsion design. But since she believed chemical rocketry was yesterday’s technology, she didn’t think she would get very far in the long term. Heading in the wrong direction was worse than doing nothing at all, but her job demanded her complete focus and attention. She was deeply frustrated.

Then came an opportunity for her to leave chemical rockets behind. The United Nations began to create all sorts of agencies related to planetary defense. Unlike UN agencies from the past, these new agencies reported directly to the PDC, and were staffed by experts from various nations. The Chinese aerospace system sent many people to these agencies. A high-level official offered Cheng Xin a new position: Aide to the director of the Technology Planning Center for the PDC Strategic Intelligence Agency. Humanity’s intelligence-gathering work against the Trisolarans had so far focused on the ETO, but the PDC Strategic Intelligence Agency, or PIA, would focus their efforts directly on the Trisolaran Fleet and the home world of Trisolaris itself. They needed people with strong backgrounds in the technical aspects of aerospace technology.

Cheng Xin took the job without hesitation.

* * *

The PIA Headquarters was located in an old six-story building not far from the UN Headquarters. Dating from the end of the eighteenth century, the building was thick and well-built, like a solid block of granite. When Cheng Xin entered it for the first time after her trans-Pacific flight, she felt a chill, as though entering a castle. The place wasn’t at all what she had expected from an intelligence agency for the whole world; it reminded her more of a place where byzantine plots were hatched through whispers.

The building was mostly empty; she was among the first to report for duty. In an office full of unassembled furniture and just-unsealed cardboard boxes, she met her boss, PIA’s Technology Planning Center director.

Mikhail Vadimov was in his forties, muscular, tall, and spoke English with a heavy Russian accent. It took a few moments before Cheng Xin even realized that he was speaking English. He sat on a cardboard box and complained to her that he had worked in the aerospace industry for more than a dozen years and had no need for any technical assistance. Every country was eager to fill the PIA with its own people, but much less willing to give cold, hard cash. Then he seemed to realize that he was talking to a hopeful young woman who was growing rather dejected from his speech, and tried to comfort her by saying: “If this agency manages to make history—a big possibility, even if it probably won’t be very good history—we two will be remembered as the first to show up!”

Cheng Xin was cheered by the fact that she and her boss had both worked in aerospace. She asked Vadimov what he had worked on. He carelessly mentioned a stint on the Buran spacecraft; then that he’d served as the executive chief designer for a certain cargo-carrying spaceship; but after that, his explanations turned vague. He claimed that he had done a couple of years in diplomacy, then entered “some department” that “did the same kinds of things we do now.”

“It’s best if you don’t probe too much into the employment histories of your future colleagues, okay?” Vadimov said. “The chief is here also. His office is upstairs. You should swing by and say hi, but don’t take up too much of his time.”

As soon as Cheng Xin walked into the PIA chief ’s spacious office, she was greeted by the strong smell of cigar smoke. A large painting hung on the wall. A leaden sky and the dim, snow-covered ground took up most of the painting; in the distance, where the clouds met the snow, a few dark shapes lurked. A closer examination revealed them to be dirty buildings, most of them one-story clapboard houses mixed with a few European-style houses with two or three stories. Based on the shape of the river in the foreground and other hints in the geography, this was a portrait of New York at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The overwhelming impression given off by the painting was coldness, which Cheng Xin thought fit the person sitting under the painting rather well.

Next to the large painting was a smaller picture. The main subject in the painting was an ancient sword with a golden cross guard and a bright, shining blade, held in a hand enclosed in bronze gauntlets—only the forearm was shown. The hand was lifting the sword to pick up a wreath woven from red, white, and yellow flowers floating over the water. In contrast to the larger painting, this picture was bright and colorful, but it nonetheless radiated eeriness. Cheng Xin noticed that bloodstains covered the white flowers in the wreath.

PIA Chief Thomas Wade, an American, was far younger than Cheng Xin had expected—he looked younger than Vadimov. He was also more handsome, with very classical features. Later, she would conclude that the classical appearance came mostly from Wade’s expressionless face, like a cold, lifeless statue transplanted out of the cold painting behind him. Wade didn’t look busy—the desk in front of him was completely empty, with no sign of a computer or paper documents. He glanced up as she entered, but returned to contemplating the cigar in his hand almost right away.

Cheng Xin introduced herself and expressed her pleasure at having a chance to study from him, and continued until Wade lifted his eyes to look at her.

Cheng Xin thought she saw exhaustion and laziness in those eyes, but there was also something deeper, something sharp that made her uncomfortable. A smile appeared on Wade’s face, like water seeping out of a crack in the frozen surface of a river; there was no real warmth, and it didn’t relax her.

She tried to respond with a smile of her own, but the first words out of Wade’s mouth froze her face and entire body. “Would you sell your mother to a whorehouse?” Cheng Xin shook her head no, but she wasn’t even trying to respond to the question; she was terrified that she had not understood what he said. But Wade waved at her with his cigar. “Thanks. Go do what needs to get done.”

After she told Vadimov what had happened, Vadimov laughed. “That’s just a line that used to be popular in our… trade. I heard it started back during the Second World War. Veterans would use it as a joke on novices. The point is: Our profession is the only one on Earth where lies and betrayal are at the very heart of what we do. We have to be… flexible when it comes to commonly accepted ethical norms. PIA is formed from two groups of people: Some are technical experts like you; others are veterans of the various intelligence agencies in the world. These two groups have different ways of thinking and acting. It’s a good thing that I’m familiar with both and can help you adjust to the other.”

“But our enemy is Trisolaris. This is nothing like traditional intelligence.”

“Some things are constant.”

* * *

Over the next few days, other new PIA staff members reported for duty. Most of them came from countries that were permanent members of the PDC.

They were polite to each other, but there was no trust. The technical ex.perts kept to themselves and acted as if they were on guard against theft every minute. The intelligence veterans were gregarious and friendly—but they were constantly on the lookout for something to steal.

It was just like Vadimov had predicted: These people were far more interested in spying on each other than gathering intelligence on Trisolaris.

Two days after Cheng Xin’s arrival, PIA held its first all-hands meeting, even though not everyone had shown up yet. Other than PIA Chief Wade, there were three assistant chiefs: one from China, one from France, and one from the United Kingdom.

Assistant Chief Yu Weiming spoke first. Cheng Xin had no idea what kind of work he had done in China—and he had the sort of face that took multiple meetings to remember what he looked like. Fortunately, he didn’t engage in the habit—common among Chinese bureaucrats—of giving long, meandering speeches. Though he was just repeating platitudes about the PIA’s mission, at least he spoke succinctly.

Assistant Chief Yu said that he understood that everyone in the PIA was sent by their own country, and so they had dual loyalties. PIA didn’t demand, and didn’t even hope, that they would place their loyalty to the agency above their duties to their own nations. However, since the PIA’s task was the protection of the entire human race, he hoped that everyone present would at least try to balance the two appropriately. Considering that the PIA was going to work directly against the Trisolaran threat, they ought to become the most united of the new agencies.

While Assistant Chief Yu was giving this speech, Cheng Xin noticed that Wade was kicking the table legs and slowly maneuvering his chair away from the conference table as though he didn’t want to be there. Later, whenever anyone asked him to say a few words, he shook his head and refused.

Finally, after everyone who wanted to make a speech had done so, he spoke. Pointing at the pile of boxes and fresh office supplies in the meeting room, he said, “I’d like the rest of you to take care of these matters on your own.” Apparently, he was referring to the administrative details of getting the agency up and running. “Please don’t take up my time or theirs”—here he pointed at Vadimov and his staff. “I need everyone in the Technology Planning Center with experience in spaceflight engineering to stay. The rest of you are dismissed.”

About a dozen people remained in the now much less crowded conference room. As soon as the heavy oak doors closed, Wade dropped his bomb. “The PIA must launch a spy probe at the Trisolaran Fleet.”

The stunned staff members looked at each other. Cheng Xin was surprised as well. She had certainly hoped to get to substantive technical work quickly, but she hadn’t expected such directness or speed. Considering that the PIA had just been formed and there were, as yet, no national or regional branches, it seemed ill-equipped to take on big projects. But the real shocker was the boldness of Wade’s proposal: The technical challenges and other barriers seemed insurmountable.

“What are the specific requirements?” asked Vadimov. He was the only one who seemed to take Wade’s announcement in stride.

“I’ve consulted with the delegates of the permanent members of the PDC in private, but the idea hasn’t yet been formally presented. Based on what I know, the PDC members are most interested in one specific requirement—and this is something that they won’t compromise on: The probe must achieve one percent of lightspeed. The permanent members of the PDC have different ideas about other parameters, but I’m sure they’ll come to some compromise during formal discussions.”

An expert from NASA spoke up. “Let me get this straight. Given those mission parameters, and supposing we only worry about acceleration and pro.vide no way for the probe to decelerate, the probe will take two to three centuries to reach the Oort Cloud. There, it will intercept and examine the decelerating Trisolaran Fleet. Forgive me, but this seems a project better reserved for the future.”

Wade shook his head. “With those sophons zipping about at lightspeed, spying on us constantly, and completely blocking all fundamental physics re.search, it’s no longer certain that we’ll make significant technological progress in the future. If humanity is doomed to crawl at a snail’s pace through space, we’d better get started as soon as possible.”

Cheng Xin suspected that Wade’s plan was at least partly motivated by politics. The first effort by humanity to make active contact with an extraterrestrial civilization would enhance the PIA’s status.

“But given the current state of spaceflight technology, it will take twenty, maybe thirty thousand years to reach the Oort Cloud. Even if we launch the probe right now, we won’t have gotten very far from Earth’s front door by the time the Trisolaran Fleet arrives in four hundred years.”

“That is precisely why the probe must achieve one percent of lightspeed.”

“You’re talking about boosting our current maximum speed a hundredfold! That requires a brand-new form of propulsion. We can’t achieve that kind of acceleration with current technology, and there’s no reason to expect a technical breakthrough within the foreseeable future. This proposal is fundamentally impossible.”

Wade slammed his fist down on the table. “You forget that we now have resources! Before, spaceflight was merely a luxury, but now it’s an absolute necessity. We can ask for resources that far exceed what was imaginable before. We can throw resources at this problem until the laws of physics bend. Rely on brute force if you have to, but we must accelerate the probe to one percent of lightspeed!”

Vadimov instinctively looked around the room. Wade glanced at him. “Don’t worry. There are no reporters or outsiders anywhere near here.”

Vadimov laughed. “Please don’t take offense. But saying we want to throw resources at the problem until the laws of physics bend is going to make our agency the laughingstock of the world. Please don’t repeat it in front of the PDC.”

“I already know you’re all laughing at me.”

Everyone held their tongue. The staff just wanted the meeting to be over. Wade looked at everyone in turn, then returned his gaze to Cheng Xin. “No, not everyone. She’s not laughing.” He pointed at her. “Cheng, what do you think?”

Under Wade’s keen gaze, Cheng Xin felt as if he were pointing a sword at her, not a finger. She looked around helplessly. Who was she to talk?

“We need to implement MD here,” said Wade.

Cheng Xin was even more baffled. MD? McDonald’s? Doctor of medicine?

“But you’re Chinese! How can you not know MD?”

Cheng Xin looked at the other five Chinese in the room; they looked just as confused.

“During the Korean War, the Americans discovered that even common Chinese soldiers taken as prisoners seemed to know a lot about their own field strategies. It turned out that your commanders had presented the battle plans to the troops for mass discussion, hoping thereby to find ways to improve them. Of course, if you become Trisolaran prisoners of war in the future, we don’t want you to know that much.”

A few of those present laughed. Cheng Xin finally understood that MD meant “military democracy.” The others in the conference room enthusiastically supported Wade’s proposal. Of course, these elite experts didn’t expect a mere technical aide to have any brilliant ideas, but they were mostly men, and they thought that by giving her a chance to talk, they would have a perfect excuse to appreciate her physical attributes. Cheng Xin had always made an effort to dress conservatively, but this sort of harassment was something she had to deal with constantly.

Cheng Xin began: “I do have an idea—”

“An idea for bending the laws of physics?” The speaker was an older French.woman named Camille, a highly respected and experienced consultant from the European Space Agency. She looked at Cheng Xin contemptuously, as though she didn’t belong in the room.

“Well, more like getting around the laws of physics.” Cheng Xin smiled at Camille politely. “The most promising resource at our disposal is the stockpile of nuclear weapons from around the world. Without some technical break.through, these represent the most powerful sources of energy we can launch into space. Imagine a spaceship or probe equipped with a radiation sail, similar to a solar sail: a thin film capable of being propelled by radiation. If we set off nuclear bombs behind the sail periodically—”

A few titters. Camille laughed the loudest. “My dear, you have sketched for us a scene out of a cartoon. Your spaceship is filled with a pile of nuclear bombs, and there’s a giant sail. On the ship is a hero who bears more than a passing resemblance to Arnold Schwarzenegger. He tosses the bombs behind the ship, where they explode to push the ship forward. Oh, it’s so cool!” As the rest of the staff joined in the mirth, she continued. “You may want to review your homework from freshman year in college and tell me: one, how many nuclear bombs your ship will have to carry; and, two, with that kind of thrust-to-weight ratio, what sort of acceleration you can achieve.”

“She didn’t manage to bend the laws of physics, but she did fulfill the other aspect of the chief ’s demand,” another consulting expert said. “I’m just sorry to see such a pretty girl fall under the spell of brute force.” The wave of laughter reached a crescendo.

“The bombs will not be on the ship,” Cheng Xin replied calmly. The laughter ceased abruptly; it was as if she had put her hand on the surface of a struck cymbal. “The probe itself will be a tiny core equipped with sensors attached to a large sail, but the total mass will be light as a feather. It will be easy to propel it with the radiation from extravehicular nuclear detonations.”

The conference room became very quiet. Everyone was trying to think where the bombs would be. While the others were mocking Cheng Xin, Wade’s mien had remained chilly and unmoved. But now, that smile, like water seeping from a crack in the ice, gradually reappeared on his face.

Cheng Xin retrieved a stack of paper cups from the drinking water dispenser behind her and laid them out on the conference table in a line. “We can use traditional chemical rockets to launch the nuclear bombs in advance, and dis.tribute them along the first segment of the probe’s route.” She took a pencil and moved its tip along the line, from one cup to the next. “As the probe passes each bomb, we detonate it right behind the sail, accelerating it faster and faster.”

The men now moved their gazes away from Cheng Xin’s body. They were finally willing to take her proposal seriously. Only Camille continued to stare at her, as though at a stranger.

“We can call this technique ‘en-route propulsion.’ This initial segment is the acceleration leg, and it takes up only a tiny fraction of the overall course. As a very rough estimate, if we use one thousand nuclear bombs, they can be distributed along a path of about five astronomical units stretching from the Earth to Jupiter’s orbit. Or we could even compress it further and distribute the bombs within Mars’s orbit. That’s definitely achievable with our current technology.”

The silence was broken by a few whispers. Gradually, the voices grew louder and more excited, like a drizzle turning into a rainstorm.

“You didn’t just come up with this idea, did you?” asked Wade. He had been listening to the discussion intently.

Cheng Xin smiled at him. “It’s based on an old idea in aerospace circles. Stanislaw Ulam first proposed something like it back in 1946. It’s called nu.clear pulse propulsion.”

“Dr. Cheng,” Camille said, “we all know about nuclear pulse propulsion. But those previous proposals all required the fuel to be carried aboard the ship. The idea of distributing the fuel along the spacecraft’s route is indeed your invention. At least, I’ve never heard the suggestion before.”

The discussion grew heated. The assembled experts tore into the idea like a pack of hungry wolves presented with a piece of fresh meat.

Wade slammed the table again. “Enough! Don’t get bogged down on details right now. We’re not evaluating feasibility; rather, we’re trying to figure out if it’s worthwhile to study the idea’s feasibility. Focus on big-picture barriers.”

After a brief silence, Vadimov said, “The best thing about this proposal is that it’s easy to get started.”

Everyone immediately caught on to Vadimov’s meaning. The first step in Cheng Xin’s plan involved launching a large number of nuclear bombs into orbit around the Earth. Not only did humanity possess such technology, the bombs were already on launch vehicles: the ICBMs in service could easily be repurposed for this use. American Peacekeepers, Russian Topols, and Chinese Dongfengs could all directly launch their payloads into near-Earth orbits. Even intermediate-range ballistic missiles, if retrofitted with booster rockets, could do the job. Compared to the post-Crisis nuclear disarmament plans that required destroying the missiles, this plan would be far cheaper.

“Excellent. For now, let’s pause our discussion of Cheng Xin’s en-route propulsion idea. Any other proposals?” Wade looked around the room.

A few seemed to want to speak up, but finally decided to remain quiet. None of them thought their own ideas could compete with Cheng Xin’s. Eventually, everyone’s eyes focused on her again, but this time, the meaning was completely different.

“We’ll meet twice more to brainstorm and see if we can come up with a few more options. But we might as well get started on the feasibility study for en-route propulsion. We’ll need a code name.”

“Since the probe’s velocity would go up a level each time a bomb explodes, it’s a bit like climbing a flight of stairs,” Vadimov said. “I suggest we call it the Staircase Program. Besides the requirement of a final velocity exceeding one percent of lightspeed, another parameter to keep in mind is the mass of the probe.”

“A radiation sail can be made very thin and light. Based on the current state of material sciences, we can make a sail of about fifty square kilometers and limit the mass to about fifty kilograms. That should be big enough.” The speaker was a Russian expert who had once directed a failed solar sail experiment.

“Then the key will be the mass of the probe itself.”

Everyone’s eyes turned to another man in the room, the chief designer of the Cassini-Huygens probe.

“If we include some basic sensors and take into account the necessary antenna and radioisotope power source to transmit information back from the Oort Cloud, about two to three thousand kilograms ought to do it.”

“No!” Vadimov shook his head. “It has to be like Cheng Xin said: light as a feather.”

“If we stick with the most basic sensors, maybe one thousand kilograms would be enough. I can’t guarantee that’s going to succeed—you’re giving me almost nothing to work with.”

“You’re going to have to make it work,” said Wade. “Including the sail, the entire probe cannot exceed one metric ton in mass. We’ll devote the strength of the entire human race to propel one thousand kilograms. Let’s hope that’s light enough.”

* * *

During the next week, Cheng Xin slept only on airplanes. As part of a task force led by Vadimov, she shuttled back and forth between the space agencies of the US, China, Russia, and Europe to coordinate the feasibility study of the Staircase Program. During that week, Cheng Xin got to travel to more places than she had in her life up to that point, but she didn’t get to do any sightseeing except through the windows of cars and conference rooms.

At first, they had thought they could get all the space agencies to do a combined feasibility study, but that turned out to be an impossible political exercise. In the end, each space agency performed an independent analysis. The advantage of this approach was that the four studies could be compared to get a more accurate result, but it also meant that the PIA had to do a lot more work. Cheng Xin worked harder on this project than anything in her professional career—it was her baby, after all.

The four feasibility studies quickly reached preliminary conclusions, which were very similar to each other. The good news was that the area of the radiation sail could be shrunk to twenty-five square kilometers, and with even more advanced materials, the mass of the sail could be reduced to twenty kilograms.

Then came some very bad news: In order to reach the required speed of 1 percent of lightspeed, the mass for the entire probe assembly had to be reduced by 80 percent—to only 200 kilograms. Subtracting the mass reserved for the sail left only 180 kilograms for sensors and communication devices.

Wade’s expression didn’t change. “Don’t be sad. I have even worse news: At the last session of the PDC, the resolution proposing the Staircase Program was voted down.”

Of the seven permanent members of the PDC, four voted no. Their reasons were surprisingly similar. In contrast to the technical staff of the PIA with background in spaceflight, the delegates were not interested in the propulsion technology. They objected that the probe’s intelligence value was too limited— in the words of the American representative, “practically nil.”

This was because the proposed probe had no way to decelerate. Even taking into account the fact that the Trisolaran Fleet would be decelerating, the probe and the fleet would pass by each other at a relative speed of around 5 percent of lightspeed (assuming the probe wasn’t captured by the fleet). The window for gathering intelligence would be extremely small. Since the small mass of the probe made active sensors such as radar impractical, the probe was limited to passive sensing, mainly of electromagnetic signals. Given the advanced state of Trisolaran technology, it was almost certain that the enemy would not be using electromagnetic radiation, but media such as neutrinos or gravitational waves—techniques beyond the current state of human technology.

Moreover, due to the presence of sophons, the plan for sending a probe would be completely transparent to the enemy, making its chances of success.fully gathering any valuable intelligence nonexistent. Considering the enormous investment required to implement such a plan, the benefits were too minuscule. Most of the plan’s value was purely symbolic, and the great powers were simply insufficiently interested. The other three permanent members of the PDC voted yes only because they were interested in the propulsion technology.

“And the PDC is right,” said Wade.

Everyone silently mourned the Staircase Program. Cheng Xin was the most disappointed, but she comforted herself that as a young person with no record of achievements, having gotten this far on her first original idea wasn’t too bad. Certainly, she had exceeded her own expectations.

“Ms. Cheng, you look unhappy,” Wade said. “Apparently you think we’re going to back off from the Staircase Program.”

Everyone now stared at Wade, speechless.

“We’re not going to stop.” Wade stood up and paced around the conference room. “From now on, whether it’s the Staircase Program or any other plan, you do not stop until I tell you to stop. Understand?” He dropped his habitual indifferent tone and screamed like a crazed wild animal. “We’re going to advance! Advance! We’ll stop at nothing to advance!”

Wade was standing right behind Cheng Xin. She felt as if a volcano had erupted behind her, and she cringed and almost screamed herself.

“What’s our next step?” asked Vadimov.

“We’re going to send a person.”

Wade had resumed his calm, emotionless voice. Still in shock at his explosion, it took a while before those in the room understood what Wade meant. He wasn’t talking about sending someone to the PDC, but out of the Solar System. He was proposing sending a live scout to the bleak, frigid Oort Cloud one light-year away to spy on the Trisolaran Fleet.

Wade kicked the leg of the conference table and sent his chair flying backwards so that he could sit behind everyone as they continued to discuss. But no one spoke. It was a repeat of the meeting a week ago when he had first brought up the idea of sending a probe to the Trisolaran Fleet. Everyone tried to chew over his words and unravel the riddle. Shortly, they came to see that the idea wasn’t as ridiculous as it seemed at first.

Hibernation was a relatively mature technology. A person could complete the voyage in suspended animation. Assuming the person weighed 70 kilo.grams, that left 110 kilograms for the hibernation equipment and the hull— which would resemble a coffin. But what then? Two centuries later, when the probe met the Trisolaran Fleet, how would they wake this person up, and what could he or she do?

These thoughts revolved inside the heads of everyone present, but no one spoke up. But Wade seemed to be reading everyone’s minds.

“We need to send a representative of humanity into the heart of the enemy,” he said.

“This would require the Trisolaran Fleet to capture the probe,” Vadimov said. “And to keep our spy.”

“This is very likely.” Wade looked up. “Isn’t it?” Those inside the conference understood that he was speaking to the sophons hovering around them like ghosts. Four light-years away, on that distant world, other invisible beings were also “attending” their meeting. The presence of the sophons was some.thing that people tended to forget. When they remembered it, besides fright, they also felt a kind of insignificance, as though they were a swarm of ants under the magnifying glass of some playful, cruel child. It was very difficult to maintain confidence when one realized that whatever plans one came up with would be known by the enemy long before they were even explained to the supervisor. Humanity had to struggle to adjust to this kind of warfare, in which they were completely transparent to the enemy.

But now, Wade seemed to have changed the situation slightly. In his scenario, the enemy’s knowledge of the plan was an advantage. The Trisolarans would know every detail about the trajectory of the probe, and could easily intercept it. Even though the sophons allowed the Trisolarans to learn about humanity, surely they would still be interested in capturing a live specimen for up-close study.

In traditional intelligence warfare, sending a spy whose identity was known to the enemy was a meaningless gesture. But this war was different. Sending a representative of humanity into the Trisolaran Fleet was, by itself, a valiant gesture, and it made no difference that the Trisolarans would know the individual’s identity ahead of time. The PIA didn’t even need to figure out what the spy had to do once he or she got there: As long as the person could be safely and successfully inserted into the fleet, the possibilities were endless. Given that the Trisolarans were transparent in thought and vulnerable to stratagems, Wade’s idea became even more attractive.

We need to send a representative of humanity into the heart of the enemy.

Excerpted from Death’s End © Cixin Liu

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