Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Trilogy

The Three-Body Problem: “King Wen of Zhou and the Long Night”

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth.

Meanwhile, in “King Wen of Zhou and the Long Night,” a self-contained story within the novel, scientist Wang Miao is encouraged to play an online VR game by the name of “3Body.” He becomes immersed in a planet that is itself a puzzle, a puzzle that, once encountered, may just explain why Earth is such a tempting target for invasion.

The Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award-winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Cixin Liu. The English edition, available November 11th from Tor Books, was translated by Ken Liu. Learn more about Stephan Martiniere’s cover art, and read Cixin Liu’s article about Chinese science fiction here on Tor.com.

 

Three Body: King Wen of Zhou
and the Long Night

Wang dialed Ding Yi’s number. Only when Ding picked up did he realize that it was already one in the morning.

“This is Wang Miao. I’m sorry to be calling so late.”

“No problem. I can’t sleep anyway.”

“I have… seen something, and I’d like your help. Do you know if there are any facilities in China that are observing the cosmic microwave background?” Wang had the urge to talk to someone about what was going on, but he thought it best to not let too many people know about the countdown that only he could see.

“The cosmic microwave background? What made you interested in that? I guess you really have run into some problems.… Have you been to see Yang Dong’s mother yet?”

“Ah—I’m sorry. I forgot.”

“No worries. Right now, many scientists have… seen something, like you. Everyone’s distracted. But I think it’s still best if you go visit her. She’s getting on in years, and she won’t hire a caretaker. If there’s some task around the home that she needs help with, please help her… Oh, right, the cosmic microwave background. You can ask Yang’s mother. Before she retired, she was an astrophysicist. She’s very familiar with such facilities in China.”

“Good! I’ll go after work today.”

“Then I’ll thank you in advance. I really can’t face anything that reminds me of Yang Dong again.”

After hanging up, Wang sat in front of his computer and printed out the simple Morse code chart. By now he was calm enough to turn his thoughts away from the countdown. He pondered the Frontiers of Science, Shen Yufei, and the computer game she had been playing. The only thing he knew for certain about Shen was that she wasn’t the type to enjoy computer games. She spoke like a telegraph and gave him the impression that she was always extremely cold. It wasn’t the kind of coldness that some people put on like a mask—hers suffused her all the way through.

Wang subconsciously thought of her as the long-obsolete DOS operating system: a blank, black screen, a bare “C:>” prompt, a blinking cursor. Whatever you entered, it echoed back. Not one extra letter and not a single change. But now he knew that behind the “C:>” was a bottomless abyss.

She’s actually interested in a game? A game that requires a V-suit? She has no kids, which means she bought the V-suit for herself. The very idea is preposterous.

Wang entered the address for the game into the browser. It had been easy to memorize: www.3body.net. The site indicated that the game only supported access via V-suit. Wang remembered that the employee lounge at the Nanotechnology Research Center had a V-suit. He left the now-empty main lab and went to the security office to get the key. In the lounge, he passed the pool tables and the exercise machines and found the V-suit next to a computer. He struggled into the haptic feedback suit, put on the panoramic viewing helmet, and turned on the computer.

After entering the game, Wang found himself in the middle of a desolate plain at dawn. The plain was dun-colored, blurry, its details hard to make out. In the distance, there was a sliver of white light on the horizon. Twinkling stars covered the rest of the sky.

There was a loud explosion, and two red-glowing mountains crashed against the earth in the distance. The whole plain was bathed in red light. When the dust finally cleared from the sky, Wang saw two giant words erected between the sky and the earth: three body.

Next came a registration screen. Wang created the ID “Hairen,” and logged in.*

*Translator’s Note: Hairen means “Man of the Sea.” This is a play on Wang Miao’s name, which can be read to mean “sea.”

The plain remained desolate, but now the compressors in the V-suit whirred to life, and Wang could feel gusts of cold air against his body. Before him appeared two walking figures, forming dark silhouettes against the dawn light. Wang ran after them.

He saw that both figures were male. They were dressed in long robes full of holes, covered by dirty animal hides. Each carried a short, wide bronze sword. One of them carried a narrow wooden trunk that was as long as half his height. He turned around to look at Wang. The man’s face was as dirty and wrinkled as the hide he wore, but his eyes were sharp and lively, the pupils glinting in the early-morning glow.

“It’s cold,” he said.

“Yes, very cold.”

“This is the Warring States Period,” the man with the trunk on his back said. “I am King Wen of Zhou.”

“I don’t think King Wen belongs to the Warring States Period,” Wang said.*

*Translator’s Note: The Warring States Period lasted from 475 BC to 221 BC. But King Wen of Zhou reigned much earlier, from 1099 BC to 1050 BC. He is considered the founder of the Zhou Dynasty, which overthrew the corrupt Shang Dynasty.

“He’s survived until now,” the other man said. “King Zhou of Shang is alive, too. I am a follower of King Wen. Indeed, that’s my log-in ID: ‘Follower of King Wen of Zhou.’ He’s a genius, you know?”*

*Translator’s Note: King Zhou of Shang reigned from 1075 BC to 1046 BC. The last king of the Shang Dynasty, he was a notorious tyrant in Chinese history.

“My log-in ID is ‘Hairen.’ What are you carrying on your back?”

King Wen put down the rectangular trunk and stood it up vertically. He opened one of the sides like a door and revealed five compartments within. By the faint light, Wang could see that every layer held a small mound of sand. Every compartment seemed to have sand falling into it from the compartment above, through a small hole.

“A type of sandglass. Every eight hours all the sand flows to the bottom. Flip it three times and you can measure a day. But often I forget to flip it, and I need Follower here to remind me.”

“You seem to be on a very long journey. Is it necessary to carry such a bulky clock?”

“How else would we measure time?”

“A portable sundial would be much more convenient. Or else you could just look at the sun and know the approximate time.”

King Wen and Follower stared at each other, and then turned as one to gaze at Wang, as though he was an idiot. “The sun? How can the sun tell us the time? We’re in the midst of a Chaotic Era.”

Wang was about to ask for the meaning of the strange term when Follower cried out piteously, “It’s so cold! I’m going to die of the cold!”

Wang felt very cold as well. But in most games, taking off his V-suit would immediately cause his ID to be deleted by the system. He couldn’t do that. He said, “When the sun comes out it will be warmer.”

“Are you pretending to be some kind of oracle? Even King Wen can not predict the future.” Follower shook his head contemptuously.

“What does what I said have to do with predicting the future? Everyone can see that the sun will rise in about another hour or two.” Wang pointed to the sliver of light above the horizon.

“This is a Chaotic Era!”

“What is a Chaotic Era?”

“Other than Stable Eras, all times are Chaotic Eras.” King Wen answered the way he would have spoken to an ignorant child.

Indeed, the light over the horizon dimmed and soon disappeared. Night covered everything. The stars overhead shone even more brightly.

“So that was dusk instead of dawn?” Wang asked.

“It is morning. But the sun doesn’t always rise in the morning. That’s what a Chaotic Era is like.”

Wang found the cold hard to take. “It looks like the sun won’t rise for a long time.” He shivered and pointed to the blurry horizon.

“What makes you think that? There’s no way to be certain. I told you, this is a Chaotic Era.” Follower turned to King Wen. “May I have some dried fish?”

“Absolutely not.” King Wen’s tone brooked no disagreement. “I barely have enough for myself. We must guarantee that I make it to Zhao Ge, not you.”*

*Translator’s Note: Zhao Ge was the capital of Shang China, where King Zhou held court.

As they spoke, Wang noticed the sky brightening over another part of the horizon. He couldn’t be sure of the compass directions, but he was sure the direction this time was different from last time. The sky grew brighter, and soon, the sun of this world rose. It was small and bluish in color, like a very bright moon. Wang still felt a bit of warmth, and could now see the landscape around him more clearly. But the day didn’t last long. The sun traversed a shallow arc over the horizon and soon set. Night and the bone-chilling cold once more settled over everything.

The three travelers stopped in front of a dead tree. King Wen and Follower took out their bronze swords to chop the tree into firewood, and Wang gathered the firewood into a pile. Follower took out a piece of flint and struck it against a blade until the sparks caught. The fire soon warmed the front of Wang’s V-suit, but his back remained cold.

“We should burn some of the dehydrated bodies,” Follower said. “Then we’ll have a roaring fire!”

“Put that thought out of your mind. Only the tyrant King Zhou would engage in that kind of behavior.”

“We’ve seen so many dehydrated bodies scattered along the road here. They’ve been torn, and won’t be revivable even when rehydrated. If your theory really works, what does it matter if we burn a few of them? We can even eat some. How can a few lives compare to the importance of your theory?”

“Stop with that nonsense! We’re scholars!”

After the fire burnt out, the three continued their journey. Since they were not speaking to each other much, the system sped up the passage of in-game time. King Wen flipped the sandglass on his back six times rapidly, indicating the lapse of two days. The sun never rose once, not even a hint of dawn over the horizon.

“It seems that the sun will never rise again,” Wang said. He brought up the game menu to take a look at his health bar. Due to the extreme cold, it was steadily decreasing.

“Again, you’re pretending you’re some kind of oracle,” Follower said. But this time he and Wang finished the thought together. “This is a Chaotic Era!”

Soon after this, however, dawn did appear over the horizon. The sky brightened rapidly, and the sun rose. Wang noticed that this time, the sun was gigantic. After just half of it rose, it took up at least one-fifth of the visible horizon. Waves of heat bathed them, and Wang felt refreshed. But when he glanced over at King Wen and Follower, he saw that both had terror on their faces as though they had seen a demon.

“Quick! Find shade!” Follower shouted. Wang ran after them. They ducked behind a large rock. The shadow cast by the rock gradually grew shorter and shorter. The earth around them glowed as though on fire. The permafrost beneath them soon melted, the steel-like hard surface turning into a sea of mud, roiled by waves of heat. Wang sweated profusely.

When the sun was directly overhead, the three covered their heads with the animal hides, but the bright light still shot through the holes and gaps like arrows. The three shifted around the rock until they were able to hide inside the new shadow that had just appeared on the other side.

After the sun set, the air remained hot and damp. The three sweatdrenched travelers sat on the rock. Follower spoke with dismay. “Traveling during a Chaotic Era is like walking through hell. I can’t stand it anymore. Also, I haven’t had anything to eat because you won’t give me any dried fish and you won’t let me eat the dehydrated bodies. What—”

“The only choice is to dehydrate you,” King Wen said, fanning himself with a piece of hide.

“You won’t abandon me afterwards, will you?”

“Of course not. I promise to bring you to Zhao Ge.”

Follower stripped off his sweat-soaked robe and lay down nude on the muddy earth. In the last glow from the sun, already below the horizon, Wang saw water oozing out of Follower’s body. He knew that it was no longer sweat. All the water in his body was being discharged and squeezed out. The water coalesced into a few small rivulets in the mud. His body turned soft and lost its shape like a melting candle.

Ten minutes later, all the water had been eliminated from his body. Follower was now a man-shaped piece of leather stretched out on the ground. His facial features had flattened and become indistinct.

“Is he dead?” Wang asked. He remembered seeing such man-shaped pieces of hide scattered along the road. Some were torn and incomplete. He supposed they were the dehydrated bodies Follower spoke of earlier as potential kindling.

“No,” King Wen answered. He picked up Follower’s skin, brushed the mud and dust off, laid him out on the rock, and rolled him up like a balloon with its air let out. “He’ll recover soon enough, when we soak him in water. It’s just like soaking dried mushrooms.”

“Even his bones have turned soft?”

“Yes. His skeleton has turned into dried fibers. This makes him easy to carry.”

“In this world, can everyone be dehydrated and rehydrated?”

“Of course. You can, too. Otherwise we could not survive the Chaotic Eras.” King Wen handed the rolled-up Follower to Wang. “Carry him. If you abandon him on the road, he’ll be burned or eaten.”

Wang accepted the skin, a light roll. He held it under his arm, and it didn’t feel too strange.

With Wang carrying the dehydrated Follower and King Wen carrying the sandglass, the two continued their arduous journey. Like the previous few days, the progress of the sun in this world followed no pattern. After a long, frigid night lasting several days’ worth of time, a brief but scorching day might follow, and vice versa. The two relied on each other for survival. They lit fires to hold off the cold, and ducked into lakes to avoid the heat.

At least the game sped up the progress of time. A month in game time might pass in half an hour. This made the journey through the Chaotic Era at least tolerable for Wang.

One day, after a long night that lasted almost a week (as measured by the sandglass), King Wen suddenly shouted joyously as he pointed to the night sky.

“Flying stars! Two flying stars!”

Actually, Wang had already noticed the strange celestial bodies. They were bigger than stars, and showed up as disks about the size of pingpong balls. They moved through the sky at a pace quick enough for the naked eye to detect the motion. But it was the first time two of them had appeared together.

King Wen explained, “When two flying stars appear, it means a Stable Era is about to begin.”

“We’ve seen flying stars before.”

“Yes, but only one at a time.”

“Is two the most we’ll see at once?”

“No. Sometimes three will appear, but no more than that.”

“If three flying stars appear, does that herald an even better era?”

King Wen gave Wang a frightened look. “What are you talking about? Three flying stars… pray that such a thing never happens.”

King Wen turned out to be right. The yearned-for Stable Era soon began. Sunrise and sunset began to follow a pattern. A day-night cycle began to stabilize around eighteen hours. The orderly alternation of day and night made the weather warm and mild.

“How long does a Stable Era last?” Wang asked.

“As short as a day or as long as a century. No one can predict how long one will last.” King Wen sat on the sandglass, lifting his head to gaze at the noonday sun. “According to historical records, the Western Zhou Dynasty experienced a Stable Era lasting two centuries. How lucky to be born during such a time!”

“Then how long does a Chaotic Era last?”

“I already told you. Other than Stable Eras, all other times belong to Chaotic Eras. Each of them takes up the time not occupied by the other.”

“So, this is a world in which there are no patterns?”

“Yes. Civilization can only develop in the mild climate of Stable Eras. Most of the time, humankind must collectively dehydrate and be stored. When a long Stable Era arrives, they collectively revive through rehydration. Then they proceed to build and produce.”

“How can you predict the arrival and duration of each Stable Era?”

“Such a thing has never been done. When a Stable Era arrives, the king makes a decision based on intuition as to whether to engage in mass rehydration. Often, the people are revived, crops are planted, cities begin construction, life has just started—and then the Stable Era ends. Extreme cold and heat then destroy everything.” King Wen now pointed at Wang, his eyes sparkling. “Now you know the goal of this game: to use our intellect and understanding to analyze all phenomena until we can know the pattern of the sun’s movement. The survival of civilization depends on it.”

“Based on my observations, there is no pattern to the sun’s movement at all.”

“That’s because you do not understand the fundamental nature of the world.”

“And you do?”

“Yes. This is why I’m going to Zhao Ge. I will present King Zhou with an accurate calendar.”

“But I’ve seen no evidence on this trip that you can do such a thing.”

“Predicting the sun’s motion is only possible in Zhao Ge, for that is where yin and yang meet. Only the lots cast there are accurate.”

The two continued on through the harsh conditions of another Chaotic Era, interrupted briefly by a short Stable Era, until they finally arrived in Zhao Ge.

Wang heard an unceasing roar that sounded like thunder. The sound was generated by the numerous giant pendulums that could be seen all over Zhao Ge, each tens of meters in height. The weight of each pendulum was a giant rock, suspended from a thick rope tied to a bridge that stretched between the tops of two slender stone towers.

All the pendulums were swinging as groups of soldiers in armor kept them in motion. Chanting incomprehensibly, they rhythmically pulled ropes attached to the giant stone weights, adding to the pendulums’ arcs as they slowed. Wang noticed that all the pendulums swung in step. From far away, the sight was awe-inducing: It was as though numerous giant clocks had been erected over the earth, or colossal, abstract symbols had fallen from the sky.

The giant pendulums surrounded an even more enormous pyramid, standing like a tall mountain in the dark night. This was King Zhou’s palace. Wang followed King Wen into a low door at the base of the pyramid, before which a few soldiers patrolled in the darkness, noiseless as ghosts. The door led to a long, narrow, dark tunnel going deep into the pyramid, with a few torches along the way.

As they walked, King Wen spoke to Wang. “During a Chaotic Era, the entire country is dehydrated. But King Zhou remains awake, a companion to the lifeless land. In order to survive during a Chaotic Era, one must live in thick-walled buildings like this one, as though one were living underground. It’s the only way to avoid the extreme heat and cold.”

After a long time in the tunnel, they finally arrived at the Great Hall at the center of the pyramid. Actually, the hall was not that big and reminded Wang of a cave. The man sitting on a dais and draped with a particolored hide was undoubtedly King Zhou. But what drew Wang’s attention was a man dressed all in black. The black robe blended with the thick shadows in the Great Hall, and the pale white face seemed to float in air.

“This is Fu Xi.”* King Zhou introduced the man in black to Wang and King Wen. He spoke as though Wang and King Wen had always been there, while the man in black was the newcomer. “He thinks that the sun is a temperamental god. When the god is awake, his moods are unpredictable, and thus we have a Chaotic Era. But when he’s asleep, his breathing evens out, and thus we have a Stable Era. Fu Xi suggested that I build those pendulums you see out there and keep them in constant motion. He claims that the pendulums can have a hypnotic effect on the sun god and cause him to sink into a long slumber. But we can all see that so far, the sun god remains awake, though from time to time he seems to nap briefly.”

*Translator’s Note: Fu Xi is the first of the Three Sovereigns, a Chinese mythological figure. He was one of the progenitors of the human race along with the goddess Nüwa.

King Zhou waved his hands, and servants brought over a clay pot and set it down on the small stone table before Fu Xi. Later, Wang found out that it was a pot of seasoned broth. Fu Xi sighed, lifted the pot, and drank in great gulps, the sound of his swallows echoing like the beating of a giant heart in the darkness. After he was halfway done with the contents, he poured the rest over his body. Then he threw down the pot and walked toward a large bronze cauldron suspended over a fire in the corner of the Great Hall. He climbed onto the edge of the cauldron and jumped in, stirring up a cloud of vapor.

“Ji Chang, sit down,”* King Zhou said. “We’ll eat in just a little while.” He pointed to the cauldron.

*Translator’s Note: Ji Chang is King Wen’s given name.

“Foolish witchcraft,” King Wen said, glancing contemptuously at the cauldron.

“What have you learned about the sun?” King Zhou asked. Firelight flickered in his eyes.

“The sun is not a god. The sun is yang, and the night is yin. The world proceeds on the balance between yin and yang. Though we cannot control the process, we can predict it.” King Wen took out his bronze sword and drew a yin-yang symbol on the floor, dimly lit by the fire. Then, he carved the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching around the symbol, the whole composition resembling a calendar wheel. “My king, this is the code of the universe. With it, I can present your dynasty with an accurate calendar.”

“Ji Chang, I need to know when the next long Stable Era will come.”

“I will forecast it for you right now,” King Wen said. He sat down in the middle of the yin-yang symbol, his legs curled under him. He raised his head to look up at the ceiling of the Great Hall, his gaze seeming to penetrate the thick stones of the pyramid, until it reached the stars. The fingers of his two hands began a series of rapid, complex movements, like components of a calculating machine. In the silence, only the soup in the cauldron in the corner made any noise, boiling and bubbling as though the shaman being cooked within was dream-talking in his sleep.

King Wen stood up in the middle of the yin-yang symbol. With his face still lifted to the ceiling, he said, “Next will be a Chaotic Era lasting forty-one days. Then comes a five-day Stable Era. Thereafter, there will be a twenty-three-day Chaotic Era followed by an eighteen-day Stable Era. Then we’ll have an eight-day Chaotic Era. But when this Chaotic Era is over, my king, the long Stable Era you’ve been waiting for will begin. That Stable Era will last three years and nine months. The climate will be so mild that it will be a golden age.”

“We have to verify your initial predictions first,” King Zhou said, his face expressionless.

Wang heard a loud rumbling from above. A stone slab in the ceiling of the Great Hall slid open, revealing a square opening. Wang shifted his position and saw that the opening led to another tunnel going up through the center of the pyramid. At the end of the tunnel he could see a few twinkling stars.

Game time sped up. Every few seconds in real time, two soldiers flipped over the sandglass brought by King Wen, indicating the passing of eight hours in game time. The opening through the ceiling flickered with random lights, and once in a while a ray of sunlight from the Chaotic Era shot into the Great Hall. Sometimes the light was weak, like moonlight. Sometimes the light was very strong, and the incandescent white square cast against the ground glowed so brightly that the torches in the Great Hall paled in comparison.

Wang continued to count the flipping of the sandglass. By the time it had been flipped 120 times or so, the appearance of the sunlight through the square opening became regular. The first of the predicted Stable Eras had arrived.

After fifteen more flips of the sandglass, the flickering light through the opening became patternless again, the start of another Chaotic Era. Another Stable Era followed, and another Chaotic Era. The starting times and durations of the various eras were not exactly as King Wen had predicted, but they were close. After the conclusion of yet another eight-day Chaotic Era, the long Stable Era he predicted began.

Wang kept counting the flips of the sandglass. Twenty days passed, and the sunlight falling into the Great Hall maintained the precise rhythm. Game time slowed down to normal.

King Zhou nodded at King Wen. “I shall erect a monument for you, one even greater than this palace.”

King Wen bowed deeply. “My king, awaken your dynasty and let it prosper!”

King Zhou stood up on the dais and opened his arms, as though he wanted to embrace the whole world. In a strange, otherworldly voice, he began to chant, “Re-hy-drate…”

As soon as the order was given, everyone in the Great Hall rushed to the door. Wang followed King Wen closely, and they exited the pyramid through the long tunnel they’d entered by. When they emerged, Wang saw the noonday sun bathing the land in warmth. In a passing breeze he seemed to smell the fragrances of spring. Together, King Wen and Wang walked to a nearby lake. The ice over the lake had melted, and sunlight danced between the gentle waves.

A column of soldiers shouted, “Rehydrate! Rehydrate!” as they ran toward a large stone building, shaped like a granary, next to the lake. On the road to Zhao Ge, Wang had seen many buildings like it, and King Wen had told him that these buildings were called dehydratories, warehouses where the dehydrated bodies could be stored. The soldiers opened the heavy stone doors of the dehydratory and carried out rolls of dusty skins. Each soldier walked to the lakeshore, and tossed them into the water. As soon as the skins touched the water, they began to unfurl and stretch out. Soon, the lake was covered by a layer of manshaped floating skins, each rapidly absorbing the water and expanding. Gradually, all the man-shaped skin cutouts became fleshy bodies that gradually began to display signs of life. One by one, they struggled up out of the waist-deep water and stood up. Looking around at the sunny world with wide-open eyes, they appeared to have just awoken from a dream.

“Rehydrate!” one man cried out.

“Rehydrate! Rehydrate!” Other voices joyously echoed his.

Everyone climbed out of the lake and ran naked toward the dehydratory. They carried out more skins and tossed them into the water, and even more of the revived climbed out of the lake. The same scene repeated itself around every lake and pool. The entire world was coming back to life.

“Oh, heavens! My finger!”

Wang saw a man who had just been revived standing in the middle of the lake, holding up one hand and crying. The hand was missing its middle finger, and blood flowed from the wound into the water. Others, who had also just been revived, passed by him as they happily waded ashore, ignoring him.

“Count yourself lucky,” one of them said to the man. “Some lost a whole arm or leg. Others had their heads chewed through by rats. If we hadn’t been rehydrated in time, maybe all of us would have been eaten by the Chaotic Era rats.”

“How long have we been dehydrated?” one of the revived asked.

“You can tell by looking at the thickness of the dust covering the palace. I just heard that the king is no longer the king from before. But I don’t know if he’s the old king’s son or grandson.”

It took eight days to complete the work of rehydration. All of the stored dehydrated bodies had been revived, and the world was given a new life. During these eight days, everyone enjoyed regular cycles of sunset and sunrise, each cycle precisely twenty hours long. Enjoying the springlike climate, everyone gave heartfelt praise to the sun and the gods who guided the world.

On the night of the eighth day, the bonfires scattered over the ground seemed even more numerous and denser than the stars in the sky. The ruins of cities and towns abandoned during the Chaotic Eras once again filled with noise and light. Like every mass rehydration in the past, the people were going to celebrate all night to welcome their new life after the next sunrise.

But the sun did not rise again.

Every kind of timepiece indicated that the time for sunrise had passed, but the horizon remained dark in every direction. Ten hours later, there was still no sign of the sun, not even the slightest hint of dawn. The endless night lasted through a whole day, then two days. Coldness now pressed toward the earth like a giant hand.

Inside the pyramid, King Wen knelt before King Zhou, pleading, “My king, please continue to have faith in me. This is but temporary. I have seen the yang of the universe gathering, and the sun will rise soon. The Stable Era and spring will continue!”

“Let’s begin to heat the cauldron,” King Zhou said, and sighed.

“Oh, King!” A minister stumbled through the cavelike entrance into the Great Hall. “There… there are three flying stars in the sky!”

Those in the Great Hall were stunned. The air seemed frozen. Only King Zhou remained impassive. He turned to Wang, to whom he had never deigned to speak before. “You still don’t understand what the appearance of three flying stars means, do you? Ji Chang, why don’t you tell him?”

“It indicates the arrival of a long period of extreme cold, cold enough to turn stone into dust.” King Wen sighed.

“De-hy-drate…” King Zhou again chanted in that strange, otherworldly voice. Outside, people had already begun the process. They turned themselves back into dehydrated bodies to survive the long night that was coming. The lucky ones had time to be stacked in the dehydratories, but many were abandoned in the empty fields.

King Wen stood up slowly and walked toward the cauldron over the roaring fire in the corner of the Great Hall. He climbed up the side and paused for a few seconds before jumping in. Perhaps he had seen the thoroughly cooked face of Fu Xi laughing at him from the soup.

“Keep the fire low,” King Zhou ordered, his voice weak. Then he turned to the others. “You may exit if you wish. The game is no longer fun after it gets to this point.”

A red EXIT sign showed up above the Great Hall’s cavelike entrance. Players in the Great Hall streamed toward it, and Wang followed the crowd. Through the long tunnel, they finally emerged outside the pyramid. Heavy snow falling through the night air greeted them. The bone-chilling cold caused Wang to shiver, and a display in a corner of the sky indicated that game time had sped up again.

The snow continued without pause for ten days. By now the snowflakes were large and heavy, like pieces of solidified darkness. Someone whispered next to Wang, “The snow is now composed of frozen carbon dioxide, dry ice.” Wang turned around and saw that the speaker was Follower.

After another ten days, the snowflakes turned thin and translucent. By the weak light from a few torches within the entrance to the long tunnel, the snowflakes gave off a faint blue glow, like pieces of dancing mica.

“Those snowflakes are now composed of solidified oxygen and nitrogen. The atmosphere is disappearing through deposition, which means it’s near absolute zero above.”

Snow gradually buried the pyramid. The lowest layers were composed of water snow, then dry ice, and finally, on top, snow made of oxygen and nitrogen. The night sky became especially clear, and the stars glowed like a field of silver bonfires. A line of text appeared against the starry background:

The long night lasted forty-eight years. Civilization Number 137 was destroyed by the extreme cold. This civilization had advanced to the Warring States Period before succumbing.

The seed of civilization remains. It will germinate and again progress through the unpredictable world of Three Body. We invite you to log on in the future.

Before exiting the game, Wang noticed the three flying stars in the sky. Revolving closely around each other, they seemed to perform a strange dance against the abyss of space.

 

The Three-Body Problem © Cixin Liu

7 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!