Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Trilogy

The Three-Body Problem: “The Universe Flickers”

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.

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 Martinière’s cover art, and read Cixin Liu’s article about Chinese science fiction here on Tor.com.

 

 

The Universe Flickers

Wang Miao drove along Jingmi Road until he was in Miyun County. From there he headed to Heilongtan, climbed up the mountain along a winding road, and arrived at the radio astronomy observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Astronomical Center. He saw a line of twenty-eight parabolic antenna dishes, each with a diameter of nine meters, like a row of spectacular steel plants. At the end were two tall radio telescopes with dishes fifty meters in diameter, built in 2006. As he drove closer, Wang could not help but think of the background in the picture of Ye and her daughter.

But the work of Sha Ruishan, Ye’s student, had nothing to do with these radio telescopes. Dr. Sha’s lab was mainly responsible for receiving the data transmitted from three satellites: the Cosmic Background Explorer, COBE, launched in November of 1989 and about to be retired; the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, WMAP, launched in 2003; and Planck, the space observatory launched by the European Space Agency in 2009.

Cosmic microwave background radiation very precisely matched the thermal black body spectrum at a temperature of 2.7255 K and was highly isotropic—meaning nearly uniform in every direction—with only tiny temperature fluctuations at the parts per million range. Sha Ruishan’s job was to create a more detailed map of the cosmic microwave background using observational data.

The lab wasn’t very big. Equipment for receiving satellite data was squeezed into the main computer room, and three terminals displayed the information sent by the three satellites.

Sha was excited to see Wang. Clearly bored with his long isolation and happy to have a visitor, he asked Wang what kind of data he wanted to see.

“I want to see the overall fluctuation in the cosmic microwave background.”

“Can you… be more specific?”

“What I mean is… I want to see the isotropic fluctuation in the overall cosmic microwave background, between one and five percent,” he said, quoting from Shen’s email.

Sha grinned. Starting at the turn of the century, the Miyun Radio Astronomy Observatory had opened itself to visitors. In order to earn some extra income, Sha often played the role of tour guide or gave lectures. This was the grin he reserved for tourists, as he had grown used to their astounding scientific illiteracy. “Mr. Wang, I take it you’re not a specialist in the field?”

“I work in nanotech.”

“Ah, makes sense. But you must have some basic understanding of the cosmic microwave background?”

“I don’t know much. I know that as the universe cooled after the big bang, the leftover ‘embers’ became the cosmic microwave background. The radiation fills the entire universe and can be observed in the centimeter wavelength range. I think it was back in the sixties when two Americans accidentally discovered the radiation when they were testing a supersensitive satellite reception antenna—”

“That’s more than enough,” Sha interrupted, waving his hands. “Then you must know that unlike the local variations we observe in different parts of the universe, the overall fluctuation in the cosmic microwave background is correlated with the expansion of the universe. It’s a very slow change measured at the scale of the age of the universe. Even with the sensitivity of the Planck satellite, continuous observation for a million years might not detect any such shift. But you want to see a five percent fluctuation tonight? Do you realize what that would mean? The universe would flicker like a fluorescent tube that’s about to burn out!”

And it will be flickering for me, Wang thought.

“This must be some joke from Professor Ye,” Sha said.

“Nothing would please me more than to discover that it was a joke,” Wang said. He was about to tell Sha that Ye didn’t know the details of his request, but he was afraid that Sha would then refuse to help him.

“Well, since Professor Ye asked me to help you, let’s do the observation. It’s not a big deal. If you just need one percent precision, data from the antique COBE is sufficient.” As he spoke, Sha typed quickly at the terminal. Soon a flat green line appeared on the screen. “This curve is the real-time measurement of the overall cosmic microwave background—oh, calling it a straight line would be more accurate. The temperature is 2.725±0.002K. The error range is due to the Doppler effect from the motion of the Milky Way, which has already been filtered out. If the kind of fluctuation you anticipate—in excess of one percent—occurs, this line would turn red and become a waveform. I would bet that it’s going to stay a flat green line until the end of the world, though. If you want to see it show the kind of fluctuation observable by the naked eye, you might have to wait until long after the death of the sun.”

“I’m not interfering in your work, am I?”

“No. Since you need such low precision, we can just use some basic data from COBE. Okay, it’s all set. From now on, if such great fluctuations occur, the data will be automatically saved to disk.”

“I think it might happen around one o’clock a.m.”

“Wow, so precise! No problem, since I’m working the night shift, anyway. Have you had dinner yet? Good, then I’ll take you on a tour.”

The night was moonless. They walked along the row of antenna dishes, and Sha pointed to them. “Breathtaking, aren’t they? It’s too bad that they are all like the ears of a deaf man.”

“Why?”

“Ever since construction was completed, interference has been unceasing in the observational bands. First, there were the paging stations during the eighties. Now, it’s the scramble to develop mobile communications networks and cell towers. These telescopes are capable of many scientific tasks—surveying the sky, detecting variable radio sources, observing the remains of supernovae—but we can’t perform most of them. We’ve complained to the State Regulatory Radio Commission many times, never with any results. How can we get more attention than China Mobile, China Unicom, China Netcom? Without money, the secrets of the universe are worth shit. At least my project only depends on satellite data and has nothing to do with these ‘tourist attractions.’ ”

“In recent years, commercial operation of basic research has been fairly successful, like in high-energy physics. Maybe it would be better if the observatories were built in places farther away from cities?”

“It all comes down to money. Right now, our only choice is to find technical means to shield against interference. Well, it would be much better if Professor Ye were here. She accomplished a lot in this field.”

So the topic of conversation turned to Ye Wenjie. And from her student, Wang finally learned about her life. He listened as Sha told of how she witnessed the death of her father during the Cultural Revolution, how she was falsely accused at the Production and Construction Corps, how she then seemed to disappear until her return to Beijing at the beginning of the nineties, when she began teaching astrophysics at Tsinghua, where her father had also taught, until her retirement.

“It was only recently revealed that she had spent more than twenty years at Red Coast Base.”

Wang was stunned. “You mean, those rumors—”

“Most turned out to be true. One of the researchers who developed the deciphering system for the Red Coast Project emigrated to Europe and wrote a book last year. Most of the rumors you hear came out of that book. Many who participated in Red Coast are still alive.”

“That is… a fantastical legend.”

“Especially for it to happen during those years—absolutely incredible.”

They continued to speak for a while. Sha asked the purpose behind Wang’s strange request. Wang avoided giving a straight answer, and Sha didn’t press. The dignity of a specialist did not allow Sha to express too much interest in a request that clearly went against his professional knowledge.

Then they went to an all-night bar for tourists and sat for two hours. As Sha finished one beer after another, his tongue loosened even more. But Wang became anxious, and his mind kept returning to that green line on the terminal in Sha’s office. It was only at ten to one in the morning that Sha finally gave in to Wang’s repeated pleas to go back to the lab.

The spotlights that had lit up the row of radio antennas had been turned off, and the antennas now formed a simple two-dimensional picture against the night sky like a series of abstract symbols. All of them gazed up at the sky at the same angle, as though waiting expectantly for something. The scene made Wang shudder despite the warmth of the spring evening. He was reminded of the giant pendulums in Three Body.

They arrived back at the lab at one. As they looked at the terminal, the fluctuation was just getting started. The flat line turned into a wave, the distance between one peak and the next inconstant. The line’s color became red, like a snake awakening after hibernation, wriggling as its skin refilled with blood.

“It must be a malfunction in COBE!” Sha stared at the waveform, terrified.

“It’s not a malfunction.” Wang’s tone was exceedingly calm. He had learned to control himself when faced with such sights.

“We’ll know soon enough,” Sha said. He went to the other two terminals and typed rapidly to bring up the data gathered by the other two satellites, WMAP and Planck.

Now three waveforms moved in sync across the three terminals, exactly alike.

Sha took out a notebook computer and rushed to turn it on. He plugged in a network cable and picked up the phone. Wang could tell from the one-sided conversation that he was trying to get in touch with the Ürümqi radio astronomy observatory. He didn’t explain to Wang what he was doing, his eyes locked onto the browser window on the notebook. Wang could hear his rapid breathing.

A few minutes later, a red waveform appeared in the browser window, moving in step with the other three.

The three satellites and the ground-based observatory confirmed one fact: The universe was flickering.

“Can you print out the waveform?” Wang asked.

Sha wiped away the cold sweat on his forehead and nodded. He moved his mouse and clicked “Print.” Wang grabbed the first page as soon as it came out of the laser printer, and, with a pencil, began to match the distance between the peaks with the Morse code chart he took out of his pocket.

short-long-long-long-long, short-long-long-long-long, long-long-long-longlong, long-long-long-short-short, long-long-long-short-short-short, short-shortlong-long-long, short-long-long-long-long, long-long-long-short-short-short, short-short-short-long-long, long-long-short-short-short.

That’s 1108:21:37, Wang thought.

short-long-long-long-long, short-long-long-long-long, long-long-longlong-long, long-long-long-short-short, long-long-long-short-short-short, short-short-long-long-long, short-long-long-long-long, long-long-long-shortshort-short, short-short-short-long-long, long-short-short-short-short—that’s 1108:21:36.

The countdown continued at the scale of the universe. Ninety-two hours had already elapsed, and only 1,108 hours remained.

Sha paced back and forth anxiously, pausing from time to time to look at the sequence of numbers Wang was writing down. “Can’t you tell me what’s going on?” he shouted.

“I can’t possibly explain this to you, Dr. Sha. Trust me.” Wang pushed away the pile of papers filled with waveforms. As he stared at the sequence of numbers, he said, “Maybe the three satellites and the observatory are all malfunctioning.”

“You know that’s impossible!”

“What if it’s sabotage?”

“Also impossible! To simultaneously alter the data from three satellites and an observatory on Earth? You’re talking about a supernatural saboteur.”

Wang nodded. Compared to the idea of the universe flickering, he would prefer a supernatural saboteur. But Sha then deprived him of this last glimmer of hope. “It’s easy to confirm this. If the cosmic microwave background is fluctuating this much, we should be able to see it with our own eyes.”

“What are you talking about? The wavelength of the cosmic microwave background is seven centimeters. That’s five orders of magnitude longer than the wavelength of visible light. How can we possibly see it?”

“Using 3K glasses.”

“Three-K glasses?”

“It’s a sort of science toy we made for the Capital Planetarium. With our current level of technology, we could take the six-meter horn antenna used by Penzias and Wilson almost half a century ago to discover the cosmic microwave background and miniaturize it to the size of a pair of glasses. Then we added a converter in the glasses to compress the detected radiation by five orders of magnitude so that sevencentimeter waves are turned into visible red light. This way, visitors can put on the glasses at night and observe the cosmic microwave background on their own. And now, we can use it to see the universe flicker.”

“Where can I find these glasses?”

“At the Capital Planetarium. We made more than twenty pairs.”

“I must get my hands on a pair before five.”

Sha picked up the phone. The other side picked up only after a long while. Sha had to expend a lot of energy to convince the person awakened in the middle of the night to go to the planetarium and wait for Wang’s arrival in an hour.

As Wang left, Sha said, “I won’t go with you. What I’ve seen is enough, and I don’t need any more confirmation. But I hope that you will explain the truth to me when you feel the time is right. If this phenomenon should lead to some research result, I won’t forget you.”

Wang opened the car door and said, “The flickering will stop at five in the morning. I’d suggest you not pursue it after this. Believe me, you won’t get anywhere.”

Sha stared at Wang for a long time and then nodded. “I understand. Strange things have been happening to scientists lately.…”

“Yes.” Wang ducked into the car. He didn’t want to discuss the subject any further.

“Is it our turn?”

“It’s my turn, at least.” Wang started the engine.

 

An hour later, Wang arrived at the new planetarium and got out of the car. The bright lights of the city penetrated the translucent walls of the immense glass building and dimly revealed its internal structure. Wang thought that if the architect had intended to express a feeling about the universe, the design was a success: The more transparent something was, the more mysterious it seemed. The universe itself was transparent; as long as you were sufficiently sharp-eyed, you could see as far as you liked. But the farther you looked, the more mysterious it became.

The sleepy-eyed planetarium staffer was waiting by the door for Wang. He handed him a small suitcase and said, “There are five pairs of 3K glasses in here, all fully charged. The left button switches it on. The right dial is for adjusting brightness. I have a dozen more pairs upstairs. You can look as much as you like, but I’m going to take a nap now in the room over there. This Dr. Sha must be mental.” He went into the dim interior of the planetarium.

Wang opened the suitcase on the backseat of his car and took out a pair of 3K glasses. It resembled the display inside the panoramic viewing helmet of the V-suit. He put the glasses on and looked around. The city looked the same as before, only dimmer. Then he remembered that he had to switch them on.

The city turned into many hazy glowing halos. Most were fixed, but a few flickered or moved. He realized that these were sources of radiation in the centimeter range, all now converted to visible light. At the heart of each halo was a radiation source. Because the original wavelengths were so long, it was impossible to see their shapes clearly.

He lifted his head and saw a sky glowing with a faint red light. Just like that, he was seeing the cosmic microwave background.

The red light had come from more than ten billion years ago. It was the remnants of the big bang, the still-warm embers of Creation. He could not see any stars. Normally, since visible light would be compressed to invisible by the glasses, each star should appear as a black dot. But the diffraction of centimeter-wave radiation overwhelmed all other shapes and details.

Once his eyes had grown used to the sight, Wang could see that the faint red background was indeed pulsing. The entire sky flickered, as if the universe was but a quivering lamp in the wind.

Standing under the flashing dome of the night sky, Wang suddenly felt the universe shrink until it was so small that only he was imprisoned in it. The universe was a cramped heart, and the red light that suffused everything was the translucent blood that filled the organ. Suspended in the blood, he saw that the flickering of the red light was not periodic—the pulsing was irregular. He felt a strange, perverse, immense presence that could never be understood by human intellect.

Wang took off the 3K glasses and sat down weakly on the ground, leaning against the wheel of his car. The city at night gradually recovered the reality of visible light. But his eyes roamed, trying to capture other sights. By the entrance of the zoo across the street, there was a row of neon lights. One of the lights was about to burn out and flickered irregularly. Nearby, a small tree’s leaves trembled in the night breeze, twinkling without pattern as they reflected streetlight. In the distance, the red star atop the Beijing Exhibition Center’s Russian-style spire reflected the light from the cars passing below, also twinkling randomly.…

Wang tried to interpret the flickers as Morse code. He even felt that the wrinkles in the flags flapping next to him and the ripples in the puddle on the side of the road might be sending him messages. He struggled to understand all the messages, and felt the passing of the countdown, second by second.

He didn’t know how long he stayed there. The planetarium staffer finally emerged and asked him whether he was done. But when he saw Wang’s face, sleep disappeared from the staffer’s eyes and was replaced by fear. He packed up the 3K glasses, stared at Wang for a few seconds, and quickly left with the suitcase.

 

Wang took out his mobile and dialed Shen Yufei’s number. She picked up right away. Perhaps she was also suffering from insomnia.

“What happens at the end of the countdown?” Wang asked.

“I don’t know.” She hung up.

What can it be? Maybe my own death, like Yang Dong’s.

Or maybe it will be a disaster like the great tsunami that swept through the Indian Ocean more than a decade ago. No one will connect it to my nanotech research. Could it be that every previous great disaster, including the two World Wars, was also the result of reaching the end of ghostly countdowns? Could it be that every time there was someone like me, who no one thought of, who bore the ultimate responsibility?

Or maybe it signals the end of the whole world. In this perverse world, that would be a relief.

One thing was certain. No matter what was at the end of the countdown, in the remaining one thousand or so hours, the possibilities would torture him cruelly, like demons, until he suffered a complete mental breakdown.

Wang ducked back into the car and left the planetarium. Just before dawn, the roads were relatively empty. But he didn’t dare to drive too fast, feeling that the faster the car moved, the faster the countdown would go. When a glimmer of light appeared in the eastern sky, he parked and walked around aimlessly. His mind was empty of thoughts: Only the countdown pulsed against the dim red background of cosmic radiation. He seemed to have turned into nothing but a simple timer, a bell that tolled for he knew not whom.

The sky brightened. He was tired, so he sat down on a bench.

When he lifted his head to see where his subconscious had brought him, he shivered.

He sat in front of St. Joseph’s Church at Wangfujing. In the pale white light of dawn, the church’s Romanesque vaults appeared as three giant fingers pointing out something in space for him.

As Wang got up to leave, he was held back by a snippet of hymnal music. It wasn’t Sunday, so it was likely a choir rehearsal. The song was “Come, Gracious Spirit, Heavenly Dove.” As he listened to the solemn, sacred music, Wang Miao once again felt that the universe had shrunk until it was the size of an empty church. The domed ceiling was hidden by the flashing red light of the background radiation, and he was an ant crawling through the cracks in the floor. He felt a giant, invisible hand caressing his trembling heart, and he was once again a helpless babe. Something deep in his mind that had once held him up softened like wax and collapsed. He covered his eyes and began to cry.

Wang’s cries were interrupted by laughter. “Hahaha, another one bites the dust!”

He turned around.

Captain Shi Qiang stood there, blowing out a mouthful of white smoke.

 

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