The Three-Body Problem trilogy, by brilliant Chinese author Cixin Liu, is a triumph of human creativity that I’ve previously extolled as one of the greatest sci-fi epics of all time. This short story was written in 2016, and is based off of events in the spectacular final book, Death’s End.
In the beginning, there was Eden. Then, there was Singer.
Today, Singer felt lucky. Like the universe, he was full of youth, blessed to be alive in such a day and age. For, while the sea of high-entropy grew all around him, unstoppable since the universe’s recent creation, Singer and his kind were islands of low-entropy. Like their grand home world, Singer thought, they were flickers of order in the primordial chaos.
And, in his joy, he sang,
In the beginning, there was Eden,
Lovely Eden and Singer’s songs,
Time passes for none but us,
The universe sings our melody,
Like friends on the edge of the sea.
Singer paused, his thoughts drifting away.
Here, in his seed, Singer could peer out into the vast beauty of space, knowing he would be the first low-entropy entity to witness whatever he put his eye to. The universe was indeed exquisite. Each of the ten dimensions of the universe was intricately constructed and compounded the splendor of the others. Any alteration, and there would be diminishment.
A civilization such as Singer’s, with access to seemingly unlimited resources in this Edenic bounty of the cosmos, had reached, he thought, the pinnacle of technology. His glorious Elders had already solved most of the mysteries the universe had to offer. Like a child in its naïvete, the cosmos had hidden its secrets feebly, and Singer’s kind, in their infinite wisdom, had already coaxed out each one from its hiding place. And in its puerile petulance, the universe had laid down “unbreakable” laws — rules that, far from being rigid, were being molded as the Elders molded the rest of the cosmos.
His job was one of high prestige — a noble sentry, stationed a hundred thousand structures from his home world, searching for friends among the cosmos. Singer often wondered what it would be like to meet a low-entropy entity not like himself.
But in the many time grains that Singer had been on this seed, he had never once detected signs of friends in the universe. It would only take a fraction of a time grain to confirm that another low-entropy entity had presented itself to the cosmos, a declaration that would be immediately hailed with equal hope and joy. For, even Singer understood the basic principle of this universe, that one could perceive every corner of it near instantly. That was another beautiful thing about his Eden.
So, by this point, he had accepted one thing: we are well and truly alone in this universe.
But who knew? Perhaps, countless time grains from now, another low-entropy entity would arise and begin the journey along the garden path. Then, Singer imagined, our kind would be to them as Elders to me — a wise force, a guiding force. But there was no need to contemplate such impossible things.
Singer mindlessly reached for a flower, humming a new song. It was a mere decoration, a plaything with such simple, dull features that Singer felt silly being absorbed with it. He was sometimes ridiculed by others on the seed for his habit of keeping a flower with him at all times, like a child inseparable from a trinket. Yet, Singer couldn’t help but admire its tender qualities.
It was an early achievement of Singer’s civilization. In its crystal-clear package, it looked entirely harmless — fragile, weak, totally incapable of even contacting the universe it was created in. Singer’s Elders thought it useless. What purpose, they said, could one have for a nine-dimensional object? Singer had no reason to disagree.
Just then, Singer stopped his distracted humming. He noticed rustles of movement from the seed’s feelers. Like an antenna of a sea-insect, the feeler took on a life of its own, flexing and responding to a force invisible in all ten dimensions.
Singer’s multitude of senses became alert. He had never seen this behavior from the feelers before. It was a communication from another low-entropy entity! The messages came flooding in, unintelligible, but following some pattern, as if being repeated in many different forms. Singer shivered in delight. The message was not masked in any way. It was clearly meant to reveal the sender’s location. He moved to trace the message and find the sender through the Big Eye, then hesitated. The presence of the unknown gave him pause, and for the first time, he felt unease. There was something about this message…
The core finished its analysis. It stated, matter-of-factly, that the message had been broadcast through short membrane, not the primitive or long membrane Singer was expecting.
Paralyzed in shock, Singer struggled to remember what his Elders had discovered about short membrane. It was a fundamental concept in the cosmology of the Elders, but its origins and significance were poorly understood. All that was known was that it predated Eden, and could only be utilized with a great expenditure of energy — more energy than was known to exist in this universe. An unfathomable power akin to gods, unparalleled. An entity to whom this universe and its contents were like a newly formed puddle to an ocean.
Sensations rippled through Singer that he had never felt before. And as they did, billions upon billions of souls on the home world felt these sensations with him, as they had never felt before. A feeling of being absolutely diminutive. A feeling of sheer terror. The universe is not empty, the multitude of minds clamored. The universe is fear. The universe is danger.
An instinct welled up inside Singer. It was an instinct, not selected by evolution over many generations, but latent in the very first of Singer’s kind. Not a single entity on the seed, nor even Singer himself, had been aware of this instinct or knew what it meant, except that it was now necessary for survival. “In the cosmos, no matter how fast you are, someone will be faster.”
In his terror, Singer found another song come to him.
My flower sings to me as I sing to it
My only friend
In its loving caress,
all the universe appears as dust
And Singer instinctively flicked his flower in the direction of the broadcast.
The flower flitted across 10-D space, reaching its destination almost instantaneously. Then, like a rose blooming in reverse time lapse, as its delicate petals fold inwards, encasing themselves again, the flower began to furl. But it was not only the flower’s petals that folded in. Space itself seemed to wither and collapse around the trinket, layering itself endlessly upon the precipitant. Like water over a cliff, one dimension — one of ten — cascaded into an ever-expanding bud.
Another instant later, the universe of Eden was unrecognizable and again lifeless. One dimension, lost forever. The dark forest, uncovered.
All credits to wallpaperswide.com and Ian Portnoy for the cover photo
If you're looking for more Cixin Liu works, I recommend his collection The Wandering Earth