Authors: Liu Cixin
Table of Contents
Author: Liu Cixin
Editor: Kim Fout, Verbena C.W.
Copyright © 2011 by Liu Cixin.
The English edition copyright © 2012 by Beijing Guomi Digital Technology Co., Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Beijing Guomi Digital Technology Co., Ltd. is a young and vigorous publisher based in China, whose goal is to bring the best Chinese books to global readers.
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The Crystal from Eridanus
t was right in front of him, but the Captain still could barely make out its translucent crystal structure. Floating through the black void of space, it was hidden by the dark, like a piece of glass sunken in the murky depths. Only the slight distortion of starlight its passage provoked allowed the Captain to make out its position. Soon it was lost again, disappearing in the space between the stars.
Suddenly, the Sun distorted, its distant, eternal light twisting and twinkling before their eyes. It gave the Captain a start, but he maintained his proverbial “Asian cool”. Unlike the dozen soldiers floating beside him, he managed not to gasp in shock. The Captain immediately understood; the crystal, a mere 30 feet away, had moved in front of the Sun, shining 60 million miles in the distance. In the three centuries to come, this strange vista would often play across his mind and he would wonder if it had been an omen of humanity's fate to come.
As the highest ranking officer of the United Nation's Earth Protection Force in space, the Captain commanded the force's interplanetary assets. It was a tiny unit, but it was equipped with the most powerful nuclear weapons humanity had ever devised. Its enemies were lifeless rocks hurtling through space; asteroids and meteorites that the early warning system had determined to be a threat to Earth. The mission of the Earth Protection Force was to redirect or to destroy these objects.
They had been on space patrol for more than two decades now, yet they had never had a chance to deploy their bombs. All rocks large enough to warrant their use seemed to avoid Earth, willfully denying them their chance for glory.
Now, however, a sweep had discovered this crystal at a distance of two astronomical units. The crystal's trajectory was as precipitous as it was utterly unnatural, and that was taking it straight toward Earth.
The Captain and his unit cautiously approached, their space suits' boosters spinning a web of trails around the strange object. Just as they closed to 30 feet, a misty light flashed to life inside the crystal, clearly revealing its prismatic outline about 10 feet long. As the space patrol drew nearer, they could make out the intricate, crystalline pipes of its propulsion system. The Captain was now floating directly in front of it. Stretching the gloved right hand of his spacesuit toward the crystal, he initiated humanity's first contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence.
As he reached, the crystal again faded to transparency. A brilliantly colored image now sprang to life inside it. It was a manga girl, with huge, rolling eyes and long hair that cascaded down to her feet. She was wearing a beautiful, flowing skirt and she seemed to dreamily drift in invisible waters.
“Warning! Alert! Warning! The Devourer approaches!” she immediately shouted out, stricken with obvious panic. Her large eyes stared at the Captain, a lithe arm pointing away from the Sun in unmistakable alarm. There could be little doubt the unseen pursuer was hot on her dainty heels.
“Where do you come from?” the Captain inquired, by all appearances unperturbed.
“Epsilon Eridani, as you apparently call it, and by your reckoning of time, I have traveled for sixty thousand years,” she replied, before again raising her cry. “The Devourer approaches! The Devourer approaches!”
The Captain continued his inquiry. “Are you alive?”
“Of course not; I am merely a message,” came the response. But it was only a short reprieve. “The Devourer approaches! The Devourer approaches!”
“How is it that you can speak English?” the Captain continued.
The girl again replied without hesitation. “I learned in transit,” she said, only to carry on: “The Devourer approaches! The Devourer approaches!”
“And that you look as you do…?” the Captain let his question trail off.
“I saw it in transit,” she said, before continuing to shout with ever greater urgency. “The Devourer approaches! The Devourer approaches! Oh, surely the Devourer must terrify you.”
“What is the Devourer?” the Captain finally asked.
“In appearance it matches a gigantic tire. Hm, yes, that would be an analogy that works for you,” the Girl from Eridanus began her explanation.
“You are very well-acquainted with how things work on our world,” the Captain interrupted, raising an eyebrow behind his visor.
“I became acquainted in transit,” the girl replied, before again crying out: “The Devourer approaches!” With that last cry she flashed to one end of the crystal. Where she had been a second ago, an image of the “tire” appeared, and it indeed closely resembled a tire, even though its surface glowed with phosphorescent light.
“How large is it?” one of the other officers queried.
“Thirty-one thousand miles in total diameter. The 'tire's' body is six thousand miles wide and the hole in the middle has a diameter of nineteen thousand miles.”
There was a long pause before someone asked the question now on everyone's mind. “Are the miles you are talking about
The girl immediately and calmly answered. “Of course. It is so large that it can encircle an entire planet, just like one of your tires might fit around a soccer ball. Once it has encased a world, it begins plundering the planet's natural resources, only to spit out the remains like a cherry pit once it is done!”
There was another pause before the officer spoke again, his voice quivering with trepidation. “But we still do not understand what the Devourer really is.”
The girl in the crystal offered more information without hesitation. “It is a generation ship, although we do not know where it came from or where it is going. In fact, even the giant lizards that pilot the Devourer surely do not to know. Having wandered the Milky Way for tens of millions of years, they will have certainly forgotten both their origin and their original purpose. But this much is certain: In the far past, when the Devourer was built, it was much smaller. It eats planets to grow, and it devoured our world!”
As she finished, the image of the Devourer in the crystal grew, gradually coming to dominate its entire surface. It soon became apparent that it was slowly descending upon the unseen camera operator's world. Seen through the eyes of the planet's inhabitants, their world had become nothing more than the bottom of a slowly spinning, cosmic well. Complex structures were clearly visible, covering the walls of this titanic well. At first, they reminded the Captain of infinitely magnified microprocessor circuitry. Then, he realized that they were an endless string of cities, stretching the entire inner ring of the Devourer. Looking up, the image in the crystal revealed a circle of blue radiance emanating from the well's mouth. In the sky above it formed a gigantic halo of fire, encircling the stars.
The Girl from Eridanus told them that they were seeing the jets of the Devourer's aft ring engine. As she spoke, her entire body erupted into a flowing flourish, and even her cascading hair began to wave like countless twisting arms, with every last part of her expressing boundless terror.
“What you are seeing is the devouring of the third planet of Epsilon Eridani,” she told them. “The first thing you would have noticed, had you been on our world then, was your body becoming lighter. You see, the Devourer's gravitational pull was powerful enough to counteract our planet's gravity. The destruction this wrought was devastating: First our oceans surged to meet the Devourer as it passed over our planet's pole. Then, as it moved to fully encircle our world, they followed it to the equator. As the oceans swept the globe, their waves raised high enough to engulf the clouds.
The incredible gravitational forces tore at our continents, ripping them apart as if they were nothing but tissue-paper. Our sea floor and dry land were pockmarked by countless volcanic eruptions.” The girl paused in her narrative, only to pick it up with a flutter of her big eyes. “Now that it had encircled our equator, the Devourer stopped, perfectly matching our planet in its orbit around our Sun. Our world was right in its maw.
“When the plunder of a world commences, countless cables thousands of miles long are lowered from the Devourer's inside wall to the planet's surface below. An entire world is trapped, like a fly in the web of a cosmic spider. Giant transport modules are then sent back and forth between planet and Devourer, taking with them the planet's oceans and atmosphere. As they shuttle to and fro, other titanic machines begin to drill deep into the planet's crust, frenziedly extracting minerals to satisfy the Devourer's hunger.” The girl again paused, her eyes staring intensely into the distance. She continued as abruptly as she had stopped. “Devourer and planet cancel out each other's gravity, creating a low-gravity zone between this tire-like entity and the planet. This zone makes it that much easier to bring the planet's resources to the Devourer. The epic plunder is extremely efficient.
Expressed in Earth time, the Devourer only needs to
on a world for a century or so. After it is done, all of the planet's water and atmosphere will have been picked to nothing. As the Devourer ravages, its gravity will also come to deform the planet, slowly stretching it along its equator. In the end, it will become…” the girl paused a third time, this time struggling for words rather than effect, “how would you call it? Yes, discus-shaped. The Devourer, having sucked the planet completely dry, will move on, spitting out the planet. When it leaves, the planet will return to its round shape. As it reforms, the entire world will suffer an ultimate global catastrophe; its surface coming to resemble the molten sea of magma that heralded its birth many billion years ago. Much like then, no trace of life will remain in this inferno.”
“How far is the Devourer from our solar system?” the Captain immediately asked as she finished.
“It is just behind me!” she warned urgently. “In your reckoning, it will arrive in a mere century! Alert! The Devourer approaches! The Devourer approaches!”
ust as the debate over the crystal's credibility began to rage in earnest, the first small Devourer ship entered the solar system. It was heading straight toward Earth.
The first contact was again initiated by the space patrol led by the Captain. The mood of this contact could not have been more different than the last and mood was by far not the only contrast. The exquisitely-wrought structure of the Eridanus Crystal bore all the hallmarks of the ethereal technology of a delicate civilization. The Devourer's ship represented the polar opposite. Its exterior appeared exceedingly crude and ungainly, somewhat like a frying pan that had spent the better part of a century forgotten in the wilderness. It immediately reminded onlookers of a giant steampunk machine.
The envoy of the Devourer Empire was his vehicle's equal, a massive, ungraceful lizard covered in huge slabs of scale. Erect, he stood nearly 30 feet tall. He introduced himself as “Faingsh,” but his appearance and later behavior quickly led to him being called “Fangs” instead.
When Fangs landed before the United Nation's Building, his craft's engines blasted a large crater, the splattering concrete leaving the surrounding buildings scarred and battered. As the alien emissary's massive size made entry into the Assembly Hall impossible, the world's heads of state had gathered on the United Nations Plaza in front of the UN Building to meet him. Some among them now covered their faces with bloody handkerchiefs, staunching foreheads gashed open by flying glass and concrete.
The ground shook with every step Fangs took toward them and when the alien spoke, his voice roared. It was a sound like the screaming horns of a dozen train engines and it left the hair standing on end of all who heard it. Fangs spoke through an unwieldy translator hanging around his neck. The device repeated his words back in English; he, too, had learned the language in transit. The rough male voice his translator produced, despite being much less in volume than Fangs' real voice, nonetheless made his listeners' flesh creep.