Deterrence Era, Year 12 Bronze Age
Most of the crew aboard Bronze Age attributed the sudden cessation of all signals from the Earth to the complete conquest of the Solar System by Trisolaris. Bronze Age accelerated and headed for a star with terrestrial planets twenty-six light-years away.
But ten days later, Bronze Age received a radio transmission from Fleet Command. The transmission had been sent simultaneously to Bronze Age and Blue Space, which was at the other end of the Solar System. The transmission gave a brief account of what had happened on Earth and notified them of the successful creation of a deterrence system to defend against Trisolaris. The two ships were ordered to return to Earth immediately. Moreover, Earth had taken great risks to send out this message to the lost ships; it would not be repeated.
At first, Bronze Age dared not trust this message—wasn’t it possible that it was a trap set by those who had conquered the Solar System? The warship stopped accelerating and repeatedly queried Earth for confirmation. No reply ever came, as Earth maintained radio silence.
Just as Bronze Age was about to begin accelerating away from home again, the unimaginable happened: A sophon unfolded into low dimensions on the ship, establishing a quantum communication channel with Earth. Finally, the crew received confirmation of all that had occurred.
The crew found that, as some of the only survivors of the holocaust suffered by the combined space forces of Earth, they were now heroes of the human race. The whole world awaited their return with bated breath. Fleet Command awarded all members of the crew with the highest military honors.
Bronze Age began its return voyage. It was currently in outer space, about twenty-three hundred AU from the Earth, far beyond the Kuiper Belt but still some distance from the Oort Cloud. As it was cruising near maximum speed, deceleration consumed most of its fusion fuel. Its journey toward the Earth had to be conducted at a low cruising speed, and took eleven years.
As they finally neared Earth, a small white dot appeared ahead of them and quickly grew. It was Gravity, the warship that had been dispatched to welcome Bronze Age.
Gravity was the first stellar-class warship built after the Doomsday Battle. Deterrence-Era spaceships were no longer constructed along fixed body plans. Rather, most large spaceships were constructed out of multiple modules that could be assembled into various configurations. But Gravity was an exception. It was a white cylinder, so regular that it seemed unreal, like a basic shape dropped into space by mathematical modeling software, a platonic ideal rather than reality.
If the crew of Bronze Age had seen the gravitational wave antennas on the Earth, they would have recognized Gravity as an almost perfect replica of them. Indeed, the entire hull of Gravity was a large gravitational wave antenna. Like its twins on the Earth’s surface, the ship was capable of broadcasting gravitational wave messages toward all corners of the universe at a moment’s notice. These gravitational wave antennas on Earth and in space comprised humanity’s dark forest deterrence system against Trisolaris.
After another day of coasting, Bronze Age, escorted by Gravity, entered geosynchronous orbit and slowly sailed into the orbital spaceport. Bronze Age’s crew could see dense crowds filling the broad expanse of the habitat sector of the spaceport like the opening ceremony of the Olympics or the Hajj in Mecca. The warship drifted through a colorful snowstorm of bouquets. The crew looked through the crowd for their loved ones. Everyone seemed to have tears in their eyes, crying out in joy.
With a final tremor, Bronze Age came to a complete stop. The captain gave a status report to Fleet Command and declared his intent to leave a skeleton crew behind on the ship. Fleet Command replied that the priority was to quickly reunite all members of the crew with their loved ones. There was no need to leave anyone behind on the ship. Another captain from the fleet boarded the ship with a small duty team who greeted everyone they encountered with tearful embraces.
It was unclear from the duty team’s uniforms which of the three space fleets they belonged to, but they explained to those aboard the ship that the new Solar System Fleet was a single, unified force, and all those who had been part of the Doomsday Battle—including all the men and women aboard Bronze Age—would be key figures in the new fleet.
“In our lifetimes, we will conquer Trisolaris and open up a second solar system for human colonization!” the fleet captain said.
Someone replied that they found space too terrifying and they would rather remain on the Earth. The fleet captain said that was perfectly acceptable. As heroes of humanity, they were free to choose their own paths in life. However, after a bit of R&R, they might change their minds. He, for one, hoped to see this famed warship in action again.
The crew of Bronze Age began to disembark. Everyone entered the habitable region of the spaceport through a long passageway. Open space stretched around the crew. In contrast to the air on the ship, the air here smelled fresh and sweet, like after a rainstorm. Against the background of the spinning blue globe that was the Earth, the joyous shouts of the welcoming crowd filled the expansive area.
Per a request from the fleet captain, the captain of Bronze Age conducted a roll call. At the fleet captain’s insistence, the roll call was repeated, to confirm that every member of the crew had disembarked and was present and accounted for.
Then there was silence.
Although the celebrating crowd around them continued to dance and wave their arms, they made no sound. All that anyone from Bronze Age could hear was the fleet captain’s voice. His face still bore a kind smile, but in that eerie silence, his voice sounded as sharp as the edge of a sword.
“You’re hereby informed that you have been dishonorably discharged. You are no longer members of the Solar System Fleet. But the stain you have brought upon the fleet can never be erased! You will never see your loved ones again, because they have no wish to see you. Your parents are ashamed of you, and most of
your spouses have long ago divorced you. Even though society has not discriminated against your children, they spent the past decade growing up in the shadow of your disgrace. They despise you!
“You are hereby transferred to Fleet International’s justice system.”
The fleet captain left with his team. Simultaneously, the celebratory crowd disappeared and was replaced by darkness. A few roving spotlights revealed the ranks of fully armed military police surrounding the crew of Bronze Age. Standing on platforms around the broad square, they aimed their guns at the crew.
Some members of the crew turned around and saw that the bouquets of flowers floating around Bronze Age were real, not holographic mirages. But now they made the warship seem like a giant coffin about to be buried.
Power to the magnetic boots worn by the crew was cut off, and they floated up in free fall, like a bunch of helpless target dummies.
A cold voice spoke to them from somewhere. “All armed crew members must immediately relinquish your weapons. If you do not cooperate, we cannot guarantee your safety. You’re under arrest for murder in the first degree and crimes against humanity.”
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