Broadcast Era, Year 8 Fate’s Choice
Cheng Xin came to the headquarters of the Halo Group.
This was her first time here. She had never participated in its operation because, subconsciously, she never thought of the enormous wealth as truly hers, or Yun Tianming’s. They possessed that star, but the wealth generated by the star belonged to society.
But now, perhaps, the Halo Group could help her realize her dream.
The corporate headquarters occupied an entire giant tree. Interestingly, all the buildings on the tree were transparent. Moreover, as the refractive index in the construction material was close to that of the air, all internal structures were visible. One could see employees moving inside as well as countless information windows. The hanging buildings resembled transparent ant farms with colorful ants milling about inside.
Inside the large conference room at the tip of the tree, Cheng Xin got to meet most of the high-level executives of the Halo Group. They were all young, smart, and vivacious. Most of them had never met Cheng Xin before, and they did not disguise their awe and adoration.
After the meeting, when only Cheng Xin and AA remained in the large, empty room, they began to talk about the future of the company. The message from Yun Tianming and the deciphering progress remained secrets from the public. To protect Tianming, Fleet International and the UN planned to release the results gradually to the public and to make them appear as the fruits of research on Earth. Some deliberate false research results would also be mixed in to further conceal the real origin of the information.
Cheng Xin had gotten used to the transparent floor and no longer felt so acrophobic. A few large information windows drifted in the conference room, displaying live video feeds from a few of the Halo Group’s construction projects in Earth orbit, one of which was the giant cross in geosynchronous orbit. After Tianming’s reappearance, the public’s hopes for a miracle gradually faded, and with the initiation of the Bunker Project, the religious fervor dimmed. The church stopped investing in the giant cross, and it was abandoned. Now it was in the process of being dismantled so that only a giant “1” remained—a rather meaningful sight.
“I don’t like ‘black domain,’” said AA. “It would be more appropriate to call it ‘black tomb,’ a tomb we dig for ourselves.”
Cheng Xin looked at the city below through the transparent floor. “I don’t think of it that way. During the era I was from, the Earth was completely separated from the rest of the universe. Everyone lived on the surface, and very rarely did they glance up at the stars. People had lived that way for five thousand years, and
you can’t just say that wasn’t a good life. Even now, the Solar System is basically separated from the rest of the universe. The only people who are in deep space are the thousand or so people on those two spaceships.”
“But I feel that if we separate ourselves from the stars, dreams will die.”
“Not at all. In ancient times there was happiness and joy as well, and they had no fewer dreams than we. Also, even inside a black domain, we would still see the stars, only … who knows what that would look like.
… Personally, I don’t like ‘black domain’ either.” “I know you don’t.”
“I like lightspeed ships.”
“We all like lightspeed ships. The Halo Group should build lightspeed ships!”
“I thought you weren’t going to agree,” Cheng Xin said. “This requires heavy investment in basic research.”
“You think I’m just a capitalist? Well, you’re not wrong. I am, and so are the members of the board of directors. We want to maximize profits. But that doesn’t conflict with lightspeed spaceships. Politically, the government will devote the most resources into the Bunker Project and the black domain, but lightspeed ships will be left to entrepreneurs.… We should put our efforts into the Bunker Project, and then use some of the profits to research lightspeed ships.”
“Here’s my thinking, AA: Curvature propulsion and the black domain probably share some fundamental theories. We can wait for the government and the World Academy of Sciences to complete that part of the research, then develop it toward curvature propulsion.”
“All right. We should start a Halo Group Academy of Sciences, too, and recruit scientists. Many of them have dreamed about lightspeed spaceflight, but they can’t find such opportunities in national or international projects—”
AA was interrupted by a sudden surge of new information windows. Windows of all sizes appeared in every direction like a colorful avalanche, quickly burying the few original information windows showing feeds from the Halo Group’s projects. A “window avalanche” like this usually indicated the sudden occurrence of some important event, but the flood of information often caused people to be overwhelmed, unable to find out what actually happened. Such was the case with AA and Cheng Xin. They saw that most of the windows were filled with complex text and animated figures, and only those windows that showed pure images could be taken in at a glance. In one of the windows, Cheng Xin saw a few faces looking upwards, then the lens zoomed in until a frightened pair of eyes filled the frame, accompanied by a cacophony of screams.…
A new window came to the forefront showing AA’s secretary. She stared at AA and Cheng Xin, her face full of terror and shock.
“A warning! An attack!” she shouted. “Any specifics?” AA asked.
“They activated the first observation unit in the Solar System advance warning system and found a photoid right away!”
“In what direction? How far?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything. All I know—” “Is this an official warning?” Cheng Xin asked calmly.
“I don’t think so. But it’s in all the media. I’m sure it’s real! Let’s get to the spaceport and run for our lives!” The secretary disappeared from the window.
Cheng Xin and AA passed through the dense congeries of information windows and arrived at the transparent wall of the conference room. They saw that panic had already seized the city below them. A massive increase in the number of flying cars outside resulted in chaos, and every vehicle tried to force itself through the jam at high speed. One of the cars struck a giant tree building and erupted into a fireball. Soon, fire and columns of smoke appeared in two other locations in the city.…
AA picked out a few information windows and perused them carefully. Cheng Xin, on the other hand, tried to get in touch with the members of the IDC. Most of their phones were busy, and Cheng Xin managed to talk to only two committee members. One of them, like AA and Cheng Xin, knew nothing. The other, a PDC official, told Cheng Xin that he could confirm that Observation Unit #1 in the Solar System advance warning system had noticed some significant anomaly, but he didn’t know the specifics. He also confirmed that Fleet International and the UN had not issued a formal dark forest strike alarm, but he wasn’t optimistic.
“There are two possibilities for why no alarm has been issued: One, nothing has happened. Two, the photoid is too close and an alarm would be useless.”
AA was only able to obtain one piece of specific information from her reading: The photoid was coming along the ecliptic plane. There were conflicting reports concerning its exact direction and distance from the Sun, and estimates of when the photoid would strike the sun diverged wildly: Some claimed that the world had another month; others said only a few hours.
“We should go to Halo,” AA said. “Is there enough time?”
Halo was a corporate spaceship that belonged to the Halo Group. Right now, it was parked at the company’s geosynchronous base. If the alarm was real, their only hope now was to ride the ship to Jupiter and hide out behind the gas giant before the photoid struck. As Jupiter was in opposition, and therefore as close to the Earth as it could be, it would take twenty-five to thirty days for the ship to fly from the Earth to Jupiter, which was just under the upper end of the range of estimates for when the photoid would strike. But this estimate seemed highly unreliable: The advance warning system was still being constructed, and couldn’t have given such an early alert.
“We have to do something instead of waiting here to die!” AA said. She dragged Cheng Xin out of the conference room and onto the parking lot at the top of the tree. They ducked into a flying car, but AA seemed to remember something and got out again. A few minutes later, she returned with an oblong object that resembled a violin case. She opened the case, took out what was inside, and carried it with her into the car, leaving the case behind.
Cheng Xin looked at what was in AA’s hand and recognized the implement: a rifle, though adapted to shoot laser bolts instead of bullets.
“Why are you bringing this?” Cheng Xin asked.
“The spaceport is sure to be filled with people—who knows what’s going to happen?” AA tossed the rifle onto the backseat and started the flying car.
Every city had a spaceport to service various small space vessels—rather like ancient airports.
The flying car merged into a mighty aerial stream of traffic. All the countless cars in the stream, like a swarm of locusts, were headed for the spaceport. They cast a flowing shadow along the ground, as though the city’s blood was seeping out.
Ahead, a dozen or so white lines rose into the blue sky, trails left by spaceships. They rose straight up and then turned east and disappeared in the depths of the firmament. New white lines continuously shot up from the ground and extended into air, each line headed by a fireball that was brighter even than the sun: the flame from the fusion drives of the ships.
On an information window inside the car, Cheng Xin saw a live video feed taken from near-Earth orbit. Countless rising white lines appeared against the tan background of the continent and extended upward. They grew more numerous, denser, as though the Earth was growing white hair. The fireballs at the ends of the white lines were like fireflies drifting into space. This was the greatest collective escape into space in human history.
Their car arrived above the spaceport. About a hundred spacecraft were arrayed below, and more were being moved out of the giant hangar in the distance. Space planes had long since fallen out of use, and modern shuttles all took off vertically. Unlike the oddly shaped spacecraft Cheng Xin had seen at the port in the space elevator terminal station, these shuttles all had streamlined profiles, with three or four tail fins. They were now erected helter-skelter in the parking lot of the spaceport, like a forest of steel.
AA had called ahead to the hangar to move one of the Halo Group’s shuttles onto the lot. She quickly picked out the shuttle from the air and landed their car next to it.
Cheng Xin looked at the shuttles around her. They were of different sizes: The smaller ones were only about a few meters tall, looking like giant versions of artillery shells. It was hard to imagine that such tiny crafts could escape the Earth’s gravity well. There were also larger vessels, some as big as ancient airliners. The Halo Group’s shuttle was medium-small in size, about ten meters tall, covered with a reflective metallic surface reminiscent of the droplets. The shuttle was parked on a wheeled launch frame so that it could be dragged to the launch point at a moment’s notice. They would ride this shuttle to reach Halo in orbit.
A loud rumbling came from the launch area, strangely reminding Cheng Xin of the noise made by the Moskstraumen. The ground quaked and her legs felt numb. A great bright glow appeared in the launch area, and a shuttle rose into the air on a ball of flame, adding yet another column of smoke to the sky. A great billowing cloud of white fog flowed toward them, bringing with it a strange burning smell. The fog wasn’t generated by the engine of the shuttle, but by the boiled water from the coolant pool below the launch pad. As the launch area and the ships disappeared in the sweltering, muggy steam, people became even more agitated and anxious.
AA and Cheng Xin climbed up a slender set of stairs to board the shuttle. As the fog dissipated, Cheng Xin saw a crowd of children gathered not too far away. They appeared to be elementary school students under the age of ten, dressed in their school uniforms. A young teacher stood with them. Her long hair was buffeted by gusts of wind and she looked around helplessly.
“Can we wait a bit?” Cheng Xin asked.
AA looked over at the children and understood what Cheng Xin wanted. “All right. Go. We have to wait for our turn to get to the launch pad. It will be a while.”
In principle, shuttles could take off from any flat part of the ground. However, to prevent ground damage from the ultrahigh-temperature plasma generated by the fusion drive, the shuttles used a launch pad. The launch pad was equipped with a coolant pool and diversion channels to safely redirect the plasma.
The teacher saw Cheng Xin walking over, and came up and grabbed her. “This shuttle is yours, isn’t it? Please, please save the children.” Her bangs stuck to her forehead, and tears and condensed fog wetted her face. She stared at Cheng Xin intently, as if hoping to seize her with her gaze. The children came over as well, and looked expectantly at Cheng Xin. “They’re here for space camp, and they were scheduled to go up in orbit. But after the alert was issued, they refused to take us and sent others up in our place.”
“Where’s your ship?” AA asked as she walked over. “It’s gone. Please, please!”
“Let’s bring them,” Cheng Xin said to AA.
AA looked at Cheng Xin for a few seconds. There are billions of people on the Earth. Do you think you can save them all?
Cheng Xin’s gaze did not waver.
AA shook her head. “We can only bring three more.” “But our shuttle’s capacity is eighteen!”
“Halo can only seat five under maximum acceleration because it’s equipped with only five deep-sea-state capsules. Anyone not in a deep-sea state is going to be crushed into a meat pie.”
The answer surprised Cheng Xin. The deep-sea acceleration fluid was only necessary for stellar spaceships. But she had always thought Halo was a planetary ship and wasn’t capable of voyaging beyond the Solar System. “All right. Then bring three!” The teacher let go of Cheng Xin and grabbed on to AA, terrified of losing
this one chance.
“You pick three, then,” said AA.
The teacher let go of AA and stared at her, even more terrified than before. “How am I supposed to pick? How…” She looked around, not daring to meet the eyes of the children. She looked to be in utter pain, as if the gazes of the children burned her.
“Fine. I’ll pick,” AA said. She turned to the children and smiled. “Everyone, listen up. I’m going to ask three questions. Whoever gives the right answers first gets to come with us.” She ignored the stunned looks from the teacher and Cheng Xin, and held up a finger. “First question: Say we have a light which is off. After one minute, it blinks. Half a minute later, it blinks again. Fifteen seconds later, it blinks a third time. It keeps on going like this, blinking at intervals that are half of the immediately preceding interval. I want to know how many times it will have blinked by the two-minute mark.”
“A hundred!” one of the children blurted out. AA shook her head. “Wrong.”
“No. Think carefully.”
After a long pause, a timid voice spoke up. The speaker was a gentle and quiet little girl and it was hard to hear her with all the noise. “An infinite number of times.”
“Come here,” AA said, pointing at the little girl. When she walked over, AA guided her to stand behind
herself. “Second question: Say we have a rope whose thickness is uneven. To burn it from one end to the other takes an hour. How do you use this rope to track the passage of fifteen minutes? Remember, the thickness is uneven!”
This time, no child spoke up in a hurry, and they all fell into deep thought. Soon, a boy raised his hand. “Fold the rope end to end, and then burn it from both ends at the same time.”
AA nodded. “Come over.” She pulled the boy behind her to stand with the girl. “Third question: eighty- two, fifty, twenty-six. What’s the next number?”
“Ten!” a girl shouted.
AA gave her a thumb up. “Well done. Come over.” Then she nodded at Cheng Xin, took the three children, and headed for the shuttle.
Cheng Xin followed them to the stairs for boarding the shuttle. She looked back. The remaining children and their teacher looked at her as if at a sun that would never rise again. Tears blurred the scene in front of her, and as she climbed up, she could still feel the gazes of despair behind her, like ten thousand arrows piercing her heart. She had felt like this before, during the last moments of her brief career as the Swordholder, and also in Australia when Sophon had announced the plan for exterminating the human race. It was a pain worse than death.
The cabin inside the shuttle was spacious; eighteen seats were arranged in two columns. Since the cabin was vertical, like a well, everyone had to climb a ladder to get to the seats. Cheng Xin experienced the same feeling she had when inside the spherical spacecraft she took to meet Tianming—the shuttle seemed to be a shell only, and she couldn’t see where there was space for the engine and the control systems. She thought back to the chemical rockets of the Common Era, each as big as a skyscraper, but the effective payload was only a tiny capsule near the top.
She couldn’t see any control surfaces inside the shuttle, and only a few information windows drifted by. The shuttle’s AI seemed to recognize AA. As soon as she entered, the windows gathered around her. They moved with her while she went around securing the children’s and Cheng Xin’s seat belts.
“Don’t look at me like that. I gave them a chance. Competition is necessary for survival,” AA whispered to Cheng Xin.
“Auntie, are they going to die on the surface?” the boy asked.
“Everyone is going to die. It’s just a matter of when.” AA sat down next to Cheng Xin. She didn’t buckle her seat belt, but continued to examine the information windows. “Damn it. There are still twenty-nine launches ahead of us.”
The spaceport had a total of eight launch pads. After each launch, the pad had to cool for ten minutes before the next use because the coolant pools needed to be replenished with fresh water.
The wait shouldn’t have mattered much to their survival. The flight to Jupiter would take a month. If the dark forest strike happened before they arrived, it really made no difference if they were on the ground or in space. However, the problem now was that any delay might cause them to not be able to take off at all.
Society had already descended into pandemonium. Driven by the instinct for survival, the more than ten million inhabitants of the city swarmed toward the spaceport. The shuttles, like passenger aircraft during ancient times, could only carry away a small number of people in a short period of time. Possessing a private
space vessel was like owning a private airplane, an unattainable dream for most of the population. Even with the space elevator, no more than one percent of the population could reach near-Earth orbit within a week. Those who could finally make the voyage to Jupiter would be one-tenth of that one percent.
There were no portholes on the shuttle, but a few information windows showed the scene outside. They saw dark masses flooding into the parking area. Crowds surrounded every vessel, screaming with their fists raised, hoping to squeeze onto one of them. At the same time, outside the spaceport, some flying cars that had landed took off again. The cars were all empty, and their owners piloted them by remote control in an attempt to stop any more space launches. More and more flying cars gathered in the air, forming a dark, hovering barrier above the launch pads. Very soon, no one would be able to leave.
Cheng Xin minimized the information window and turned around to comfort the three children seated behind her. AA screamed. Cheng Xin turned around and saw a window that had been maximized to fill the entire cabin. In the window, a blinding fireball had appeared in the forest of shuttles.
Someone had begun to launch while surrounded by people in the parking lot!
The plasma emitted by the nuclear fusion drive was tens of times hotter than the emissions of ancient chemical rockets. When launched from a flat surface, the plasma would melt the crust instantaneously and spill out in every direction. No one could survive within a thirty-meter radius. The video feed in the window showed many black dots scattering from the fireball. One of the dots struck a nearby shuttle and left a black mark: a burnt-up body. Several other shuttles around the one that took off toppled, probably because their launch frames had been melted.
The crowd quieted. They looked up and saw the shuttle that had probably killed dozens of people lifting off from the parking lot, rumbling, dragging its white trail until it was high in the air, then turning east. They seemed unable to believe their eyes. A few seconds later, yet another shuttle took off from the parking lot, even closer to them. The rumbling, flames, and waves of superheated air threw the stunned crowd into complete panic. Then a third, a fourth … the shuttles in the parking lot took off one after another. Amidst the fiery balls of flame, burnt remains of bodies flew through the air, turning the parking lot into a crematorium.
AA watched the horrifying scene and bit her bottom lip. Then she waved the window away and began to type on another small window.
“What are you doing?” Cheng Xin asked. “We’re taking off.”
“Look.” AA tossed another small window at Cheng Xin, which showed the few shuttles around them. A cooling loop was located just above the tail nozzle of each vehicle. The loops were used to dissipate the heat from the fusion reactors. Cheng Xin saw that the loops of all the surrounding shuttles had begun to glow with a dim red light, indicating that their reactors had been turned on in preparation for liftoff.
“We’d better launch before they do,” said AA. If any of these shuttles took off, the plasma would probably melt the launch frames of the rest of the shuttles, causing them to topple onto the molten ground.
“No. Stop.” Cheng Xin’s voice was calm, but unwavering. She had experienced even worse catastrophes, and she would face this one with serenity.
“Why?” AA’s voice was equally calm.
“Because there are people around.”
AA stopped typing and turned to face Cheng Xin. “Soon, you, me, the crowd, and the Earth itself will all turn into tiny fragments. Can you tell which ones are honorable and which ones despicable in that mess?”
“Our values still hold, at least for now. I’m the president of the Halo Group. This shuttle belongs to the Halo Group, and you’re the company’s employee. I have the authority to make this decision.”
AA stared at Cheng Xin for a few moments, then she nodded and closed the control window. She also turned off all the other information windows, thus isolating the cabin from the mad, noisy world outside.
“Thank you,” said Cheng Xin.
AA said nothing. But then she jumped up, as if suddenly remembering something. She picked up the laser rifle from one of the empty seats and climbed down the ladder. “Keep your seat belts on. The shuttle might fall over any moment.”
“What are you going to do?” Cheng Xin asked.
“If we can’t leave, they can’t leave either. Fuck them.”
AA opened the cabin door, went out, and immediately closed the door and locked it to prevent anyone from trying to force their way in. Then she climbed down the stairs and began to shoot at the tail fin of the nearest shuttle. Smoke rose up from the tail fin, leaving behind a tiny hole about the size of a finger. That was enough. The self-monitoring system within the shuttle would discover the damage to the tail fin and the AI would refuse to initiate the launch sequence. This was a safety measure that couldn’t be overridden by those inside. The cooling ring around the shuttle began to fade, indicating a reactor shutdown. AA turned around in a circle and shot a hole through the tail fins of each of the eight shuttles around them. As the crowd was in total panic, no one noticed what she was doing amidst the waves of heat and smoke and dust.
The door of one of the other shuttles opened, and an elegantly dressed woman climbed down. She walked around the tail of the shuttle and soon discovered the hole. She began to cry hysterically, then rolled around on the ground. She tried to head-butt the launch frame, but no one paid any attention to her. All the crowd cared about was the door to her shuttle, which had been left open. They surged up the stairs and tried to squeeze into the shuttle that could no longer fly.
AA climbed back up the stairs and pushed Cheng Xin, who had poked her head out, back in. Then she followed and shut the door behind her. She began to vomit.
“It smells like … barbeque out there,” AA finally said after the heaves subsided.
“Are we going to die?” asked one of the girls, poking her head into the aisle from the seat above them. “We’re going to witness a magnificent sight of the cosmos,” AA said, a mysterious expression on her face. “What sight?”
“It’s the most impressive thing ever. The Sun is going to turn into a giant firework.” “And then?”
“Then … nothing. What can there be when there’s nothing?” AA climbed up and patted the three children on their heads in turn. She wasn’t going to lie to them. If they could answer her questions, surely they were smart enough to understand the situation.
Again, AA and Cheng Xin sat down next to each other. Cheng Xin put a hand over AA’s hand. “I’m sorry.”
AA smiled back. It was a smile Cheng Xin was familiar with. In her eyes, AA had always seemed young, less worn down by the darkness of the world that Cheng Xin had experienced. She felt more mature in front of AA, but also powerless.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s all just busywork anyway. In the end, the result is going to be the same. At least now we can relax.” AA exhaled.
If Halo really were a stellar ship, then it would be able to get to Jupiter much faster than she had expected. Although the distance between the Earth and Jupiter wasn’t long enough for it to reach maximum acceleration, the whole journey should take only about two weeks.
AA seemed to sense what Cheng Xin was thinking. “Even if the advance warning system had been completely operational, we’d get at most a day’s warning.… But now that I’ve thought about it some, I think it’s likely a false alarm.”
Cheng Xin wasn’t sure if that was why AA had submitted to her authority earlier so easily.
AA’s theory was quickly proven. The PDC official who was also a member of the IDC called Cheng Xin to let her know that Fleet International and the UN had issued a joint statement that the alarm was false. No signs of a dark forest strike had been detected. AA opened a few information windows, and most of them were broadcasting the announcement from Fleet International and the UN. Outside, the unauthorized launches had ceased. It was still chaotic, but at least the situation wouldn’t deteriorate further.
Once the outside had calmed down a bit, Cheng Xin and AA exited the shuttle. The scene that greeted them was like a battlefield. Burnt bodies lay everywhere, charcoal-black, a few still on fire. Many of the shuttles lay on the ground while others leaned against each other. In total, nine shuttles had taken off from the parking lot, and their trails were still clearly visible in the sky, like sliced-open wounds. The crowd was no longer frantic. Some sat on the still-hot ground, some stood in place, stunned, some wandered around aimlessly—and everyone seemed uncertain whether they were experiencing reality or a nightmare. The police had arrived to maintain order, and rescue operations were underway.
“The next warning may be real,” AA said to Cheng Xin. “You should come with me to the back of Jupiter. The Halo Group will build a space city for the Bunker Project.”
Instead of answering her, Cheng Xin asked, “What is going on with Halo?”
“We’re not talking about the original ship with that name, but a new miniature stellar spaceship. It can seat twenty during planetary voyages, and five for stellar flight. The board of directors agreed to build it for you, and you can use it as a mobile office at Jupiter.”
The difference between a planetary spaceship and a stellar spaceship was like the difference between a ferryboat with a single oar plying a river and an oceangoing container ship with a tonnage measured in tens of thousands. Of course, in spaceships, the difference wasn’t merely a matter of volume—there were small stellar spaceships, too. Compared to planetary ships, stellar ships had more advanced propulsion systems, were equipped with ecological cycling systems, and every subsystem had three or four backups. If Cheng Xin really rode the new Halo into the shadow of Jupiter, the ship would be able to maintain her for the rest of her life, no matter what happened.
Cheng Xin shook her head. “You should go. Take Halo. I don’t participate in the day-to-day operations of the company, and it’s fine for me to stay on the Earth.”
“You just don’t want to be one of the few to survive.”
“I’m here with billions of people. No matter what happens, if it happens to several billion at the same time, it won’t be frightening.”
“I’m worried about you,” AA said, and grabbed Cheng Xin by both shoulders. “I’m not worried that you’ll die along with a few billion others, but that you’ll experience things worse than death.”
“I’ve been through that already.”
“If you continue to pursue the dream of lightspeed spaceflight, you’ll encounter more such experiences.
Can you really endure them?”
* * *
The false alarm was the largest social disturbance since the Great Resettlement. Although brief in duration and limited in the damage caused, it left an indelible mark in the psyche of the world.
Most of the thousands of spaceports across the world had shuttles that took off while surrounded by crowds, and more than ten thousand people died in the flames of fusion drives. Armed conflicts also took place at the base stations of space elevators. Unlike at the spaceports, the fights at the space elevators involved nations. Some countries attempted to occupy the international elevator’s base station in tropical waters, and only the timely confirmation that the attack alarm was false prevented full-scale warfare. In orbits around Earth, and even on Mars, groups of people fought over spaceships.
In addition to the degenerates who were willing to kill to ensure their own survival, the public discovered something else that disgusted them during the course of the false alarm: tens of small stellar spaceships and near-stellar spaceships were discovered to be in secret construction in geosynchronous orbit and on the dark side of the moon. Near-stellar spaceships possessed the ecological cycling systems of stellar ships, but were only equipped with propulsion systems for interplanetary flight. Some of these luxurious yachts belonged to large companies, and others to extremely wealthy individuals. All the crafts were small, and could only maintain a few people with their ecological cycling systems. They had only one purpose: long-term seclusion behind the giant planets.
The advance warning system that was still being constructed could only provide a warning window of about twenty-four hours. If a dark forest strike really arrived, there wasn’t enough time for any spacecraft to go from the Earth to Jupiter, the nearest barrier planet. In actuality, the Earth dangled over a sea of death. Rationally, everyone understood this, and the ugly fights that broke out during the false alarm were nothing more than meaningless mass madness driven by a survival instinct that overwhelmed rational thinking. Currently, about fifty thousand individuals resided at Jupiter—most of them were space force personnel at the Jupiter base, along with some staff doing preparatory work for the Bunker Project. They had plenty of justification for being at Jupiter, and the public did not begrudge them their place. But once these secret stellar ships were completed, their wealthy owners would be able to hide in the shadow of Jupiter indefinitely.
Legally—at least right now—there was no international or national prohibition against the construction of stellar ships by organizations or individuals, and hiding out behind the gas giants wasn’t the same as Escapism. However, the inequality here was seen as the greatest in human history: inequality before death.
Historically, inequality mainly manifested itself in areas like economics or social status, but death basically
treated everyone the same. To be sure, such equality wasn’t absolute: For instance, access to medical care wasn’t evenly distributed; the wealthy fared better in natural disasters than the poor; soldiers and civilians had different rates of survival in war; and so on. But never before had a situation like this presented itself: less than one-ten-thousandth of the population could go into safe hiding, leaving billions on Earth to die.
Even in ancient times, such manifest inequality would have been intolerable, let alone now. This led directly to international skepticism about the plan for lightspeed ships.
Although spaceships hiding permanently behind Jupiter or Saturn could survive a dark forest strike, life on those ships would not be enviable. No matter how comfortable the ecological cycling systems made the shipboard environment, the occupants would be living in the cold, desolate regions of the outer Solar System in isolation. But as observations of the Second Trisolaran Fleet revealed, spacecraft powered by curvature propulsion could achieve lightspeed almost instantaneously. A lightspeed ship could go from the Earth to Jupiter in less than an hour, and the advance warning system would be more than sufficient. Powerful and wealthy individuals who possessed lightspeed ships could thus live in comfort on the Earth and then escape at the last minute, without regard for the billions left behind. This was a prospect society simply could not tolerate. The terrifying sights from the false alarm remained fresh in the public’s mind, and most people agreed that the appearance of lightspeed ships would lead to worldwide chaos. Thus, the plan for developing lightspeed ships faced unprecedented resistance.
* * *
The false alarm was the result of the explosive amplifying effects of a hyper-information society when fed sensitive news. Its source was an anomaly detected by the first observation unit of the advance warning system. The anomaly was real, though it had nothing to do with photoids.
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