THE DARK FOREST 12
At ten million times magnification, it was still a smooth mirror.
Ding Yi tossed the pick aside dejectedly and looked away from the droplet, deep in thought. The eyes of the three officers, and the eyes of the million people in the fleet, were all focused on him.
“All we can do is guess,” he said, looking up. “The molecules in this thing are neatly arranged, like an honor guard, and they’re mutually solidifying. Do you know how solid it is? It’s as if the molecules are nailed into place. Even their own vibrations are gone.”
“That’s why it’s at absolute zero!” Xizi said. She and the other two officers understood what Ding Yi was getting at: At normal densities of matter, the separation between atomic nuclei is quite large. It would be no easier to fix them all in place than it would be to join the sun to the eight planets with rods to form a stationary truss.
“What force would allow that?”
“There’s only one option: strong interaction.”23 Through his visor, it was obvious that Ding Yi’s forehead was covered in sweat.
“But … that’s like shooting the moon with a bow and arrow!”
“Indeed, they’ve shot the moon with a bow and arrow.… The tear of the blessed mother?” He gave a chilly laugh, a mournful sound that made them shiver, and the three officers knew what it meant: The droplet wasn’t fragile like a tear. Entirely the opposite: Its strength was a hundred times greater than the sturdiest material in the Solar System. All known substances were as fragile as paper by comparison. It could pass through the Earth like a bullet through cheese, without even the slightest harm to its surface.
“Then … what’s it here for?” the lieutenant colonel blurted out.
“Who knows? Maybe it really is just a messenger. But it’s here to give humanity a different message,” Ding Yi said, turning his gaze away from the droplet.
“If I destroy you, what business is it of yours?”
The words were followed by a momentary silence as the three other members of the expeditionary team and the million members of the combined fleet ruminated over their meaning. Then, all of a sudden, Ding Yi said, “Run.” The word was uttered softly, but then he raised his hands and shouted hoarsely, “Stupid children. Run!”
“Run where?” Xizi asked in fright.
Just seconds after Ding Yi, the lieutenant colonel realized the truth. Like Ding Yi, he shouted desperately: “The fleet! Evacuate the fleet!”
But it was too late. Powerful interference had already wiped out their communication channels. The image being transmitted from Mantis vanished, and the fleet was unable to hear the lieutenant colonel’s final call.
A blue halo emerged from the tip of the droplet’s tail. It was small at first, but very bright, and cast a blue shroud over its surroundings. Then it dramatically expanded, turning from blue to yellow and finally to red. It almost seemed as if the droplet wasn’t producing the halo, but had just drilled out from within it. The halo weakened in luminosity as it expanded, and when it had reached a diameter twice that of the largest part of the droplet, it vanished. The instant it vanished, a second small blue halo emerged from the tip. Like the first one, it expanded, changed color, weakened, and quickly disappeared. The halos continued to emerge from the droplet’s tail at a rate of two or three a second, and under their propulsion, the droplet began to move forward, and then rapidly accelerated.
But the four members of the expedition team never saw the second halo emerge, because the first one was accompanied by ultra-high temperatures approaching that of the sun’s core, which vaporized them instantly.
The hull of Mantis glowed red, resembling from the outside a paper lantern whose candle had just been lit. Its metal body melted like wax, but no sooner had the ship begun to melt than it exploded, dispersing into
space as an incandescent liquid with hardly any solid fragments left behind.
From a thousand kilometers away, the fleet had a clear view of Mantis’s explosion, but the initial analysis was that the droplet had self-destructed. Everyone felt sorrow for the sacrifice of the four expedition team members, followed by disappointment that the droplet was not a messenger of peace. But the human race did not have even the slightest bit of psychological preparation for what was about to happen.
The first anomaly was identified by the fleet’s space surveillance computer, which discovered during the course of processing images of Mantis’s explosion that one of the fragments was abnormal. Most of the pieces were molten metal that flew uniformly through space following the explosion, but this one was accelerating. Of course, only a computer was able to find a tiny object among the massive quantity of flying fragments. From an immediate search of its database and knowledge bank, which included an enormous amount of information on Mantis, it arrived at several dozen possible explanations for the peculiar debris, but none was correct.
Neither computer nor human realized that the explosion had destroyed only Mantis and the four-member expedition team, but not the droplet.
As for the accelerating fragment, the fleet’s space surveillance system issued only a level-three attack alarm, because the approaching object was not a warship and was headed toward one corner of the rectangular formation. On its current heading, it would pass outside the formation and would not strike any warship. Due to the large number of level-one alarms issued following the Mantis explosion, this level-three alarm was completely ignored. The computer had, however, also noted the fragment’s high rate of acceleration. By three hundred kilometers it had already passed the third cosmic velocity and was continuing to gain speed. The alert was upgraded to level two, but was still ignored.
By the time the fragment had flown roughly 1,500 kilometers from the explosion site toward the corner of the formation, only fifty-one seconds had elapsed. By the time it reached the corner, it was traveling at a speed of 31.7 kilometers per second. Now it was on the periphery of the formation, 160 kilometers away from Infinite Frontier, the first warship in this corner of the array. The fragment did not pass by the formation, but executed a thirty-degree turn, and, without slowing down, sped straight toward Infinite Frontier. In the roughly two seconds it took to cover that distance, the computer actually dropped its alert from level two back to level three, concluding that the fragment wasn’t actually a physical object due to the fact that its motion was impossible under aerospace mechanics. At twice the third cosmic velocity, executing a sharp turn without a drop in speed was like slamming into an iron wall. If it was a vessel containing a metal block, the change in direction would have exerted such force as to flatten that metal block into a thin film. So the fragment had to be an illusion.
In that manner, the droplet struck Infinite Frontier at twice the third cosmic velocity, at a heading straight along the first row of the fleet rectangle.
The droplet struck Infinite Frontier in its rear third and passed through with no resistance, as if penetrating a shadow. The extreme speed of the impact meant that two highly regular entry and exit holes roughly the diameter of the droplet’s thickest part appeared in its hull. But no sooner had they appeared than the holes deformed and vanished as the surrounding hull melted under the heat produced by the high-speed impact and the ultrahigh temperature of the droplet’s trailing halo. The part of the ship that had been hit turned red-hot,
and the redness spread from the point of impact until it covered half the ship, like a chunk of iron that had just been taken out of the forge.
After passing through Infinite Frontier, the droplet continued onward at a speed of thirty kilometers per second. In the space of three seconds it had crossed ninety kilometers, passing first through Yuanfang, Infinite Frontier’s neighbor in the first row, and then through Foghorn, Antarctica, and Ultimate, leaving their hulls red-hot, as if the warships were giant lamps lined up.
Then Infinite Frontier exploded. It and the four warships after it were hit in the fusion fuel tanks. But unlike Mantis’s conventional, high-temperature explosion, this explosion was a fusion reaction triggered in Infinite Frontier’s fuel. No one ever figured out whether the fusion reaction had been sparked by the droplet’s ultra- high-temperature propulsive halo or some other factor. The fireball of the thermonuclear explosion appeared at the point of impact with the fuel tank and swiftly expanded until it illuminated the entire fleet against the velvety background of space, outshining the Milky Way.
Nuclear fireballs then took shape on Yuanfang, Foghorn, Antarctica, and Ultimate in succession. In the next eight seconds, the droplet passed through ten more stellar-class warships.
By this point, the expanding nuclear fireball had engulfed the entirety of Infinite Frontier and had begun to shrink, while more fireballs were lighting up and expanding on other ships that had been struck.
The droplet continued to traverse the length of the array, penetrating one stellar-class warship after another at intervals of less than a second.
The fusion fireball on Infinite Frontier had gone out, leaving the ship’s hull totally melted. Now it exploded, spewing a million tons of glowing, dark-red metallic liquid like a bud bursting into bloom, the molten metal scattering unimpeded in an omnidirectional storm of burning metallic magma.
The droplet continued its advance, following a straight line through more warships and leaving a line of ten nuclear fireballs behind it. The entire fleet shone in the flames of these burning small suns as if it had been set ablaze and turned into a sea of light. Behind the line of fireballs, the melted warships continued to fling waves of hot molten metal into space, as if massive rocks were being pitched into a magma sea.
In one minute and eighteen seconds, the droplet had completed a two-thousand-kilometer course, passing through each of the hundred ships in the first row of the combined fleet’s rectangular formation.
By the time the last ship in the row, Adam, was swallowed up in a nuclear fireball, the bursts of metallic magma at the opposite end had scattered, cooled, and spread out, leaving the heart of the explosion—the spot where Infinite Frontier had been a minute before—empty of practically everything. Yuanfang, Foghorn, Antarctica, Ultimate … all of them vanished one after another into metallic magma. When the last nuclear fireball in the line went out and darkness fell upon space once more, the gradually cooling magma that had barely been visible reappeared as dark red lights in the blackness of space, like a two-thousand-kilometer-long river of blood.
After punching through Adam, the droplet flew a short distance of about eighty kilometers through empty space, then executed another sharp turn unexplainable by humanity’s aerospace mechanics. This time the angle it described was even smaller: just fifteen degrees off a total reversal, executed nearly instantaneously even as it maintained a constant speed. Then, after a small heading adjustment that brought it in line with the second row of warships in the fleet’s array—or what was now the first row, in light of the recent destruction—
it sped toward the first ship in that row, Ganges, at thirty kilometers per second.
Until this point, Fleet Command had not made any response.
The fleet’s battle information system had faithfully carried out its mission and captured through its massive monitoring network a complete record of all battle information over the course of that one minute and eighteen seconds. The sheer amount of information was for the time being only analyzable by the computerized battlefield decision-making system, which had arrived at the following conclusion: A powerful enemy space force had appeared in the vicinity and had launched an attack on the fleet. However, the computer did not provide any information about that enemy force. Only two things were certain: 1. The enemy space force was located at the position occupied by the droplet, and 2. The force was invisible to every means of detection they possessed.
By this time, fleet commanders were in a state of numb shock. For nearly two centuries, research into space strategy and tactics had dreamed up every possible kind of extreme battle condition, but witnessing a hundred warships blowing up like a string of firecrackers in under a minute was beyond what their minds could comprehend. The tide of information surging out of the battle information system meant that they were forced to rely on the analyses and judgments of the computer battlefield decision-making system and focus their attention on detecting an invisible enemy fleet that didn’t even exist. All battle monitoring capacity was directed into the distant regions of space, ignoring the danger right in front of them. A fair number of people even believed that the powerful invisible enemy might be a third-party alien force distinct from humanity and Trisolaris, because in their subconscious minds, Trisolaris remained the weaker, losing side.
The fleet’s battle monitoring system did not detect the droplet’s presence any earlier primarily because it was invisible to radar at all wavelengths and could only be located through analysis of visible spectrum images, but visible images were treated with far less importance than radar data. Most of the fragments scattered through space in storms of exploded debris were liquid metal melted by the high-temperature nuclear blasts, upward of a million tons melted in the destruction of each ship. A fair proportion of this massive amount of molten debris was roughly the same size and shape as the droplet, which presented the computer image analysis system with the difficult task of distinguishing the droplet from the debris. Besides, practically all of the commanders believed that the droplet had self-destructed inside Mantis, so no one issued specific instructions to perform such an analysis.
Meanwhile, other circumstances were exacerbating the confusion of battle. Debris ejected from the explosions of the first row of warships soon reached the second row, prompting their battle defense systems to respond with high-energy lasers and railguns to intercept the debris. These flying fragments, consisting largely of metal melted by the nuclear fireballs, were irregular in size, and although they had been partially cooled in flight by the low temperatures of space, only their outer shells had solidified. Their insides were still in a fiery liquid state, and when struck, they scattered in a brilliant explosion of fireworks. It was not long before the second row turned into a flaming barrier parallel to the dull “river of blood” left behind by the exploded warships in the first, roiling with explosions as if washed in a tide of fire surging from the direction of that invisible enemy. Debris flew thick as hail, more than defensive systems could block, and when fragments slipped through and struck the warships, the impact of these jets of solid-liquid metal possessed considerable destructive power. A number of the ships in the fleet’s second row suffered major hull damage, and some were
even punctured. Shrill decompression alarms blared.…
Although the dazzling battle with debris did receive notice, given the circumstances, it was hard for the computers and humans in the command system to avoid the misconception that the fleet was engaged in a fierce exchange of fire with an enemy space force. Neither person nor machine noticed the tiny figure of Death that had begun to destroy the second row of ships.
And so, when the droplet charged at Ganges, the hundred warships in the second row were still assembled in a straight line. A death formation.
The droplet surged like lightning, and in the space of just ten seconds, it passed through twelve warships: Ganges, Columbia, Justice, Masada, Proton, Yandi, Atlantic, Sirius, Thanksgiving, Advance, Han, and Tempest. As in the destruction of the first row, each warship turned red-hot after penetration, before being engulfed in a nuclear fireball that left a million tons of dark red, glowing, metallic magma that then exploded. In this brutal destruction, the lined-up warships were like a two-thousand-kilometer fuse that burned with such intensity that it left behind nothing but ash glowing a dull, dark red.
One minute and twenty-one seconds later, the hundred ships in the second row had been completely annihilated.
After passing through the last ship, Meiji, the droplet reached the end of the row and turned another acute angle to charge straight at the first ship in the third row, Newton. During the destruction of the second row, debris from the explosions had raged into the third. The tide of debris included molten metal flung from explosions in the second row as well as mostly cooled metal fragments from the ships of the first. Most of the third-row ships had by now started up their engines and defensive systems and had begun maneuvering, which meant that this time, the ships were not situated along a perfectly straight line, as had been the case for the first and second rows. Nevertheless, the hundred ships were still roughly in line. After the droplet passed through Newton, it sharply adjusted direction and, in a twinkling, crossed the twenty kilometers separating Newton from Enlightenment, now at a three-kilometer offset from the line. From Enlightenment, it turned sharply again, raced toward Cretaceous, which was moving toward the other side, and penetrated it. Following this broken path, the droplet drilled through the ships in the third row one after the other, never dropping its speed below thirty kilometers per second.
When analysts subsequently observed the droplet’s route, they were amazed to discover that its every turn was a sharp corner, not the smooth curve of a human spacecraft. The diabolical flight path demonstrated a space drive entirely beyond human comprehension, as if the droplet was a shadow without mass, unconcerned with the principles of dynamics, moving at will like the nib of God’s pen. During the attack on the fleet’s third row, the droplet’s sharp changes of direction occurred at a rate of two or three per second, a deathly embroidery needle sewing a thread of destruction through the row’s hundred ships.
The droplet took two minutes and thirty-five seconds to destroy the third row of ships.
By this time, all of the warships in the fleet had started their engines. Although the array had lost its shape entirely, the droplet continued to strike the evacuating ships. The pace of destruction slowed, but, at any given time, three to five nuclear fireballs were burning among the ships. Their deathly flames drowned out the glow of the engines, turning them into a cluster of terrified fireflies.
The fleet command system still had no clue about the true source of the attack and continued to focus its
energies on searching for the imaginary invisible enemy fleet. However, subsequent analysis of the massive clouds of vague information transmitted by the fleet revealed that it was at this point that the earliest analysis to come close to the truth was performed by two low-ranking officers in the Asian Fleet. One was Ensign Zhao Xin, an assistant targeting screener on Beifang, and the other was Captain Li Wei, an intermediate EM weapons system controller on Wannian Kunpeng. A transcript of their conversation follows:
ZHAO XIN: This is Beifang TR317 calling Wannian Kunpeng EM986! This is Beifang TR317 calling Wannian Kunpeng EM986!
LI WEI: This is Wannian Kunpeng EM986. Please be advised, transmitting ship-to-ship voice communication at this information level is a violation of wartime regulations.
ZHAO XIN: Is that Li Wei? This is Zhao Xin! You’re who I’m trying to find!
LI WEI: Hi! I’m glad to know you’re still alive.
ZHAO XIN: Captain, here’s the thing. I’ve discovered something that I’d like to transmit to the shared command level, but my privileges are too low. Could you help me out?
LI WEI: My privileges are too low, too. But shared command has plenty of information right now. What do you want to transmit?
ZHAO XIN: I’ve analyzed a visual image of the battle—
LI WEI: Shouldn’t you be analyzing radar information?
ZHAO XIN: That’s a system fallacy. When I analyzed the visual image and extracted only the speed characteristic, do you know what I found? Do you know what’s been going on?
LI WEI: You seem to know.
ZHAO XIN: Don’t think I’ve gone crazy—you know me, we’re friends.
LI WEI: You’re a stone-cold beast. You’ll be the last to go crazy. Go ahead. ZHAO XIN: Listen, it’s the fleet that’s gone crazy. We’re attacking ourselves! LI WEI:…
ZHAO XIN: Infinite Frontier attacked Yuanfang, and Yuanfang attacked Foghorn, and Foghorn attacked Antarctica, and Antarctica …
LI WEI: You’re out of your damn mind!
ZHAO XIN: That’s what’s happening. A attacks B; and after B is attacked, but before it explodes, it attacks C; and after C is attacked but before it explodes, it attacks D.… It’s like every warship that was hit attacked the next warship in the row—like an infection, damn it, or a game of pass the parcel, but to the death. It’s insane!
LI WEI: What weapons are they using?
ZHAO XIN: I don’t know. I picked up a projectile in the image, so frickin’ tiny and so frickin’ fast, way the hell faster than your railguns. And incredibly precise. It hit the fuel tanks every single time!
LI WEI: Send me the analysis.
ZHAO XIN: I’ve sent it over, the original data and vector analysis both. Take a look, god damn it!
Ensign Zhao Xin’s analysis, though unconventional, was pretty close to the truth. Li Wei took half a minute to study the information he sent over. In that time, another thirty-nine warships were destroyed.
LI WEI: I’ve noticed something about the speed.
ZHAO XIN: What speed?
LI WEI: The speed of the small projectile. Its speed when it’s launched from each warship is slightly slower. Then it accelerates to thirty kilometers per second during flight. Then it strikes the next warship, and when it launches from that warship prior to the explosion, its speed is a little slower. Then it accelerates.…
ZHAO XIN: That doesn’t mean anything.…
LI WEI: What I mean is … it’s a little like drag.
ZHAO XIN: Drag? How so?
LI WEI: Every time this projectile passes through a target, the drag slows it down.
ZHAO XIN: I see what you’re doing. I’m not stupid. You said “this projectile” and “passes through a target.” … Is it a single object?
LI WEI: Take a look outside. Another hundred ships have exploded.
This conversation took place not in the modern language of the fleet but in twenty-first-century Mandarin. From the mode of speech, it was obvious that the two were hibernators. There were few hibernators serving in the fleet, and although most of them had awakened while still very young, they still lacked a modern person’s capacity to absorb information, which meant that most of them carried out relatively low-level duties. It was later discovered that the vast majority of officers and soldiers who recovered their senses and good judgment the earliest during the grand destruction were hibernators. These two officers, for instance, despite being at a level that did not even permit them the use of the ship’s advanced systems, were nonetheless able to perform a remarkable piece of analysis.
Zhao Xin and Li Wei’s information was not passed up the fleet command system, but the system’s analysis of the battle was headed in the right direction. Realizing that the invisible enemy force posited by the computer decision-making system didn’t exist, attention was now focused on analyzing the aggregated battle information. After a search and match on massive amounts of data, the system finally discovered the continued existence of the droplet. The image of the droplet extracted from battle recordings was unchanged apart from the addition of a propulsion halo at the tail. It was still a perfect droplet shape, only this time what was reflected as it sped onward was the glow of nuclear fireballs and metal magma, glaring brightness alternating with dark red. It looked like a drop of burning blood. Further analysis arrived at a model of the droplet’s attack path.
Various scenarios for the Doomsday Battle had been concocted during two centuries of the study of space strategy, but in the minds of strategists, the enemy had always been big. Humanity would meet the main part of the mighty Trisolaran force on a space battlefield, with every warship a fortress of death the size of a small city. They had imagined every extreme form of weapons and tactics the enemy could possibly possess, the most terrifying of which involved the Trisolaran Fleet launching an attack using antimatter weapons, and obliterating a stellar-class battleship with antimatter the size of a rifle bullet.
But now the combined fleet had to face facts: Their only enemy was a tiny probe, one drop of water out of the enormous ocean of Trisolaran strength, and this probe attacked using one of the oldest and most primitive tactics known to human navies: ramming.
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