THE DARK FOREST 16
When Dongfang Yanxu learned that the captain of Ultimate Law had committed suicide, she had the premonition that time was up, so she convened an emergency meeting with the two vice-captains in the large spherical fighter hangar.
In the corridor on the way to the hangar, she heard someone behind her call her name. It was Zhang Beihai. In her gloomy state of mind, she had practically forgotten about him for the past couple of days. He looked her up and down, his eyes full of a fatherly concern that gave her an undreamed-of sense of comfort, for it was hard to find a pair of eyes without a shadow on Starship Earth these days.
“Dongfang, I don’t think you’ve been right lately. I don’t know the reason, but you seem to be hiding something. What’s going on?”
She didn’t answer his question, but instead asked, “Sir, how have you been lately?”
“Well. Very well. I’ve been touring all over the place and studying. I’m familiarizing myself with Natural Selection’s weapons system. Of course, I’m only scratching the surface, but it’s fascinating. Imagine how Columbus would feel visiting an aircraft carrier. I’m the same way.”
Seeing how calm and relaxed he was now, Dongfang Yanxu felt a little jealous. Yes, he had completed his great endeavor and had the right to enjoy tranquility. The history-making great man had turned back into an ignorant hibernator. All he needed now was protection. With that in mind, she said, “Sir, don’t ask anyone else about the question you just asked. Don’t ask about any of this.”
“Why? Why shouldn’t I ask?”
“It’s dangerous to ask. Besides, you really don’t need to know. Believe me.”
He nodded. “Very well. I won’t ask. Thank you for treating me like an ordinary person. That’s all I’ve been hoping for.”
She said a hurried good-bye, but as she went her own way, she heard the voice of the founder of Starship Earth behind her: “Dongfang, no matter what happens, let things go as they will. Everything will be okay.”
She saw the two vice-captains in the center of the spherical hall. She had chosen to meet them here because the size of the hall made it feel like they were in the wilderness. The three of them floated at the center of a world of pure white, as if the whole universe was empty except for them. It lent a sense of security to their conversation.
Each of them looked in a different direction. “We have to make things clear,” she said.
“Yes. Every second we delay is dangerous,” Vice-Captain Levine said. Then he and Akira Inoue turned around to face Dongfang Yanxu. His meaning was clear: You are the captain, you speak first.
But she didn’t have the courage.
Whatever happened now, at the second dawn of human civilization, might be the foundation of a new Homeric epic or a Bible. Judas became who he was because he was the first to kiss Jesus, and that made him fundamentally different from the second one to kiss him. It was the same now. The first to speak would mark a milestone in the history of the second civilization. Perhaps he or she would become Judas, or perhaps Jesus, but whatever the possibility, Dongfang Yanxu did not have that courage.
But she had to undertake her own mission, so she made a smart choice. She did not avoid the gaze of her vice-captains. Language was not necessary now. All communication could be accomplished through the eyes. As they stared at each other, their interlocking gazes were like information conduits linking their three souls together and communicating everything at high speed.
Fuel. Fuel. Fuel.
The route is still unclear, but at least two clouds of interstellar dust have been found. Drag.
Of course. After passing through them, the spaceships will drop to 0.03 percent of the speed of light due to drag from the dust.
We’re still more than ten light-years away from NH558J2. We’ll need sixty thousand years to get there.
Then we’ll never arrive.
The ships may arrive, but the life on board won’t. Even hibernation can’t be sustained for that long. Unless …
Unless speed is maintained through the dust clouds, or we accelerate afterward. Fuel is insufficient.
Fusion fuel is the only source of energy aboard ship, and it needs to be used in other areas: environmental systems, possible course corrections.…
And for deceleration once the target system is reached. NH558J2 is much smaller than the sun. We can’t achieve orbit relying solely on gravity for deceleration. We’ll have to expend large quantities of fuel, or else we’ll fly by the target star system.
All of the fuel on Starship Earth is basically enough for two spacecraft. But, if we’re careful, it’s enough for just one.
Fuel. Fuel. Fuel.
“And then there’s the issue of parts,” Dongfang Yanxu said. Parts.
Particularly parts for critical systems: fusion engines, information and control systems, environmental systems.
It may not be as urgent as fuel, but it’s the foundation of long-term survival. NH55J82 doesn’t have a hospitable planet for settlement or establishment of industry, or even the necessary resources to do so. It’s just a place to refuel before heading to the next system, where industry can be established to produce parts.
Natural Selection has only two levels of redundancy for key parts. Too few.
Apart from the fusion engines, most of the key parts on Starship Earth are interoperable. Engine parts can be used after modification.
“Can all personnel be gathered onto one or two ships?” Dongfang Yanxu said aloud, but her voice was only meant to guide the direction of their eye communication.
Impossible. There are too many people. Environmental and hibernation systems can’t accommodate them all. If present capacity is boosted even a little, it will be disastrous.
“So, is it clear now?” Dongfang Yanxu’s voice resounded in the empty white space like the mutterings of someone deeply asleep.
Some people must die, or everyone will die.
Then their eyes went silent. The three of them felt an intense desire to turn away, as if shaken by thunder from the depths of the universe that made their souls quake in terror. Dongfang Yanxu was the first to stabilize her own gaze.
“Stop it,” she said. Stop it.
Don’t give up. Don’t give up?
Don’t give up! Because no one else has given up. If we give up, then we’ll be expelled from the Garden of Eden.
Of course, it shouldn’t be them, either.
But someone has to be expelled. The Garden of Eden has a limited capacity. We don’t want to leave the garden.
So we can’t give up!
Three pairs of eyes, so close to breaking apart, locked together again. Infrasonic H-bomb.
Infrasonic H-bomb. Infrasonic H-bomb.
Every ship is equipped with them.
It’s hard to defend against a stealth launch.
Their gazes separated temporarily as their minds were pushed to the brink of collapse. They needed rest. When the three pairs of eyes met once again, they were uncertain and erratic, like candles flickering in the wind.
Evil! Evil! Evil!
We’ll become devils! We’ll become devils! We’ll become devils!
“But … what are they thinking?” Dongfang Yanxu asked softly. To the two vice-captains, her voice, while soft, seemed to linger uninterrupted in the white space, like the buzz of a mosquito.
Yes. We don’t want to become devils, but who knows what they’re thinking.
Then we’re already devils, or how else could we think of them as devils unprovoked? Very well, then we won’t think of them as devils.
“That won’t solve the problem,” Dongfang Yanxu said with a gentle shake of her head. Yes. Even if they aren’t devils, the problem remains.
Because they don’t know what we’re thinking. Suppose they know that we’re not devils?
The problem still exists.
They don’t know what we’re thinking about them.
They don’t know what we’re thinking about what they’re thinking about us.
That carries on in an endless chain of suspicion: They don’t know what we’re thinking about what they’re thinking about what we’re thinking about what they’re thinking about what we’re …
How can this chain of suspicion be broken? Communication?
On Earth, perhaps. But not in space. Some people must die, or everyone will die. This is the unwinnable dead hand that space has dealt for the survival of Starship Earth. An insurmountable wall. In the face of it, communication has no meaning.
Only one choice is left. The question is who makes that choice. Dark. It’s so fucking dark.
“We can’t delay any longer,” Dongfang Yanxu said decisively.
No more delays. In this dark region of space, the duelists are holding their breath. The string is about to snap.
Every second, the danger grows exponentially.
Since it’s all the same no matter who pulls it, why not pull it ourselves? Then Akira Inoue suddenly broke the silence: “There’s another choice!” We sacrifice ourselves.
Why? Why us?
The three of us could, but do we have the authority to make this choice on behalf of the two thousand people on Natural Selection?
The three of them were standing on a knife blade. Though its cuts were painful, a jump off either side would be into a bottomless abyss. These were the labor pains for the birth of the new space humans.
“How about this?” Levine said. “First lock in the targets, and then think it over some more.”
Dongfang Yanxu nodded. Levine called up a control interface for the weapons system in the air and opened up the window for the infrasonic H-bombs and carrier missiles. On a spherical coordinate system with Natural Selection at the origin, Blue Space, Enterprise, Deep Space, and Ultimate Law were displayed as four points of light two hundred thousand kilometers away. The distance masked the structure of the targets, for at the scale of space, everything was just a point.
But the four points of light were ringed with four red halos, four deathly nooses indicating that the weapons system had already locked on the targets.
Stunned, the three of them looked at each other and shook their heads to say that it wasn’t their doing.
Apart from them, privileges to place a target lock in the weapons system were also held by the arms control and target screening officers, but their lock placement had to be authorized by the captain or vice-captain. That left just one other person with direct privileges to lock a target and launch an attack.
We’re idiots. He’s only someone who’s changed history twice! He realized all of this first!
Who knows when he realized it? Maybe when Starship Earth was founded, or even earlier, when he learned that the combined fleet had been destroyed. He is the last to show worry. Like the parents of his era, always keeping their children in mind.
Dongfang Yanxu flew across the spherical hall as fast as she could, followed closely by the two vice-captains. They went out the door and down that long corridor until they arrived at the door to Zhang Beihai’s cabin. Suspended in front of him was an interface identical to the one they had just seen. They rushed forward, but the scene from Natural Selection’s escape replayed itself: They crashed into the bulkhead. There was no door, just an oval-shaped area where the bulkhead was transparent.
“What are you doing?” Levine shouted.
“Children,” Zhang Beihai said, the first time he had addressed them this way. Even though his back was turned, they could imagine that his eyes were as calm as water. “Let me do this.”
“You mean, ‘If I don’t go to hell, who will?’24 Is that it?” Dongfang Yanxu said in a loud voice.
“From the moment I became a soldier, I was prepared to go there if necessary,” he said, continuing with the weapons’ prelaunch operations. From outside, the three of them saw that while he wasn’t skilled at these operations, every step he took was correct.
Tears welled up in Dongfang Yanxu’s eyes, and she cried, “Let’s go together. Let me in. I’ll go to hell with you!”
He made no answer, but continued his manipulations. He set the guided missiles for manual self-destruct so that they could be detonated by the mother ship while in flight. Only after finishing the last step did he say, “Dongfang, think. Could we have made this choice before? Absolutely not. But now we can make it, because space has turned us into new humans.” He set the missiles’ warheads to explode at a distance of fifty kilometers from each target. This would avoid causing the targets any internal damage, but an even greater distance would still be within the fatal range for any life aboard the targets. “The birth of a new civilization is the formation of a new morality.” He removed the first safety lock on the H-bomb warheads. “When they look back in the future on everything we’ve done, it may seem entirely normal. So, we won’t go to hell, children.” The second safety lock was removed.
Suddenly, the alert sounded throughout the ship like the crying of ten thousand ghosts in the darkness of space. Display interfaces popped up in midair like snowflakes, showing a huge quantity of information that Natural Selection’s defense systems had received about the incoming missiles, but no one had time to read it.
There was a space of just four seconds from the sounding of the alert to the detonation of the infrasonic H- bombs.
Images transmitted back to Earth from Natural Selection showed that Zhang Beihai may have understood all of this in just one second. He had imagined that his heart had grown as hard as iron through the arduous procession of more than two centuries, but he had overlooked something hidden in the deepest part of his soul, and had hesitated before making the final decision. He tried to restrain the trembling of his heart, and it was that last moment’s softness that killed him and everyone on board Natural Selection. After the month- long face-off in the darkness, he was just a few seconds slower than the other ship was.
Three small suns lit up the blackness of space, forming an equilateral triangle with Natural Selection at the center, at an average distance of forty kilometers. The fusion fireball lasted for twenty seconds and sparkled
with infrasonic frequencies that were invisible to the naked eye.
The returned images showed that in the three seconds that remained, Zhang Beihai turned to Dongfang Yanxu, flashed her a smile, and spoke: “It doesn’t matter. It’s all the same.”
The exact words were only a guess, because he didn’t have time to finish before a powerful electromagnetic pulse arrived from three directions, vibrating Natural Selection’s enormous hull like a cicada’s wings. The energy in these vibrations was converted to infrasonic waves, which, in the image, looked like a fog of blood that enveloped everything.
The attack had come from Ultimate Law, which had fired twelve cloaked missiles armed with infrasonic H-bombs at the four other ships. The three missiles fired at Natural Selection, which was two hundred thousand kilometers away, had been launched before the others so that the ones fired at its three neighboring ships would reach their detonation points at the same time. A vice-captain had taken over after the suicide of Ultimate Law’s captain, but it was unknown who ultimately made the decision to launch the attack. And it would never be known.
Ultimate Law was not one of the lucky ones remaining in the Garden of Eden at the end.
Of the three other pursuing ships, Blue Space had been the best prepared against unexpected incidents. Before it was attacked, it had turned its interior into a vacuum and put all personnel in space suits. Because infrasonic waves were impossible in a vacuum, no personnel were injured, and the body of the ship suffered only minimal damage from the electromagnetic pulse.
Right after the nuclear fireballs exploded, Blue Space began its counterattack with lasers, the fastest response possible. It lit up Ultimate Law with five gamma-ray laser beams and burned five huge holes in its hull. Its insides quickly caught fire and there were minor explosions, causing the ship to lose all combat capability. Harsher attacks from Blue Space followed, and under continuous attack by nuclear missiles and a rain of railgun fire, Ultimate Law exploded violently, leaving no survivors.
At almost the same time as Starship Earth’s Battle of Darkness was going on, a similar tragedy was taking place far on the other side of the Solar System. Bronze Age launched a sudden strike on Quantum, using the same infrasonic H-bombs to kill off all life inside its target, but preserving the target ship whole. Because the two ships had sent only minimal information back to Earth, no one knew exactly what had taken place between them. They had both gone into intense acceleration to escape from the probe attack, but they had not decelerated like Natural Selection’s pursuers had, so their remaining fuel ought to have been more than enough to return to Earth.
The boundlessness of space nurtured a dark new humanity in its dark embrace.
In the expanding metal cloud formed from the explosion of Ultimate Law, Blue Space rendezvoused with Enterprise and Deep Space, neither of which showed signs of life, and collected all of their fusion fuel. After stripping them of their hardware, Blue Space flew the two hundred thousand kilometers to Natural Selection and did the same to that ship. Starship Earth was like a construction site in space now, the massive hulls of the three dead ships dotted with the sparks of laser welding. If Zhang Beihai had still been alive, the scene would certainly have reminded him of the aircraft carrier Tang two centuries before.
Blue Space took pieces of the three derelict warships and set them up in a Stonehenge formation, forming a tomb in outer space. There, they held a funeral for all the victims of the Battle of Darkness.
Wearing space suits, the 1,273 crew members of Blue Space assembled in a floating formation at the center of the tomb. These were the remaining citizens of Starship Earth. Around them, huge pieces of spaceships towered like a ring of mountains, the gashes cut into the wreckage like enormous mountain caves. The bodies of 4,247 victims remained within this debris, which cast its shadows over all of the living as if they were a mountain valley at midnight. The only light was the iciness of the Milky Way where it shone through the gaps between the wreckage.
Moods remained calm during the funeral. The new space humans had passed through their infancy.
A small votive lamp was lit. It was a fifty-watt bulb with a hundred spare bulbs next to it that would be automatically substituted in the lamp. Powered by a small nuclear battery, the votary lamp could remain continuously lit for tens of thousands of years. Its dim light was like a candle in the mountain valley, casting a small halo onto a high cliff of the wreckage and shining on a piece of titanium bulkhead engraved with the names of the victims. There was no epitaph.
One hour later, the space tomb was illuminated one final time by the light of Blue Space’s acceleration. The tomb was traveling at 1 percent of the speed of light. In several hundred years it would decelerate to 0.03 percent of light speed due to the drag from interstellar dust clouds. It would still reach NH558J2 in sixty thousand years, but Blue Space would already have headed off toward its next star system more than fifty thousand years before that.
Blue Space traveled deep into space carrying plenty of fusion fuel and an eight-fold redundant supply of critical parts. There was so much material it was impossible to fit it all inside the craft, so several external storage compartments were attached to the hull, completely altering the ship’s appearance and turning it into an enormous, ugly, irregular body. Indeed, it looked like a traveler on a long journey.
The previous year, on the opposite side of the Solar System, Bronze Age had accelerated away from the ruins of Quantum in the direction of Taurus.
Blue Space and Quantum had come from a world of light, but they had become two ships of darkness.
The universe had once been bright, too. For a short time after the big bang, all matter existed in the form of light, and only after the universe turned to burnt ash did heavier elements precipitate out of the darkness and form planets and life. Darkness was the mother of life and of civilization.
On Earth, an avalanche of curses and abuse rolled out into space toward Blue Space and Bronze Age, but the two ships made no reply. They cut off all contact with the Solar System, for to those two worlds, the Earth was already dead.
The two dark ships became one with the darkness, separated by the Solar System and drifting further apart. Carrying with them the entirety of human thoughts and memories, and embracing all of the Earth’s glory and dreams, they quietly disappeared into the eternal night.
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