"Exodus Green to unknown maneuvering object. Please squawk your transponder and ident. Over."
Another silent quarter-hour passes in Flight. No response comes from the transient contact twelve and a half light minutes away. The ghost has stalked Yang Liwei for eighteen hours now, closing in each time it appears, and Captain Alice Li is wary of it. Other colony missions have vanished during their outward burns—victims of mishap or hostility—and because of these disappearances, Project Amrita did not hurl itself fearless into the void. Rather, they came armed to the molars.
"Let's give them a fright," she decides. "Cut the main engine."
The ship's AI executes the command, but a crewperson confirms and calls the order back. "MECO, aye aye."
"Launch a distributed antenna. Heat up the targeting radar for a full fusion-powered snapshot. We'll take their picture and see what we see."
"Captain," the comm officer calls. "I've got… something weird here."
"Is our phantom saying hello?"
"No. It's a neutrino tightbeam from SOLSECCENT. They've declared a CARRHAE WHITE emergency. The whole solar system is now… now under Warmind control." Comm dismisses her sensorium, goes to her hard controls, as if she thinks this might be some kind of virtual prank. "We're… being conscripted."
Alice smashes these ideas together in her head like a child banging rocks. They are so preposterous, so stupid, that she cannot even begin to manipulate them coherently. "We're WHAT?"
"We've been commissioned as an auxiliary warship. We are ordered to," Comm swallows in disbelief, "to kill our exit trajectory and assume a heliocentric orbit. That comes with explicit instructions to suicide burn our engines until they are destroyed. Rasputin will transmit targeting coordinates so we can use our Kinetic weapons as… long-range artillery. We'll be recovered 'after the crisis is concluded.'"
"Details! What kind of crisis?"
"It's a SKYSHOCK event, ma'am. Uh, that's a hostile extrasolar arrival."
Captain Li clamps the mask of command authority over her face. "Transmit a request for clarification."
"Belay the antenna, Captain?"
"No. Scale it up, add telescopes to the swarm, get me a full system survey. I want to know what's going on back home." Alice Li reaches out to call up a file, hesitates, and then selects the Project Amrita charter. "We have a decision to make."
Mara kicks off Yang Liwei's forward shield, aiming astern and inward, so she will cross the void to the ship's spine in a long slow curve. "Oh, come on," Uldwyn says in delight as much as horror. "You really do this all the time?"
"All the time." Yang is a big ship, newer than the antique trucks used in the other Exodus missions. Project Amrita demanded the cutting edge of Human science. It says that in the mission charter, which everyone's been rereading. The Captain has called a vote.
Should Yang Liwei turn home?
"What if the ship starts accelerating?" Uldwyn has already, of course, leapt after her. His envy-yellow softsuit glows with gentle bioluminescence. "We'd just fall forever."
"We'd fall into the stars. We're still on a solar escape trajectory. Yang would just outrun us."
"At least we'd still be going the right direction."
She doesn't think she's given anything away, but somehow he knows. "Mara." He looks up frowning, his face bigger and brighter than the distant Sun. "You want to go back, don't you? You're going to vote to return."
Mara thinks that if she looked him in the eye he would see the truth, the turmoil, the half-formed yes.
"Mara. You don't have to tell me how…" He swallows the hitch in his voice. "I've seen how bad it is. I've watched it long enough to know that it's not going to get better. They're gambling everything on the Traveler. We came out here to get away from it. To step off the easy path. Why would we go back?"
Because I asked us to leave, Mara thinks. Because something came out of deep space and killed the man next to me, and I saw the omen, and I said we should go. And now I feel like a coward.
"We might make a difference," she says. "There are other ships…"
"We'd be dead before we saved a single soul."
He's right. She doesn't want him to be right, but he's right. And she cannot withdraw into some silent place where she is above this choice.
They drift in silence until Yang Liwei's silver stem rushes up to meet them. Mara spins, uncoils, and lands in a crouch. Uldwyn comes down on his hands and springs up grinning. But the smile dies when he sees her expression. "Oh, Mara."
She's silent. "We left everything behind," he says, "and it turns out we did that for a very good reason. We don't owe… we don't owe those people our deaths. We don't owe them our dreams."
"I know," she says. "I know."
The EVA GUARD channel pops into her sensorium. "Everyone should get inside," Captain Li calls. "Our friend is closing in on us, and we need to maneuver."
The stars have gone out. The universe blackened: a shroud of nothingness drawn over Yang Liwei, its forty thousand sleeping passengers, its nine hundred crew, and maybe even the whole solar system. There is no way to know, because there is no way to see anything beyond the hull. The vacuum itself has become hostile to the propagation of light. Darkness surrounds them.
The ship bucks on a storm sea as space-time ripples with gravity tides.
"Report!" Captain Li calls. Her sensorium blazes with positional telemetry from ring-laser gyros, beacon satellites, pulsar fixes, cosmic microwave background texture, galactic EM-field terrain mapping: every single instrument useless, crashed, spitting nonsense. "Sound off by stations!"
"FIDO," the flight dynamics officer calls. "Main engine on safe. Thrusters firing erratically. Attitude control keeps crashing to manual."
"Guidance. I have no position. I cannot get a vector. We're moving, but I can't tell how or where."
"INCO. No external comms. Internal networks are dropping in and out."
An incredible sensation washes over Captain Li. A rumble and a thrum down in her gut, in her marrow, in the lowest, basest elements of her body. It is the vibration, the sound of the very fabric of her being scrunching up and stretching out; the distance between the atoms of her body collapses, then expands. The cycle repeats again and again. For a moment, she feels her fingertips and toes pulled away from her core, yanked by tidal forces. It feels like the lowest rumble of the biggest subwoofer ever built. It sounds like the deep voice of God whispering ASMR directly into her ear. It tingles, it thrills, and it leaves in its wake a subsonic tint of dread and anticipation.
She shivers. "Gravity wave," she says. "Talk to me, Geode."
The Space-Time Geodesics Officer looks like she's just been hand-delivered a Nobel. "This is amazing!" she crows, fully aware that she and everyone else are about to die, but transported away from such temporal concerns by scientific rapture. "Can you feel that growl? We're experiencing high-frequency, high-amplitude gravity waves. Phaeton strikes. Axions decaying through the hull. Sterile neutrinos. It's all coming from a source at bearing, uh, zero four five mark zero three zero relative, range—range highly variable."
Another wave tears through Yang Liwei. Everything in the ship simultaneously compresses and stretches as the gravity wave deforms the space-time metric. "Is it the phantom?" Li demands, as her ship thrums subsonically. "Is that phantom ship emitting these waves?"
"I have no idea!" GEOD says, exultantly. "None of this makes any sense at all! Wow!"
Alice Li has the distinct sense that something ancient and malevolent is operating upon them: a trillion-fingered hand reaching in to caress the very atoms of their being, setting protons a-spin, strumming nerves like guitar strings. A tongue with ten billion slithering forks tasting the surface of their brains. The sense of imminent doom crescendos. She knows, absolutely and utterly, that what is about to happen to her and to her crew is far worse than death. The darkness knows them now. The thing that has come to kill Humanity has their taste.
"INCO." She clings to her restraint harness as the ship growls through another wave. Her bones creak as they stretch. "Last report on the Traveler? Any sign of an intervention?"
"It was at Earth, Captain, and there were high-yield weapon discharges all over the signal. Nothing else."
"Understood." Well. She did not fly this far to look back and beg for salvation from an alien god. Pinned to the center of her sensorium is the blazing ledger of her crew's vote: We go onward. We do not turn home. Our fate lies ahead, not behind.
"Launch an antennae," she orders. "I want every probe and satellite we've got outside."
"Captain," INCO protests, "the vacuum's not signal-permissive—"
"We're still passing signals internally, aren't we? Use hardline! Run filament between the satellites! I want a transmitter sail out there, and I want to broadcast."
Her flight crew stares. "Captain?" FIDO says. "Broadcast what?"
"A declaration of neutrality." Alice Li grits her teeth against another wave. It rattles her molars in her skull. "Whatever's out there, it came for the Traveler. We tell it we're not part of this war. We've seceded from Human existence under the Traveler. We demand to be treated as a separate species, not party to baseline Humanity's conflicts.
"And we pray there's something out there that cares about the difference."
She remembers everything about the moment she is born.
She has gone outside Yang Liwei to die in starlight. She cannot bear to let anyone see her fear or her awe at the scale of destruction or her pity for the billions of souls dying in darkness back around Sol. She cannot be among the other crew as they cling to each other and whisper reassurances; not even with her mother. She cannot surrender her mystery.
So she kicks off the hull on fifty kilometers of tether.
But there's no starlight to die in. The darkness is absolute. Gravity waves tug on her line, pulling her back toward Yang and then hurling her away. In time, she feels another vibration in the line. "Sister," the tether transmits. "I'm coming out to get you."
Brother, she thinks, you'll lose yourself trying to follow me.
Captain Li's voice breaks through the static, drawn out to a mumble and then compressed to a shriek. Spikes of hard radiation go through her words like bullets, spattering phonemes into eerie compression artifacts. "This is the interstellar vessel Yang Liwei to the entity interacting with us. We are not involved in your dispute with the powers around this star. We are on a mission to begin a new life elsewhere. Our purpose is orthogonal to yours. We request your indifference…"
Mara's tether trembles with Uldwyn's progress. She holds it in one hand and reaches out with the other, gripping the emptiness, feeling how the tides of broken space pull at her fingertips. She senses that the nothingness around her is not indifferent; that it is aware of all purposes, and that its own purpose encompasses them. It is infinitely hostile because it must be.
Suddenly, as if the void around her has just spontaneously Big Banged, she sees light.
A point of pure white shines in the cosmic distance. Not just visible luminance—her suit decomposes the spectrum—but light in the radio bands, in microwave, keening ultraviolet, a spike of gamma, a total and all-embracing radiation. It sings. It chatters. It speaks in a voice older than suns. She feels that she could Fourier the voice for a century and never decompose it into its parts. It is awesome and appalling and piercingly true. Mara understands how those who die in radiation accidents must feel: A single flash of invisible power sears away all possible futures except one. She feels her soul itself has been ionized, blasted into a higher energy state.
The light pierces the darkness. Not like the sunrise, not like a wall or a flood, but a single crepuscular ray—a finger of radiance that reaches out through deepest night to touch her. It illuminates Mara, Uldwyn, and Yang Liwei.
It is not quite enough. It cannot vanquish the shadow.
Thus Mara finds herself drifting on the edge of the Light and the Darkness, on the dusk-and-dawn gradient between the two.
She feels a contest. A battle fought, an equilibrium reached: not a truce, but an infinite limit, like an equation dividing by zero, a collision of two violent eternities. Mara queries Yang Liwei for telemetry and her sensorium fills with the terrified scream of gravitational instruments. She howls too, a feral sound, ecstatic and lost: a wolf baying at the stars. She knows what's happening. Too much power has gathered here. The universe is appalled by the paradox. Nothing that has glimpsed this collision of infinitudes can be allowed to escape. The cosmos must censor its embarrassment. It must sequester the anomaly.
The slope of warped space-time around them has become too steep, and now every path outward or forward bends back to the center where Light and Dark collide. The definition of "future" has become synonymous with the definition of "inward." This is why it's called an event horizon: For an object within the horizon, the path of all future things that can be done or seen leads inevitably down to the center. All events lead inward.
A singularity is forming around her. A kugelblitz: a black hole created by the concentration of raw energy.
"Mara!" Uldwyn shouts. "Mara, you're too far out!"
Mara thinks of her mother's face. She hears Osana say: I can't watch over you like a mother would. I have to make my own choices now.
She fires the detach command into the tether.
Gravity seizes her. She falls forward in space and time, into the future, into the mystery. Yang Liwei is behind her. Uldwyn is behind her. She wants to be the first.