When Zhang Xuan took illegal control of the long-range corvette, Whisper, sirens rang out, and the whole of Luna City seemed to go mad. Every spaceport locked down and sealed. Port Authority police went on the alert, assault rifles at the ready, rocket-launchers covering every conceivable escape route.
Wasting no time, Zhang Xuan fired up the engine and lit the Whisper’s AI. The ship suddenly leapt off the floor of Luna City crater. Zhang Xuan had selected this vessel for its grade-A maneuverability. The Whisper was like a sleek, silver barracuda, quickly penetrating the air-defense fire-net and hurtling star-ward.
The main console flashed endlessly with warrants for Zhang Xuan’s arrest. This data spread across the sub-space network, from Mercury to the Oort Cloud colonies.
“Where do you plan to go?” the Whisper asked.
Zhang Xuan brought up star charts, entered her itinerary. Her planned route was ambitious, spanning two spiral arms and aimed right at the blazing radiance of the Milky Way’s core.
“We’re going to find my little brother,” she explained.
She and her brother were fraternal twins, and born on Earth.
Their parents had already decided on their names, Zhang Kai and Zhang Xuan, so as a pair they would represent a kaixuan—a triumphant return. But Zhang Xuan was in a rush and came out first. She had the second name, but she was technically the big sister.
According to her father, they were already quarreling in their mother’s womb. They learned to smack each other before they learned to crawl, to bite before they learned to speak. They were fighting every day by the time they entered school, but they were clever, biding their time during class hours, waiting until they returned home to continue fighting.
Mother and Father never seemed to tire of reminding their children that they’d fought like cats and dogs. But Zhang Xuan tended to remember other things, like the nights she and her brother lay shoulder to shoulder in the playground sandpit. The sand was soft and cool, and they gazed up at the stars.
They wanted to be explorers, ship captains. They knew there were countless worlds beyond Earth, some of them occupied by humans, like Mars the Fire Star, and Gliese 581, and Lyra. But beyond settled worlds was a vast sea of stars, waiting to be discovered and explored.
“Big Sis, if you were a captain, what would you do?”
“I’d explore every star, and name them all.”
“Yeah right. Typical liberal arts talk.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“Liberal arts students are weak thinkers,” Zhang Kai said, as if even explaining this was beneath his dignity. He dodged his sister’s fist with practiced ease and said, “Every name known to humankind wouldn’t be nearly enough for all the stars.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I’ll prove it.” The boy pulled out his touch-pad, swiped and pressed. “Remember what our teacher told us about exponents … the second power, squared, the third power, cubed. Now let’s say you can even use four-character names. There are about fifteen-thousand Chinese characters. Combining them randomly into names, we obtain … five-times-ten-to-the-sixteenth names.”
Zhang Xuan snorted. “So?”
“So the universe contains about five-times-ten-to-the-twenty-third stars. And that doesn’t even include planets, nebulae, etcetera. So we’ll have to use scientific nomenclature, numbering.” He waved his hand. “You’d have to use each of your character-combos a million times to name every sun in the cosmos.”
Zhang Xuan was silent a while. Then she laughed. “So, science students are the stronger thinkers?”
“But using your nomenclature method, your child’s child’s child will have to say something like … ‘I was born on 0005765ZDX,’ or ‘blah-blah-blah 7Z.’” Now she was laughing hard. “Meanwhile, I’ll be able to tell my great-grandchild she was born on Aphrodite. In Chinese that’s a five-character name, by the way.”
The boy rolled his eyes.
She knew she’d won this round, so she clutched his hand and pointed out various stars, reciting a string of names: “We can name them Aphrodite, Apollo, Persephone, Iliad… those are from Greek mythology. We can also name them Beetle, Willow, and Kitty. If we find a black hole, we’ll call it Headmaster. Then I want to find a bright binary system and name them Kai and Xuan. One for you and one for me. If we have to use each name a million times, then there will be a million binaries named after us. Think of that!”
They were quiet together for a moment, and then they erupted with giggles.
Getting to the farthest reaches of the Milky Way required first plummeting toward the Sun.
The ship’s portholes were closed. A solar prominence, thousands of kilometers high, blazed on the main control screen. Under this fiery arch billowed the inferno of the solar surface. The Whisper sped along, close to this perilous sea of flame. Ahead, the bright silver spiral of a Heaven-Moving gate was nestled among plasma eruptions. Zhang Xuan counted herself lucky she hadn’t yet been intercepted by police or mercenaries. Her pre-arranged feint had presumably worked. They thought she was headed for exile in the asteroid belt, the smuggler’s homeland.
Jump in, jump out.
Nearly all Heaven-Moving gates had to be situated near stars. The reason had something to do with gravity wells. Humanity had employed this technology, recovered from the vestiges of Martian civilization, for many years, without thoroughly understanding its underlying principles. But, via this star-to-star leaping, humanity could already travel unobstructed to the center of the Milky Way. Using the same principle, scientists were now researching how to jump further, to other galaxies, spanning the vast intergalactic voids. Rumor had it they’d already worked out the fundamentals.
Zhang Xuan stood before a screen, watching the ship’s course plotted from star to star.
Just then the Whisper’s AI spoke: “Excuse me, young Miss, but I’ve heard something shocking. Are you a smuggler?”
She glared at the control panel.
All AIs were tragically bored. Evolutionary algorithms bestowed them with formidable powers of thought and calculation, but most of the time, they had nothing to do. Consequently, all AIs were inherent masters of gossip. While this one had been talking to her, it must have been searching the interstellar network for all information related to her.
“You know who I am.”
“They call you the ‘Shadow Captain.’ They say you’ve trespassed in nearly every zone closed to exploration, that you’ve excavated the bones of dozens of alien species.” The AI issued a peal of canned laughter that made Zhang Xuan uncomfortable. “But I want to hear your side of the story.”
She sighed and sat down.
She had a long journey before her. There would be little to do but chat with this disagreeable AI.
“I’m an outlaw excavator of alien remains,” she said, “but I haven’t always been one.”
When they were nineteen, she and her brother passed the entrance exam for the Space Navigation Academy. They trained together, and six years later, graduated together. They became captains of Frontier Development Cutters at the same time.
Two years later, they finally began to part ways.
Zhang Xuan had known the split must happen eventually, but it came sooner than she’d foreseen. As in the past, they always quarreled, even sometimes coming to physical blows. They handled everything from trifling matters to fundamental differences of principle the same, but the results varied wildly.
A newly-enacted law finally led to their estrangement. The law stipulated that all excavations of alien ruins, and all research on said civilizations’ science and technology, could only proceed via the legal mechanisms of the Frontier Development Authority. Exploration without legal sanction, whether private or commercial, was forbidden.
This law seemed overly restrictive, but there was good reason for it.
Starting with the Martian ruins, humanity had explored the ruins of dozens of alien civilizations, and the technologies discovered had advanced humanity by leaps and bounds, setting it on the Heaven-Moving way to the stars.
But these elder civilizations had all died out.
Every civilization’s ruins were much the same, except for minor differences. Whether they arose a few million years ago, or thrived during the universe’s first generation of blazing stars, their eras of peak cultural flowering were brief. From the emergence of a civilization’s science and technology, to its dissolution in the river of time, there passed at most ten-thousand years. Many civilizations died out after flourishing only a few thousand years. Some burnt out in the fires of war; others perished due to ecological disaster, and still others just mysteriously vanished.
Although ruins could be found throughout the Milky Way, humanity had yet to encounter extant alien intelligence. Civilization seemed a faery fire in the vast dark night, briefly flaring, and soon consigned to nothingness.
“If you condense the lifespan of the universe down to one year,” Zhang Xuan said, “then human civilization has only been around for twenty-one seconds. Nearly all ruins studied evince comparable lifespans. Whether they emerged hundreds of millions of years ago, or tens of millions, modern civilizations seem incapable of lasting more than ten-thousand years.”
“So?” her little brother lazily replied.
This time it was her turn to deploy numbers. They were always exchanging that role, not that it got them closer to reconciliation.
“So … we’re not likely to encounter other star-faring civilizations. The universe is too big, and time is too long. Although there are millions of planets capable of supporting life, the birth of civilizations is stochastic, random. It’s possible at this moment, and possible a hundred million years from now. Based on probabilistic calculation, at any given moment, the Milky Way probably contains just one living civilization, or none. We are alone, not in space, but in time.”
Zhang Kai’s eyes narrowed, and then came his boyish smile. “There was once a person who got struck by lightning seven times. I believe the improbable can happen.”
“So, you’re going to do something foolish.”
“I’m going to hunt for signals from extant civilizations. And you, Big Sis, you’ll just be pottering among your gravestones and tombs, scratching about in your ruins while I look to the future.”
“The old civilizations are the key to our future!”
“The key to our annihilation, you mean!” He wasn’t going to give an inch. “You still don’t understand? A civilization arises, discovers a dead civ, studies its tech, and studies its mistakes. The ancient civ died young due to stupidity, and the new one follows in its footsteps. That’s why all those civilizations died. It wasn’t because they discovered some strange technology, or leapt to some other dimension, or were engulfed in a supernova. It was because they imitated their predecessors too much, and at last buried themselves! The Frontier Development Authority has good reason to prohibit further excavations!”
“The only reason involved is the shortsightedness of FD officials! If we hadn’t excavated Martian civilization, you and I would still be on Earth. We’d probably be farmers!”
“Please. You couldn’t have been a farmer, Big Sis. You’re far too clever. You’d have been a grave robber.”
That ended the exchange. The rest was just shouting and verbal abuse, hoarse exclamations, waving of arms, and reddening complexions. Finally Zhang Xuan couldn’t remember what they’d been fighting about. The next morning they parted ways.
She resigned from the Frontier Development Fleet, threw in with privateers, and proceeded to covertly excavate alien ruins. Gradually, by working among smugglers and outlaws, she tempered herself and forged her reputation.
She and her brother didn’t say a word to each other for six years. Until one day, when she returned from a voyage to find him waiting for her at Luna City port.
“Big Sis,” he said, “I need your help.”
She stared at him. Zhang Kai was thin and pale. She’d never seen him in such a sorry state.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
After Zhang Xuan had excavated ruins of eleven alien civilizations, her brother discovered a new way to the stars.
They hadn’t spoken for six years, but they’d never stopped sending each other messages detailing their latest achievements in exploration or research. While Zhang Xuan was collating and publishing the data harvested from her explorations, Zhang Kai discovered a region of space that had been visited by nearly every extinct civilization.
It was a dark abyss, an absorption nebula.
“I have proof,” he said. “Real proof. There’s a civilization in there, and not an extinct one. It’s still alive.”
Later, Zhang Xuan always thought of that day, she and her brother sitting in a Luna City café, discussing the nebula, a birthplace of many stars.
“They sowed seeds here,” Zhang Kai said. “See this star chart? Wanderer Civilization, five billion years ago … At that time, this nebula’s density was very low. But here …” He pulled up another star chart, a relic from one of Zhang Xuan’s excavations. “… we see the same nebula, density already much higher, and containing embryonic stars. And then there’s this …” The third chart came up on his pad. “Look at this. Does it seem familiar?”
She recognized the spiral structure: it looked like the silvery-white vortex of a Heaven-Moving gate. But this gate was massive, its scale difficult to fathom. It couldn’t have been generated by the small-scale gravitational lenses she was familiar with. This gate must have been generated by stars themselves.
Within the star cluster, a super-massive star and four smaller ones wound about each other in an extraordinary orbital dance. Their gravitational stir drew the surrounding gaseous medium into a complication of high-strength fibers. The composite gravity well was being gradually twisted into a fractal spiral: the fundamental structure of a space-folding gate.
“This can’t have occurred naturally,” Zhang Kai said. “It can only be the work of a civilization. It’s not yet complete, but it soon will be, in a hundred million years or so. One hundred million years … a short time in the scheme of the universe.” There was a wild joy in his gaze. “Think about it. Where might it lead?”
Beyond the Milky Way, perhaps. Maybe even beyond the edge of the observable universe. Zhang Xuan understood her brother’s excitement. Compared to the small-scale gates humanity used, this one was orders of magnitude larger. Once complete, the entire universe might be within reach.
She tried to imagine the aliens that had sowed the seeds of stars so many ages ago, twisting gravity, scattering nebulae, slowly and with lavish patience constructing this titanic gate. Any such civilization utterly surpassed humanity.
“I’ll go with you,” she told her brother.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be. Zhang Kai’s research was seen as heretical. Nobody believed him. Because his proof came from banned ruins, the police watched him closely. Zhang Xuan had no choice but to draw that attention away from him, and let him take her ship, the Longbow, to seek out his door to the cosmos.
And he didn’t return.
“We have arrived. Switching to manual control.”
Rubbing her eyes, Zhang Xuan stood up and stretched.
The journey had been longer than she’d expected. Fortunately, when her brother had made the journey, he’d established gates and way-markers. This had saved her a lot of time. The five-star system was visible through a porthole. The white-blue supergiant shone brilliantly, making the other four red suns seem relatively insubstantial. All were wrapped in their awesome, resplendent spiral of gas.
“Is there a completed gate in this sector?” she asked the AI.
That should be the one her brother laid down.
All Heaven-Moving gates were one-way: from the gate’s star you could travel to any star’s gravity well within a thirty light-year radius. But if you wanted to return to where you’d come from, or continue onward, you had to establish a new gate. Zhang Xuan had thought that perhaps her brother had exhausted the Longbow’s resources, making it impossible for him to return—but now that didn’t seem to be the case. However, a small gate established in the complex gravity well of this five-star system might easily be perturbed or obstructed.
“Establish two more gates,” she ordered, “so that we’re prepared for the unexpected.”
The ship deployed two objects resembling silvery nets, which floated toward a relatively stable star. At a pre-programmed distance, they unfolded to form a vast grid, which conjured the necessary spiral gravity wells, opening Heaven-Moving ways to other stars.
“I’ve located a ship signal,” the AI said. “It should be the Longbow. It’s not answering my hail. It’s near a small planet. Correction … near a cluster of worldlets.”
“Let’s approach,” Zhang Xuan said.
The ship docked smoothly. Zhang Xuan strode hastily into the Longbow, heading for the control room.
She stopped in the doorway.
Zhang Kai sat on the floor in the middle of the room. Thousands of image projections revolved around him.
His voice was barely audible. He seemed to be in shock, maybe suffering some kind of PTSD. Zhang Xuan recalled the day, long ago, when a messenger came to their door bearing the news of their parents’ deaths. They’d died in the line of duty, exploring for Frontier Development. Something had gone wrong with their ship. Zhang Kai’s expression was the same then as now.
Zhang Xuan walked slowly into the room, sat down next to her brother. “You didn’t contact me, you bastard.”
Zhang Kai rubbed his face. He seemed to be awakening from a dream. “I … I’ve been looking at these.”
“What are they?”
“Hard to explain.”
“Try? For me? Slowly, not too abstract. Remember, I was a liberal arts student.”
This made him smile, briefly, one corner of his mouth twitching upward. “See for yourself. You’ll understand. They’re murals.”
She began to study the projections.
Patterns had been carved into the nearby planetoids and asteroids. The nebula contained tens of thousands of these tiny worlds. They had been set upon specially designated orbits, and even carved into special shapes: cubes, octahedrons, hexahedrons. Their gravitation fields were weak, but in their huge numbers they were able to form between them a fine-tuned, stable gravity well.
Furthermore, each worldlet was part of a grand historical record.
Vast, smoothly-cut cliff faces were carved with densely-packed designs, some big, some small. Zhang Xuan recognized some of the designs from her excavations.
Zhang Kai had collected these images using the Longbow’s remote-control surveying equipment. Zhang Xuan thought he sounded like he was talking in his sleep: “There are many things here, and I’ve scanned them all. Several are bases, some are tech installations I don’t understand. But these murals are the most important. They’re … records …”
He reached out, swiped through images until he reached the first one. This was a portrayal of strange organisms, their bodies asymmetrical, but seemingly large, powerful, and intelligent. The information contained in the mural was easy to decipher. There was no complicated writing, just pictograms, simple and realistic line drawings.
“… this is the first species, the one that began constructing the gate. I’ve named them the Forerunners. They arrived here and decided to build a massive gate. They took a very long time, ages, just planning the project, and finally seeded this cloud with embryonic stars. But twenty thousand years later, they went extinct. I don’t know why. This image describes what happened, I think, but I can’t decipher it. Possibly it was war, or something else.”
Zhang Xuan raised an eyebrow. “So who has been laboring here for the last five billion years?”
“That’s not a short answer.” He gestured through later image scans. “Five hundred thousand years after the Forerunners came another civilization. I’ve named them the Successors. They discovered the vestiges of Forerunner civilization and found this place. They continued the Forerunners’ work, stabilizing the nebula and the embryonic five-star system it contained. About three thousand years later, a supernova erupted, and the Successors were wiped out. They left behind a carved asteroid, among other things, which tells their story.”
Zhang Xuan studied countless murals on countless worldlets, and started to feel uneasy in the pit of her stomach. She tried to steady her breathing. “These are all …”
Her brother nodded, expressionless. “Here’s the Pyromaniac civilization. They came after the Successors. I don’t know when. They ignited two of the star embryos. Their work lasted six thousand years, and then they died out.
“Then came the Careful Listeners. When they arrived, things were already proceeding apace. The stars had all been born. The fundamental structure of the gate was visible from far away. For any civilization capable of understanding the spiral structure of a Heaven-Moving gate, this structure itself was a signal. We didn’t discover it because this absorption nebula now conceals it. Anyway, the Listeners labored for thirty-four thousand years, the longest persisting civilization on record here.
“Hera and Zeus, these two civilizations were the luckiest. Born at the same time on opposite edges of the Milky Way, guided by their respective discoveries exploring ancient civilizations, they arrived here. They cooperated to invent the technology for using planets to tow stars, fine-tuning orbits. Another step toward stabilizing this gravity well’s structure. But these two civilizations only coexisted for fourteen hundred years. Hera died out first, and Zeus followed.
“Then there were the Night Shades, gaseous lifeforms. They seem to have fine-tuned the nebula medium itself. I don’t understand …”
“And then came the Heavenly Singers, who built these gravitational stations. After them came many more civilizations. I’ve named them all … Babylon, Mira, the Calorics and the Locust Opera, the Flatterers and the Taciturn, the Butterflies, the Evasive Particles, Persephone and Aphrodite … None of them lasted longer than the Careful Listeners, but none of them abandoned this project. Each contributed something, however minute, inching the great enterprise forward.”
The projections flitted by, each mural representing the grand totality of a civilization. These intelligent lifeforms, drawn here by starlight and history, had striven toward a fantastically remote goal.
The largest Heaven-Moving gate yet discovered by humanity only spanned a hundred light-years. To cross the vast gulfs between galaxies, to one day open the door of space-time, leave the Milky Way and head for the boundless depths of the cosmos—to last for billions of years, rather than just tens of thousands: many brief civilizations had burned with these passions. Dynasties giving way to dynasties, ages to ages, all to bring about this titanic gate. Each civilization had served its few thousand years, entrusting the work to whoever came next.
These intelligent species were separated by time and probability. They were born alone in the endless river of time, and they died alone. They worked on a great task they would never see completed, looking into the distance from a high place, toward a time long after their civilization’s demise, toward a far future dawn.
Perhaps it was humanity’s turn to join their ranks, and after humanity was gone, still more civilizations would come. When the gate was finally completed, and the door to the universe finally opened, perhaps ten thousand civilizations would have died here, the bones of countless intelligent lifeforms turned to dust.
Zhang Xuan leaned against her brother, hugging him. Like when they were children.
“Big Sis,” Zhang Kai said quietly. “I used up all the names.”
“We have to go.”
After preparing a record of the massive gate, Zhang Xuan dragged her less-than-willing brother to his feet. The Longbow’s AI had packaged all of Zhang Kai’s findings. It would publish this data on the interstellar net as soon as the twins had made it safely to a hidden smuggler’s lair.
Zhang Xuan understood clearly that the ancient civilizations had left behind more than murals. There would be technology, and technical data: a few days after her news was published, this place would be filled with police, scientists, speculators, and politicians. Before that happened, she and her brother needed to be far away.
But Zhang Kai didn’t seem to understand this, or care. Suddenly he said, “I sympathize with them.”
“The first civilization. The Forerunners.”
“Because they weren’t from the Milky Way. Don’t you get it? They must’ve jumped here from an older galaxy. But their gate was one-way. They were forced to start building another, equal in scope to the one that brought them here, so that they could return home. But then they realized they were doomed to die out, that they couldn’t complete their gate before this happened. So they seeded the Milky Way with life, so that after many generations …”
Zhang Xuan sighed, gently patted her brother’s shoulder. “I don’t think that’s what happened.”
“Okay, what then?”
“Imagine you’re a Forerunner,” she said, gently, amazed her brother hadn’t thought this through. “You’re born in an old galaxy. Your civilization is fortunate enough to be the last generation on a gate construction project. You set out from the place of your birth, the whole cosmos open to you, but you can’t turn around. You understand clearly that your civilization has only a few tens of thousands of years of lifespan to spend. Would you choose to imprison yourself in one place, slowly constructing a way back home? Or would you sow seeds as far as you were able, to spread life and civilization to every galaxy you could touch?”
Zhang Kai looked at her, eyes wide.
“If they leapt here from an older galaxy, then they certainly weren’t trying to go back. I’ll bet you …” She turned to look out a porthole. “Andromeda, Magellan, and all those other galaxies, named and unnamed, all have civilizations following in the Forerunners’ footsteps. All have gates under construction, all have civilizations waiting. In a few hundred million years, every isolated island in the universe will be a thoroughfare. And then we will use up all the names. And then use each one a million times, ten million times, because there will be an inexhaustible supply of new stars.”