Daughter of the Black Forest

A short sci-fi story by Isaac Petrov

The clink of ice in a glass breaks the low hum of murmured conversations and smooth jazz that fills the air of the hotel bar. It’s that ambiguous hour when dusk flirts with night, casting long shadows and promises of anonymity in the bustling city outside.

A slender woman in her mid-thirties enters. She is striking, dressed in an impeccable business suit. Her red hair cascades over her shoulders, catching the light like fire with every measured step she takes towards the bar. The patrons, a medley of weary travelers and sly businessmen, pause to admire her, their gazes following her overtly.

Except for a tall, Asian man, also in his mid-thirties, sitting at the bar. He glances at her for an instant, goes rigid and hastily returns his gaze to the dark liquid swirling in his glass.

When she sees the man, she stops in her tracks and gives a sidelong smile. “Dr. Darkwood,” she says, taking the seat to his right.

The man doesn’t raise his head. He pushes his glasses up his nose, and says, “Quite the coincidence, Dr. Dawn,” his voice colder than the ice he begins to uncomfortably stir in his glass.

“A happy coincidence, I trust?”

Silence stretches, filled only by the low murmur of jazz.

She clears her throat, almost awkwardly, but then gives out a curt laugh. “Well, well, somebody is in a dark mood. What a surprise. Maybe not receiving enough attention from the media, Dr. Darkwood?”

“I’m a scientist. Not a celebrity.”

She laughs out loud. “You sure hit the media with all the fanfare you could muster, when you stood up so publicly to my conjecture. You thought your prestige would do the heavy lifting, I presume? But what a surprise, the world isn’t eager to hear yet another horrid doomsday prediction.”

“What a surprise…” He says with a sigh, turning his head for the first time and meeting her green gaze. “You would do anything to lift your public profile, huh, Dr. Dawn? Anything. You would play a beautifully fantastical tune and, like the Pied Piper, happily take the entire human race dancing behind you towards perdition. As long as you get paid, naturally.” He waves a hand and returns his eyes to his drink. “Would you mind enjoying your fame somewhere else? I see many men here eager to get to know you more personally.”

She is not smiling anymore. “What a pity, jealous man. Did you ever consider the remote possibility of being plain wrong with your own conjecture, Dr. Darkwood? According to you, we should find no technosignatures anywhere in the galaxy. But lo and behold, we found one! An alien signal, just like my conjecture predicted! Or are you denying the evidence already confirmed by dozens of observatories?”

“I’m a scientist,” he says curtly. “I accept the truth. What I don’t accept is your rosy-glassed view on what to do next. It is dangerous! Worse, it is criminal!”

“If you say so,” she scoffs. “Stick to your equations, Dr. Darkwood, and let me and the world take care of the future.”

“The world and me.”


“Nothing.” He puts a note bill on the bar and stands. “If you’ll excuse me now, Dr. Dawn, tomorrow morning I’m expected by people too important to ignore. Unless, of course, you want to come upstairs to my room to not talk about science.”

“Oh,” she stares at him for a while, playfully twirling her curls. “I’m happy to have left some type of impression on my esteemed colleague. But I think I’ll pass.”

“Your loss.” He begins walking towards the elevators.

“Wait!” She grabs him by the sleeve.

He turns around, a baffled expression on his face. “When I offered you to come to my room I was just—”

“It’s not that, asshole. Who are you meeting tomorrow?”

“None of your business.”

“Is it at 8:15? First Avenue?”

His eyebrows shoot up. “How do you…? Oh, no!”

“Oh, yes.” She turns away, takes a seat and raises her hand to catch the barman’s attention. “Rest well, Dr. Darkwood. And see you tomorrow morning at the UN Security Council.”


The high-ceilinged chamber of the Security Council is surprisingly austere, except for the flags of member nations adorning the walls. At the center of the room, beneath the solemn gaze of international representatives—including not a few heads of state possibly flown in just for this secret meeting—Dr. Dawn and Dr. Darkwood are seated next to each other behind a long desk. And not placidly. Especially not Dr. Darkwood, whose flushed face stares at the US representative with apprehension and disbelief.

“I must express my profound alarm,” he says, his voice strained, “that we are even contemplating the idea of sending a signal to an alien civilization! The risks involved are not just substantial; they could be irreversible!”

The US representative raises a hand. “Dr. Darkwood, please, let Dr. Dawn finish her explanation. There will be time for your input shortly.”

Reluctantly, Dr. Darkwood settles back into his chair, his eyes still blazing.

Dr. Dawn, acknowledging the representative’s intervention with a nod, turns her attention back to the assembly. “Thank you,” she begins, her voice clear and practiced. “As I was saying, the presence of a Type 1 Kardashev civilization within our galactic vicinity isn’t just a theoretical exercise—it’s a practical discovery that challenges our understanding of what is possible in—”

“Dr. Dawn, for the benefit of the present,” interrupts the US representative, “could you please clarify what you mean by a Type 1 civilization? And where does humanity stand on this scale?”

“Certainly,” she responds, her tone even. “A Type 1 civilization on the Kardashev scale is one that can use all of the energy available on its home planet. This includes solar energy, geothermal energy, and any other forms of energy that the planet itself can provide.”

She types something on her notebook and a slide comes to life on the enormous wall screen behind them, showing Earth surrounded by various forms of energy harvesting infrastructure.

“Currently, humanity is still a Type 0 civilization, around 0.4 on this scale. We harness a significant portion of Earth’s energy, but we still have some way to go. Growth is exponential, though, so in a few centuries, we expect to reach full Type 1 status as our technology and energy efficiency improve.”

Dr. Dawn clicks another button and allows the image to rotate slowly, giving the assembly a moment to absorb the visual. “Reaching this level is significant, not only because of the energy aspect but also because it implies a level of technological and societal advancement capable of preventing or mitigating planetary-scale threats.”

She then shifts the image to a theoretical rendering of the alien civilizatio’s energy harnessing capabilities, far more advanced and diverse. “The civilization whose signature we’ve detected is already at this stage, and likely beyond. They’ve mastered not only planetary energy utilization but possibly interplanetary or even stellar, which would place them well beyond Type 1, maybe even close to 2, at which point they would harness all the resources of their solar system, including their sun.”

The representatives shift in place and murmur inaudible words to each other.

“This gap in capability,” she continues, “should not be seen as a threat, but as an opportunity. It is a chance to learn, to possibly accelerate our own progression.” Her gaze sweeps expertly across the room, meeting the eyes of those gathered. “Their advanced state suggests they’ve navigated challenges we’ve yet to face, possibly even the very risks Dr. Darkwood fears. Engaging with them could provide us with invaluable knowledge, technology and—” she laughs goodheartedly, shooting a meaningful glance at Dr. Darkwood “—even cosmic diplomacy.”

The Chinese representative, a composed woman with sharp eyes, raises her hand for attention. The room falls silent as she addresses Dr. Dawn. “Dr. Dawn, if we may continue, could you explain how the existence of this alien civilization confirms your conjecture? And for clarity, could you define what exactly you mean by ‘assumption’ in this context?”

Dr. Dawn nods and smiles. “Of course. An assumption, in scientific terms, is a foundational belief or premise that we accept as true to build further arguments or theories upon. It’s a starting point for exploration and understanding, which, in this case, leads to a hypothesis—or a conjecture.”

“Your famous Dawn conjecture?”

“Wasn’t so famous before we found the technosignature,” Dr. Dawn says with a chuckle. She gestures to the screen, which now displays two lines of text. “My conjecture about the ubiquity of alien civilizations hinges on two main assumptions. Shall I elaborate?”

“Please, do,” the Chinese woman nods invitingly.

Dr. Dawn steadies herself, and takes a slow breath, as if to gather every ounce of her considerable charisma. “The first assumption of my conjecture concerns the galactic spread of civilizations achieving a Type 1 Kardashev status. Imagine, if you will, a civilization so advanced that it harnesses the complete energy output of its home planet. Such civilizations, by their very nature, are ‘grabby.’ They expand, driven by survival and curiosity, across the entire galaxy.”

Dr. Darkwood shifts uncomfortably in his seat, his fingers tapping an impatient rhythm against the polished surface of the table.

“These civilizations,” she continues, undeterred, gesturing to a dynamic graphic on the screen behind her, “utilize not just their homeworlds, but also asteroids, moons, even entire star systems. They spread through the galaxy in mere millions of years—a blink of the cosmic eye—deploying simple low-velocity automated vessels that carry the seeds of life—embryos and genetic toolkits designed to kick-start civilization anew on distant worlds, initially raised by specialized AI, which, after a few thousand years proceed themselves to seed new worlds in exponential fashion.” The room’s attention is fixated on the vivid animations illustrating her point: small colorful dots dispersing like dandelion seeds across the star-sprinkled void.

The Chinese representative nods slowly, her eyes reflecting a thoughtful gleam. “Very intriguing, Dr. Dawn. Is this what we’ve found? Is the technosignature one of those… dots?”

“Yes. My conjecture predicts that, if we discover one technosignature, it implies not just one advanced civilization, but a pattern of survival and communication that spans across the galaxy. Not an isolated incident but a sign of a broader, galaxy-wide network.”

Dr. Darkwood’s mouth tightens, his posture stiffening as he leans forward. “Dr. Dawn’s conjecture is flawed. It predicts countless technosignatures. Countless! Not just one.”

With a dismissive flick of her hand, Dr. Dawn says, “We have one confirmed technosignature, and where there’s one, more will surely follow, as we keep deploying new and better observatories. And must I remind Dr. Darkwood that even one is infinitely more than his own conjecture predicts? Which, if I recall, suggested we would find none at all.” Her smile is tight, triumphant.

Just as Dr. Darkwood opens his mouth to counter, the Indian representative—a short middle-aged man with an air of calm authority—raises his hand and says, “Dr. Dawn, could we perhaps move on to the second assumption of your conjecture? I believe it relates to the balkanization of galactic civilizations? And their”—he frowns—“immortality?”

Dr. Dawn acknowledges the representative with a nod. “Imagine, if you will, the complexity of maintaining unity over astronomical distances,” she begins, her voice steady. “A civilization that can harness the energy of an entire planet, like the one we’ve discovered, might sound unified, but in the vastness of space, such unity is practically impossible.”

She clicks to a new slide, illustrating the immense distances between stars. “Even at light speed, communication between nearby star systems takes years, decades, millenia, even! Messages sent today might become irrelevant by the time they reach their destination, if they reach it at all.” Dr. Dawn pauses, allowing the image of the galaxy, sprinkled with hypothetical civilization points, to sink in. “Given these distances, any advanced civilization becomes a collection of what I term ‘galactic tribes’. Independent groups that, while sharing a common origin, evolve separately. They interact, yes, but not as one monolithic entity. Their messages—cultural, scientific, even distress calls—fade into whispers before crossing the void between stars.” She leans slightly forward. “Consider the practical limits of communication. Realistically, we can expect coherent exchanges up to, perhaps, a few dozen light-years. Beyond that, information is more historical artifact than actionable intelligence.”

Dr. Dawn’s presentation shifts to a simulation of communication paths crisscrossing a segment of the galaxy, their lines fading as they extend outward.

“This is the reality of space. Vast, lonely, and segmented. Our discovery does not just imply that we have neighbors, but that the galaxy is a patchwork of civilizations, potentially as diverse and isolated as cities on Earth were thousands of years ago. But, crucially, immortal. In the sense that each tribe might thrive and collapse individually—maybe a societal collapse, or a neighboring supernova—but a collection of millions of isolated tribes never dies. Let me stress this point.” Her gaze sweeps across the room, capturing the eyes of world leaders and representatives. “Once the galaxy is colonized for the first time in its history, it remains colonized forever.”

“In other words,” Dr. Darkwood says, “the first civilization that reaches out to the stars, owns them forever. And what happens to second comers? Because, Dr. Dawn, we certainly aren’t the first, are we?”

An exchange of murmurs of discomfort shivers through the room.

The Indian representative’s voice cuts through the noise, and in an undiplomatic loud voice, says. “I beg your Excellencies to hear our panel of experts before engaging in debate. Dr. Dawn, could you please summarize the essence of your conjecture? What does it mean for us, peoples of Earth?”

“Certainly, sir. The Dawn Conjecture emerges directly from these self-evident assumptions about the nature and behavior of advanced civilizations.” She points to the first node, highlighted brightly. “Firstly, we have assumed that any civilization reaching a Type 1 Kardashev status is inherently expansive. This expansion isn’t merely for resources, but also a natural extension of their survival instinct and technological capability. Secondly, due to the vastness of space and the limitations of light-speed travel, these civilizations inevitably become galactic tribes, which though originating from the same ancestral civilization, evolve independently—their communication limited by the immense distances, turning them into isolated pockets of culture and technology. Hence, my conjecture is that the discovery of a single technosignature is merely our first glimpse into what is likely a vast, interconnected network of these civilizations. A cosmic mesh, if you will, where these tribes not only survive but potentially thrive in isolation.” She pauses, allowing her words to resonate. “If this conjecture holds, then the technosignature implies we are not encountering an isolated civilization, but tapping into a galaxy-wide web of life. More than life, your Excellencies: an explosion of cultural and technological diversity, each star evolving in unique ways, shaped by their histories and celestial environments.”

Delegates and representatives are leaning forward, at the edge of their seats, their eyes shining with excitement—with possibility.

“Thus,” Dr. Dawn concludes, her gaze sweeping across the lit faces, “the Dawn Conjecture isn’t just a theory of existence, but a call to re-envision our place in the universe. It urges us to look beyond our solitary existence towards a richer, more diverse cosmic community.”

Dr. Darkwood’s face tightens, the muscles along his jaw clenching visibly. Yet, before he speaks, the Indian representative raises his hand, turning to him with a courteous nod. “Dr. Darkwood, you also have two assumptions and a conjecture, if I recall our briefing correctly. Could we delve into those now, please? It would be enlightening to hear your foundational beliefs as well.”

“Not beliefs, sir,” Dr. Darkwood says, standing and clearing his throat. “Science. My conjecture, unlike Dr. Dawn’s, is simple. Assumption one: All civilizations harness and consume energy to survive and expand. This is elementary. And implies that, at the end of space or time, all civilizations eventually compete for limited galactic resources. Assumption two: any sufficiently advanced civilization inevitably develops the means to destroy neighboring ones. Also elementary. Our own nations have already done it here on Earth. Thus, my conjecture is that we will find no widespread technosignatures, because they have been eradicated by other, more advanced and discreet civilizations. Advanced,” he stresses. “And discreet. I advocate that we must become both before even considering engaging in galactic gossip.”

The room falls silent, eyes meeting each other in unease.

“A flawed conjecture, evidently,” Dr. Dawn says rushedly. “Since we’ve found one. Besides, the simplest way to become more advanced, is to, indeed engage in gossip with more advanced aliens.”

“Did your dangerous technoptimism made you deaf to the discreet part of my thesis?”

“Come on! They’re ten light-years away! What can they possibly do to us? By the time they reply we will be twenty years older. And with the impossibility of sending matter over such expanses of space, how are they going to exterminate us? With harsh language?”

“It’s not impossible to travel intergalactic distances. It’s only very expensive. But a Type 2 Kardashev civilization might find ways of—”

“Thank you, Dr. Darkwood, Dr. Dawn,” the Indian representative says. “We will take it from here. You are dismissed.”


When the bell chimes, I pause my reading, startled by the unexpected interruption.

“Can you get that, honey?” Mom’s voice floats from the kitchen, mingled with the clatter of dishes and the sizzle of bacon.

I obediently set my book down, pad softly to the door and open it.

An Asian man stands there; young, handsome, perhaps in his mid-twenties, his gaze intense.

“Yes?” I ask.

But the man just stares at me, his lips pressed into a line. The way he looks at me… It makes my skin prickle.

“Mom!” I call over my shoulder. “There’s a man at the door!”

“Invite him in, please. Into the kitchen,” she says, her tone light yet… There’s something in her voice that…

“You can come in,” I say to the stranger.

The man steps past me, a slight smile touching his lips, but his eyes never leaving mine. “How old are you?” He asks, as I shut the door behind him.

That’s a strange question. I hesitate, but something in his eyes compels me to answer. “Twelve.”

“Twelve. Jesus.” His smile widens, and then saddens. “I’m Dr. Darkwood, Lily.”

I don’t reply. I just gesture him towards the kitchen, wondering how this stranger knows my name. Whatever.

As I prepare to sit on the couch and reach for my book, the man says, “Come, Lily,” and beckons me towards the kitchen. “You must hear this.”

Whoa! That catches my attention. I jump to my feet and join them in the kitchen.

Mom is blinking, abnormally uncomfortable. Who is this stranger and why—?

“I prefer you leave her out of this,” she says.

“Lily stays,” he says, his voice final.

“No. Go to your room, honey. You can use the VR-set, if you want.”

Yeah! As I leap towards the hallway —my book forgotten on the couch—, the man says, “If she leaves, I leave,” and folds his arms over his chest.

And to my surprise, Mom just shrugs, and beckons me to join them.

Something very fishy going on here. Obviously. And now I need to know.

When I enter the kitchen, I take a seat on one of the high chairs by the breakfast bar while Mom digs deep in the cutlery-for-special-occasions cupboard, retrieving a small pack of what looks like candy. Look where she hid it! Mom’s the smartest person on Earth. That’s why I’m so smart, too. And so curious to figure out what’s going on here. She pops a fistful of candy and gleefully swallows them whole.

“Can I have some?” I ask, eagerly stretching my hand.

“No!” both say, their voices overlapping with such urgency that makes me step back, startled.

Mom’s eyes flicker with an apologetic softness. “I’m sorry, honey. Those are… for grownups. Why don’t I make you some pancakes instead?” But as she moves to retrieve a pan, a wave of dizziness seems to overtake her and she steadies herself against the counter. Her period I bet; I just got mine, too, and it’s a real bitch. “Actually, Dr. Darkwood, would you mind taking care of the pancakes? She likes them well done.”

Dr. Darkwood’s brow furrows, but he rolls up the sleeves of his shirt and steps towards the stove while her mother sinks slowly into a chair, her breath shallow.

“Why are you both acting so weird? Who’s this man, Mom?”

“I’ll tell you who I am, Lily.” He says, in a stern voice, at odds with his casual flattening of pancake dough. “But much more importantly, I’ll also tell you who your mother really is.”

Mom’s face tightens, a shadow of annoyance—or is it anger—flickering across her features. “Really, Dr. Darkwood, isn’t this a bit melodramatic?”

Ignoring her interruption, he leans forward and meets my now insatiably curious eyes. “Let’s begin with me. I was the scientist who opposed contacting the squids fifty-two years ago. But your mother, she was more persuasive than me, more… charismatic.”

“Oh, Mom spoke about you! About others like you too, those who feared the unknown. Doommongers —right, Mom?— who wanted to stop us from reaching out to the squids. Thank goodness the world listened to Mom and not to people like you. They’ve been so good to us. They’ve sent us so much knowledge. We wouldn’t have the wonderful technology we have today. We’re traveling to the planet, there are colonies orbiting as far as Jupiter’s moons already, and what about rejuvenation?” I gesture at him. “How old are you, really?”

Dr. Darkwood smiles, his gaze lingering on the spatula as he expertly flips a pancake in the air. “About your mother’s age. So, you like the squids, Lily? I like them too.”

“They’re the best! I love how they join into all those forms to do all sorts of things. I wish I was like them. I think I would make myself some wings and fly!”

“Did you know,” he continues, glancing briefly at the pancake as he sets it down gently on a plate, “that the squids originally came from a different star system than the one we found them in?”

“Yes,” I nod, proudly. “Just like Mom’s famous conjecture predicted. Civilizations spreading.”

“Did you also know that when they finally developed enough technology to escape the thick ice shells of their world and looked out to the stars, they never found any of their own kind listening?”

“Again, Mom’s conjecture. The tribes become independent. Maybe the others collapsed. It’s kind of sad.”

“Sad, yes.” Dr. Darkwood’s voice is weirdly calm, controlled. But I think he is angry. He says, “Did you know we looked for them—for their kind, for other technosignatures— everywhere. We built tremendously expensive telescopes, Lily, but neither the squids nor us have ever found anybody else.”

“I know,” I say with a frown.

He leans against the counter, arms folded, light catching the edges of his glasses. “That was also a key prediction of your mother’s—that we would find them everywhere. But we didn’t.”

I turn to mum, seeking affirmation—or perhaps denial—but she remains silent, her gaze fixed on the tiled floor. And pale. Very pale. Damn period.

Dr. Darkwood continues, his voice dropping to a more intimate note. “Did you know what happened to the squids?”

“That they stopped talking to us?” I nod. “It happened 13 years ago. I know when, because it was one year before I was born.”

“Do you know why?”

I shrug. “Nobody knows.”

“Not even your all-knowing mother?”

Again, I look at her. But she just stands, a hand on the side of her head. “I don’t feel well,” she says. “I think I’m going to…”

“No,” Dr. Darkwood says. “Answer to your daughter. What happened to the squids?”

“Leave her alone!” I shout, and walk to Mom. She staggers and leans on me as I reach her. God, what’s wrong with her? I get her out of the kitchen and help her lie down on the living room couch. I sit next to her. “Mom? I’m scared. What’s happening to you? Who’s this man?”

“Don’t be scared, Lily,” his voice comes from behind, strangely gentle. “Nothing is going to—” But his voice trails off, catching in his throat. He sits on the lone couch next to them, his gaze drifting, heavy with hesitation. “The squids were destroyed by another civilization.”

“W-What?” I stammer in shock, my eyes darting between the stern man and Mom, whose trembling lips offer no comfort—only silence.

“Destroyed, because of your mother,” he says. “Because she insisted we begin our little cosmic conversation with the squids.”

“Mom? What is he—?”

“A conversation that, naturally, attracted unwarranted attention. Lethal attention.”

“No, that is a lie!” I say, the passionate classroom debates about recent world history still vivid in my mind. “Ms. May says the squids stopped talking to us because they realized we were too different, or maybe they got scared because we were advancing too fast. But we’ve kept talking to them, sending them all our shows and culture and… I-I wrote them a letter… Mine won the state award. I told them that we are still friends. That we will always be friends. That I… That I love them.”

“Denialist fantasies, Lily,” the horrible man says. “I know,  they’re mainstream, that’s all we hear in the media, and maybe it’s a blessing, because the truth is too terrible to accept. But your mother and I are scientists. We know better. We understand facts. And fact is that their transmission was interrupted midsentence, so to say. And when we directed our telescopes to their star system… Destroyed.”

“Liar!” I shout. “I’ve seen their planet!” I vividly remember my awe when Ms. May showed us the image in real time through the telescope orbit link—a few bright pixels of marvel. “It was there, I saw it! You’re a liar!”

Eyes locked on mine, Dr. Darkwood’s expression softens for a moment. “The planetary bodies are still there, Lily, but the spectrum—It’s all wrong. It’s suddenly rich in heavy elements. And the technosignature that caught our attention in the first place? Gone in an instant. The temperature readings are now way above freezing, on a world of ice! And the same is true for the rest of moons and planets in their system—even those they never colonized. The list goes on, Lily. They were shot dead. That’s a fact.”

“Impossible,” I say, my voice shaking embarrassingly. “There’s just too much space between the stars. If somebody shot something at them, they would have seen it coming for hundreds of years. And probably we as well; our telescopes are fantastic. No matter how advanced any evil aliens could be, there are no space weapons able to destroy entire worlds like that, right mom?”

But she doesn’t meet my gaze.

“The simplest of weapons, Lily,” Dr. Darkwood says. “Stones.”

I blink at him, and then throw a glance of disbelief at Mom, but she just shakes her head, as if too tired to reply.

“Stones accelerated to relativistic speeds,” Dr. Darkwood continues. “A Type 2 civilization can harness the entire energy of stars. They could easily accelerate an object—any object, even a piece of rock—with whatever technological means a star-harvesting civilization can control: maybe antimatter, maybe dyson spheres, neutron stars or black holes, God knows. Accelerated at almost the speed of light, nobody would see them coming, no matter how sophisticated your detectors. Kinetic planet killers. They were one day having breakfast,” he throws a hand towards the kitchen, pancakes forgotten on the plates, “and then they were vaporized—their entire civilization. Erased from existence in an instant.”

“Mom?” I don’t know what scares me more, the man’s words, or Mom’s paleness and stubborn silence. “Please say something!”

Mom grips the edge of the couch, her breaths shallow and ragged. “I’m here, honey. I’m sorry. Please listen to Dr. Darkwood. It’s important.” Her voice cracks like thin ice underfoot.

“Is he… saying the truth?”

She gives me a slow, heavy nod, her eyes glistening.

Dr. Darkwood’s voice, though soft, cuts through my astonishment like a scalpel. “When the squids were annihilated, your mother came to see me, Lily.”

“I…” Mom raises her eyes at Dr. Darkwood, lips trembling. “I was terrified. I… I…” She sighs and takes a deep breath, eyes widened in an expression that freezes my blood.

“She was terrified, Lily,” he says, voice calm, almost soothing. “As terrified as me. No, even more, because she finally understood what she had truly done. What she did, fifty-two years ago. And then, while riding the wave of hubris and prestige that followed, she used her personal and professional influence to drown out warning voices like mine. I even lost my tenure, my lifework—my good name. And had to get a job in a local insurance company. But, when it was too late, she came to me.” He looks at Mom, and wets his lips. “She apologized. She… She tried to make amends. I thought that the trauma had changed her. But no…” His voice turns darker, he looks at Mom with narrow eyes and clenched jaws. “She fooled me.”

“S-Sorry,” Mom mutters, to my astonishment.

“She was born a narcissist megalomaniac,” he continues, his gaze locked on Mom’s almost pleading eyes. “And nothing in the world was going to change that. Not the destruction of an entire civilization. Not the birth of her own daughter. She would always prioritize her own petty needs over those of others.”

“Others?” I ask, rhetorically, since I already know who he means.

“You, Lily!” he says in a sharp tone, like he is about to spit at Mom’s feet. “You shouldn’t have been born! I asked her—begged her!—but she wouldn’t abort.”

I gasp, almost falling from the couch.

Mom quickly takes my hand, and squeezes weakly. “I couldn’t, honey. Sorry. I couldn’t.”

“You—” I turn to Dr. Darkwood, who is looking at me with a shrunken expression, almost like… pity “—wanted me dead?”

“No, Lily. I wanted you not alive. What your mother did is—” he looks pointedly at Mom “—inhumanly cruel.”

Mom whimpers, to my astonishment. “Sorry…” she mutters, almost inaudibly. “Sorry… Sorry, honey.”

“Sorry for what, Mom?” I think I’m screaming, but I’m not sure. I can barely think. “What are you apologizing for?”

“I knew…” she says, but she falls back on the couch, as if too weak to even speak.


“She knew what was coming next,” Dr. Darkwood says, “after the squid holocaust.”

I turn to him, trying to make sense of what I’m hearing. “After the…?” But then I gasp in understanding. The squids were… assassinated.

There are… assassins out there.

Out there.


“Lily?” Dr. Darkwood says, leaning forward and putting a concerned hand over my shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“So you were wrong, Mum? Is that it? Your conjecture was wrong and Dr. Darkwood’s right?”

“Your mother was right, Lily. But I was, too. Both our conjectures are right. A civilization has indeed spread out throughout the galaxy. It’s everywhere—split in silent tribes—like your mother postulated. But we would see nothing up there, because they are hidden—like hunters in a dark forest, preying on the new civilizations that foolishly make some noise—like I postulated.”

“We-We made some noise…” I say, stiff in shock.

“We did.”


“Nobody knows,” he says, in a deep, slow voice. “I thought at first we would have minutes. Then hours passed. Then days, and your mother decided to give you a life. Then—”

“Twelve years…” I say, lips trembling.

“W-Wonderful years,” Mom mutters, eyes half shut, like about to fall asleep. “I-I love you, Lily.” And shuts her eyes.


But she doesn’t reply.

She doesn’t move.

“Mom?” I start to shake her. “Mom? MOM!

Her breathing has stopped.

I shout. I cry. I curse.

How long it lasts, I don’t know. I must have cried rivers, because my face is wet, and I can barely see through the tears. It’s like waking up from a dream, only to find out not only that it’s not over, but that it’s a nightmare.

“It’s okay,” I hear the man say, his words repeated over and over God knows for how long, too; his hand on my back, tapping, almost eager to take me in his embrace. “It’s okay. She’s gone, but you’ll be okay.”

I just stare at him in silent numbness, my hands still grabbing Mom’s corpse like I could catch her soul before it was too late.

“She is at peace now,” he explains, almost sweetly. “It was all too much for her. Too much guilt. Because she is—understand this, Lily—very much guilty.”

“She…” I keep clutching at her “She can’t leave me!”

“She can, because she is and has always been fundamentally egoistic.”

“WHO ARE YOU?” I scream.

“You know who I am.”


Of course I do.

It took my mother’s death to finally find my father.

“I’ll take care of you now, Lily. For as long as we have.”

“As long as we have…” I repeat, the words like hammers in my skull.

“Yes,” he whispers soothingly. “As long as we—”

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