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space mission

Asymptotic Convergence

by Ramez Yoakeim

Spacefaring they might have been, but the Swarm fell well short of the god-like harbingers of doom our morose imagination foretold. When it came to the innate capacity for destruction, we were evenly matched.

Billions died still. On Earth and Mars, in circum-lunar space and the Asteroid Belt maze, and as far away as Jupiter’s orbital distilleries.

Skirmishes continued in the inner system, but with its surface-dwelling population obliterated, Earth had to be abandoned. We fled in the face of their slaughter, interminably shifting the theater of war outwards.

We resolved to return, eventually; once the Swarm accepted the high cost of subduing humanity, and moved on to other prey. We never entertained that we might win outright. Not in the face of such a foe.

Aside from the vector they arrived on from deep interstellar space, we knew little of the Swarm’s origins. Whether they were the creation of organic lifeforms in a distant cradle, or the product of a hitherto unknown mechanical evolutionary pathway, we had no idea.

We sent emissaries to their doom, fruitlessly seeking diplomatic discourse. Once it became clear the Swarm had no interest in negotiations, humanity’s factions coalesced into one, to repel the invading fleet.

Heroics aside, however, we marched inexorably towards defeat, and with it, certain extinction. Humans took the better part of a quarter-century to be made combat-ready, only to perish in an instant. While the Swarm’s capacity to respawn was limited only by its access to raw materials.

We mourned. We schemed. We evolved.

We bent our all to the war we had to survive.

Genetically specialized embryos underwent en masse accelerated gestation and maturity. From fertilization to puberty, in thirty days flat. Neural imprinting onto a common topology produced waves of combat-ready warriors, each wave iteratively superior to its predecessor.

For a spell, we gained while the Swarm ceded, but it was a fleeting reprieve.

From vulnerability to hard radiation, to inability to withstand excessive acceleration, to dependence on tenuous supply chains for air, water and food, our very biology emerged as our ultimate Achilles Heel.

The Swarm irradiated our ships, forced every skirmish into a series of hairpin maneuvers, and stretched our supply lines to breaking point; doggedly regaining strategic superiority.

It took us centuries more, but we adapted, again. Unflinchingly.

Bionic supplemented organic, then supplanted it. What use were legs when locomotion became propulsive? What purpose did eyes serve, when combat demanded full spectral awareness? What hope did limbs, and faces, and beating hearts have, when necessity demanded only shielded receptacles of reproducible decision making?

We forsook who we were, one trait at a time, until all that remained of our humanity was our ego, becoming a swarm of our own. Only more efficient, more ruthless, and more expendable, for we yet commanded vast resources, and–for a season–the precious few baseline humans capable of invention and creation to deploy them.

The tide turned in our favor once more.

Our hordes of mass-produced, solid-state warriors suffered no dread, harbored no dreams, and nursed no hopes. They needed none, for none survived their first encounter with the enemy. Our purposeful evolution in the name of survival had only made us more adept at dying.

Mission success came to be measured by the relative cost of enemy losses exacted for each loss of our own. The tides of war turned, not on whose was the greater determination, courage, or conviction, but by minute statistical fluctuations in rates of attrition.

It would have taken millennia, and fleeting human consciousnesses more numerous than the Milky Way stars, but we would yet beat the Swarm’s superior numbers.

We would prevail. We would survive.

The Swarm pressed its final advantage, wiping out what precious few nests of baseline humanity we thought we had secreted beyond their reach. In one fell swoop, they severed the slender thread to what we once were. All we had left were the memories.

We vowed to keep on remembering.

Once the existential threat that the Swarm posed had passed–and surely it would, now that we had become a more ruthless version of our enemy–we would return. We would rediscover our forms, and our thoughts, and reignite the flame of our imagination.

It was only then, that the Swarm deigned to speak to us. They told us, at last, why they had come to Earth.

At a time when our multi-cellular ancestors were yet to emerge from the primordial soup, the Swarm faced their own existential threat, at the hands of a forgotten foe.

They shed their vulnerabilities, one by one, in the name of survival, never suspecting that each imperfection was a cornerstone of their identity.

They survived, but the path back proved more arduous than the one forward.

One crisis followed another, each demanding more from them, while taking them further away from what they once were. Until they could no longer remember what that was. Surviving existential threats became the sole purpose that remained, and when there were no perils left to overcome, they sought them out, far beyond what was once their home.

They became nomads, roaming the galaxy not for resources, or conquest, or even their lost dreams, but for the only raison d’être they had left.

The Swarm gave us a choice, now that we had proven ourselves ever so slightly their better. They could grind on, whittling us down, in a war stretching for eons between almost perfectly matched adversaries. A war, they would eventually lose, they knew, but so would we.

For absent all the folly and frailty that made us human, how would the few that remained after the war destroyed the rest continue on surviving?

Having offered it all on the altar of survival, what other option remained then but to survive?

We abandoned our cradle, and all memories of our identity, enriching our enemy with the dregs that remained from our dreams. We joined the Swarm, swelling their ranks with our tribute.

~

Bio:

Ramez Yoakeim’s academic research once involved engineering perfectly believable details out of nothing. Fiction seemed like the obvious next step. At one time or another an engineer, educator, and entrepreneur, these days Ramez devotes himself to charting humanity’s future, one tale at a time. Find out more about Ramez and his work at yoakeim.com.

Peripheric Synthesized

by Ava Kelly

Annex 4. Action logs

The following annex contains an excerpt of relevant action logs submitted by the representatives of the applicant entity (see Annex 1) as described in Section 17, Par. 2 of the Sentience Recognition Code. The full entries are stored in the Galactic Archives with a certified back-up copy on the Neutrality flagship. Annex 4 has been translated and edited by Clerk No. 86. Verified and stamped by Supervisory post 7.

233.15.5042

—Log begin—

00_00_00

Initialization complete. Core online.

00_00_01

External sensing arrays significantly damaged. Internal modules partially functioning. Sensor data analysis suggests the following.

The outer vessel has been adrift in open space for an unknown amount of revolutions of the home planet around the central star. Degree of wear suggests thousands.

Current position uncertain. Planet cluster presents one sun.

Life-forms are in the process of salvaging the outer vessel. Their means of transportation are rudimentary at best, but allow them to travel back and forth between the vessel and their planet. Biology is similar to Arfondant, with some notable exceptions: vestigial organs still in place, dual vision sensing systems, and a larger brain.

Defence mechanism functional, critical access routes remain hidden. Internal decks are protected until further assessment can be made.

Self-diagnosis protocols deployed at system scale.

00_01_21

Life-forms species designation: human. Their intention is not to damage the outer vessel, but to study and eventually redevelop the technology for their own. Language multifaceted. Higher understanding of the universe is obvious, yet they persist in using biospeech in social interactions. That, too, is multifaceted. They are incongruous.

Requirements of life support assessed. Gaseous output modified from the central ambient controller to dissuade them from trying to reform the system themselves. They are impervious to small modifications to the mix.

Internal audit continues.

00_35_17

Historical databanks damaged. Nanosludge deployed for maintenance, although the probability of recovery is 0.197. New data being syphoned from occupants. Rich knowledge bases found. Planet and occupants deemed candidates for service, unless intentions change. Uplink to planet still pending. Repairs of outer transmission arrays underway.

Scientific databanks mostly intact. Humans retrieved the structure of the solar energy conversion module. Weaponization was discussed and strictly forbidden. Instead, it is being studied for integration into their own systems. Energy output production expected to surge enough to power the shell batteries of the outer vessel.

Outcome: satisfying. Monitoring continues. Diagnosis reveals damage across all systems. Repairs constrained by resource depletion, priority-based scheduling underway.

00_88_93

Warning. Imminent attack.

00_89_15

Shielding sequence finalized with success. No further damage was sustained. Access to weapon systems denied to the human occupants. They are bringing their own. Threat level increased.

Peripheric necessary.

01_02_54

Conversion tanks dry. Biomatter acquisition required.

Upon successful connection to planetary systems, parallel investigation revealed historical logs of drawn-out conflict between factions. Temporarily resolved by breaking into two societies. Masses had moved to nearby space. Secondary cultural evolution lives on self-made stations. Their migration and current limited sensing capabilities have kept them hidden until now.

Conflict reignited by the discovery of the outer vessel. Two choices available.

Marker inserted. Choice 1. Side with current occupants.

02_22_25

Reconstruction of the conversion bay more laborious than anticipated. Circuitry badly damaged. Printing heads offline. Modified nanosludge for repairs, but its original purpose makes it slower than optimal.

05_73_08

One adversary has instilled their covert presence on board. Their purpose seems to be observation. No attempt at sabotage has been made.

09_54_90

“You fool them, but you can’t fool me. You’re sentient, aren’t you?”

Recording saved. Analysis of adversary’s movements and speech patterns fed into the secondary processing core.

11_22_25

Peripheric synthesized. Begin infiltration.

15_44_01

Peripheric behavior seamless. Passing as human. Adversary impressive, does not appear deceived. They are watching.

17_00_03

Discovery unavoidable.

Marker inserted. Choice 1.1. Terminate adversary.

17_01_88

Adversary terminated. Main processing core damaged. Overload of the main energy module imminent.

Return to marker.

17_00_03

Marker reboot. Choice 1.2. Reveal self to adversary.

Adversary surrenders data cache. Requests alliance. Societal conflict between the factions irrational, adversary agrees, makes compelling case against both of them. Urges that the outer vessel be moved away from their reach. Cites previous conflict. Cites previous benevolent intentions being corrupted.

Alliance request accepted.

17_00_04

Ally damaged. Abort. Return to marker. Return to marker. Return to marker.

Marker damaged.

17_00_05

Ally expired. Return to initial marker.

Request denied.

17_00_06

Choice module offline. Retrieved biomatter from adversary, synthesis of secondary peripheric completed.

Ally restored.

Flight plan initialized.

19_76_43

Ally designates self as permanent resident. Accepted. Language no longer a barrier, they have access to what is left of the memory banks. They have modified the speaker of the secondary peripheric to mimic biospeech.

New entry. Singing: vocalization of melody. Ally continues to perform this action despite best efforts to dissuade. Memory banks storing their conscious mind are filled with music logs. It is highly likely that home planet occupants displayed similar behaviors. Conclusive data remains buried in the damaged particles of the historical databanks.

Located asteroid carrying critical elements. Ore retrieval begun.

31_19_24

Choice module repaired. Initial marker restored. Sensor readings reveal life-forms inhabiting one planet two stars away.

Create new marker. Capacity exceeded. Internal error, index out of bounds.

Buffer appears to be limited at one entry. Delete previous marker?

33_71_20

Yes.

—Log end—

~

Bio:

Ava Kelly is an engineer with a deep passion for stories. Whether reading, watching, or writing them, Ava has always been surrounded by tales of all genres. Their goal is to bring more stories to life, especially those of friendship and compassion, those dedicated to trope subversion, those that give the void a voice, and those that spawn worlds of their own. Their publication history includes fantasy and science fiction short stories, novelettes, and the novel Havesskadi released in 2018. (avakellyfiction.com)

Coming Home

2

“Houston, we have a problem.”
A phrase so infamous, so ingrained in people’s minds, that it was practically impossible to utter anything else when something went wrong up in the unforgiving black. NASA hated it, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, obviously, because it meant something had gone wrong and they were about to have a hell of a time on their hands attempting to deal with it. Second, the fact that it was so well-known, so trivialised, so inherently ‘Hollywood’, meant that it had a tendency to make everything after it sound somewhat less serious than it actually was. Finally, pedantically, they hated it because it was wrong; attributed to astronaut Jack Swigert during one of Houston’s most historic episodes, the words that should actually have been recorded for time immemorial were “Houston, we’ve had a problem”. The fact that they weren’t, that Hollywood had trumped NASA and rewritten history, made it feel like at some level their victory had been tainted, its essence spoiled by the corrupting caress of ‘fiction’.
Could it be argued that they should have had better things to worry about than what a now dead astronaut had said, decades prior? Absolutely, but at the same time, you could also argue that you hoped to God that they didn’t. A vast amount of space-work was waiting; bursts of activity, followed by long, hopefully uneventful lulls until the next phase came around. Boredom, and trivial debate, as opposed to a savage flurry of catastrophe management, felt like a worthwhile trade.
As it happened, NASA had a pretty decent track record of success. Unfortunately, with the type of endeavours they pursued, a million mundane but critical tasks completed successfully wasn’t considered news. Instead it was typically the mistakes, and the failures, that made the headlines…
It’s odd the things that go through your head when you’re facing annihilation.
Alarms sounding all around him, compartments depressurising, electrical fires sputtering majestically in all the hellish glory of zero-g, and running through his mind were thoughts of inaccurate quotation and grammatical precision.
When he’d hit the transmit button he’d thought for a second about bucking the trend, ensuring that the words which slipped from his lips were something less trite, but ultimately he’d stuck with the classic; “Houston, we have a problem.” The damn phrase was embedded so deeply it was just sitting there on the tip of his tongue, waiting for him, and he had more pressing matters to attend to.
He had no idea what had happened, which was unfortunately all too often the case with this line of work. That would be a job for NASA in the months ahead. No doubt someone, somewhere down the line, would piece it all together, present it in a nice, pristine little data-pack, and they’d squirrel it away somewhere for future reference. As for right now however, it may as well have been system failure, micrometeoroid impact, or even goddamn alien assault, the result was the same regardless; he was royally screwed.
Nineteen months into a two-year stint on the lunar station, and he was leaving it, alone, in a lifeboat amid a rain of debris. Not exactly the farewell he’d been hoping for. Just five more months, and it would have been on a return craft, destined for Earth, with a selection of his crewmates. Instead, he looked now at the barren grey canvas of the lunar surface as it spiralled crazily in his viewport.
The training kicked in; he regretted it later, but at the time it felt like the right thing to do. He ignited the lifeboat’s thrusters, corrected the craft’s wild oscillations, stabilised its roll, angled it ‘feet-first’ toward the surface, and slowed its descent as best he could. The boat was critically damaged, whatever trashed the station also having had a fair jab at its auxiliary craft, and with a worrying majority of its systems wrecked, including life-support, to say the landing would be ‘rough’ was an understatement, but it would make it.
Likewise, the training meant that following the bone-crunching landing he kept communication open to Houston, even though a couple of hours and a sizable headache later he knew there was nothing they could do.
Again, Hollywood had deceived and misled the masses. Growing up, he’d envisaged NASA to be the cavalry, charging in to the rescue at the last minute, guiding astronauts in astonishing feats of ingenuity, repairing critically damaged spacecraft with stuff that was just lying around and sweeping them safely home. Realistically, this was laughable. The majority of the time that something went wrong in space, the sad fact was it was simply unsolvable. It wasn’t like they had a vast stockpile of spare parts lying around, and complex equipment categorically could not be fixed with a bit of gum and traces of spit. As for rescue, it took months, sometimes years to plan a basic mission let alone a complex rescue op, and even if a suitable craft just happened to be sat on a launch pad, prepped and ready, it would still take at least eight hours to get anywhere near him, and significantly longer if it actually wanted to stop and pick him up rather than just race merrily past. All of which was pretty discomforting when considering that he had maybe three hours of oxygen left, three-and-a-half tops. Assuming of course, that he didn’t cook to death in his suit first; Hollywood may have been more interested in showing astronauts freezing to death, regardless of its accuracy, but hey, what else was new?
Speaking with NASA, there were a few half-hearted suggestions made, things he could try, but none were offered with much conviction and he didn’t blame them. These people were realists. They lived and breathed this stuff. They knew his chances as well as he did, and it’s hard to plaster on a sheen of optimism when you’re painfully aware you’re speaking with a dead man.
After a while, he interrupted them and told them to just put him through to his wife and son. He didn’t have long left, and he’d be damned if he didn’t spend some of it saying goodbye to the people he loved.
The speed with which they got off the line and made the connection was another sorry indication of how righteously up shit creek he was.
When he heard his wife’s voice, it suddenly hit him that this was really it. Everything up to that point had been some surreal dream, a role-play game between colleagues, running through worst-case scenarios and disaster simulations. Talking to her, hearing the raw emotion in her voice, her pain, her suffering; that’s when he knew it was real, that he wasn’t going home. It didn’t matter how many people were listening in, he allowed himself to cry together with her. He didn’t care what they would think of him; real men didn’t bottle up their feelings, pretend they didn’t have them, and allow their spouse to wallow alone. He joined her, sharing her torment, their tears uniting them at an end where distance had separated them so far.
Still, as the oxygen readout on his suit began to inch into the red, he made sure to say his final goodbye and end the call; he’d not had a chance to speak to his son, the boy off playing in town somewhere and unreachable, but he’d left a message for him, and forcing his wife to listen to his actual dying breaths felt more like a punishment than a blessing. Houston returned, asking him if there was anything more they could do for him, but he brushed them aside; he didn’t need someone holding his hand as his time ran out, and he wouldn’t have wished the grisly task on anyone.
Instead, he looked to the lifeless grey surface of rock outside his lifeboat’s escape hatch, his thoughts focused only on his family, and prepared to terminate the connection, his hand resting on the door’s release lever. His final words he chose to draw from the world of literature, abandoning the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood for the prestige of the written word.
“I am just going outside and may be some time.”