A Clear Blue Horizon

Image: NASA/NOAA Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership spacecraft on April 9, 2015

The following story was written by Mimori Oizumi Jones. This piece is a finalist from the Art of Future Warfare project’s “space” war-art challenge that called for a fictional account of conflict in space during the 2090s.

 

The various conflicts which waged across early 21st-century Earth held her fascination, despite or because of the 50 years of technologically-mediated peace preceding her birth. The war they now fought was one against time and the consequences of their accumulated actions.

In other imaginative accountings, the trigger which focused their cooperative energies might be nuclear catastrophe: the world watches in horror as the cradle of civilization, parts of Russia, China, the US detonate into radioactive wastelands; the world huddles together in the catastrophic aftermath.

No.

Despite the best efforts of their conglomerations, the people of Earth manage to find their commonality, working together to forge the technological magic needed to save their world…

#

She releases the stylo; it floats obliquely away. As she uncurls from the near-fetal position in which she writes, the slab of memory cell tumbles away, surface glowing as it translates her script. A small robo-server deftly maneuvers to collect one then the next before attaching to the nearest surface.

It’s quiet. It’s always quiet here.

Part of the reason she accepted the post. At thirty-five standard, she’d lived through more combat than most vets twice her age. A gift, a curse, of genetic legacy. Who could have known that humanity, as it grew to technological maturity on Earth, was a genetic bolthole against the outcomes of galactic wars which raged across vast sectors of the universe?

The soft chimes of the comm release her from reverie. Odysseus. He had mentored her through twenty years of hell, battle after battle on world after world. A miracle of God that, after everything they’d been through, they were still alive.

Despite the knowledge of her species’ beginnings, she held fast to the notion of personal salvation, a gift from her mother, from her mother’s mother. After everything ‘Seus had learned, it was a faith he did not care for and found hard to acknowledge as reasonable. But as he held his own brand of belief, he understood hers and was touched that she prayed for him. The writing had been his idea. “Cathartic,” he had said in his comfortingly gravelly voice.

She thumbs pick-up; the space fills with the hollow sound of the open line.

“Hello, Kella.”

The weight of his concern breaks her heart; she’d been six months here without leaving ship, taking few comms. If they were on vid, she would have turned away. After twenty years, ‘Seus can see it happen. He fights the sudden constriction in his throat.

“Crops came in early and plentiful,” he says slowly, attempting to transmit some of the peace he has found under the open sky to the girl, now woman, he has watched over for longer than he had watched over his own children.

She smiles a little at the gentleness in his voice and at the earth’s renewed bounty, thinks of times these words must’ve been uttered over countless ages on countless worlds.

“We’re seeding the next round in a few weeks. Join us?”

He must feel the hitch her heart makes at his question, see the sad furrow upon her brow.

“Just think about it.”

Silence again as ‘Seus breaks link.

Sometimes she hopes that the alternate history she puts stylo-to-cell exists, that this tiny seed from her imagination might find root in the vast, universal seedbed of time.

#

Kella was fifteen when the first portal was built. Her mother’s work was seminal to the breakthrough in quantum chromodynamic computing which allowed machinery to interface with the fabric of spacetime itself, to expand a subset of calabi-yau structures into an aperture that lead … somewhere. No one was willing to build one to find out where until the War.

Until the War, Kella preferred to spend her time among the mag-sheltered farm- and pasture-lands in the Rift. Her family was of the first to join Mars colony. Hers, one of the first births. Growing up she often daydreamed of visiting Earth, of seeing a clear, blue horizon stretching on forever.

Mars Colony defended themselves from the weapons launched from orbital Earth, helplessly watched the remaining satellite feeds show much of a blue and green planet fading from view, sent comms of shelter to the now-stranded local system explorers, and grimly made plans for its survival. Seven years later, the portal was born.

Unknown to them, it sent an ansible-signal to the nearest outpost of ur-humanity. The ships arrived three months later.

#

Strategos One Tarala sept Orgonis, head of Gaian military forces, considers the data displayed on the ‘tract-screens. They were all surprised when Station 7.153, holding watch over a sparsely-inhabited region of Gaian space, reported the ansible-signal from Galaxy 117::System 3. Archives had filed the system DOA where it shared memspace with other worlds they‘d seeded with disastrous results.

She rubs her high forehead with elegant fingers. They have no choice. When both sides of a non-negotiable conflict have access to the resources of half a universe full of superclusters and have mastered the translation of organically-based data over time, wars tend to drag on. But as they drug on, wear was inevitable; the Gaians were now losing ground, taking heavier losses for less gained.

Alg-clusters, coupled with the ‘tracts, calculate the talent pool on 117::3 increases the odds of success of their secret program by thirty percent. Staggering. The commingling of genes from the colonists driven out (and tampered with) by the Nev with those of the planet’s indigenous species (possibly seeded by the Oldest) has produced something prodigious.

It is distasteful to her, a part of what they must do, what she prepared to order others to order others to do. But she’d followed the ‘tracted threads to their ends; it had taken her out of the abstract into the very real and very possible future where the Gaian race was no more.

#

Out of the ten billion that had been humanity, there were only one hundred for whom the ships had truly come, all close in age, none quite adults.

Yet the Gaians were benevolent, known as farmers of the universe, seeding, nurturing, defending. They spoke of their role as mother-race. Though they failed to share with humanity (and most of the Gaian population) the exact details of Earth’s seeding, they were open about being at war with another universe-faring species called the Thant. They gifted technology to heal Earth. They offered humanity ships and new worlds, all far from the front lines. For those who still felt the call to serve and protect in the name of a greater cause, the Gaians trained in galactic warfare. Though they had suffered heavy losses, they were a race too learned to conscript, at least in most cases.

When a ship not quite like other Gaian ships, broke from orbit around Saturn, it carried the one hundred and others of Earth: soldiers, teachers, healers, scientists, artists, craftsmen; all specially-screened volunteers and their families. The Gaians did not permit anyone to accompany the chosen.

#

Kella’s leave-taking happens on Mars. She is the only one from the colony. She smiles, though her family weeps, to show she is brave; they shouldn’t worry.

The Gaian Civil Affairs officer had spoken to them gently about the circumstances which required Kella come with him in a week’s time. She saw the honesty in his eyes, read it in his posture. She knew everything she needed to know to volunteer; though her parents learned enough to want to refuse consent, they preferred to send her with their blessings, not find her gone early without saying good-bye, having stolen a skiff to fly herself there.

As Mars recedes below her, she can only think, We’re going the wrong way.

#

When Kella and her cohort reached the star systems that were home to the Gaian’s military academy called simply the School, they met others of their like from galaxies the universe over. Several hundred thousands, supported by a staff of millions and the food stuffs, technology, and other resources traded with the systems’ billions of inhabitants.

The School was as old as the Gaians. Though they prized peace, they were realists, understanding that despite their species’ respectable age, the universe still held its unknowns. Its Archive contained military histories and ‘tracts on strategies, tactics, training, and technology from millions of worlds, billions of cultures. By now, their reputation as farmers outstripped the legends of their military prowess. Their sector of the universe had been full of hunter-killer species in the Gaians’ youth.

#

Kella steps off the ship’s ramp onto the deck of the massive orbital ring that houses quarters and the Primary School where they will learn Gaian language and culture, participate in military training based on their gene-expressed skills. She follows the directions the ident-bracelet chimes out, thinking of her meeting with Odysseus, the mentor the Gaians assigned, and what he told her about himself.

His real name is not Odysseus. He is American. He is or was a member of an armed services branch. He wouldn’t say which except to say he has seen enough combat in every clime and place to last three lifetimes. He is here to impart his considerable knowledge of war and fighting. “Except for the bureaucratic nonsense. Apparently the Gaians have that figured out too,” he‘d mused.

She thinks of the names he has assigned as homework, whispers them to the bracelet: “Clausewitz, Homer, Wylie, Sims, Corbett, Mattis, Finney, Friedman, Armstrong, Ellis.” Though they had given ‘Seus access to the School’s Archive when he accepted the assignment, the Gaians insisted he begin her lessons with the works that had informed him as he strategized and fought on continent after continent on embattled Earth.

#

After graduation from three years of training at Primary, the Gaians offered the conscripts a choice, continue on in the specialties for which they had qualified or return home. Of the one hundred human children who began training, twenty left for home, only twelve qualified for Autonomous Arms Combat School; only one graduated. No one was surprised at the results. Especially not Orgonis.

Kella had come to her attention during her review of the portal data. Alg-clusters, ‘tracting on the quintillion examples of Gaian-base genetics of which humanity was a part, brought her name to Orgonis. After considering the analysis, she ordered her staff to hack the Mars Colony vid feeds.

What Orgonis saw, with resigned acknowledgement, in the ‘tracts and vid, delighted Nev scientists. Kella’s penchant for abstraction, the psychological distance she kept after the War, and her unique genetic signature made her an ideal candidate for Expansion.

#

To some Gaians’ everlasting shame, some six hundred thousand years into their race’s existence, an extremist faction called the Nev, deliberately cut loose systems, manufactured religions and manipulated normal tech flow (violating long-standing protocols on same) to create a war between machines and Gaian-forgotten that in the end obliterated entire systems. The survivors fled in search of new homes spoken of in Nev-seeded religions. Against all rules of normal Gaian interaction, they continually interfered until the survivors found their way to new planets, ready to abandon their technology.

They did this in the name of peace, the Nev claimed. Their interpretations of the Prime equations ‘tracted that only such populations, with the living horror of the death of entire systems implanted deeply within their collective psyches to pass on through generation after generation, could develop the complexity to help Gaia meet her future security needs.

The Gaians seeded and colonized worlds. Delighted in it. But the Nev went too far. Orgonis, not yet SO, was on the Chambers’ original investigative committee. They decided there was nothing to be done and began to catalog the planets. Earth became 117::3. The Chambers had no choice but to watch—portal tech advent being a first contact criteria imperative.

The Gaians found their universal growth halted forty-five thousand years later by the discovery of the Thant and the nature of their biology. Some fifty thousand years later, the war between them broke out in earnest. Prior to this, minor border skirmishes were the norm.

As the war approached its one hundred thousandth year and Gaian losses began to creep upward, the War Council ordered Orgonis to re-open the Nev’s ‘tracts and apply their research to a new program. There were those in Chambers that argued vehemently against this, as they understood their enemy well enough to know that the Holy of Thant would see this development as the ultimate insult to their faith.

The Chambers were divided until Evolutionary came down on the Nev’s side: the predictives showed though Gaian minds were not susceptible to Thant swarm theta-frequencies now, genetic drift due to continued contact in trade, art, war, and other exchange would produce enough mutations to make subsumation a distinct possibility. The Council’s recommendations were taken up, the Nev granted approval to proceed under the strict oversight of Orgonis.

Under her direction, the program seemed to do well, but the percentages were dismal. She lost hope until the ansible-signal from Earth lead her to its humans–unique amalgams of Oldest, Gaian, and machine.

#

Six years of grueling training have transformed Kella into a graceful and quick machine of war, in body as well as in mind. There is a deadly, biting grace in her movements, a clarity in her eyes that speaks of knowledge beyond her years. Today is her first I-flight combat training op, bumped a month early for no reason she knew of. She doesn’t care to know; she’s been waiting for this as if her whole life.

Timing is everything. The Thant hack a weak node in Gaian portal defense, using it that day to launch a devastating attack against the systems that house the School. She and a handful of her AAC cohort and their mentors are practicing maneuvers in the Oort cloud on the opposite side of the attack vectors, but the Thant tear through the systems like molten asteroid death from the deepest pits of 090::1.

#

They barely escaped. It was her first live combat fleet deepspace attempt, guiding ships while under fire.

Muon bombs, antimatter clusters, and deadly beams of twisted light streamed past her defenses. Shields failed; she lost ship after people-occupied ship before finding the strand to take them, untraceably, to safety.

The School and its systems became orbiting frag. More than half the population never made it to the emergency rendezvous point, most of the missing presumed dead. As were more than half of her cohort.

#

Lying on her side in a bunk deep inside a secret Gaian base, she traces the ionic structures of the curved, grey metal wall with her augmented sight, wondering at the cold logic of probability. She feels the emptiness where once half her cohort had been. She weeps.

#

In this new world, our collective thinking leads to better outcomes. In 2062, as the ice began to melt and the seas rose and its bounty ran dry, we saw our peril and put our weapons down.

#

A hand on her shoulder wakes her. The ship’s false light tells her it’s dawn.

“You did well,” Odysseus whispers.

She rolls over, looks deep into his sad eyes for the truth. Satisfied, she gives him a rare hug.

#

Thant Central regrets the destruction inflicted on the Strategos’ people. It had learned who she was through eons of engagements; it admired her intellect. Their intelligence channels pointed to the singular (indeed!) fact that these Gaians were each an entity unto themselves, representing an individual, unmeldable mind.

This had not stopped the Holy from their war. The strong survive, the weak serve. One of the central tenets of their faith. The first being “Thou shalt not emulate the mind of God”. That Thant Central allowed them to unleash their full annihilatory wrath on the Gaian systems which nurtured and created abomination was in large part due to the shifted consensus of the swarms, the quickened activity along regions representing borders in swarm galaxography, the many exchanges of thought-units between swarms which mediated the Thant political mind (as embodied in Central) and the swarms which were the Holy.

The fact that even secular swarms disavowed the use of thinking-machines spoke much to their faith. That their evolution decreed such machines unnecessary, they said, surely showed the will of God. Even the not-fully sentient machines of the Gaians crossed the boundaries of faith into idolatry. Before the war, many a Gaian assigned to border duty cursed the constant tech-destroying incursions. For whatever reason, wherever one encountered a border of Thant territory, one always encountered vast swarms of Holy.

As the war approached its one hundred thousandth year, Central’s intelligence swarms reported discovery of Gaian plans to create war machines that artificially emulated the swarm way of being. This enraged the Holy to genocide. Central had no choice but to let them loose upon the School and to plan for final battle. Secular swarms fought Central’s meditative drift, urgently sent diplomat-units to the Holy and altered the thoughtstream of physical-units they shared with Central, to no avail.

#

Orogonis watches dry-eyed as the ‘tracts on School status come streaming in. She eventually looks down and allows herself to think, It was inevitable.

#

Kella, Odysseus, and the remaining AAC cohort spend the next fourteen years in combat: ground, sea, air, space. Together as a mind-linked team or on their own with various autonomous units under their command, they help regular human and Gaian forces repulse Thant swarms in sectors all over Gaian territory, utilizing interior lines to blunt attack after attack, shifting forces more quickly than swarm ability to adapt despite their overwhelming numbers.

In the one hundred thousand and fifteenth year of the war, in Kella’s twentieth, the Holy unleash their answer to the Gaian’s AAC units which had indeed, with her arrival, begun to turn the tide in this eonic conflict.

#

She feels the kinetic thump of the ion cannons as distant tremors along her flank. A part of her autonomous nervous system, the defensives act instinctively to protect her, to protect the fleet and fighters that are her limbs. Her eyes, her skin, the trillions of sensors embedded in each ship, scan frequencies up and down and beyond the electromagnetic spectrum for danger, sample solar and galactic fluxes whose delicate play could give tactical advantages.

For her, space was no dark place, instead it was brilliant noise. She navigated through a sea of quantum froth alive with shifting patterns she could manipulate to find paths through dark masses that translated into incredible leaps through realspace. Even the darkness through which she threaded the fleet was alive with its flickering patterns of energy. The Gaians, long masters of spacefold technology, had never dared the attempt to meld it with an organic mind, not until they approached their hundred thousandth year of war.

Though she performed very well as the mind behind divisions of ‘autonomous’ ground systems in terrestrial combat, augmenting human/Gaian divisions on scores of planets across a multitude of systems, here amidst the darklight of spacetime, she truly felt at home.

The comms bring disturbing intelligence. The weapon is here. Reports, so very data-poor, had come cascading in from all the fronts which her cohorts defended. She had felt shock after shock as each one flickered out to leave gaping absences in her being. She is the last, with the bulk of the Gaian and human fleet, defending the home systems and the humans who had immigrated there.

Data flowing from a wedge deep inside the Thant formation indicates this is indeed something new; the ships’ idents ping as unrecognizable, energies signatures border on gamma-red.

As she maneuvers her body that is a massive fleet, preparing to carve a hole through the mass of Thant ships between them, the wedge erupts in wild patterns of dark which gather and crest before rushing forward in tsunamic proportions. When it strikes, she is overwhelmed, all systems and ships writhing within patterns of darkness which they, which she, have never before encountered. She feels them eating at the core which connects her to her wide-flung limbs. They are, she is, dying.

Her scream of denial echoes brutally on all comm frequencies and in minds across all battle fleets. In that shattering cry, she channels the pain of a lifetime at war, of lost friends, of lost worlds, of lost innocence into a fierce acclamation and affirmation of life. She will live! She will remember them all! They will live!

The patterns collapse; the wave disappears. She is suddenly alone in stillness, in a dark that is not absence of light but absence of anything, a dark which presses against her mind, seeking to quash her into nothing in its quest for homogeneity.

Instead of fighting the pressure, she lets it flow through her, lets it find its equilibrium around the delicate yet strong filaments which are the last remnants of herself, and finds she is now looking at time itself, at the universe, at the multiverse itself.

She sees the nature of the Thant device; they have attempted to use the very beginnings of the fabric of the universe, that which had given ‘birth’ to spacetime, as a weapon.

She pushes the wave back; it turns to overwhelm its creators. Even as she touches it, she is engulfed, sucked back into realspace by the pull of its impossible energies; the filaments of her identity begin to shred in the grip of tidal forces which birthed reality itself, yet there remains a kernel of light that is she, tumbling headlong with the wave back to its source.

She remembers her training, reaches out and out, imagining her consciousness swelling to the size of the universe and beyond. Suddenly she is the wave, shattering the ships which called it/her into being, using the quantum entanglements which connect weapon and source to simultaneously destroy the other ships that carry the devices scattered across galaxies and raze into dust the planetary systems used to create them. A handful escape with their lives. Those that flee with bits of the Enigma technology, she finds by trace and annihilates.

#

An armistice declared; a neutral zone established.

She was eight months in recovery at a top-secret veterans’ hospital, a vast orbital ring that spanned an obscure black hole. When Kella was well enough to leave, Orgonis offered her command of Earth’s defense forces. Despite the truce, portal incursions still occurred well beyond the zone. The Thant blamed fundamentalists beyond their control.

She refused and instead negotiated for the creation an autonomous fleet to watch over Earth and its sector of 117.

#

She blinks in sequence; the small robo-server rises to hand her the stylo and cell. She writes with deliberation. Finished, she sends them floating then gives the snap that will prep the slip for launch.

She thumbs comm. “Do you think it will last, ‘Seus? This peace?”

“Honestly, I don’t know,” he’s says quietly.

She nods. “Slip’s prepping.”

He smiles and breaks link, goes to harvest what he and his wife will prepare for dinner, shouts orders of preparation at grandchildren and farmhands as he makes his way into the garden.

She hooks her way to the hangar passage before activating the environment’s gravity. The robo-server speeds to capture the slab of memory cell and stylo before they collide with what is now the floor. As it glides back to a resting place on a wall, the cell it holds glows as the translation begins.

#

We are finally a race in harmony, exploring the wealth of our solar system in cooperation. We build the portal out of curiosity and a sense of adventure, and they come. But only to welcome us into a universe at peace.

#

She eases the slip from berth and cants towards low earth orbit. When the day breaks across the curve of the world’s horizon, she feels a tremble in the tenuous thread that will always connect her to that other place. She keys comm and whispers, “I was right. To pray, ‘Seus. Someone’s listening.”