The following story was written by Jonathan Jeckell, a US Army officer currently detailed to the US Department of State helping develop the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Jon has served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, most recently as an advisor to the Ministry of the Interior through the AfPak Hands program in 2014. This piece is a featured entry 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.
Roy looked down at the deceptively beautiful and seemingly fragile looking object in his hand with a look of disgust. Even now it was trying to eat through his glove. A metallic tang like nearby welding irritated his nose. “Commander Falke, we have another one over here!” Roy Falke turned and carefully suspended the “snowflake” between two powerful magnets to ensure it couldn’t get a grip on any matter before turning his attention to his colleague. Hikaru gestured to a larger fractal pattern shimmering in the sun, and carefully enclosed it in a container that ripped it apart at the molecular level. They had caught these just in time.
But finding these at all was disturbing. They had spent decades trying to eradicate these damned things, and this confirmed that either some spores lay dormant, or there was another source somewhere that they hadn’t located. They could not afford another outbreak.
It was hard to believe that something so beautiful could cause so much trouble. Maybe that’s why they went unnoticed for so long when they first emerged. Even there was only speculation that they had arrived sometime in the 2040s in the midst of the Climate Wars. Everyone certainly had other things pressing for their attention back then, Roy mused.
Scarcity and survival brought out the most intense and worst impulses in humanity. Roy’s father was deeply scarred by that war and spent the rest of his life trying to ensure nobody ever fought over food again. Roy still couldn’t get the taste of some of his untrained attempts at producing synthesized food out of his mouth. Even emergency military rations during the worst of the starving years were better than some of his early attempts.
The first Climate War boiled over as population boomed while deserts expanded, species went extinct and food prices soared. Malthus had returned to tell humanity he told us so. Starving people around the world migrated out of rapidly expanding deserts. Strongmen thrived in making empty promises to desperate people and incited violence as a solution. The second Climate War blurred in with the first, as richer countries threw caution to the wind to literally stop the rising tide and found a new zeal for geoengineering. The changing climate actually favored some of these powerful countries, who did not want to see a return to the way things were and bitterly resisted this. Some of these efforts worked at cross-purposes and had unintended consequences, leading to an escalating conflict among the great powers of the world. A vicious fight over food now included a brutal brawl over the thermostat that spiraled out of control. Actual fallout from the war and the conflicting geoengineering inputs threw the climate into wild oscillations.
Then, just as that war began to subside, when the famines, pandemics, and freak weather began to subside, the emergence of the Snowflakes threatened to start it all back up again. The war ended with exhaustion, but not resolution, so a pervasive sense of distrust and roots of the conflict remained among the combatants. So when powerful machines began consuming everything in their path in various parts of the world, it immediately kindled suspicions that these were some kind of super-weapon deliberately launched against them. Humanity lost precious time and opportunities to cooperate sooner against this new enemy.
Whatever they were, they came in all sorts of shapes and sizes and were very tough to destroy. And no matter how many you destroyed, there always seemed to be more of them later in an even wider range of shapes. Only later did someone figure out that some of them released something like spores that looked like snowflakes, carrying the code to produce more self-replicating offspring. Destroying one without stopping the spores halts the immediate threat, but while it takes a while for them to grow you will be facing exponentially more of them next time. That’s when humanity took notice and began to wake up to this new threat.
The Snowflakes grew more slowly on the moon, and even slower yet in the Belt where the sunlight fell more dimly. Here on Earth, some of them figured out how to use our power lines and other energy sources to grow much faster. But they could still be deadly because they could lie hidden in the rocks and grow and silently watch and wait.
Out there they had to rely on the sun. But if they tapped into a concentrated energy source, they started growing and evolving rapidly. Many of them had also started communicating and sharing patterns with each other through radio bursts on fractal antennas. That amped up their ability to evolve by equipping them something like sexual reproduction and code exchange. We provided them with selection criteria for fitness. They developed abilities to sense and act in this new environment at a startling rate.
Roy was there when they noticed that some of them even learned to tap into our nets and devices, and sometimes grafted parts of our weapons and sensors into themselves. They learned how to jam and spoof wireless sensors and communications. Once in a while they learned to reproduce human tech they captured through rapid trial and error, like the nasty infra-red optics they developed. That was the part that really worried Roy.
Until recently, he depended on bots and sensors quite a lot. If they could rapidly mimic our best tech, and then turn our own bots, sensors, and suits could be turned against us, we were in big trouble. Roy also shuddered at the thought of what might happen if the Snowflakes tapped into the imps. If they couldn’t stop this soon, we would be the bugs getting squashed. We had to wipe them out before we were throwing rocks at them.
When Roy started the war, he felt like a glorified park ranger fighting an invasive species or a forest fire that blindly groped along. Now it was starting to turn into something unlike Roy had ever seen. It wasn’t quite war—these things didn’t seem to be conscious or sentient, but they still managed to learn and adapt in startling ways.
Roy threw his bag over his shoulder and checked his list one more time. He and Hikaru couldn’t be late for their own party. He couldn’t believe Hikaru and some of the others were being dragged into this. He was just a kid, and certainly not a warrior. That was true of a lot of people on his team though, and the international committee who arranged for this expedition was either really naïve by sending some of them along or figured we were all really screwed if we failed. Maybe they were right. If the Snowflakes evolved so quickly here, who knows what they would find out there where they could have millions of years to adapt?
Outposts all over the Solar System kept finding Snowflakes, and they were getting better at coordinating with each other, using outlying watchers for early warning. It was a big place to be sure, with lots of places to hide among the rocks circling the sun, but now they were certain–the Snowflakes were not from around here. They are riding on a galactic dust cloud that the Sun was passing through as it orbits around galactic core.
Who knew how much longer these things would keep trickling in? Worse, what if they were merely harbingers of more complex and formidable Snowflakes to come? It was only a matter of time before the Snowflakes established a beachhead and overwhelmed us. Humanity had been run ragged over the years just keeping these things at bay. We needed to find the source. What would we find out there? Did the Snowflakes emerge on their own, or was something out there doing this to us intentionally?
Roy and Hikaru looked up at their new toy. He looked doubtfully at Hikaru and wondered if this kid had any idea how to operate this thing–particularly if they had to run things manually. Roy began his career in subs hunting other subs in the dark down under the ocean and couldn’t even see outside without sophisticated cogents processing inputs from exquisite sensors. This was just one of many lost skills they were trying to reboot since the Snowflakes started turning our bots and other tools against us. So many military skills were made useless, and ironically some of the best warriors were now the most perplexed in this new war.
But Hikaru had quite a reputation as a natural out in the Belt. And as a second-generation wildcat miner, he also had a lot of other skills that might come in handy. But this wasn’t one of those little scout birds they used for prospecting, nor was it one of their lumbering refining barges; this was something else. Then again, who could possibly be prepared for this?
Roy felt a flash of annoyance when the airlock hissed chilled air directly into his face. He wasn’t going to put up with that. Humanity allegedly poured its best resources into this ship and this level of attention to detail made him wonder just what other corners were cut in the rush. Roy comforted himself that at least the trials had gone well. The ship didn’t collapse itself into a little black hole and disappear, so that was good, right? So at least the important things should work, right? Right?
Twenty other ships mostly like this one had already launched on their missions, so at least Roy wouldn’t be contending with ribbon cutting politicians, tour groups, or a media circus. The novelty had worn off and they were preoccupied with other things. A few reporters were here, but most of the attention had shifted to the Titan landings. There were also worrying new signs in the news today about signals detected on Venus and in the cloud layers on Jupiter.
Twenty ships. They were definitely building them fast, but surely one of them should have returned by now.
Roy turned to face the chatter entering the bridge. The woman in front caught his look and stopped short, everyone following her bumping into her from behind. Roy defused the awkward moment by adroitly stepping forward. “You must be Dr. Lavoisier. Your breakthrough at the LHC was one of the keys to making all of this possible.” Roy ransacked his brain to recall the orientation on the ship in case she followed up on that. There were two competing faster-than-light methods racing through development. Hers must have fed into the spacefold project used on this ship, not the Alcubierre-White drive that everyone just called “warp drive.” “You were the one who figured out how the Higgs Field was related to…” he paused at her reaction and thought better of continuing further. But she nodded “Oui. That is basically correct, but there were sooo many people who contributed to that and the many other discoveries. The glory belongs to my team.” Roy knew she was being a bit modest. Science had taken a terribly hit during the Climate Wars. Even research facilities that had nothing to do with weapons or geoengineering were targeted, and cogents had been edging human scientists out of the field until the Snowfall.
Dr. Lavoisier introduced her team of about fifty scientists, engineers, and technicians who would be minding the fold generators. The size and composition of the team confirmed Roy’s suspicions that the fold generators were basically a glorified science experiment that had barely been tested out a few times before they threw it into service.
But Roy was still glad they were using this system instead of the warp drive. They were still working kinks out with navigating using that system at faster than light speeds, and they also needed to find better ways to push debris out of their path. Even hitting hydrogen atoms at that speed was causing a lot of damage.
Still, the fold came with risks too. They were still working on refining how to precisely appear where you wanted to end up. There were so many things that influenced that, including the local gravity at the “launch” and “landing” sites. And knowledge of the landing area was limited by what you could see—which changed since light left on its journey from there to here. Nobody knew yet what would happen if you landed in space that was already occupied by something. Roy felt a chill as he considered the possibilities and decided he didn’t want to be the one to find out.
Testing indicated the fold also could give them a crucial edge in some other ways. Although many systems crashed and the crew became disoriented temporarily, it could also give them the surprise because (as far as they could tell) the ship pretty much just appeared out of nowhere. And if they had to leave in a hurry, there was no way to track which way they went…as far as they could tell.
Roy’s XO and Chief reported. “Sir, all of the equipment, personnel, and supplies are aboard, and all of the ships systems are ready. Your landing detachment commander and air squadron commanders are here to report, and your weapons and countermeasures officers are waiting for you after that.”
Roy thought about what to discuss with them. They didn’t know what to expect out there when they planned this mission. Nobody knew what they would encounter. The Committee had elected to send manned ships because they feared probes would tip off whatever was waiting for them, that the technology could help them adapt, the AI could be compromised, and lead them straight back to Earth.
So they were sending people. Lots of them, including social scientists, bot handlers, cogent minders, hackers, EW experts, and game theorists to understand what they encountered and develop a strategy against whatever they discovered. If these things couldn’t be reasoned with they would have to fight. If it came to that, Roy needed to find an effective way to do that and stay ahead of them.
All of the gun crews for the DEWs and railguns bristling along the hull were ready, and the nukes were nestled securely in their tubes. Although the all of this could be centrally controlled in the bridge, Roy decided delegating out to the gun crews would be more responsive and safer in case they had to shut down the ship’s net quickly. He had a lot of people to keep track of if it came to a fight. It couldn’t be avoided. They couldn’t afford to have whatever they faced out there turn their systems against them if they learned the same trick the Snowflakes learned on Earth.
So their job was to jump out to their target star system and check it out. If they found something, they were to figure out how to talk to it, make peace with it, neutralize the threat one way or another, and hop to the next star until they stopped the Snowflakes from falling on Earth.
Roy also kept a dark secret buried deep in his heart. He could not allow this ship to be compromised. Whatever they encountered could not be allowed to mimic the fold generators or ransack the computers to find Earth. No matter what. Roy knew there was no hope of contacting home or the other ships if they ran into trouble. They were on their own. Even if they could risk betraying Earth’s location with a signal, it would take decades or longer to be heard.
Roy worried about keeping morale up. He suspected this would be a long, lonely job. Their job was to stay out there until they neutralized the threat, or keep at it as long as they possibly could. They would live off the land, recycling materials and mining whatever they needed along the way to feed the fabs to make whatever they needed and to help them adapt.
The steady buzz of discussion on the bridge abruptly stopped when Roy touched his cheek to patch into the PA system. “You all volunteered for this mission. Other brave men and women have gone before you. It’s our turn now, our turn to do our part to protect our families. The Snowflakes keep appearing and we keep pushing them back. Someday they may overwhelm us, but it is not this day. We know now that they come from out there, somewhere ahead of the Sun’s path around the galaxy, their seeds carried in a dust cloud we’ve been drifting through. We’ve been charged with finding the source. We will find out if someone or something is doing this deliberately. We will try to resolve this peacefully, but we need to be prepared to fight. Not just for our survival, but for the lives of everyone we know and the fate of humanity itself. We don’t know what we will find out there, but I know what I will find among this crew. You are the best of the best. There is no secret second team coming to back us up. We are it, and we will be victorious. DEFIANCE OUT.”