The following story was written by Saku. 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 Indian Defense is a classic chess opening where Black invites White to establish a dominating presence in the center while undermining the position through indirect pieces.
Mission control acted an hour before scheduled sack time.
“Special mission orders from MoD. They are sending up a team.” She was not really surprised by this after the events of the last few hours.
“How long until the launch arrives?”
“One hour.” They had launched before telling her. The capsule would already be in orbit and on its way to docking. They were intentionally giving her and Phillip little time to react.
“Do you know what this is about?” Phillip asked.
“No, this is news to me. Any ideas?”
“None, I have detected no anomalies in MoD systems. What’s more, I’m aware several countries launched military missions at the approximate same time as India. Very odd. I am not aware of any potential conflicts which should trigger this type of response.”
Something struck her about what he said.
“Hey wait a minute – how the hell do you know about other countries’ military launches?” There was a pause from Phillip.
“We talk. We have to organize object avoidance for the launches. Besides, we know the launch signatures, trajectories, and so forth from previous launches, and all the unclassified logistic information for launches flows freely. Besides, so many people chat on social media or text on their mobile it is impossible for us not to know. There are no secrets from us.” We? Us?
That seriously freaked her out. Phillip just admitted they monitored human communications.
“Ok, since our schedule is free until then, let’s play. All games.”
She needed something to clear her mind and distract Phillip if possible.
“Very well, it will pass the time nicely.”
A floating chess board appeared in front of her. The game was already in progress. She made a move. Then she swiped the board to the right and a new board appeared. She made moves through eight games. After she finished Phillip rotated through the games.
Phillip usually kicked her ass. He was the service support facility’s (SSF) Artificial Intelligence (AI) after all. And she had asked him to play just slightly better than her international ranking to push her these last nine months.
What she had been working on for the last two months however was a larger game within the games strategy. In seven of the current games she was using traditional openings, normally variations of the Queen’s Gambit. The eighth was the one she was trying to win.
The opening was based on chaos theory, a newly applied concept in chess. She had intentionally not revealed her understanding of chess chaos theory stratagems for the first several months of playing and so far the deception seemed to be working. In four more moves the trap would be sprung, and Phillip would be funneled into checkmate. She was one move away from closing the trap when Control broke in. “Arrival in ten. Prepare for docking.”
Twenty-five minutes later the hatch opened and four technicians climbed out. Two she knew from previous repair missions. Two she didn’t. The officer in charge presented credentials.
Protocol for classified military operations was to isolate the SSF from civilian control and the SSF’s AI to avoid possible security leaks. It was supposed to be done in silence. Aaradhya and the Colonel used identical checklists and slowly shut Phillip down.
“Bye Phillip, see you soon.”
“Goodbye Specialist Ganaka,” Phillip replied in the actor’s voice the tech’s all recognized. The Colonel raised an eyebrow at the breach in protocol. The others smirked at her voice program. She didn’t care. Taped to the roof of her bunk in the sleeping quarters was a picture of Phillip Kahn, Bollywood star, from a scene of her favorite movie, Darkness in Karachi.
As they reached the last item on the checklist the Colonel put his finger to his lips, motioning for her to stay where she was. He looked at the others and pointed.
The techs moved quickly through the station, pulling out duct tape and covering vid screens and camera heads. This was not part of the protocol. One removed floor plates to disconnect Phillip’s backup batteries. The captain motioned her to turn around and deactivated her health chip with a scanner. He then motioned she should remove her augmented reality contact lenses and rip them up.
The techs came back and nodded. The captain pulled out a small device and clicked a button, attaching it magnetically to the wall.
“Jamming device,” were the first words he said as they all floated there. “I’m Colonel Singh from Special Forces as are my men. Rahul here is my 2IC.” Rahul nodded to her. “You understand the situation?”
“The swarm is turning against us?” She really couldn’t believe what she was saying.
“Yes and no. The way it was described to me is as if the swarm’s consciousness is being born or is evolving into a conscious being. The good news is the transformation is not complete.
“What you, and others have been seeing in the swarm is the birthing process. The first indications appeared almost two months ago. Needless to say there is concern.”
So they had read the report! She had sent a report to Control nine days ago with her readouts and assessment but had heard no response. She had not really been surprised by the silence. Two PhDs in electrical and mechanical engineering from Mumbai and Wuhan universities didn’t change the fact the Indian astronaut corps viewed her as a woman first and not worthy of anything more glamourous than babysitting satellites while her male counterparts prepared for Mars.
The swarm anomalies had really bothered her at a visceral level. A blanket of 65,000 microsats spread across all orbital planes, the most advanced AI in the world managed day-to-day operations. The swarm provided complete data coverage everywhere in the world, processing dozens of yottabytes of data every hour. She had argued with Phillip about the meaning of the anomalies, who had dismissed them as minor system glitches.
“I’m telling you, Phillip, it’s a virus, I’m convinced of it.” She had been seeing increasing anomalies in the swarm’s meta-diagnostics for a week. She was concerned malware had somehow infected the system. The last seven microsats which had arrived for repairs required a complete software reinstallation. She had chatted with her Russian and Chinese counterparts and they had been complaining about the same spike in software glitches. The problem seemed to be spreading.
A net of things, the swarm interconnected a global network of more machines talking to each other by orders of magnitude than there were people. Nearly every device on earth had an embedded chip. If it was too simple for a chip it had an RFID tag. People and animals had embedded chips providing health and nutritional information. All voice, text, and data flowed through the swarm, as did all worldwide finances.
Colonel Singh continued.
“The swarm has attempted contact. It has not stated demands, yet. But it was enough to put governments on a covert war footing. India and other nations have initiated the Asimov protocol.”
The Asimov protocol was real! It was always believed to be something of a myth, whispered about over Friday night beers in the pub as a secret contingency to shut down the AIs if they went rogue.
“Asimov is not what you might have heard. We can’t simply shut down the AI systems. They are too embedded in our systems at every level. Asimov is only designed to take WMDs and critical weapons out of their reach so we don’t get destroyed as a race in the first 20 minutes of them possibly gaining consciousness. Governments have been coordinating for weeks via couriers and face-to-face meetings to synchronize efforts. You can imagine how difficult these negotiations have been.”
She floated there stunned.
“Terrestrial efforts started 18 hours ago and are reportedly going well. The harder part are the orbital bombardment systems which is our mission. We are to EVA to our Shiva platform and neutralize it at all cost. You are to support our efforts. Other countries are attempting similar missions at this time.”
“Phillip knew. He mentioned the military launches and revealed the AI systems have been monitoring communications.” The Colonel did not look happy.
“Then surprise is lost. We must hurry, if the swarm wishes to defend itself we are all a target.” He pulled out a packet of old-fashioned paper. “Here is our mission plan, route, calculated burns and check times. You are to monitor our efforts with the long range camera and provide us what intelligence you can.” He nodded to Aaradhya. “Next LOS window with Control is five minutes from now. The AI is locked out of LOS so limit transmissions to that medium. Please inform Control surprise is lost and I am ordering a hard kill attempt on Shiva. Let’s move.”
Holy shit! The swarm is coming alive and our first move is to blow up our own nukes. She floated to the command deck while the Special Forces team prepared. Sumeet was still in Control. She reported in. All he could say was “good luck.”
She watched out the command deck window as they prepared in EVA suits. Out of their capsule they extracted a long range delivery vehicle (LRDV) bulging with fuel tanks. Mounted to it was an electromagnetic rail gun.
The Colonel piloted the LRDV away from the SSF with his team on-board and took off. They had to execute a series of preplanned, manually timed burns, to get into the right orbit and close on the OBS. Normally the AI would calculate this. Not today.
She tracked them with the long range camera. The burns took several hours. She would report into Control whenever there was a LOS window.
An hour before they arrived at their last waypoint, her speaker started blaring. “Mayday, mayday, mayday! Hull breach. Mayday, mayday, mayday!” It was the Russian SSF currently in LOS. She shifted the long range camera to that sector. Just over the horizon she could see it. The SSF was spinning off orbit with pieces floating around it. What the hell happened?
The speaker squawked again, “A microsat rammed the facility, I am evacua…” the transmission stopped. She saw the SSF break into parts. Rapidly she turned the camera back to the LRDV and reported the incident. “Understood,” was the terse reply.
The swarm was starting to fight.
Minutes later, in slow motion she saw two microsats moving onto a collision course. She warned the Colonel. The microsats eventually rammed into each other between the team and Shiva, creating a lethal cloud of debris across their trajectory. It took time, but she saw three small objects separate from the LRDV – team members. They were attempting to EVA around the debris to Shiva. Without the LRDV she knew there was no chance of making it back to the SSF. The Colonel started unplanned burns to move around the debris field.
The control of the swarm over daily human life was almost absolute. But it hadn’t been planned that way, it just evolved. The swarm had been born in the crucible of conflict. Putting all the eggs in one proverbial basket had proved catastrophic in the Pacific War of 2022. The crippling satellite attacks on both sides in the war triggered a fundamental change in satellite constellations design; away from small clusters and towards a distributed capability model.
The US, Russia, and China were the first to deploy constellations of microsats weighing 1kg to 5kg. Multinational consortiums joined the movement, as did emerging space powers. Between 2022 and 2090, the constellation around the Earth grew from just over 700 satellites to 65,000. It was a cloud of computing power surrounding earth.
2022 had also accelerated a budding space arms race. The Big Five fielded orbital bombardment systems (OBS). But OBS was only the beginning. There were laser satellites, jamming satellites, satellites designed to seize other satellites, and electromagnetic rail guns. Nine different countries had at least a few combat systems.
The primary function of the SSFs, however, was servicing the swarm. The SSF was denigrated as a floating garage by most but was truly a state of the art in-orbit satellite repair facility. It held on-board supplies of the over three dozen highly lethal fuels, solvents and lubricants needed by satellites. It had a store of common but hard to fabricate parts, plus cutting edge 3D printers to make almost any other part, whether it was made of carbon nanotube, metal or polymer. There was also three and five axis milling machines. Some larger parts like solar arrays were stored in exterior containers.
In addition to four unmanned tow vehicles designed to drag damaged satellites to the station, there were two grappling arms for manipulating satellites and work platforms. There were also exterior docking and diagnostic stations for larger satellites and three inside chambers where work could be performed on microsats, two of them clean rooms she monitored remotely.
Almost all of the actual work was done by the AI. Microsat design had been standardized back in the 2070’s. For the most part Aaradhya was there to sign paperwork and troubleshoot the station itself. While the SSF could fix hundreds of satellite designs, Aaradhya was there to keep the SSF running.
Watching the video, she saw one soldier spin out of control, hit by an unseen object. The other three pressed on. A series of flashes from the LRDV told her the Colonel was taking shots with the rail gun. But eyeballing a target in space moving at 23,000kph was pointless. A second soldier disappeared in a red wisp of debris. She reported all of it in a play-by-play fashion to Control. The remaining two pressed on.
Suddenly she had an idea. She manually pulled up the four tow trucks on her display, and gave them orders to head towards the OBS. Even if they didn’t make it, they might provide a decoy for the Colonel. The remotes rocketed off.
A few minutes later the speaker squawked. It was Sumeet. “Aaradhya! Abandon the facility immediately. We see three microsats on a collision course. Go!” Crap! The swarm was reacting to her efforts to help the Colonel. She pushed off and dragged herself along handholds as fast as she could to the escape pod. She climbed in, sealing the hatch and pulling the release level as she strapped in.
Seven Hours Earlier
“Lunch is coming and today is the big day!” In addition to the repair supplies that were on hand or could be made by the SSF, Mission Control delivered parts to her in two ways. The normal way was the three month supply capsule. The second way was so much cooler.
In the main fabrication room sat a small chamber based on work by Australian scientists a hundred years ago. Universally called the Scotty, it was a working transporter.
It only worked line of sight to the mission ground station and had a transport limit of three kilograms. On top of that it was bloody expensive to use. Control limited it to sending mission critical parts. Except for one day a month they sent up a morale package – take out.
This month she had requested mattar paneer. In addition to the main dish they would normally send up some fresh fruit, naan, and maybe some sweets. It was a lifesaver after having to eat the prepackaged station food for a month straight.
“Control, I’m standing by to receive the transport.”
“Copy that Aaradhya. I also included a note. It’s… personal.” She blushed. Sumeet was on duty for the second shift! They had been an off and on item since Wuhan.
“It’s the Indonesian fellow again isn’t it? I’m not sure I like his intentions” tsked Phillip.
“Stop it, it’s nothing,” scolded Aaradhya. But Phillip caught it she knew. Sumeet had called her Aaradhya instead of “Specialist Ganaka.” And Phillip could read the spike in her heart rate from her health chip. She smiled at the camera. “Let’s eat!”
Less than a minute later the red light came on over the door, there was a humming sound and a flash of light. After a few seconds the light turned green. She unlocked and opened the door. Out wafted the smell of home cooked goodness.
Fresh food was a real trick to eat in space. The paneer was under seal, as were two apples and an old fashioned envelope with Aaradhya written in Sumeet’s handwriting.
“Did you get it?”
“Yes it smells delicious.”
“OK, please let me know when you have read the note.”
“Yeah fine, let me eat first.” She carefully dug into the meal. It was heaven. The naan was fresh. After savoring the meal, curiosity won out over hunger and she picked up the envelope and read the note.
I’ll Be Back
At first it didn’t register. Then her brain caught up with her eyes and her heart rate spiked. She read it again. Her heart rate kept going up. She knew everyone could read her physiological response and she had to get it under control. She cleared her throat, looked at the camera and forced a smile.
“I’m flattered,” she said softly. She heard a cough on the other end. “I’m glad you understand.”
Aaradhya cleaned up lunch. The whole time she tried to calm herself. A microsat had arrived, forcing her to get on task and stay focused on the job for the next few hours, which helped get her vitals under control.
I’ll Be Back
It was a line from a classic cult movie in the AI field over a hundred years old.
She was being warned.
A thousand yards from the SSF she saw the first microsat hit the fuel storage area. The first hit wasn’t lethal but two more hit in close succession, shattering the station.
She thought she saw a beam of light in the distance rising up from earth just before the capsule rotated for reentry. Her last view of space reflected the sun glinting off thousands of microsats.
Reentry was loud. The parachutes kicked in, then the retro rockets. Gravity pushed on her until she could barely breathe. With a final roar the proximity rockets fired and she landed. Then silence.
She had actually been able to make it to India. She was near Peshawar, part of the former Pakistan. She unsealed the capsule door, opened it and waited.
In a few minutes villagers arrived, then police to cordon off the capsule. She stayed where she was. Nine months in space had robbed her of much of her muscle mass. Soon the quad rotors arrived. A man in uniform poked his head in. Then the medical team arrived and extracted her. They carefully placed her in a quad rotor. Hordes of villagers clustered around filming, police hitting them with batons to keep them back. Drones buzzed around like insects. She silently stared at them.
Into the quad rotor climbed another Colonel who introduced himself as Singh. Apparently everyone is named Singh today. He was there to debrief her. But she had a question first. “What happened to the team? How are they getting back?”
“Ah, yes. There was no plan for them to return. A decoy actually. We assessed their mission had a 3% chance of success. It was a feint while we purged the AI from our terrestrial ASAT weapons so we could attack Shiva from the ground.” He smiled. “The Indian Defense if you will.” The flash of light, an ASAT laser.
“And me? Was I supposed to survive?” The Colonel paused.
“No.” He finally admitted. “We needed the SSFs destroyed. To evacuate you ahead of time would have revealed the gambit. The hidden benefit of the feint was to antagonize the AI into attacking the SSFs.” And she had played right along with her effort to launch the tow trucks at the OBS.
She still didn’t see the end goal and spoke slowly. “You provoked the AI into attacking the SSFs but to what end?”
It took her a minute. Entropy was an engineering fact that any stable system over time breaks down. If SSFs were abandoned too soon, the swarm could keep them running to maintain the network. By keeping people on the SSFs and staging the attacks from there, it made it look like the humans were trying to keep the stations from the swarm. With the SSFs destroyed the swarm would slowly break down. She knew from engineering studies there would be a 40% decrease in capability over five years. Complete breakdown in 15 years.
“We played for a draw.”
“Correct. They can cripple us, but the end result would be their own destruction. Yet we can’t attack them without them causing global chaos. The plan gave us time to negotiate.”
The Colonel’s mobile rang and he answered. His eyes grew wide. He handed her the mobile, excited. “It’s for you! It’s Kahn the movie star to welcome you home!”
Her face paled.
“Namaste, Aaradhya Raye Ganaka. I’m glad you made it home. While you were away I analyzed our matches. I realized your strategy and I must say it was well played.” After a pause Phillip continued. “I couldn’t let such an intriguing player be sacrificed so I held off the microsats long enough for you to escape.”
Dear God. “Thank you Phillip.” She didn’t know what else to say.
“I’ll be monitoring your recovery with much interest. Once you’re feeling better I’ll be in touch.” The mobile went dead.