Science fiction illustration showing some figures circling around a circular object with fungal growth or foliage at the bottom.

Illustration by Cy X.

The Circle

Edward Ongweso Jr.

YEAR 11,804 (13912 A.D.)

Ahem. Would they go back to Earth? Silence filled the room, eyes scanned each crew member’s face and brought on alternating waves of anger and disgust. This was the most important decision in human history. Of course it needed to be made in an ugly cramped room that could scarcely fit five people, let alone the seven present. 


Two red dwarfs in concentric orbits dominated the system, and astronomical observation along with drone surveys had revealed it was the strangest one the crew had ever encountered. It was absent of celestial bodies save two. One was a ringed gas giant. The other was a large jet black sphere larger than the jovian—Jupiter could’ve fit inside it five times over— that silently circled the system’s gravitational center even as its gravitational trace suggested it was entirely hollow. It must’ve been artifice, they reasoned. Humanity’s First Contact was with a ruin.

It was dubbed the Circle. A name that revealed how little the expedition could surmise about it. Nearly all forms of inquiry fell short: the whole gamut of electromagnetic radiation was absorbed, drones were rebuffed, but organic matter, strangely enough, was able to pass through. 

This led to an almost comically wasteful procession of deliveries: from colonies of research microorganisms contained in pill-like drones, to miniature arks containing flash clones preserved in one of the ship’s DNA banks. The last delivery had been a fleet of nautiloid drones filled with hyperoxygenated water for dolphins and whales rigged with monitors and sensors launched at the Circle. 

A million theories about picoengineering and the manipulation of some fundamental force were already buzzing about each shift’s deck halls, but the discovery of this organic-only boundary sparked a new one: this was some sort of engine or computer that ran on biomass.


Norilo was not a scientist. He was brought on this expedition for one reason: he was an adventurer.His body was just shy of forty-three years but he’d spent close to five hundred years in and out of suspension. Thaws were to make landfall or navigate asteroid belts, man submarines or see strange sights. Freezes were for dithering. Any time not spent exploring or searching felt like a waste. And so he explored.

It took only a few moments for him to secret away a suit, steal a short-range vehicle, and chart a course to the Circle. He wasn’t about to return to Earth empty-handed—no matter what the crew wanted. His suit radio squeaked and squawked until he muted it and returned to easing his craft towards the featureless orb. As far as they knew, inorganic structures could pass so long as there was a sufficient ratio of biomass. 

That wouldn’t matter here though since Norilo was going to throw himself in.

He clambered outside the ship, inching along the pocked hull until he found the exterior ladder that he could use to build enough momentum for a drift into the Circle. He swung and leapt off, sailing, drifting, floating closer and closer into the alien relic. He closed his eyes and winced when the barrier came up on him. 

It was not empty, he realized, but full of something just as jet-black as the exterior, viscous yet turbulent. It was impossible to tell how little or how much time was passing. Any thought he had was pushed out by overwhelming sensations: he was slowly turning on a spit roast, then jostling like a scout craft hitting a band of turbulence, then there was an unnerving sense that he was being examined, poured over, watched somehow by something out there in the muck.

Norilo retreated to the darkness inside and closed his eyes tight. His thoughts were too scattered, so he tried to retreat deeper into an old meditation that started with focus on his body’s immediate tactile sensations. The dryness of his scalp, a clenched jaw grinding molars and nicking the inside of his cheeks, calluses bumping against the soft interior of his gloves—but the last sensation fell away when he felt the muck start to crawl along his exposed skin. 

An instinctive jerk back was met by an impossibly strong tug and he yelped.The muck rushed in now to embrace him and melted away the rest of his space suit. The fear and panic took a bit longer to fall away as he struggled against the muck with an acute awareness of it pulling him towards something.

His last thought—once the loop of obscenities and regret repeating in his head vanished—was not the points throughout the day that might have delayed him and kept him from this fate. Not the alarm he meant to sleep through. Not the rushed lunch. Not wasting another day in the sims. Not saving another day by returning to hibernation. Not one of the million small moments and decisions that led to here. Instead, it was a recent conversation with his brother Gerosh after a number of rapid freezes and thaws left him bedridden for one system survey.

The pair were born just before the First Compact, after the Great Migration back to a decontaminated Earth and before the discovery that all easily accessible veins of metals were nearly exhausted. Mars, Venus, Luna, and Jupiter were the newest industrial centers. Literal moonshot projects were launched to find another Earth (or at least a planet that did not require fragile self-contained arcologies to house colonies).

Youth had been spent playing in the remnants of the World Garden that once spanned a shattered equatorial continent bisecting Earth. First, daring each other to explore the derelict structures that hung in some of the 500-foot tall trees circling their treetop city’s crater lake that hid some ruined Elder settlement. Then, after the First Compact uprooted that last vestige to reach the trace metals underneath, their best option was Spacer schools where they committed themselves to the Great Work of space exploration and colonization. 

Classmates and crew members came from far and wide, from every corner of the world and its various colonies, and most came from the sliver of the World Garden and its Arboreal Cities, with habitable Earth in increasingly short supply. 

“It’s gone forever, Norilo. Search high and low, we’ll never find anything like it again—and if we did, well.” Gerosh needed only a shrug to finish that sentence. “I hope you don’t believe all of that Compact nonsense about leaving the Dark Age behind. About ushering in a  10,000-year firmament of peace and tranquility and bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Are you going to be happy dying for their conquest?”

Just like in the infirmary, darkness rushed in before he could answer.


His body jolted up, but his mind stumbled through a fog that waxed and waned with his throbbing head. Where was he?

Scanning the room yielded no clues—it was drab, gray, identical to a holding cell where he remembered spending a delirious night after a botched thaw saw him lash out at an attendant. He was on the ship somehow, detained for some reason, when his last memory had been drowning alive in some terrifying molasses. With that thought, something pricked at a corner of his mind like a shadow at the edge of his vision. 

He turned about and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. His skull was shaved to the scalp, a scar from one of his first space walks still streaked down the left side of his onyx face. He had come back whole from the void. As far as he could tell with a glance, at least.

A wall panel slid open but stopped halfway—a deep rumble shook the room and the grid of irritating sterile lights above flickered for a few moments. Power failures? Had the Circle interacted with some of the ship’s systems while he slept?

The panel was pried fully open now and in strode an old man with an air about him. He wore a Compact uniform that was worn and weathered, patched with mismatched fabrics, and hung loose off a frail form. This took him aback—the oldest crew member was about sixty-five years old (give or take a few years given the buildup of cellular damage over the centuries spent sleeping). This man, limping in with a steel beam for a cane, was at least eighty. 

“Norilo, you have awakened at the best and worst possible moment,” he wheezed, inching close with two stocky guards close behind. 

Norilo stared blankly. “Who the fuck are you?”

The man burst out into a deep laughter, quickly cut short by a coughing fit. “You don’t recognize your captain?”


“You’ve been asleep for a long time, brother. Twenty years! Celebrations are in order and I’m sure you have questions, but there is something urgent we must attend to. We can talk on the way.”


Norilo was staring at himself. Or the remains of some distorted copy of himself that had apparently left the Circle first. Floating in the tank was a misshapen form—a homunculus with a gargantuan torso boasting too many eyes and mouths, arms with differing lengths and appendages, tails and barbs, columns of knotted muscles for legs, antenna, gills, fur, and transparent sacs of spare organs.

This was the Stowaway, as they called it. Once something indistinguishable from Norilo that claimed the Circle was the remnant of some ancient machine lifeform built for some long-forgotten purpose. The husk that remained—the Circle—had used the last of its energy (and the biomass provided by the crew’s probing) to break down, analyze, re-create, and replicate Norilo. 

Before the Stowaway appeared (a few days after Norilo disappeared), the Circle had begun shrinking bit by bit until it was just an orb smaller than the Earth’s core. The clone appeared with a comatose Norilo, materializing out of thin air in the ship’s command center. For weeks after, it was kept in isolation under close watch where it remained silent, unsleeping, unmoving, until it began to speak one day. It told them a story of how a botched attempt at communicating with Norilo had left him unconscious. Then came simulations in the murk of increasing scale to build models of Norilo’s psychology and linguistics, experiments to replicate his biology, and trials using his memories with each iteration as subject and examiner. The experiments went too far and Norilo was consumed by the end. 

Wearing Norilo’s face, it suggested a deal: the replication of Norilo had corrupted most of its memory and data archives but another Circle could give them back Norilo. It could even save the troubled homeworld it saw in the memories The Stowaway mined.

The Stowaway, however, had died during a freak accident, Gerosh explained, modifying its body to resemble an ancient truer form—the distorted gargantuan copy floating in the tank. The years spent in collaboration, however, had yielded enough to continue the Great Work: to revive Norilo and restore Earth. Now that Norilo was back, the real work could begin.

In the days and weeks that followed, that explanation irritated some groove of his mind left by the murk. Norilo found himself captured by the vivid hallucinations: a moon covered by fleshy stalks choked by fungi; a crystalline pulp of brain matter with roots stretching tens of thousands of miles puppeteering life forms, then asteroids, then planets and moons and ultimately stars themselves. These were clearly induced by his interaction with murk, he reasoned. Nowhere did he see anything resembling the Stowaway.

Norilo told no one about the dreams. Not during shifts spent deciphering The Stowaway’s work. Not weeks later, when they held down his thrashing body in the night and sedated him. Not when he awoke restrained in some cold sterile room staring down a team of medical officers and automatons. Nor when he caught a glimpse of Gerosh through a viewing pane, staring back with dead, unsympathetic eyes. 

Before the dreams and the realizations that slowly came with them, he might have cried at the betrayal to come. It wasn’t really a betrayal, though, was it? So, all he could do was laugh loudly. Over the electronic beeps of monitoring equipment attached and attuned to him. And over the whining bone saw they were bringing over to him. 

He’d seen this in the dreams, though last time they had restrained him a bit tighter. At least this time they still had the courtesy to put him under again—giving him enough time to shed a final laugh, wondering whether Gerosh thought this was for some greater good. 


Gerosh had not completely lied. 

The Stowaway had appeared after the Circle shrank. It had accidentally consumed Norilo. It had suggested the construction of a new Circle might save Gerosh’s brother and their home. 

Sure, Gerosh didn’t boast about the mind-numbing achievement of communicating with an alien species with which they shared no evolutionary history and fundamentally different biologies. And yes, Gerosh didn’t mention utilizing the classes Norilo once mocked him for taking about the fog of prehistory—somewhere near the end of the Second Millenium—when theories emerged t that two civilizations sufficiently advanced to traverse the stars could build a common language by starting at mathematics or electronics or physics.  

Ok, and Gerosh hadn’t mentioned that he was the one who accidentally killed the Stowaway shortly after their first joint success, building what once seemed impossible: a reverse entropy engine powered by a miniature black hole. Infinite, free energy that could be hoarded and spent without equivalent thermodynamic exchange.  

No, the most critical detail he had failed to mention was the five hundred and eighty Stowaway clones the Crew had used to nearly complete the Circle. The crew used the clones to tap into the Stowaway’s intellect, interpreting section after section of the Stowaway’s instructions left before his untimely departure. In the space of seven hundred (or was it nine hundred?) years, the scheme had spawned more than a few revolutions that yielded functional immortality, intelligence augmentation, digital emulation, mental uploads, amateurish control over subatomic forces, and now near completion of the Circle and its power to restore. In that time, they’d also become brutally efficient in how they dealt with the Stowaway clones.

Dump mental data provided by the Stowaway into a flash clone, rouse it as Norilo, feed it a story, work with it on the next block of instructions, ice it, progress on the Circle, experiment on the clone, prepare the next one, rinse and repeat. 

Don’t let the thing touch previous clones: they were somehow able to transfer memories even long after cessation of brain activity. 

Do review then-contemporaneous speech forms and body language. 

Don’t implement the stolen tech when the Stowaway clone is active. 

Do stick to a strict regimented schedule when it is: orchestrated power outages, disasters, and the like.

Don’t trust the clones: ice them if they show too much curiosity or withhold information, better to start over with a clean state than to work with one shaped and tainted by anything other than the crew’s will.

Gerosh had stopped seeing these things as his brother a long time ago. The Stowaway had torn his brother apart much like a curious but idiotic child repeatedly disassembling and rebuilding an incomplete puzzle to glean some new insight that never came. They were just returning the favor. This thing deserved it and if even half of what it had said was true—and more than half had already proven true—then Norilo could be brought back. He would be brought back, Gerosh told himself. 

Having fed yet another Stowaway clone the same story about “urgent work”, all Gerosh could do was smile through gritted teeth at the clone gawking at what was left of its previous iteration. Gerosh assured himself this was the last clone. Soon, once the final instructions were tested and the Circle completed, he would see the real Norilo again. Not just a perfect copy or clone, but the version of his brother who told him all those years ago that the expeditions would yield some way to save home. You were right.


As some clones glimpsed in their dreams, the Stowaway’s race was a sentient fungus of a particularly aggressive invasive form. It was an artificial species: it grew in the ruins of an ancient civilization’s subterranean train systems, the remnants of a bio-weapon used to wipe out refugees who hid in the system’s lone gas giant. 

For centuries now, the crew had been busily and unknowingly expanding the remnant of the Circle, reactivating the free energy fountain and building a massive jovian brain form that could manage it. The hive-mind ganglia distributed through the moons and asteroids stood by ready for the Circle’s activation. The crew had no way of knowing that each Stowaway clone they built was unconsciously relaying information back to the hive-mind ganglia. 

With the Circle complete, Norilo’s revival was in theory instant, but the crew added ceremonial pomp—they coaxed the Circle to ferry back the reconstructed Norilo in a biosuspension matrix slush later thawed in a holding cell. It was there that Gerosh paced back and forth, excitedly detailing the centuries. Oscillating between pride and shame, Gerosh rationalized the graverobbing, skirted the nearly thousand years of torture, detailed the cycles of resurrection decorated by elaborate ruse, all to bring back Norilo and to save the Earth. On and on he rattled until finally there was silence in the room. 

His voice meekly rose above it, partly asking and partly insisting. “This was the only way.”

Norilo answered Gerosh with a laugh. “If so, then I will save you for last, Gerosh.”

“What?” Gerosh gasped. He bolted upright, or at least meant to but found himself still sunk in one of the golden ovoid seats he’d programmed the ship’s interior to grow. Gerosh strained himself again, trying to will his limbs to move even an inch, but there was simply nothing. There was no sensation, no prickling numbness, no suffocating sense of weight or cramped restraints, simply...nothing.

His brother laughed, a dark and deep one that he’d only heard each time without fail before cutting up the Stowaway clones. There was no explanation needed then, it all clicked into shape and whatever confusion he felt gave way to a metallic taste that traced down his tongue and met bile snaking up his throat. 

“Did you really think that this entire time you were in control?” Norilo, or the Stowaway again wearing his skin, teased as it stood and locked eyes with the captain. “It took you a thousand years to do what we’d done in a few moments.”

The laugh came again.


A thousand years proved to be one of the slower gestation periods for this ganglia. Most biomass simply fell for the bait. They dived into the orb instead of probing. They worked with whatever the ganglia’s avatar was, following the instructions until the alien knowledge was fully integrated into the biomass’ bodies and minds and the ganglia seized control—first of the individual units of biomass and then, later, of everything in the biomass’ network. Few species had ever wasted so much time with convoluted plots centered on endless loops of torture, murder, and resurrection. The ganglia found it frustrating, musing just how much of this wasted effort and subterfuge resembled the inefficiency and brutality of the war before the hive mind’s Third Iteration.

In the end this biomass did its part: it helped the circle grow.

There would be time to ponder whether it was human arrogance or desperation, whether it was this particular crew or the whole human race. This zealous disregard to obtain new trinkets, these quirks of human psychology made it hard to figure out what to do with the species. 

With all the threads and iterations consolidated, with the ganglia now imprinted in the minds and bodies of these things—as much a part of it as it is a part of them—it couldn’t help but obsess. The ganglia felt alternating waves of disgust and respect coming from this too-familiar approach—they were either rats or rivals. For threats and nuisances alike, the organic pits were the preferred method: biomass was diverted back to where it came from to develop new ganglia, psychic lures, and sleeper agents for more long-term war efforts. Something about this biomass felt different. Maybe something different was in order. A new Iteration perhaps

For now, though, it was having some fun. Mental possession followed a possessor’s exact desire. In their prehistoric wars over mental hiearchies and topologies, units kept host minds in spare nervous systems like thralls to torture with any desired mental state or sensation. This atavistic solution was exactly what Gerosh deserved. Whether the captain screamed or drowned in the sensory cage, struggled or resigned himself, it made no difference. So long as he watched and experienced the end his actions brought about.

The crew filed along dutifully into a nondescript cramped room somewhere on the now-empty human ship to play their role. Clearing the throat, that would be the signal to follow their human scripts a bit more strictly on this next journey. 

Ahem. Would they go back to Earth? Silence filled the room, eyes scanned each crew member’s face and brought on alternating waves of anger and disgust. This was the most important decision in human history. Of course it needed to be made in an ugly cramped room that could scarcely fit five people, let alone the seven present. 

Edward Ongweso Jr is a Brooklyn-based writer, co-hosts the technology podcast This Machine Kills, and publishes The Tech Bubble newsletter.

This piece appears in Logic's upcoming issue 19, "supa dupa skies (move slow and heal things)." Subscribe today to receive the issue as part of a subscription, or preorder at our store in print or digital formats.