Liberty Island has announced one grand prize winner, four runners up, and five honorable mentions in this year’s Holiday Writing Contest. They’ll each be excerpted here at PJ Lifestyle through the week.
Start your holidays with a bang. Here’s an excerpt from the Grand Prize Winner, check out “The 1011000-100110110000011010011 Truce” by Thomas A. Mays:
“Merry freakin’ Christmas, boys. It don’t get no better than this.” Staff Sergeant Malcolm Riddell glared at the snowy, broken battlefield before him and took another long pull from the glass bottle in his hand. The amber liquid within burned harshly going down, but that pleasant pain was a welcome distraction from the monotony the Keystone War had devolved into.
“Pardon, SSGT,” a nearby Jarhead buzzed, “recommend you return to the bunker immediately. Your exposure may constitute an acceptable target upon which the enemy can expend resources.” The vaguely humanoid robot remained prone with its weapon, squelched into the battlefield’s half-frozen mud, but it had oriented its stereoscopic targeting head toward him. Riddell figured that meant it “cared,” at least a little.
“Well, hell, I wouldn’t want to upset anybody’s combat calculus, would I?” He turned around and staggered back to the open hatch leading to his own deep shelter. At the utmost limit of his hearing he could perceive the growing whistle of artillery, so he staggered a bit faster. By the time he had both of the surface airlock’s hatches dogged and started down the ladder, the screaming whumps of exploding laser-guided shells shook his access trunk and tore apart the Canadian border soil of the ground overhead. He briefly wondered if the poor Jarhead model on watch would survive intact.
At the bottom of the trunk, deeper than even hyper-velocity orbital bombardment bunker busters could reach, a much more humanoid Elite command bot awaited him, surrounded by a baker’s dozen of the short, many-limbed Grunt models, tidying up where they could. His own slovenly state seemed to be gaining ground despite their best efforts, however. The Elite passed its unblinking nest of red and black eyes over their efforts and then focused on Riddell. “You should not take such needless chances, SSGT. Where would the war effort be if you perished?”
Riddell smiled. “I imagine the ‘war effort’ would suddenly have a large surplus of bad bourbon to go along with its slight decrease in personnel. Don’t imagine for a second that I’m vital to this fight, ‘Leet. I am the very definition of expendable, not that I’ll be expended any time soon given the current stalemate.”
“Combat operations are not permitted in complete autonomy. If you were to be killed, we would be barred from any offensive actions until a new human overseer reported on station. This would unacceptably give the Canadian drone forces a distinct tactical and strategic advantage through a reevaluation of the risk/resource balance.”
“Oh no! You mean you finally might start shooting at one another? What a terrible thing to happen in your shooting war.” Riddell’s sarcasm was deep enough that even the bot could appreciate it.
The Elite’s hard drive whirred for a moment in its chest before the bot responded. “SSGT, you have made your feelings regarding combat calculus and autonomous drone warfare well known. We need not rehash old arguments.”
“Ha! Like I have anything better to do!” His laugh contained little humor. Riddell plopped into a threadbare chair in front of his dusty operations console. “‘Leet, the whole reason everyone started using autonomous combat drones and bots was to shorten conflicts, reduce errors, and save lives when war could not be avoided. The problem is, you machines are completely beholden to this combat calculus, refusing to make a move or expend resources unless you perceive a decisive tactical advantage. And the other side does the exact same thing, with the end result being we’ve all maneuvered ourselves into a worldwide standoff, everyone poised for combat on a dozen different fronts, but nobody actually shooting unless somebody makes a mistake or shifts the calculus. Thus, I am stuck here, watching over fighting robots that DON’T FIGHT, instead of going home and ENJOYING CHRISTMAS!”
The Elite’s hard drive whirred even longer this time. “Please explain the operational significance of Christmas.”
Riddell laughed again, but at least his braying contained some actual humor this time. “Christmas has no operational significance, which is what makes it so significant. Let that one burn up your logic circuits.” The humor did not last, however. Bitterness returned and Riddell leaned forward, elbows on knees, his face in his hands.
He continued. “War is a terrible thing: achieving sociopolitical goals through the complicated process of killing the people who disagree with you until they concede your side of the argument. But there were moments of grace–distinctly human moments–that made it less awful. Christmas was one of those.” He looked up from his hands. “Did you know that back in World War One both sides actually stopped fighting for Christmas? They came out of their trenches and foxholes and celebrated the holiday together, exchanging gifts and uniforms, playing soccer. It was called the Christmas Truce. Look it up.”
image illustration via Liberty Island