I was playing with lives, human ones to be specific. It was the nature of my position. I was a strategist after all. That was what I was meant to do. A strategist in this day and age wouldn’t be anywhere near the soldiers. The holographic projection in front of me was my weapon. This digital field was, in every respect, linked to the physical one. It would allow me to directly order the soldiers on the battlefield. They would follow without hesitation. In spite of its elegant efficiency, many people complained about the emotional disconnect caused by the use of these machines though, but it served my purposes better than leading them in person. I may be exceptionally skilled, but I am rather young. Even I would be hesitant to listen to the voice of one so youthful, even if they were a so-called prodigy. It was also probably for the best that they also didn’t know that this was my first battle.
I was in a large military base but as far as I was concerned, my domain was this dark room, lit only by the image of the battlefield in front of me. The digital construct was compiled with cameras and radar technology and was nearly one-hundred percent accurate. One could say that it was an evolution of that table used by ancient militaries, the ones with crude figures representing masses of people. Ours was far superior in its precision though, you could even see the scuff marks on the giant mechanical weapons used by my forces. I quickly took an assessment of the situation. The battle was taking place in a forest with a large clearing in the middle of it. The enemy was obscured from view because of large, verdant trees. My soldiers were similarly obscured, but since we had data about them, I could see them all. They were scattered across the wood though. That didn’t serve my purpose well. I traced a path for each of the units, gathering the stark gray machines in the center of the forest. There was no reaction from the enemy. It looked like they didn’t want to show their hand yet. If I were to minimize casualties I’d need the location of the enemy.
To do so I needed a sacrifice. At random I selected a tool. There, that one on the left would be sufficient. I directed him (or her, it didn’t really matter) to enter into the grove to expose the enemy and themselves. The result was exactly what I expected. Lasers flared through the grove and into the weapon. The armor of the machine began to melt. There was no way to escape the onslaught, but ending his life would save the lives of his comrades. He fired back vainly, but soon the weapon’s generator was hit. It sparked once and then exploded. I pulled up the data from the barrage and triangulated the enemy position. They were in the northeast quadrant of the area. I smirked. This was going to be easy. Then something appeared on the hologram without my request.
It was the image of a young man. He had brown eyes and dirty blond hair. Instinctively, I knew that this was the person that had died, checking his unit number confirmed it. I was about to disregard it when the likeness began to speak.
“Hi, I’m Dylan Lambert. I was required to do this when I entered the military. They said that I’m supposed to talk about who I am and my life and stuff, but I’m not really good at that sort of thing.” He laughed a bit, while I tried to ignore him and focus on the battle. “I guess I can start with my family. I’m an only child with two living parents. They always said I was a blessing in their life, they’d tried a bunch of times to have kids before me, and even the advanced fertility treatments we have now didn’t work. Then late into their lives, my mom had me. I guess that’s why I’m fighting. My parents are older and with the way our world is headed, I can’t guarantee their safety without me, but if our enemy wins, they won’t even have a chance. They’ll be executed on the spot. So I fight for them, not so much me.” His face was now somber. “Well, I guess that’s it. I’m signing off.” I sighed. Someone had thought that strategists needed to see the faces of those who died because of them. That’s a stupid sentiment. Emotions are useless in war. If I was asked to let one person die to ensure ten lived, I’d do it every single time. It’s cold, but it’s the right thing to do. If you thought everyone could live through battles, you were naive. The best thing you could do was minimize losses. After all, there was only one mission, destroy the enemy.
I began determining the value of each possible approach. Several of them would result in an amount of death that was unprofitable. My best option would be to send a small detachment off to draw the enemy closer before bringing the rest of the troops around the lured targets in a pincer movement that would result in the complete annihilation of the opposing forces. I created and directed the newly made group with two movements of my hand. Such a movement brought to mind a conductor at a concert I visited as a child. He used his movement to create beautiful sound. That was where our abilities diverged though. He made useless things, I made battle. The arts don’t matter if everyone is dead.
The separated troop pressed forward, meeting very little resistance. Wait a moment, I thought, going back to the number of laser pulses. That was a fraction of what it should have been. This was a trap; their main force must be hidden elsewhere. I began to pull back my squad. Unfortunately, a large shot from an area that I didn’t think the opposition to be in, slammed into one of them. Actually, it looked like “large” was an understatement. The burst had disintegrated the trees for quite some distance beyond the burned husk that was the last testament to one of the fighters in this conflict. The image of a young woman appeared.
“Hi, my name’s Julia Wells. I’m going to talk about myself for a bit. I owe a debt to the military of our country. You see, I lived on an island invaded during the last conflict. It honestly seemed like my life and that of all my friends and family were going to come to a brutal end.” Tears began to form at the corners of her eyes. I tried to keep focus, but it became more difficult with each word spoken. “They sent in foot soldiers to raid the city. My house was really close to the area they entered through. I can hear the sound of their boots hitting the ground in my nightmares sometimes.” She paused to compose herself. “The door swung open and all I saw were guns. My heart stopped and I knew in that moment I was going to die. Then I heard the sound of others coming up behind them and suddenly the marauders were on the ground. It was our soldiers.” Julia smiled, tears stopping. “I knew what I had to do then. I studied the military robots that we needed pilots for, relentlessly. If there’s something you need to know about these devices, I’m the person you should ask.” She signed off and I felt empty. Why was I more bothered by losing her experience than her life? I shook my head. It isn’t important. Validate her death through victory, I told myself.
I regrouped my forces and noted the position where the enemy fire came from. The attacks that killed her, something whispered inside me. I shut it up and continued. My plan was simple. Wipe out the enemies in the northeastern quadrant and then come up behind the other group of foes so that the heavy artillery could be disabled.
“Simple.” I murmured before making my move.
My troops surged into position and began firing. The enemies were taken down swiftly, but not without the loss of another soldier. I tuned out the micro-autobiography. There wasn’t time for sympathy, only fighting. I quickly redirected the group towards the other cluster of enemies.
The fight that broke out was intense. My army managed to take out the massive cannon that had proved to be a nuisance earlier, but not before losing another two members. I again ignored the warm voices that came when the explosions echoed. I needed to make sure we routed the final piece of resistance. With a movement of my pointer finger I gave them permission to use the plasma missiles. The resulting explosion of blue and white created a light that covered me from head to toe, even though I was sitting down. Once the area cleared I smiled coolly. The mission was complete, with minimal causalities at that.
Then a blur of motion caught my eye. One enemy had survived. I could tell from the burning metal on their unit that they’d activated their self-destruct sequence. I got as many of them away as I could, but some couldn’t make it. They were caught in the resulting destruction. The melted shells seemed to accuse me of failing. The accusation wasn’t without merit, but I still finished the job, or at least that’s what I told myself. That sentiment died quickly.
Holographic images flooded the battlefield projection as I ordered retreat. The voices from them began to drown me, condemning me. Their names resounded in my ears. Each name was a knife stabbed into me. I began to feel again. I felt the need to cry, but somehow suppressed it as I walked out of the room.
I stepped into a cold, white hallway, where a young man greeted me.
“Commander Josiah Ganslo wants to see you for lunch immediately. He’s exceptionally pleased with how the battle went.” He grinned from ear-to-ear. This sight made me nauseous. I could have gotten him killed. The only difference between him and the corpses out on the battlefield was chance. The commander’s words infuriated me though. That was far from a good battle. So many people were dead. There was so much blood on my hands. With those images in mind, I couldn’t even fathom eating for decades to come, but I went with the young man anyway.
I was taken to the commander’s banquet room. It was decadent, but only had one occupant, a gray haired man with shockingly blue eyes. He pointed to a seat in front of him, across a small table. There was a plate set up on the area in front of it with a steak and mashed potatoes. It was my favorite food, but there was no way I was consuming anything. I took my seat anyway.
He began to speak. “Excellent work out there.” Ganslo slowly cut into his own meal as he spoke, the movement as methodical as his words.
“It wasn’t.” I said bluntly.
“Why?” He looked at me with interest. “Don’t they tell you at the academy that every battle won, especially with one with as little loss as yours is a victory for the history books?”
“Yes, but…” I paused, looking for something that would speak to this pragmatic man. “I lost thirty-percent of the forces charged to me.”
He nonchalantly ate some of his entrée before responding. “Before we’d lose anywhere from fifty-to-sixty percent. That’s quite some improvement.”
I slammed my hands on the table. “They weren’t just numbers!”
He smirked at my outburst. “Good, you learned something. Before you yell at me further, let me talk about something.” Ganslo made a motion with his right hand. “Have you ever heard of the game chess?” I shrugged. “It was before your time. Well before my time, even. I understand that it lost popularity with the dawn of our holographic technology, but there’s still truth in it. In that game you cannot win without making sacrifices. It’s simple, really. In order to even make a move you must put a piece at risk. Of the pieces on the board there is one that is truly weak. It is known as the pawn. It can move two spaces at a time on its first turn, but only one after that. Its offense is similarly limited. The pawn can only capture another piece if it is diagonal and in front of it. In every aspect it is pathetic. If given the opportunity to trade the pawn’s life for any piece above it in power a skilled player would take it.”
“They weren’t pawns! They were people!” I screamed.
He nodded. “Precisely. In war there are no pawns. As you saw in those videos, each person was worth something to someone out in the world. Sure, the deepness of the bond might vary, but each of them had something to live for. Everyone has something to live for. That’s why you shouldn’t simply throw lives away. Sacrificing a pawn to gain an advantage is admirable, but sacrificing a person is not as clear a decision. Pragmatic tactics like the ones you used today won’t endear you to your men or give meaning to our conflict. We fight to protect people. To put it straightly, we cannot cut down lives to protect lives. Now I’m not saying that you need to save everyone, but you need to save as many as you can.” He took a sip from a glass of water.
I sputtered uncontrollably. “So you let them all die to give me a lesson? You’re a monster.”
“I didn’t. That was a simulation, a harsh one; I give you, but a necessary one. Otherwise I would have placed lives into hands that don’t value them.”
“I can’t do this.” I held my head in my hands.
He stood up and gestured for me to do the same.
“Yes you can. You are brilliant, despite your age. I believe you have great potential.”
“But I’m not sure if I can handle having their lives in my hands.” I said, turning my back to the commander.
“You see now the value of their lives, right? Now that you know how much each is worth let each one come into you. Let the fact that they have something to live for drive you. Fight with the passion of someone fighting for more than just their own life. Fight with more than that. Fight as if you were each and every soldier out there. Then you will find strength. It will hurt to watch people give their lives for our cause, even if it is just. I can’t promise it will ever stop hurting, but I can promise you that you will be filled with the soul of a true hero.”
I sobbed. See,” I said, wiping my eyes. “I’m worthless.”
The commander laughed again. “Tears don’t make a failure, although you could use a bit more self-confidence.”
I laughed too. Now that I thought about it I guess it was all the academy training that made me feel this way. We were supposed to be emotionless and nameless, perfect tools.
I turned around to see Ganslo deep in thought.
“Then say your name to seal it. Seal your promise to fight.”
I nodded. It would be the first time I heard my own name in years. “My name is Arlene Walker. I promise here and now that I will fight in this war, not just for victory, but for the lives of the people in it.”