Friday, January 29, 2010

The Big Game

Before the screens, clipboard in hand, the commander continued to pace. It had been nearly ten days of continuous occupation, and the space was now resembling a lair more than a conference room. Off-camera, food scraps cluttered yeastily around the bin, and combined with male sweat (and other eructations), they suffused the place with a positively feral aroma. The time was upon them, the suspense was knife-thick, expectations hummed, and a hundred other anticipatory cliches clamored for expression. Without warning, the general paused, eyebrows beetled into a contiguous, hairy V. He drew in a breath as if to speak, and the entire room inhaled with him. And held it.

His lieutenant spoke for them all. "Sir?"


"Is it time to deploy the force-forward units?"

The general considered, as if this were a novel question. As if anyone might be thinking anything else. "We will coordinate deployment of the light mobile units with the enemy's first action," he said. He tapped the northwest corner of the map with his free hand, "almost certainly right here, if I know those Stanni bastards." He narrowed his eyes even more. "But we'll be on the watch for where they do in fact emerge."

"Er, yessir."

The general turned from the display, and faced the room of live and videoconferenced faces. "Needless to say, men, maintain maximum battlefield awareness. Watch the feeds. Record decisions of all units. This is war, after all." He resumed pacing.

"Yes sir!"

The general considered the way the patch of well-worn carpet kept receding in front of his polished boots. He knew, as did his lieutenant, that the actions in this room were largely formal at this point, close-up shots to be interspersed with live footage, or in the post-mortem. He may have set the process in motion, but field assets were sufficiently autonomous that even that impetus would be evaluated, optimized, and if necessary, countermanded before engagement. Training and programming was paramount, and winning, as one of the ancient forbears of his profession had once said, isn't everything...

Yes, he'd set the process in motion almost half a decade ago. By his estimation, the coming battle was nearly fifty-five full months in the making, and if in the final twelve, it finally developed that sense of its own existence as coding, production and transport finally geared up, as underlings bifurcated and responsibility metastasized, for all of the others it was only inevitable in his mind, and by his effort. What really brought this fight into being was his own--the general's--untiring efforts at marketing, networking and grooming. It took half a year to get the administration to finally agree to review his strategic proposals. Even if success was algorithmic now.

At the front of the conference room were three large screens. The center one, the largest, was a map view, lit up with icons, and was, in fact, a low-information representation of the display on his clipboard. The actual terrain was located somewhere in eastern Eurostan, covering a rough square of about 5000 square miles, with some shoreline on the east and west and mountains to the south. The region was largely depopulated but for some hardscrabble dissidents and primitives and so forth (the general was not entirely sure about these distinctions) in the plains. Forests, steppes, seas and mountains--it was perfect. On the left, the view switched between representative aerial and ground-based views provided by the remote drones, the first cut at the video feed which would be processed by engineering programs and broadcast after a suitable time delay. (In previous wars, the drones had been active units too, but ratings-rights were now protected by internatonal treaty. The general, like most modern men in his position, insisted on rudimentary defenses of the video feeds, in the unlikely event that any dirty tricks were employed by the enemy, but had no expectation of needing them.) Right now, the scene projected a village landscape as seen by a large ambulatory unit: craters lining a grubby street and bullet-holes blistering antique concrete. Standard stuff. The right-hand display was a confusing series of metrics and graphs presented for statisticians and for any citizens who were so inclined to analyze them. Much would be made of this information in the following days, but as with the map, it was designed for public consumption, and not particularly informative.

Suddenly, a red light started blinking on the map, and the supporting screens brightened and began to roil with activity. The general halted, his back straight. "Men, to your battle stations!" He took a moment to note to himself that the Industani attack had, indeed, come from the northwest.


"What I can't explain," thought John, "is why they're doing this to me now."

He had been spent his entire adult life around the level four growth vat. Over the years, he'd gone from fourth-class maintenance supervision, which involved trailing the low-level roombas with an assortment of shining cleaning tools to wipe or otherwise remove any errant trail of slime, ichor, broth, or medium that might have escaped their fastidious passage, to mechanical supervision, involving visual daily inspection of the vat-works and intubations, to catch any gross breaches of product that might have been missed by the automated ultrasonic, x-ray, or nuclear tomographic micro-analyses--never a single report to the central computer, he noted bitterly--all the way to chief human supervisor, which is to say that all the people working at the level four growth vat were personally monitored by him. He'd taken pride in his work, pride which even now, after everything, threatened to swell his heart. It took responsibility to recite the time clock instructions every day. It took skill to make sure people lined up properly. He clenched his fist and swung it at nothing, unbalancing himself for a moment. The memo advised that he was redundant, and indeed that a general electronic supervisory tool was replacing his entire division. If the propaganda feeds were right, and John tended to believe that they were, he was a victim of the newly touted Industani management model, which had been making their war effort as much as 2.4% more profitable. And now the powers were applying the enemy model to food production. As he approached his own sidewalk, he stopped to seethe a moment. He turned around a last time to look at the huge, smooth bulk of Ag Tower casting the town into an early sunset, and, wistful again, he tried to mentally map level four onto its light-absorbing exterior. "Will they still let us live here?" he thought. He wondered about the security of his wife's position in packaging. Maybe he'd finally be able to indenture one of the boys...if only either of them were more promising.

John opened the door to a smiling crowd. Behind his wife and children flew bunting and festive banners. One said 'TGIF'. Across another rolled cartoon artillery, dodging cartoon explosions. He could see that the kitchen table had been dragged into the entertainment room. "Wha--"

Kurt and John Jr. raced out to hug his legs, and his wife Sheila gave him a peck on the cheek, and pressed a Fortified Fungo-Brew into his hands. "Pre-game is going to start in an hour," she said, "and maybe while we wait..."

He grabbed the Forty, took a swig, and sighed. "Right. The game." He looked at Kurt and gave a small involuntary shudder. "Warmups going on now? Maybe some field reports? I could go for that." He tried to look past the table. "My chair still in it's spot?"

Sheila's eyes began to droop, but then perked up again. "Oh, and I have three days worth of appetizers, John. Is anyone up for Salti-Plax and Cheez to start? It's Crobia Cheez, Sweetie, nothing but the best for our family!" She winked at her husband.

"Yeah, look. About Crobia..."

"Is that the new infantry model, Daddy?"

"You know, let's check that out," he said, eyeing John Jr. appraisingly. He took another pull at the bottle and, perhaps already growing calm from the brew, worked himself around the table to where his favorite chair waited. He patted his lap for Sheila to join, a long-accepted compromise between them. "Who's ready for the big game?"

"And let's stick it to those Stanni bastards," he added to himself.


They, whatever "they" was left, called the village Pay Fyerma, and it was said to be as old as time itself. A handful of farms still dotted the countryside, even now. Barley and wheat grew in yellow patches, and sheep speckled the green hillsides like wildflowers. In the distance, the mountains loomed like magisterial old gods, witnessing the tragedies of the millenia. Local legend said that the first men worthy of the name walked in the hills around Pay Fyerma, and that the first empires of men fought here, between the seas, across the mountains. It was said that only a hundred miles away, peace was declared in the hemisphere. It was said that right here, a hundred years of war was brought forth in its aftermath. Without doubt, there was a sense of eternity to the landscape, that despite the vindictive movements of the ages, life and beauty endured.

Or so were Piotr's thoughts, as he watched one recalcitrant group of mammalian wildfowers. Up close, he considered, it was impossible to escape the notion of a sheep's insides, its stinking flatulent guts and, when circumstances so wrote, succulent flesh. (And were we vaunted men any different?) One of the great paradoxes of modern times, for those who cared to ponder it, was exactly that beauty of scale, how things got both more stunning and more disgusting the closer you looked at them. But then, how could Piotr really understand of modernity? He was practically alone out here. "Well," he thought, "the farther you got from it, the better you could see it." Another paradox maybe.

It was a difficult life, and an extraordinarily simple one (enough already!), what better for a human. A thought worth recording: he reached for his pocket computer, but headlines screamed at him from the other continent, and disgusted, he stowed it.

It was getting late as he wandered down the hill, and by the time the sheep were penned, it was dusk. By the time he got the methane pool seeded and warm, it was fully dark. Piotr offered a little generic prayer for another day fully lived. He pulled the door behind him, and considered turning on the generator. Charge the notepad? The world was abuzz with war, he knew--it was that time of year--and what the hell, maybe it even mattered who won. More importantly, his waffles were superior when he utilized a little electricity. He kicked open the back door and trudged off to the shed.

The generator normally had a small light, when it was working, but he hadn't opened the gas pipes as of yet. And this was bright--Piotr squinted at the outbuilding--and large.

And, he realized, not so close as he assumed. Silently, something blacker and much, much bigger than the shed, rose up on spider's legs. The red dot, an eye--no, an illuminator, he realized; this thing must have a NIR scope for vision--swung a great arc toward the sheep pen. It took a step forward on one of its improbable needle legs--

Piotr hadn't sensed the concussion, but his head, he realized, wasn't quite right. Recent: smoke was billowing from the sheep pen and rubble was smoking, steps from him, if he could step, something was still aflame. Discordantly, he smelled a roast, and within feet of him, was the upper half of a member of his flock, recently released of its glistening insides, flayed almost like dinner. It had its mouth open as if to speak warning, but its waist was seared and hairless. Piotr vomited, and tried to rise, failed. His thigh hurt too. When he looked at it, the panic set in.

Whistling, he heard, and his own eyes followed the red illuminator, possibly seeing as much. Explosions, and spindly legs gone the way of his own. A black mechanized hillside lurching and stuttering. Another whistle, another shock wave, and sound now, roaring. Old stones of Pay Fyerma raining. The red light was closer, on the ground vertical now, wrong. It was swinging his way again, noticing him another time. Crunch. Whirr. Roar. Red. Black. Silence.


The general looked at the screen tiredly. It was customary, he supposed, and he hoped the men didn't get nostalgic enough to dump a bucket of Fungo-Brew on him, which wasn't to say he didn't earn it. He looked at the summary stats on the clipboard: Industan withdrawn with at least twenty units; a surprising amount of collateral damage managed to surface on the video feeds; ratings topping even the historic slaughter of '98. It had been a long weekend, but the general was looking at national hero status. Medals, women, fame. He steeled up for a last moment, and for the benefit of the public, rose and faced the cameras.

"Thank you," he said. "And God bless our country."

A crisp salute, and it was done. A fadeout was palpable as he walked round the table to shake the hands of his staff. Good job, thank you, great work. He clapped the back of the lieutenant, and together, exhausted, they turned at last to the conference room door. A shower first, then makeup, and to the interview room. He had the speech prepared in his mind for months. A hero. He loved this game.

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