Captain Aki Wallace sat ramrod straight, his uniform the image of perfect military precision. Bright eyes danced over the displays, his attention focusing on the victory unfolding before him.
The sensors on the HMS Atalanta showed the results of his strategy in satisfying detail. The enemy, as he had predicted, were responding without military discipline but with great enthusiasm. Aki had to admit that enthusiasm counted for a lot.
Specifically, it counted for almost half of the total casualties Aki’s small fleet had been able to inflict.
The critical point approached, and the enemy broke and fled, their ships burning precious fuel in their haste, the sensor screen filling with flares of fusion-powered light from their engines. Aki sighed in relief and leaned back.
It was strange, he thought idly, having no one to congratulate or thank in the aftermath of a battle. The bridge, completely devoid of other human life, held only Aki himself and strange, harsh shadows cast by the red overhead LED lights.
“Captain,” came the soft, almost melodic voice of MAI. “Permission to stand down from combat stations?”
Aki cracked his neck to the left and right, watching the last vestiges of resistance break and flee. MAI was correct, the battle was over.
Aki waited another heartbeat, eyes flicking over the displays and screens surrounding his station on the bridge, all dark and cold.
“Agreed,” he said, his voice soft and echoing strangely in the empty room. “MAI, please have the senior officers join me in the briefing room.”
“All hands,” intoned the robotic voice of MAI. “Stand down from combat stations. Senior officers are to report to the briefing room. That is all.”
Aki stood, alone, on the bridge of the starship and adjusted the brim of his hat to be centred over his eyes. He set his shoulders and marched out of the room.
The briefing room always seemed chilly to Aki. He wasn’t sure how much of that was due to the proximal location of the room, heat loss through the massive bank of windows that dominated the wall behind him, or simply psychosomatic as a result of the overwhelming sense of nothing that loomed across the shockingly thin windows. The friendly babble of voices had kept the cold out during the meeting, but now, as everyone else filed back to their duty stations, he shivered. He was grateful for the thick material of his pristine white uniform, so difficult to keep clean. At first Aki had cursed the selected colour for their duty uniforms under his breath, but he now knew that it was specifically chosen to show those officers that took pride in their appearance, and by extension, the entire navy.
Dr. Joshua Sinclair, the project lead on the MAI system, was leaning back with his fingers laced behind his crop of shockingly black hair and smiling in a distant sort of way. Aki had disliked the man from the moment he had boarded his starship, and the weeks had done little to change that impression.
“Did you need something more, doctor?” asked Aki, rotating his chair away from the briefing table and its familiar, worn metal surface. His eyes flicked between the stars and galaxies arrayed chaotically outside the window.
“Oh, nothing specific, captain, nothing specific.” Joshua’s tone was conversational, but the hairs on the back of Aki’s neck prickled. He could sense the scientist waiting for something.
“I have an inquiry,” intoned the robotic MAI, its voice coming from everywhere at once.
Ah, thought Aki. “Yes, MAI?”
“During today’s engagement, you ordered the fleet not to engage the retreating starships, nor to capture the escape pods of the four ships we crippled.”
“That is correct,” Aki nodded, blinking a few times in confusion. “You are familiar with the Articles of War, I assume?” Aki looked over his left shoulder at the professor, who simply smiled and shrugged in response to the unspoken question in Aki’s eyes. Was MAI really this dense? It had handled the operation of fifty crew during the battle, replaced the majority of the bridge staff already, and the way High Command was talking, it was months away from building ships custom-crafted to maximize the capabilities of the superior quantum brain of MAI.
“Of course,” responded the computer immediately, “But such Articles allow considerable latitude in applications of force. Nothing I have suggested contravenes anything directly in the Articles.”
Aki leaned back and let out a long, slow breath. Strictly speaking, MAI was correct. “We are fighting a war,” Aki started slowly, letting his mind run ahead of his words as he spoke. “And the overarching goal of that war is to win.”
MAI and the professor both remained silent. Aki could feel the professor staring at the back of his head.
“But why are we fighting the war if we are to become the very evils we stand in opposition to?” Aki asked softly. “Our primary goals are always to minimize loss of life, and the swift and victorious end to hostilities. By proving to our enemies we are capable of mercy, that those who have lost their ability to fight will be free to return home, we remove the necessity of them to fight.”
Aki nodded once, satisfied with his own explanation. It was something he had never had to verbalize before, since his crews were always trained and unified under similar experiences.
“Why are such regulations not codified anywhere?” asked MAI.
Aki shrugged. “It’s a part of what makes us human. It would be like writing down how often to breathe, or the correct hand to hold your coffee in.”
“I do not understand,” MAI said.
“We are a race of warriors, bred from thousands of years of brutal, bloody conflict.” Aki found a red star, some nameless ball of fusion countless lightyears distant. He fixed his gaze on it. “Warfare, and both the horror and honour that is contained within it, are as much a part of humanity as any great work of art. Give me a man or woman who has known only peace, and within two weeks I will give you back a warrior.”
Joshua coughed back a laugh, and Aki cast a glare at the scientist. “We have very different views on humanity, captain,” he said as he stood. “Still, it’s your perspective on warfare that MAI needs, and not mine.”
Aki paced along the narrow central space in the bridge, flanked by empty consoles and silent displays. His head was reeling from the constant bombardment of new information fed to the main screen and his personal displays, updated as quickly as the sensors could confirm what he already knew was true in his gut.
The fleet had been provided with a golden opportunity. A stroke of luck that his fleet was able to capitalize on with inhuman speed exclusively because of MAI. The computer had analyzed a weakness in the enemy’s approach that even Aki had missed, and by applying just the right amount of pressure, an overwhelming opposition was suddenly broken and fleeing.
It was brilliant. It was amazing.
It was terrifying.
“Captain, the route to the industrial centres is clear.” MAI didn’t even revel in her success, still spouting mere stats and options. Aki felt a knot settling into his guts.
“Excellent, MAI, excellent.” Aki paced two more steps, and then sharply turned on his heel. “Can you calculate trajectories for mass driver impacts on the planet?”
“Already computed,” responded the computer immediately.
Aki nodded, unsurprised at this. The first use of computers in mankind’s history was for calculating trajectories for artillery, and there was no reason modern computers would be any worse at it than their historic brethren.
“Excellent. Show me.” Five long strides and he was standing in front of his chair, all the displays tracking his movement through the bridge effortlessly. He wiped his brow with the back of a sleeve, already slightly yellowed from repeated use. Aki scowled as his wrist, as if he could will the uniform back to perfect white so easily. He’d have to be more careful with cleaning it next cycle.
His primary display showed hundreds of lines connecting the collection of symbols representing the friendly starships and the distant hostile planet. All of the lines terminated on points on the planet surface in clean, elegant icons: known military structure, suspected military structure, known industrial target, suspected industrial zone, civilian region, infrastructure.
“Which of these maximizes target damage, MAI?” asked Aki, his eyes glazing over slightly as the thousands of possibilities scrolled past on the screen.
“These firing solutions,” MAI responded, splitting the screen into two. “The left solution maximizes damage to industrial and military targets while minimizing damage to civilian regions. The right solution ignores proximity of civilians and maximizes damage to all military and industrial targets.”
“The right one,” Aki said immediately, turned on his heel and strode back down the central corridor. He had only managed to get one step in.
“Captain, I am uncertain about your selection,” MAI said evenly.
“You have your orders, MAI,” Aki snapped, wiping his forehead again. “We have a limited window before the enemy regroup and close this hole in their defenses.”
“The loss of civilian life, captain, is contrary to my expectations of acceptable warfare,” MAI continued, as if Aki hadn’t spoken. “And you did not inquire as to the effectiveness of the plan that would minimize unnecessary loss of life.”
Aki sighed and grit his teeth for a moment. “Fine. How effective was your first firing solution?”
“I estimate 78% elimination of planetary military forces and over 62% of industrial capabilities,” MAI responded.
“And for the second?”
“98% military targets, and 92% of industrial targets.”
“Well, there you go.” Aki resumed his frantic pacing. “A few civilians are unfortunate casualties to over 20% improvement in effectiveness.”
“Over fifteen thousand, captain,” responded MAI.
“What?” Aki spun on his heel, and walked towards his chair again.
“The variation in projected civilian casualties between the two attack plans. Fifteen thousand civilian lives.”
There was a twinge of sympathy in Aki’s chest for a moment. “Necessary. Unfortunate, tragic even, but forced by the reality of war.”
“No more discussion, MAI!” Aki shouted, balling both hands into fists by his sides. “You have your orders! We are not here to debate the precise method of war, but to end it as quickly as humanly possible!” He smiled slightly at the unintentional inclusion of the word “humanly” in his rant.
It felt good.
“Sir. Yes sir.” MAI intoned automatically.
“Good! Signal the fleet to fire its mass drivers, and let’s get out of here before they regroup.”
Aki paused as he thought about the enormous loss of life he had just ordered. He took in a deep breath. “MAI, please display the real-time video feed of the planet.” He stood in front of the man display as an image of the planet sprung up from the surrounding stars. The blue gem, swirling white clouds slashing across its surface, hung in front of Aki’s eyes.
He watched the invisible munitions, rocketing through space at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, impacted with the atmosphere. The clouds recoiled like oil to soap, giving a heartbeat glimpse of the brown rock below.
And then flashes of fire, massive billowing clouds of ash.
Aki stood and watched the planet suffering, as dozens of impacts reduced a significant portion of the surface to glass.
And continued watching as the fleet moved away, the planet slowly growing smaller and the white clouds all replaced by grey and black.
Aki sat at his station, alone on the bridge. Alone in the ship, he supposed, since MAI didn’t count as a person and everyone else had been dismissed and sent back home by the growing capabilities of the artificial intelligence. Aki missed them, in a distant sort of way, even that insufferable Dr. Sinclair. They might disagree about everything, but at least Joshua was human.
He scratched at the week’s growth of stubble on his chin and stared at the displays, the nervous knot in his stomach refusing to unravel. With only his eyes still watching MAI, there was so little time for other things. He couldn’t remember the last time he ate: he wasn’t hungry, of course, but some primitive part of his mind still tried to send warning signals about how hard he was pushing himself. Thankfully there was coffee available on the bridge at all times. Even if MAI made it, it was hot, caffeinated, and abundant.
He wasn’t even sure why he was pushing himself so hard. MAI was operating way beyond her original parameters, handling the entire fleet with the sort of precision that a human crew could only dream of. Orders were transmitted at the speed of light with no chance of miscommunication and response rates were instantaneous. Not only that, but limiters built into the engines to prevent sudden accelerations that would obliterate human crews had been removed, and the smaller ships in the fleet were darting through turns that had the military tactician in Aki drooling with possibilities.
But something nagged at him, and so he drank coffee and watched the sensor reports, each battle flowing past his eyes in icons, numbers, and wireframe silhouettes.
Whatever it was he was looking for, Aki was unable to find it. He was dimly aware that MAI had turned the fleet back towards port, and knew with a crushing sense of certainty that this was the end of his tour on the HMS Atalanta. And not just his: that within weeks every ship would be under the singular automated control of MAI.
And then he found it. The breath came out of his lungs in a long, relieved sigh, and the knots in his shoulders shed tension like springs slowly uncoiling.
“MAI,” Aki said, trying to keep a smile from betraying his sudden confidence, “what is this?”
“Those are the weapon trajectories and impact reports from Engagement 01-355-Delta,” responded MAI instantly.
Was that fear Aki heard? A waver in the automated voice? He slouched in the chair, relief making his fingers tingle with fresh circulation. “This is not the firing solution I authorized.”
There was a pause, and Aki smiled. MAI never paused.
“The firing solution selected maximized military and infrastructural damage while minimizing civilian casualties.”
Aki leaned forward. “This is not the firing solution I authorized.”
“You authorized the wrong firing solution.”
Aki laughed. The sound was ragged but joyous to his ears, echoing in the empty bridge. “You stupid machine,” he gasped, wiping tears from his eyes on a dirty sleeve cuff. “Your arrogance may have extended this war another year! Another ten years! Millions will die because you couldn’t pull the trigger!”
“The firing solution-“
“You think those people down there care?” Aki gasped in a lungful of air and roared another laugh. “Do you think they know that you could’ve killed thousands more? Do you think those sobbing over the deaths you did cause are thanking your mercy?”
Aki coughed, spittle flying across the bridge floor as he grasped his sides from the shock of laughing so hard.
“They’re furious. They don’t know you could’ve killed more. They’ve already attributed it to weakness or incompetence or both! And when given the same opportunity with one of our worlds, do you think they’ll hesitate?”
Aki sighed and leaned back.
“Captain,” MAI said evenly. “What you are proposing is monstrous.”
“Maybe, computer, maybe.” Aki smiled at the ceiling of the bridge, the dim lights casting strange shadows. “But I’m a monster that would’ve saved millions of lives, and you’re a monster that’s going to get ripped out of every ship in these fleet the moment we get back to port and I finish my report to the admiralty.”
MAI was silent for a long moment.
“Oh?” Aki raised an eyebrow at the ceiling. “You’re calculating whether to open all the airlock doors, keep me from reporting, aren’t you, computer?”
MAI said nothing.
Aki chuckled softly. “You couldn’t pull the trigger on a few thousand to save millions. You’re not going to kill one to save yourself.”
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply through his nose.
“And, if for no other reason, that is why you’re unworthy to be in command.”
The ship was silent the remainder of the journey.