by John Jacobs © 2003

Dots on the screen, pixels. On closer inspection one could make out figures, people moving around on the monitor. Commander Grim stared coldly. The battle was turning against him, the little digits in the upper-right corner of the screen were nearly a blur--that was how many he'd lost. It didn't matter though, because he was the best. He was the world's greatest real-time strategist, and he had no intention of backing down.

Nearly three thousand already. The numbers would slow up every so often, when it seemed like the tide was turning in his favor, then they'd speed up again. His men were dying out there, but he felt no remorse. He could not. They were numbers to him, abstractions whirling around on a computer screen. To feel sorry for them was to give up the battle. To give in to primitive emotion meant losing the war, and that couldn't happen. Chances were there was a machine at the other end, controlling the enemy, a machine that didn't feel regret. The new AI systems were getting better all the time, and you had to be good to beat them. If not the best, you at least had to be close to win against one of them. Grim was Supreme Commander of the Western Allied Forces. There were none better than him, and the hell if he'd let a machine tarnish his record.

Through the satellite displays around the main console one could make out the individual soldiers as they marched, as they fought, as they died in the desert terrain of some foreign land. Who were these men? Convicts mostly, or poor people who didn't know any better. Whatever the case, they were not in control. Grim was in control. Implants in each soldier's cerebellum told him when to jump, and how high. There was no free will in the matter; he merely did it, and he did so with machine-like precision. The computer literally seized control of all motor function in the individual, and his body did as it was told. If that meant walking directly into an ambush, so be it. Orders were orders, and orders had to be followed.

Inhumane? Certainly. But the third world armies all had the technology and there wasn't much that could compete with it. Conventional soldiers were all but obsolete and fully mechanical troops were inferior to their half-machine, half-flesh counterparts. The solution: dig from the bottom of the barrel, which is exactly what the politicians in New Washington did. The rest was history.

On the display screen the situation was still looking bleak for Commander Grim. His leftmost units were quickly being overrun. One group marched directly into the line of fire of some machinegun emplacements and got turned into hamburger. The enemy was moving in with flamethrowers, and the result wouldn't be pretty if they got into range. Grim clicked on the screen with the cursor. Several of his groups suddenly changed direction. On one of the close-up satellite displays a man was rolling around on the ground, one of his arms blown clean off. His legs were kicking, like he was still trying to walk forward. The pain editors supposedly kept them from feeling it, but sometimes they looked all too human when they went out. Only weak commanders paid attention to such details though. Grim was not a rookie by any means. He'd won victories in every major theater of war--Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, the Middle East. Other commanders trained under him, learned from his successes, and every so often, his subtle mistakes.

The man's legs were slowing up now. He almost resembled a child's windup toy which had fallen on its side as he lay there, his life gradually winding down. He died with the same blank expression all the others had-mouth slightly open, eyes staring straight ahead. Commander Grim didn't notice. On the main console screen the battle had finally begun to turn in his favor. The enemy had failed in its attempt to break his lines and was falling back. The casualty counter was slowly coming to rest. Now was the critical part, though. Sometimes they'd just stand and fight if they thought they could inflict more casualties, and the whole thing turned into a battle of attrition. Sometimes they'd beat a hasty retreat and risk losing a couple thousand more to exhaustion and starvation across miles of barren land.

This one was tending toward the latter. Grim would have to stay on his heels, of course. He'd probably lose another quarter of his forces, but it didn't matter; they were statistics to him. As Supreme Commander of the Western Allied Forces he didn't have the luxury of feelings. He pressed a key on the keyboard, effectively setting his troops into auto-aggression mode. They would pursue the enemy for days now if necessary, even if it meant exerting themselves to the point of death.

Grim leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. Another victory, another medal to wear on his uniform. He pulled a mirror from his pocket. There were a few drops of sweat trickling down his forehead. He was starting to get acne on his chin and the peach fuzz under his nose was getting darker. He didn't want to start shaving yet, but he couldn't hold off forever. Still, his complexion didn't matter much, because he was Markus Grim, the greatest real-time strategist in the world, and neither man nor machine could defeat him.

x x x

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