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by Steve Davis
On the brightly-lit bridge of a ship cruising the long darkness between star systems, a duty officer glanced away from his screens. Tapping a key, he called a location on the ship's outer hull.
"Hi, Arnie. We may have something for you. There's a Possible ahead," the officer said.
-Jay? Is that you? Sorry, I was into something. OK, I'm listening now.-
"Working on something? Tell me about it, I'm always interested," the man invited.
-All right. I was watching the stars go by out here and trying to come up with some kind of, I guess you'd call it, cosmic perspective.-
"Yeah? Ah, you know, I'm glad you do that stuff and all. This whole insight thing, you know, it helps me too when we talk about it. It helps to compare notes. Your views, mine -- it's all good.
"But, and don't get me wrong, I worry about weakening your resolve. I mean, I know you can't feel fear -- but doubt... now that can slow anybody. You know, at crunch time."
-I understand your unease. There've been crunch failures by others. But I don't think we have to worry. I'm battle-ready. My commitments are intact. I don't foresee them being changed by the issues I'm currently grappling with.-
That's great, Arnie. Forgive me. I should know better by now. You keep on keeping on.
"Anyway, this Possible's a good fifteen minutes ahead. It's a drive signature, that's pretty sure, and doesn't look like anybody we know."
-A new culture?-
"Sorry, sorry. I put that wrong. No. It's just not one of ours, or a friendly. In fact it's up in the power range that They use."
-Oh. I had hoped.-
"Me too. But, anyway, if it does look like Them when we're closer, we'll drop back into realspace to arm and... Arnie? You went quiet on me."
-A part of me hopes I don't have to kill. Of course, it's my responsibility: to destroy Them, to decrease their ability to kill you. In the end, I must do that.
-But again and again, I look for a different way.-
"I hear you, I really do. Keep looking, I know I'm going to... Hold on, something's changing.
"Arnie, I think it's seen us. Yeah, the signal's picking up. They're moving this way and accelerating hard."
"OK. It looks like three minutes, max, and then they're on us. That crazy-fast drive of theirs. How're you doing? What's your firing status?"
-I'm primed. I recharged while you were on sleep shift. I can launch from now.-
"Good, real good. Still cutting it short.
"OK, then, Arnie. Begin?"
-Yes, Jay. Begin.-
"All right." The man's tone became formal. "Class NXS weapon. This is official notice of Need to Defend."
-Confirm Need to Defend notice.-
"Downloading information on possible target."
-Information being studied. I find this target Valid. Status: Danger.-
"Request decision notification."
-My decision is Attack. Arming now.-
The smart weapon, representing nine generations of innovation from the bombs that had guided themselves onto the roofs of Baghdad a century earlier, burst away from the ship. Accelerating, it shot ahead so sharply that the ship's instruments momentarily lost track of it.
In that near-blur, as it was to even Their sensors, the smart weapon began zigzagging, diving in at almost random angles. The other ship began firing sophisticated energy weapons, some non-linear, blasts bending to intercept the smart's own bending trajectory.
Making a snap decision, the smart transitioned, nearly dropping into realspace, then accelerating at maximum velocity.
That sudden move, which was almost foolish so close to the target, threw off the other ship's defenses for less than a nanosecond. But that was all the smart weapon needed. Flashing almost past the target ship, the weapon triggered.
In a blinding ball of fusion destruction, both smart weapon and ship disappeared.
On the smart weapon's ship, the duty officer let out a victory whoop. He stopped mid-shout, realizing how the smart weapon would have viewed what it had just done. With regret, no doubt. Lives had been lost. There wasn't much to celebrate.
For a moment the man admitted the truth of that grim evaluation.
Having smarts do the killing had made it easier, somehow more distant, less real. They decided when, and how, to strike. People usually watched in safety, from the sidelines.
But giving more and more responsibility to the smarts was starting to bite. The newest ones asked questions, hard ones.
Remembering his conversations with this one, the officer made a personal decision. He'd keep his promise to look for a way out of the conflict. There had to be something that hadn't been tried. Some other way, some better solution than this. Less death, somehow.
The odds against succeeding were high, given the history of the conflict. It had grown literally stronger than reason. Every part of the situation seemed locked in and unchangeable.
But a major first step had already been achieved.
On one, small weapons carrier, in one tiny corner of the universe, humanity was getting its head back into the responsibility game.
Story copyright 2001 by Steve Davis SD071451@msn.com
Illustration copyright 2001 by Carl Goodman email@example.com
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