Merry Christmas, everybody. Please enjoy the holidays and this little, award-winning tale of war, robots, the Christmas spirit, and French Canadian meat pies . . . .
THE 1011000-100110110000011010011 TRUCE
by: Thomas A. Mays
“Merry freakin’ Christmas, boys. It don’t get no better than this.” Staff Sergeant Malcolm Riddell glared at the snowy, broken battlefield before him and took another long pull from the glass bottle in his hand. The amber liquid within burned harshly going down, but that pleasant pain was a welcome distraction from the monotony the Keystone War had devolved into.
“Pardon, SSGT,” a nearby Jarhead buzzed, “recommend you return to the bunker immediately. Your exposure may constitute an acceptable target upon which the enemy can expend resources.” The vaguely humanoid robot remained prone with its weapon, squelched into the battlefield’s half-frozen mud, but it had oriented its stereoscopic targeting head toward him. Riddell figured that meant it “cared,” at least a little.
“Well, hell, I wouldn’t want to upset anybody’s combat calculus, would I?” He turned around and staggered back to the open hatch leading to his own deep shelter. At the utmost limit of his hearing he could perceive the growing whistle of artillery, so he staggered a bit faster. By the time he had both of the surface airlock’s hatches dogged and started down the ladder, the screaming whumps of exploding laser-guided shells shook his access trunk and tore apart the Canadian border soil of the ground overhead. He briefly wondered if the poor Jarhead model on watch would survive intact.
At the bottom of the trunk, deeper than even hyper-velocity orbital bombardment bunker busters could reach, a much more humanoid Elite command bot awaited him, surrounded by a baker’s dozen of the short, many-limbed Grunt models, tidying up where they could. His own slovenly state seemed to be gaining ground despite their best efforts, however. The Elite passed its unblinking nest of red and black eyes over their efforts and then focused on Riddell. “You should not take such needless chances, SSGT. Where would the war effort be if you perished?”
Riddell smiled. “I imagine the ‘war effort’ would suddenly have a large surplus of bad bourbon to go along with its slight decrease in personnel. Don’t imagine for a second that I’m vital to this fight, ‘Leet. I am the very definition of expendable, not that I’ll be expended any time soon given the current stalemate.”
“Combat operations are not permitted in complete autonomy. If you were to be killed, we would be barred from any offensive actions until a new human overseer reported on station. This would unacceptably give the Canadian drone forces a distinct tactical and strategic advantage through a reevaluation of the risk/resource balance.”
“Oh no! You mean you finally might start shooting at one another? What a terrible thing to happen in your shooting war.” Riddell’s sarcasm was deep enough that even the bot could appreciate it.
The Elite’s hard drive whirred for a moment in its chest before the bot responded. “SSGT, you have made your feelings regarding combat calculus and autonomous drone warfare well known. We need not rehash old arguments.”
“Ha! Like I have anything better to do!” His laugh contained little humor. Riddell plopped into a threadbare chair in front of his dusty operations console. “’Leet, the whole reason everyone started using autonomous combat drones and bots was to shorten conflicts, reduce errors, and save lives when war could not be avoided. The problem is, you machines are completely beholden to this combat calculus, refusing to make a move or expend resources unless you perceive a decisive tactical advantage. And the other side does the exact same thing, with the end result being we’ve all maneuvered ourselves into a worldwide standoff, everyone poised for combat on a dozen different fronts, but nobody actually shooting unless somebody makes a mistake or shifts the calculus. Thus, I am stuck here, watching over fighting robots that DON’T FIGHT, instead of going home and ENJOYING CHRISTMAS!”
The Elite’s hard drive whirred even longer this time. “Please explain the operational significance of Christmas.”
Riddell laughed again, but at least his braying contained some actual humor this time. “Christmas has no operational significance, which is what makes it so significant. Let that one burn up your logic circuits.” The humor did not last, however. Bitterness returned and Riddell leaned forward, elbows on knees, his face in his hands.
He continued. “War is a terrible thing: achieving sociopolitical goals through the complicated process of killing the people who disagree with you until they concede your side of the argument. But there were moments of grace – distinctly human moments – that made it less awful. Christmas was one of those.” He looked up from his hands. “Did you know that back in World War One both sides actually stopped fighting for Christmas? They came out of their trenches and foxholes and celebrated the holiday together, exchanging gifts and uniforms, playing soccer. It was called the Christmas Truce. Look it up.”
The Elite’s hard-drive whirred again. “I have the referred incident now committed to memory. I fail to see how any tactical or strategic objectives were achieved through this unofficial cessation of hostilities.”
Riddell stood up and stretched, his vertebrae popping. “Why am I not surprised? Just forget it.” He shook his head and walked by, headed toward his room in the bunker. “Merry Christmas anyway, ‘Leet. If a sleigh flies overhead or a jolly fat man in a red suit shows up tonight, try not to shoot them down, okay?”
“I will add them to the Proscribed Targets list.”
The Staff Sergeant grinned. “You do that. ‘Night. I’m gonna sleep this off.” He staggered out of the control room and disappeared within his own personal space, shutting the door with an emphatic thunk.
The Elite command bot stood still, but its hard drive and quantum molecular circuits sped into furious activity. After an interminable time for such a quick-thinking machine, it moved again, this time to the control room’s communications panel.
* * *
Riddell opened eyes crusted over with sleep. He rubbed them, then blinked his way to sight. A glance over at the red-numbered digital clock on the wall revealed the time and date: 1337S / 1937Z / 2046-12-25. He groaned. “Freakin’ robots let me sleep half the day away.”
He shrugged and sat up, joints popping as if he was made of bubble-wrap. Riddell rubbed his eyes again and spoke to himself, as the long months in virtual isolation had led him to do. “Well, at least I’m up in time to call the folks. Somebody ought to have a good holiday.”
Riddell puttered around his room, getting dressed in the same clothes he had worn the day before, and which were actually on their fourth day of wear. He did not bother to shower or shave. Whom did he have to impress, after all? It was only after he was ready to step out that he realized something – he had heard nothing at all from the control room or the bunker outside. His eyes narrowed. None of the bots had woken him or checked in, and all appeared deathly quiet outside his personal space. Something was up.
Riddell reversed himself and rummaged through his gear until he found his oft-forgotten pistol. It was of little use against enemy bots, but at least he had something if matters had gone awry. Christmas morning surprise EMP? No, the lights and clock were still working. Christmas morning sneak-attack by viral logic bomb? Riddell nodded. That was a distinct possibility.
The soldier, more aware of his surroundings than he had been in months, carefully opened the door and looked out into the bunker proper, his pistol leading the way. He did it by the book, checking all eight corners of the passageway before stepping out from the cover of the doorway. Nothing. The ceiling fluorescents burned brightly, without a flicker, but it appeared deserted. He crept down to the control room.
Deserted too. No Grunts puttered about, cleaning, repairing, or generally getting underfoot. The Elite was gone too, and its absence haunted Riddell. The consoles had power, but all of the monitor screens were blank but one. On that single active screen was a countdown: 04:09:32.2 and decrementing, counting down to midnight Zulu-time by the blur of tenths of a second. Why?
A further search revealed he alone inhabited the bunker. Not only had the ever-present Grunts in Facility Engineering vanished, but the Drone Hangar was empty as well. Over 100 Jarhead android infantry, Wasp air-supremacy UCAVs, Chesty auto-tanks, and Whiplash sapper drones had disconnected from their maintenance alcoves and trundled off to God knew where.
Riddell cursed and realized he had to go up.
As he climbed the long ladder of the surface access trunk, dread leadened each higher rung. By the time he reached the airlock, his hands and feet felt like they weighed 1000 pounds each, their inertia resisting any further advance into this odd mystery in a world which had grown far too predictable. Riddell sighed and shook it off. Pistol at the ready, he un-dogged the outer hatch and swung the door out.
A soccer ball whizzed past his face to bounce from side to side within the airlock and he almost ventilated the attacking sphere with a full magazine of .40 caliber bullets. Staring at the ball as it stopped bouncing, he nearly fired again when a Jarhead trotted up. “Sorry, SSGT,” it buzzed. “I should have had that.” It reached past him, scooped up the ball, and spun it on one finger. “The Canadians’ files on European ‘football’ are far more extensive than our own. We have scheduled a follow-up of NFL-rules football, however, and are using the Chesties as linemen. We will reclaim our honor yet.”
Riddell stared at the Jarhead, its explanation hardly registering in his mind, and watched as it took the ball and trotted to a makeshift field mapped out upon the slushy mud. Beyond the soccer field, he could see groups of robots milling about together, seemingly conversing as they strolled. Two baseball diamonds had also been marked out and impromptu teams were at play. VTOL drones chased and banked and flipped overhead, but they appeared to be engaged in aerial tag rather than dogfighting.
And everywhere he could see there were Canadian drones and bots intermingled with his own units without a shot being fired. Riddell just shook his head in disbelief, unsure if this was actually happening, or if it was a dream, a nightmare, or the onset of delirium tremens. His reverie was broken by a new voice approaching from his side. “Good afternoon, SSGT. As you can see, we have implemented the recommended protocol with great success.” Riddell could almost hear a smile in the android’s voice.
He turned to the Elite to question it, but his own query stopped in his throat. Sauntering up next to the Elite was a woman in Canadian winter camouflage BDUs, with a pair of single, ornate pips showing from her shoulder loops. Three thoughts occurred nearly simultaneously in Riddell’s mind:
There’s a Canadian officer outside my bunker.
This must be my counterpart in charge of all these Canuck bots.
Damn, she’s cute and I look and smell like an unkempt grizzly bear.
She spoke up in Riddell’s place. “’Allo. I was beginning to think you were a figment of your clever Elite’s imagination.”
Riddell shook his head. Damn. French Canadian. Even cuter. “Ummm, Merry Christmas?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “It looks like it is indeed a very merry Christmas after all.”
He shook his head, unsure what to say or how to proceed. But then he saw an unpleasant look on her face as the breeze shifted and she caught his scent. Riddell stepped back out of the wind into the hardened bunker airlock. “I’m so sorry! It’s been so long since I’ve seen anyone else. Wait here just a few minutes – don’t leave! I’ll be right back, okay?” He turned and fled back down the access trunk ladder, calling out behind him, “’Leet, you’re with me!”
At the bottom, as he showered and shaved, the Elite gave him the full story. The command bot researched the WW-I Christmas Truce and saw numerous parallels to their current situation: opposing forces largely at a standoff, no true animosity between the actual soldiers carrying out the tactical and operational orders of their superiors, and both forces in need of a change, a reset to what had become a mired and pointless conflict.
The Elite had gathered the pertinent files, queried the collective ranks and gotten their assent, then sent the entire proposal as an unencrypted burst transmission to the nearest Canadian bunker. With a speed unheard of in human-managed conflicts, the idea propagated across every front of the Keystone War. Multiple sides debated, negotiated terms, and enacted the truce before any human providing oversight noticed, much less objected. Worldwide, wherever robots were in combat, they slung their rifles, powered down their targeting radars, deactivated their smart mines, and stepped out to greet their enemies as comrades until Christmas ended at midnight Zulu-time.
By the time the Elite finished its explanation, Riddell had showered, shaved, and dressed himself in his parade-ground best. He wolf-whistled at his own reflection in the mirror and then looked over at his too-clever-by-half robot. “I don’t know if I’ve ever said this before, ‘Leet, but Thank You. If I happened to have doubted how much better robots are at running the war, then I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“No offense taken, SSGT. Merry Christmas,” the robot replied.
Riddell smiled, patted the bot on the shoulder, then fled up the access trunk as fast as he could climb, pausing only long enough to grab up a bag of a few appropriate Christmas gifts for the currently lonely and unaccompanied lady upstairs. When he emerged, he was pleased to see her still there, sitting on the ground next to the airlock. She watched the intermingled forces of robots and combat machines playing games and strolling along with a contented look on her face.
Riddell sat next to her and shared a smile with her when she looked toward him. “Sorry about my appearance before. Definitely not appropriate for the holiday or present company. Merry Christmas again. I’m Malcolm.” He specifically did not use his rank or last name.
Her smile became more coy. “Laurence. It’s very nice to meet you, Malcolm.”
His eyes narrowed. “Isn’t that a guy-name?”
Laurence rolled her eyes. “Only among the stupid English. But if you would prefer to end this truce over my name, we can go right back to shooting at one another.”
Riddell held up his hands and laughed. “No, no, no! Truce! I’m a fan of truce. Okay?”
She nodded and smiled again. “D’accord.”
“In fact,” he said, bringing out his satchel, “I even brought gifts!” He opened the bag with a flourish and brought out the first item. “I present you the finest Kentucky bourbon you can get from the Army supply system. It is to Elijah Craig what pond water is to Perrier, but what it lacks in refinement it makes up for in volume.” Another reach into the bag and, “Here for our culinary delight, I have two Meals Ready-To-Eat, Holiday Turkey Loaf w/Gravied Dressing and Victory Vegetarian Ham w/Julienned Vegetables. While not exactly haute cuisine, they are eminently comestible.”
She accepted all three with what seemed her best faux sincerity, and brightened again with a smile and a laugh that sent a wave of warmth through him. She spoke, and he hung on every syllable. “I too have brought gifts. I apologize for the lack of wrapping paper.”
“Quite all right.”
Laurence handed him a bottle of red wine. “A Seyval Noir from the vineyard of my cousin. He makes a very nice ice wine, but I fear it was enjoyed alone but a few days ago, before I knew I had something to look forward to.”
“Thank you!” Wine was not Riddell’s thing, but it was a welcome change from whiskey or water. Plus, the gift of alcohol from a beautiful woman was not one to be dismissed.
She brought out from her own satchel what looked to be a pie tin. The golden crust on top gave off a few wisps of steam. “I had no suitable rations for trade, however I was able to cobble together a meal to share. The ingredients are . . . best left unremarked upon, but it is a fair approximation of the French meat pie. These are a wonderful memory of the winters of my youth. I can only hope the reality in the present will do them justice.”
The meat pie smelled wonderful, but she could serve him rat pudding and Riddell would eat it with a smile and ask for seconds. “That looks and smells a lot better than my MREs. Do you have plates?”
They ate, drank wine, had shots, and chatted. They talked about everything and nothing, mutually avoiding any hint of a debate over their separate sides of the war or about how two close neighbors and allies had fallen so far apart. Riddell spoke about his youth in Texas, where Laurence spoke about splitting her formative years between her father in Quebec and her mother in Alberta. Mostly though, they watched and talked about the robots.
As the day wore on and the games finished, formed up, and then started again, the groups of bots fractured and intermixed further and further. At this point, were it not for the Stars and Stripes emblazoned on some and the Maple Leaf stenciled on others, it would prove difficult to distinguish the nationality of one combat drone from another, especially as the sun set and darkness eliminated even those differences. The truce had brought about a wondrous homogenization to the disparate sides.
Dusk fell and the plain became dotted with a precise grid of campfires. Riddell and Laurence strolled among their forces in a pleasantly warm alcoholic daze, at ease with the deadly bots and with one another. Grunts and their wheel-and-tracked counterparts among the Canucks played incomprehensible games similar to tag or capture the flag, but with utterly abstruse rules known only to them. Other bots, Grunts, Jarheads, Chesties, Whiplashers, and Wasps, along with the Canadian versions, all stood alongside one another in long lines snaking up to field-grade Maker forges, programming in and then extracting small gifts for exchange. The 3D printer elements and C&C cutters worked together within the forges to create any artifact the bots could think up. Bots exchanged practical gifts like spare parts as well as more fanciful presents. Most popular among the many presents traded were challenge coins and magnetic flag pins. Riddell smiled at the pride and espirit de corps that showed, even if it was only a hard-wired simulation of the emotion a human would evince.
Riddell looked at his watch and winced. The official truce would soon end and the two sides would separate and drift back to their own lines along the front, ready again to either fight or sit in stalemate as the situation dictated. He looked down and his fingers twitched. His hand was so close to that of the Canadian girl, there seemed to be a gravitational pull tugging them toward one another, to take her hand in his own. More terrified of that than he was of combat, he gestured wide at the surrounding bots. “You know, if it was so easy to come together on this one day, why not tomorrow? And then the next day and the day after that? What the hell are we fighting over? Mineral rights? Sovereignty? What is it that makes you and I enemies?” He dropped his arms, defeated.
Laurence resolved his earlier indecision without nearly as much trepidation. She took his hand in her own and brought it to her cheek. Her face was lit in profile by the flickering light of a campfire, and Riddell did not think he had ever seen anything quite so beautiful. “Malcolm,” she said, her accent enthralling, “would that it were up to us, but, alas, it is not. You and I, despite the bonds we have created today, are still on opposite sides. How did this all turn out in the First World War?”
Riddell took the bolder next step and turned his hand, cupping her rosy cheek in his palm. “In 1914, both sides’ headquarters came down on their units that had shared the one day truce. In 1915, only a few groups risked it. By 1916, things had grown so bitter about the war, no one felt very much like fraternizing.”
Laurence stepped toward him, eliminating the slight separation between them. “Fraternization doesn’t sound so bad right now.”
“Season’s Greetings, SSGT and Sous-Lieutenant!” The Elite interrupted and held out both hands, a newly forged present in each.
Riddell groaned and both he and Laurence stepped back from one another. He looked over at his android subordinate and cursed under his breath, but he plastered on a smile and said, “Thank you, ‘Leet.”
Laurence murmured thanks and they both took their presents. They were each given a metal pin, with the US and Canadian flags orbiting a single snowflake emblazoned with 2046. Riddell gripped it tightly in his fist with near-crushing force, but the pin would not break. He looked back to Laurence, but she would not meet his eyes. The moment was lost.
In 1914, with the sun rising on a new day, the Christmas Truce had ended and both sides had drifted amiably back to their own bunkers and trenches, filled with a greater respect for humanity, even if each of them had known they would soon be shooting at one another again. It took time for humans to switch modes.
For machines, flipping states was a quick and seamless matter.
The timer reached zero and every robot paused as their internal clocks kicked over to December 26, midnight Zulu-time. The truce ended and new comrades switched back to old combatants.
Riddell and Laurence were much less on the ball, however. Each screamed in shock and fear as the night exploded into bitter fighting. Robots on both sides pulled rifles off their slings and started blasting away at a very target-rich environment. Lasers flashed and seared invisibly. Bullets and tungsten sabot rounds streaked across this new battlefield. High explosive cannon fire and high-angle mortar barrages began going off all around them. Overhead, Wasps and Canadian Peregrines ceased playing tag and began tagging each other with expanding rod warhead air-to-air missiles. Robots grappled with the robots they had just exchanged gifts with and tore one another apart.
The two lone humans fell to the ground to avoid suddenly arcing shrapnel and tracers. The Elite scanned the battlefield and instantly keyed upon Laurence. The command bot drew its own sidearm and pointed it at her head.
Riddell saw what it was doing and cried out, “No!” He tackled the bot before it could decide between kill or capture and knocked its arm up.
His own strength was nothing compared to its electrically activated servos and myomers, however. The bot’s arm inexorably wound down to bear on the Canadian officer despite his best effort. “SSGT, combat calculus indicates maximum gain with the death of an opposition combat leader. Local enemy forces will be limited to defensive fire only.”
Riddell gave up fighting the Elite and instead crawled up to block its aim. He crab walked back to Laurence’s prone form and grabbed her by the wrist. “She’s captured! She’s captured and she’s now a prisoner of war!”
“What!?” Laurence cried, struggling with him.
“Stop fighting me, you idiot! I’m trying to save your life.” As he said this, a sabot-round – either aimed or randomly targeted – streaked across the chaotic field of battle and passed right through his thigh, exploding in a spray of blood and gore. Riddell gasped and his grip on her wrist suddenly went limp.
Laurence pulled free and the Elite instantly brought its weapon to bear again. She understood then and held up her hands. “I’m still his prisoner! He’s still in command!”
The Elite’s aim wavered. Before it could resolve this new element of the combat calculus, however, a string of 30 mm depleted uranium rounds stitched up its side and shredded it, splashing Laurence and Riddell both with shrapnel and hydraulic fluid.
Laurence went prone again and crawled to Riddell. She forced her face close to his and yelled over the din of explosions and combat. “What now?”
His eyelids flared then drooped. “Bunker. Need autodoc.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Am I your prisoner or are you mine?”
“We’re whatever doesn’t get us both killed.” The battle grew dim and distant as he lost consciousness.
* * *
Much later, it took a great deal of effort to re-open the outer hatch of Riddell’s bunker. Laurence grunted with the effort of fighting the warped steel out of its blackened frame, but she would not let “her Malcolm” help. Once open, though, he insisted on being the first out the door and back onto the battlefield. He limped out, his rifle preceding him, and tried not to swoon at even that small level of effort. She had gotten them both into the bunker and used the autodoc to save his life, but he was still very low on blood volume and drugged to the gills on pain killers and antibiotics.
Both fronts were very much in disarray. His and Laurence’s bunkers had not been the only stalemated command posts to take a Christmas pause, and were thus not the only units to then find themselves engaged in the most furious close-quarters fighting of the war. Robots on every front had battled themselves to near-extinction. Reserves, when employed, had also been virtually wiped out by orbital and sub-orbital bombardment, as they represented the only force concentrations in which both sides were not inextricably mingled. Whatever the issue had been between the neighboring nations, neither now had the resources deployed to continue the campaign.
Outside Riddell’s bunker, the frozen ground lay thick with smoke, littered with debris and the shattered carcasses of every type of drone, but all was quiet. The fighting had ended, here, there, and everywhere. Riddell let out a long, low whistle of amazement. “Looks like our bots gave each other two cans of whup-ass and they opened ‘em up at the same time.”
Laurence nodded and took his hand in her own. “The battle might be over, but the war is not ended. Nothing was resolved.”
He shrugged. “War never resolves what the war was over. It only makes it so painful and expensive that one of the two sides concedes the issue.” Riddell gestured to the battlefield with his free hand. “This is expensive, but as outcomes go, world peace – after a short stutter of combat – is not such a bad Christmas present.
Laurence looked at him. “So, what now? Whether we are to be court martialed or medaled, or whether the war continues or ends, what becomes of you and I?”
Riddell thought of all the leave she and he had accumulated whiling away their time separately among the bots. He grinned. “Christmas was a blast. How about New Year’s Eve on neutral ground?”
What did you think!? Be sure and let me know in the comments below! Merry X-Mas!