The many duties of the ship’s captain included a regular inspection of the cabins, something that in Jack’s experience was best carried out discretely. He heard Irwin in the washroom singing to himself in a deep resonating voice, and with it the sound of gushing water and the slap of soapy hands on wet flesh. Jack slipped into Irwin’s cabin. It was neatly arranged, the product of a well-organized mind with fastidious attention to detail. The array of family photos pinned to the wall above the bed drew his attention. Despite being of varied sizes, Irwin had found a way to tessellate the photos, with the same fine separation between each one. They were all healthy-looking people, smiling confidently and enjoying the privilege of flowers and open green spaces. Near the top was a large picture, a younger and strikingly handsome Irwin with his bride. Lower down four young Canterburys were pictured. Posed with the growing offspring, the parents had aged but retained a sparkle and determination in their eyes. Jack checked the vents and sockets for damage, dirt and foreign objects. He checked the drawers beneath the bed, and saw a book with a plain red cover, and he was curious. Knowing that he was exceeding his remit, and instinctively throwing a glance towards the door, he picked up the book and opened it.
“Cybernetics Unleashed - The Invasion of Japan - General Irwin Canterbury”
The book seemed old and worn and cheaply made, with small text and yellowing pages, enlivened by numerous diagrams of the military thrusts and maneuvers. These events took place late in the war, after the space fleets had been destroyed, an existential struggle had begun, and humanity and compassion were in short supply. It was taught in schools that two hundred million had died on that doomed island; but it was also established fact that the cybernetic machines had run out of control, to the dismay of the President and his Generals. Responsibility for the genocide made a good essay question, but Jack had not taken history to that level, nor had the question troubled him much, for it had all happened a long time ago and the world had moved on. He started reading the text somewhere near the middle, with the feeling that the strange little book was taking him back in time.
“January 21st. My team is working well at our forward base here in Darwin. The move from HQ in Washington has given them a sense of progress, even though much of our machinery has yet to catch up. We can almost smell the Japanese on the sea breeze. The heat is stifling and much worse than summer in our nation’s capital. I have imposed a schedule of water and salt consumption on personnel of all ranks.
January 22nd. My request for 640,000 medium range missiles has been denied again. It is clear to me that civilian casualties in the United States, although they are small and have not significantly affected our nation’s fighting capacity, have caused resources to be diverted from the front line, putting our strategic goals at risk. I have remonstrated with General Bulmore, who is rapidly losing my respect. I am still only a three star officer, and after Bulmore gained his fifth star he has started to sound more like a politician than a soldier, and on top of that, judging from our last face-to-face meeting in Washingon, he is getting fat as well. I warned him that I will go directly to the President with this.
January 23rd. I have received 400,000 medium range missiles, which I judge sufficient to open a window in Japanese air defences around Sendai. I began Phase 2 of the operation at 21:00 hours today. The first wave of robots has been inserted, a total of 1,270,000 machines in four drop zones.
January 24rd. After a full day of operations the attrition rate is lower than expected at 6% and our machines are moving out faster than we anticipated. This first wave is lightly armed but they are accumulating heavy weapons from dead enemy combatants. The kill rate is between six and seven per machine per day, well above expectations. The stress level among senior officers here is high and most have not slept for 24 hours. The video streams are gruesome and have affected a few officers adversely. I continue to remind them that our mission is the only way to save their sons from this horror and slaughter.”
Jack quietly put the book back in its drawer and returned to the eating area, for Irwin had stopped singing, and being a man of strict routines, he would soon emerge from the washroom. Indeed he did, looking hot and sweaty but more friendly and relaxed than usual, and he sat down opposite Jack.
“There are many things I miss out here”, Irwin said, “but I hadn’t expected to miss my bath so much. It‘s one of those things we take for granted, but I think it may be essential for maintaining our equilibrium.“
“Yeah, I guess we all miss different things”, Jack replied, sounding unconvinced by Irwin’s theory. “You‘re a family man aren’t you ? Do you have any regrets, taking on a long mission like this leaving them back on earth ?”
“I think about them all the time”, Irwin replied. “It’s strange Jack, but even out here, I don’t feel they’re far away. My wife and I have been together for so long, I don’t really need to see her in the flesh any more. I think we’re eternally linked. And the children have their own lives and certainly don’t need me now. You know, I’m doing this for them, really. Yes I work for the government, and the objective they gave me is the Greenshoot antiviral, but the greatest motivation for me is that Melissa and the children might need this technology one day. I’d be letting them all down if I failed.”
“What about your parents ? Are they still alive ?”
“My mother died the day after I was married. And my father died when I was twelve years old.”
“I understand your father was a military man ?”, Jack asked casually.
“Yes, he fought in the war. He was in his sixties, a retired General, when he married my mother. In some ways he was a great man, although history doesn’t remember him. Well, I suppose we are prone to idolize our fathers, aren’t we ? But what he did, changed the course of the war. The Japanese were creating singularities again in a deep underground plant, they were starting to rebuild their fleet, and he had to find a way to stop them. Have you heard the term chaotic attack ? That was the approach he used. It was novel, at a time when military assets were used in formations and worked under a central command. He introduced cybernetic machines with no central command - the machines develop their own plans on the battlefield. In the end just one robot survived and found its way into the Japanese singularity complex - and managed to destroy it.”
“But you chose a different career”, Jack said. “Why was that ?”
“Around the time I graduated, my mother was doing some work on disarmament for the United Nations, and she gave me an introduction there. It seemed that I was following in my father's footsteps, and I wanted to - I was a young man born in wartime and into a military family. But I can see now that she was guiding me away from the army and towards diplomacy. She knew that the center of power was shifting, towards the UN and the Triple-S.”
“Maybe your parents also knew that war’s a dirty game”, Jack said darkly. The remark seemed to rob Irwin of his momentum. His face dropped and momentarily his intense, agitated demeanour returned.
Jack was still curious about Irwin’s career, and ready to ask some more questions, but he was distracted by steam which was now gathering in the crew deck. Both men were covered in beads of sweat, as the Beluga’s ventilation system struggled to clear the air. It was a minor design weakness, but it made Jack anxious. He decided to return to the cockpit and watch the atmospheric readings.
“Let’s talk some more later, Irwin. I’ve got work to do.”