On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The old world and its systems of warfare died in smoke and ash. A handful of conflicts between antiquated forces and their computerised counterparts were decisive beyond any measure of doubt. But it took decades to learn the lessons.
Within a generation, human infantry had been relegated to history. Air forces and navies were fully automated, and in time, they became unmanned. But it took years more to come to the logical conclusion. War had become a game.
The rules had to change. Gone were the days of sending young men and women off to die on some foreign shore. Gone, indeed, were the days of warfare having a physical location at all. The battlefields became virtual, and no longer needed to be constrained by our world’s geography. Ever more ingenious scenarios were envisioned and modelled, and then played out. The sole inviolable law was that war’s outcome was binding. The fates of nations and their populations was played out in theatres of war which did not exist in the real world, using units created by computers, all centrally managed. Governments could wage war at the drop of a hat, over any matter, and without fear of any loss of life or destruction of property or infrastructure.
Hanging in the balance were the usual things: territorial divisions, access to resources, allegiances and rivalries. They all boiled down to the same thing. Humanity is unable to exist in true peace, so its only solution is to find better and more humane ways to be at war.
The perception of the worst but most inevitable human activity shifted too. War became the greatest spectator sport that had ever existed. Whole nations watched battles unfold, able to see both an overall view and to focus on any individual unit at any time. Events could be run backwards and replayed, and possible future moves could be simulated by anyone. War was streamed globally to all, with wagers made and fortunes lost and won. Even for the nations involved in conflict, war had become the highest-stakes form of competition, viewed with excitement alongside the tension.
With no soldiers or pilots or other human beings on the front lines — and without any front lines at all — it was the generals who became celebrities. Master strategists, most without any military background and instead raised on digital games, were courted and coveted by all nations. The best of them were regularly imported and exported like sports stars, bought for vast sums to wage wholly simulated war against other countries, and sometimes even against their own places of birth, to which they became instant if temporary outcasts and traitors.
War no longer affected the financial markets, nor did it bolster economies. Political alliances were as independent of war as they were of which football team a particular politician happened to support. And all gains and losses were eternally reversible.
We knew that something had fundamentally shifted when war moved to the lighter side of the news. The day’s highlights retold in immaculately-rendered replays at half speed or double speed, with pundits contributing their armchair opinions in hindsight, then the whole thing debated enthusiastically around dinner tables and in pubs the world over.
New opportunities were quickly identified and seized upon. Virtual mechanised units were decorated in the liveries of sponsors, rolling into imaginary battle adorned with ads. The upkeep of the computerised infrastructure for global war became a matter for the private companies most interested in painting their colours upon tanks and fighter jets and attack submarines which were nothing more than 3D models with textures and beautiful lighting.
In time, the greatest game moved beyond the constrained physical world that inspired it, taking warfare to new environments, with new physics and new possibilities for the slaughter of infantry who had never lived, and the destruction of war vehicles that had never really existed.
The so-called superpowers maintained an economic advantage to begin with — the digital units had a real-world cost — but far less so than when war happened in reality. The balance of power fluctuated daily, the subject of league tables and endless speculation, and citizens were informed weekly of their county’s gains and losses. Whole territories would change hands one month and revert the next, with victory speeches first becoming perfunctory and then entirely superfluous.
Children were raised with the spectacle of it. There were streams which substituted the lifelike battle units for fantasy creatures, all animated by the same data, to make it more palatable to them, but they soon caught on. Governments provided training simulators, identical to the real thing if desired, to help the next generation of strategists and commanders to learn. At first, the youngest were trained in a turn-based system, until their minds grasped the mechanics and became tactical. Then, they would progress steadily towards real-time combat, able to practice and compete against those of a similar skill level from anywhere else in the world. Some would reach national and international wargames leagues, and the most elite of those would receive either a summons from their own government for patriotic duty, or an offer of lucrative employment from a foreign nation. The result was the same regardless.
The fog of war was entirely gone from human experience, consigned to history. Perfect awareness, perfect communication, and perfect obedience led to generation after generation of tense and expertly-fought battles, the best of which immediately became fodder for chat-show interviews and written memoirs. The average retirement age for a military commander dropped to twenty-two, when reflexes and situational awareness began to noticeably dull.
It has been this way for as long as we can remember.
There is peace, in a sense. No-one dies in conflict anymore. No bullets have been fired in international conflict for generations. Battle is no longer to be dreaded, and conscription no longer exists. But we are not free of our base aggression. The conclusion was inevitable, because our flaws run deep.
Now, we are always at war.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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