Collateral Damage

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Major June Lawrence was slowly going crazy.

The grey walls, the white tiled floors and the endless neon strip-lights of the bunker were robbing her of her senses. At first, the madness had seemed little more than a niggling sense of Deja-vu, the inevitable side effect of living in such cramped quarters for so long. She had expected something like that to occur during her year spent alone underground and she found a shot of whiskey from the bottle beneath her bunk easily put the doubts to rest when they risked becoming overwhelming.  

Then she lost her sense of time. While the digital clocks located in the corridor between bunk and workshop showed the precise hour to the second, the constant glow of the bulbs meant that midnight and noon looked identical. Whiskey had no power to fix the sense of timelessness and she frequently found herself waking to her own screaming voice echoing off the walls, unable to identify the day or the hour. It was then that she had phoned the governments’ appointed psychologist. The measured words of the doctor had calmed her enough to keep some degree of focus on her task during waking hours, but they could not stop the nightmares.

Still, June accepted the claustrophobic fear and sleepless nights; it was the price to pay for the nation’s security. The device she alone understood was the single biggest priority of the current government. A mile beneath the featureless sand of the desert, millions of dollars of taxpayer money was at work in the form of Charlotte, the most complex analytical computer ever devised.

Charlotte was what June had theoretically called a Quantum Entanglement Engine, or QUEEN during her post-doctoral research. Things used to be so simple back then, when everything was just theory, before the government funded a physical demonstration of June’s conjectures. Charlotte was, in layman’s terms, a computer that constructed models of the future based not just on the data thrown out by military intelligence but shaped by the millions of ways those points connected, right down to a molecular level. Of course, it could not predict the future, such a thing was impossible; the arrow of time went but one direction. Charlotte simply produced millions of models, simulating almost all possible futures and evaluated the possibility of any chosen outcome from those simulations. From that data, the government could take whatever action was most likely to bring about their desired result. Of course, the public would never respond to a machine called Queen controlling their destiny, so Charlotte had instead taken the name of June’s birth city in Carolina.

The real concern in construction was output corruption due to the human factor, and so fabrication occurred in an abandoned shelter deep beneath the desert. Only Major Lawrence had been inside the complex since construction started. While she had regular contact via a secure phone line with the surface, effectively she had been buried alongside the machine. Her sole duty was feeding data to the machine and reporting the most probable outcomes to command.

The early tests had been small-scale. She had given Charlotte information on tactical exercises involving squad level forces, searching for outcomes that would allow one side to triumph in the game. Mostly, Charlotte suggested tactical advice to produce the desired outcomes, but some oddities did occur. A suggestion that a squad be issued cheese and pickle sandwiches on rye and then left to their own devices seemed to be a bug but June dutifully passed on the probability map. She had been shocked when the report came back the next day that the odd input had worked flawlessly.

They increased the complexity of tests in line with the successes, moving from squads to platoons and, eventually, whole city populations. The suggested actions grew in both complexity and strangeness but created the desired outcomes with over a 90% efficiency rate, well above even the most hopeful projections.

Now, after nearly eight months of tests, the team were engaged in the most complex problem Charlotte had ever attempted. Over three petabytes of information uploaded over a period of two weeks was required to calculate a solution. The goal was to deescalate a nuclear threat from some distant nation on the government’s own terms. Of course, such a large population and such a global reach meant billions of possible actions. That would take weeks to calculate, even at the speeds offered by the state of the art engine. June had settled in for a long wait to get the results.

As the machine worked, her nightmares got worse every day. Her mind was plagued with hideous visions of cities on fire, children burning as they ran through inky-black clouds of ash and smoke. The noise of their cries and the smell of flame feeding on flesh and bone overwhelmed her senses and she could feel their agony deep in her chest. She awoke over and over, sweat soaked and lost. Increasingly, the dreams seemed real and her existence in the bunker so artificial that declaring one true and the other false seemed ridiculous. If she was awake or asleep mattered less and less each day.

It was only when the radiation siren started to blare and weeping, bloody wounds started to form on her skin that June realised the full extent of the mistakes she had made. The machine worked on a quantum level. Charlotte wasn’t running models of potential futures. She was creating pocket universes in which those futures existed. The sense of events repeating, her nightmares and the radiation ruining her flesh were all leakage from the realities Charlotte was creating minute after minute.

It wasn’t the pain of her wounds that broke what sanity remained in Major Lawrence’s mind. Nor the fear of death that brought the waterfall of tears to June’s eyes. It was the truth that she had witnessed real horrors. Next door, Charlotte continued to form new models, millions more souls bound to burn.

About the Author: 
A Literature teacher in Yorkshire England, and a writing hobbyist.
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