Prose Header

Pyrrhic Victory

by James Bright

part 10
section 1
Pyrrhic Victory synopsis

In a distant future, Capt. Richard Hargrove and a computer technician, Erik Johansen, are on an interstellar scouting mission. Hargrove had commanded an expedition in which Erik’s older brother, Roger, was killed two years earlier. Hargrove blames himself for Roger’s death, but Erik sees it rather differently. In the end, loyalties must come to terms with justice.

Epilogue I: The Conference Room

The soldiers were separated once the debrief started. The first phase was always individual, in order to get a straight story from each soldier before bringing them together to smooth out the edges.

“We’ll make this quick, as I’m sure you’re antsy to rest after this very successful mission.”

Hargrove cracked a small smile. “It wasn’t that bad, actually. Not that I want this to take long, either. Most of what happened can be seen on our recorders.”

“And heard, Captain Hargrove.” The colonel in charge of the debriefing looked Hargrove square in the face. “Captain Sanderson has filed a complaint against you. Says you threatened him?”

Hargrove returned the stare. “I won’t deny the charge.”

“Care to explain the cause, at least?”

“If you recorded my conversations with Erik, you’ll hear, Colonel, but I’m willing to save you the time. Sanderson was holding up part of the mission with one of his habits.”

“What habit would that be?” There was no hint of emotion on the now interrogator’s face, or in his voice.

“He plays it strictly safe up until the moment the true action starts. He tends to let others play point man, rather than taking risks himself. He’s fine once things get heated up, but he’s intent on not being the one to stir up the bee hive. This war will not be won by such people, a fact of which I am sure you’re well aware, Colonel.”

The first and only sign of emotion, a small smile, ghosted itself onto the interrogator’s lips, before disappearing just as quickly. “I am very well aware of that, Captain. He never said what you threatened to do to him.”

“It was a legal threat. I simply assured him that if he continued to endanger the mission, he would be court-martialed. He did not enjoy that, but it got him to straighten his behavior.”

A small nod. “As commanding officer of the mission it was your prerogative to file a complaint. I think personally court-martialing him was pushing your luck, don’t you?”

“He needed the threat to cut the safety routine. I cannot say for certain how far I would have pushed if he’d continued interfering, but I would certainly have filed a complaint.”

“Just between us, since it will have already been recorded elsewhere, what was his behavior, this thing he did so wrong?”

“The hackers were brought along for a reason, which was to help harass and disorient the enemy. He was keeping the hackers beside my own from doing their jobs. We later found out he’d had slave circuits installed by the maintenance people, which made any information-based action on his part also affect the other two ships.”

The colonel’s gaze hardened slightly. “That would be a serious breach of protocol. The only person who has that authority would be the commander of the mission, and even that only to make sure information is synched up between the ships before sending it homeward. Captain Sanderson has some answering to do.”

Hargrove nodded tightly. “That he does. However, since he corrected himself and allowed us to complete the mission, I will leave my statement just now as the only complaint. I won’t push it, although I’m sure you will.”

“You can count on that. No one breaks chain of command without facing the consequences. If he’s lucky all he’ll get is a dishonorable discharge.” The colonel’s gaze softened back to its original neutrality, and he asked, “Is there anything more you want to clear the air about?”

Hargrove shook his head. “Anything that wasn’t mission-specific was emotional baggage I carried, things that involved Hacker Johansen and his brother. I didn’t divulge classified information, it was just something I had bottled up and needed to rid myself of. It’s all recorded.”

“Indeed. Every word said was. Johansen was talking as if the enemy would learn more from us than just about the warp cannon. Any idea what he was thinking of?”

“In disabling the flagship, he left some weapons behind that shut them down. He anticipated the shut-down and left without cleaning up after himself. I assume he was referring to the programs he was using as much as to the warp cannon.”

“Then I have two things to report to my superiors. No doubt the success of the mission will factor into both, but Johansen should have been more careful with his attacks, if he was forced to leave dangerous tools lying around.”

* * *

“So let me get this straight. You turned the enemy’s computers into a city, and wreaked havoc on them, like a video game?”

Erik Johansen looked calmly at the debriefing officer, then down at his nails as if he had absolutely no interest in what this guy had to say, even though he knew that whatever the interrogator had to report could affect his future greatly. “That’s essentially it, yes.”

“Man, I’m in the wrong job. How do I become a hacker?”

The look on the officer’s face showed he was half joking, but Erik treated the question seriously. “You have to show the government you have skills in hacking. Which means you have to know what you’re doing, not just grab a pre-made video game set and fool around in cities.” Erik smiled, trying to show his interrogator that he meant that last in jest, although he knew the desk jock probably didn’t have the skill set he needed to join Erik on the battlefield.

The man chose to ignore the remark altogether. “Did they catch you? While you were inside the system, I mean.”

“More than once. I outfoxed them all but once. The last time even I was outsmarted by my own equipment.”

“How so?”

“I had a fabrication program. A sort of copy machine. Apparently it had some extra programming I hadn’t seen, a learning system. I used the copy machine to build soldiers — clones of enemy service bots — inside the enemy mainframe. The copy machine independently included some battle programs from some actual soldier algorithms I use. The enemy turncoats grew smarter with every order I gave them, and just after I took my headset off to avoid any surprise shutdowns the enemy might have tried, my own soldiers took the flagship offline.”

“Did the programs you used take themselves out of the system?”

“If they were smart enough, they would have. I, unfortunately, don’t know how smart they were in the end. I’d like to think they cleaned themselves up, but it was a complete surprise that they would learn so quickly. Turning off the enemy ship was not part of my plan, just occupying them and tying their computers up enough that they couldn’t escape.”

“Why wouldn’t you try turning the enemy flagship off?”

“The mission hadn’t been a capture one, it was originally a ‘harass until we arrive’ type of mission. We were to keep quiet, monitor the battle, and hack the enemies for intelligence and to keep them in the line of fire. I’ll admit that the escalation of the mission was my decision, with the support of my Captain, Captain Richard Hargrove.”

“Why did you decide to go above the mission parameters?”

“Professionally? This was a very good opportunity, and I was in a position to take it. I figured they would already be onto us just from the regular hacking, so why not up the ante?”

“I see. You said ‘professionally.’ Was there a personal motive to your decision?

“Revenge. Plain old revenge. During the mission Captain Hargrove was holding back. He was my brother’s commander during the mission he died on. Over time, he finally confessed why he felt my brother’s death was his fault. I already got my grieving over soon after I heard about my brother, but hearing him confess... seeing not only that my brother died but that his death at enemy hands had affected my Captain like that, I figured I’d pay them back for both my brother and his best friend’s sake.”

“Oh? Did Captain Hargrove confess some break in regulations?”

“No, nothing criminal. Just emotions that were bottled up and needed release. He got what he needed, and I got motivation out of it. That’s all you need to know, the rest is between him and me.”

“Ah. that’s no matter, it’s all recorded anyway. Going on, you talked about grieving -”

“Wait... what?! They recorded our intercom calls too?”

“Yes. They recorded every communication made, both inside the ships and between them.”

“Since you’re telling me this, was it a secret before the mission?”

“No, it was stated quite clearly in the briefings. Although you don’t seem the type to have read everything that was sent, or to have listened to every last word.”

“Then Rick would have known that from the start.”

“Rick? Oh, Captain Hargrove. Yes, I would assume he knew.”

“In that case I’ll drop it. He didn’t reveal anything he wouldn’t want you to know.”

“Of course not. He’s a career officer, after all.”

Erik looked away for a second, then turned back to look at the officer again. “Now, what were you saying about grief before I interrupted?”

“Right, about you grieving. Remember, if you told Hargrove all of this, your words have been recorded. How did you get over your brother?”

“I turned criminal for a short time. Nothing violent, just hacked a few banks. The job that landed me in the military was a hack on a traffic network to allow a non-violent bank robber to escape. I still don’t know what happened to him, which just means he got away.”

“What happened when they caught you?”

“I went through a trial, the full works. Twelve judges and everything. In the end I was found guilty.”

“How did you end up here?”

“They gave me the same choice they give any hacker they catch. Join the military and fight for the government, or get locked up in prison far away from any computers, or music, or anything that makes life worth living.”

“Did you have any problems with working for the military?”

“Yes, but compared to being locked away with rapists, murderers, and other low life scum, I figured I’d have less trouble handling my military problems. Before we go any further into my past, you’re a debriefing officer for this mission, so why are we bringing up things that should be on the public record from years ago?”

“Because you’re a special case. I’m not just a debriefing officer, I’m a licensed mental therapist.”

Grinding his jaw, Erik looked the officer over. He’d wondered why the man didn’t give off the arrogant feel that other desk officers tended to have. “Why’d they send a shrink to ask me about the mission?”

“Because they’d already heard enough to know it was you who caught the flagship, let alone that it was you who decided it needed to be done. You’re an independent thinker.”

“That earned me a shrink? Do they think I’m sick or something?”

“No, quite the contrary, young Hacker. Independent thinkers on the battlefield take the stress of decision onto themselves. I’m here to make sure you can handle that stress.”

“What do you think?”

“I think so far you’re handling it remarkably well, for a civilian pressed into military service. Especially one who was never involved in a single killing.”

“So far. More questions?”

“Yes, many more.”

“It shouldn’t take a lot of questions to tell if I can handle myself.”

“If you answer my questions, I’ll answer what questions of yours I can.”

“I get the feeling you’re not telling me everything. There’s more to this than stress management, isn’t there?”

“What problems did you have with being in the military?”

Erik quirked an eyebrow, “You didn’t answer my question.”

“I’m not dodging it. I said, answer mine and I’ll answer yours. What problems did you have with joining the military?”

“The discipline, and the idea that I could very well end up killing someone. Even indirectly, killing’s not a thought that sits well with me. Why are you asking me all this?”

“My superiors are interested in your personality, what makes you tic. We’ve struck a major blow to the Conglomerate today, but the war’s not over. We’ll need more soldiers like you, but we’d prefer to find them without turning criminals into weapons. How did you handle the discipline?

Proceed to section 2...

Copyright © 2013 by James Bright

Home Page