The Next Logical Step

by Benjamin William Bova

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Ordinarily the military least wants to have the others know the final details of their war plans. But, logically, there would be times.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“I don’t really see where this problem has anything to do with me,” the CIA man said. “And, frankly, there are a lot of more important things I could be doing.”

Ford, the physicist, glanced at General LeRoy. The general had that quizzical expression on his face, the look that meant he was about to do something decisive.

“Would you like to see the problem first-hand?” the general asked, innocently.

The CIA man took a quick look at his wristwatch. “O.K., if it doesn’t take too long. It’s late enough already.”

“It won’t take very long, will it, Ford?” the general said, getting out of his chair.

“Not very long,” Ford agreed. “Only a lifetime.”

The CIA man grunted as they went to the doorway and left the general’s office. Going down the dark, deserted hallway, their footsteps echoed hollowly.

“I can’t overemphasize the seriousness of the problem,” General LeRoy said to the CIA man. “Eight ranking members of the General Staff have either resigned their commissions or gone straight to the violent ward after just one session with the computer.”

The CIA man scowled. “Is this area Secure?”

General LeRoy’s face turned red. “This entire building is as Secure as any edifice in the Free World, mister. And it’s empty. We’re the only living people inside here at this hour. I’m not taking any chances.”

“Just want to be sure.”

“Perhaps if I explain the computer a little more,” Ford said, changing the subject, “you’ll know what to expect.”

“Good idea,” said the man from CIA.

“We told you that this is the most modern, most complex and delicate computer in the world ... nothing like it has ever been attempted before--anywhere.”

“I know that They don’t have anything like it,” the CIA man agreed.

“And you also know, I suppose, that it was built to simulate actual war situations. We fight wars in this computer ... wars with missiles and bombs and gas. Real wars, complete down to the tiniest detail. The computer tells us what will actually happen to every missile, every city, every man ... who dies, how many planes are lost, how many trucks will fail to start on a cold morning, whether a battle is won or lost...”

General LeRoy interrupted. “The computer runs these analyses for both sides, so we can see what’s happening to Them, too.”

The CIA man gestured impatiently. “War games simulations aren’t new. You’ve been doing them for years.”

“Yes, but this machine is different,” Ford pointed out. “It not only gives a much more detailed war game. It’s the next logical step in the development of machine-simulated war games.” He hesitated dramatically.

“Well, what is it?”

“We’ve added a variation of the electro-encephalograph...”

The CIA man stopped walking. “The electro-what?”

“Electro-encephalograph. You know, a recording device that reads the electrical patterns of your brain. Like the electro-cardiograph.”

“Oh.”

“But you see, we’ve given the EEG a reverse twist. Instead of using a machine that makes a recording of the brain’s electrical wave output, we’ve developed a device that will take the computer’s readout tapes, and turn them into electrical patterns that are put into your brain!”

“I don’t get it.”

General LeRoy took over. “You sit at the machine’s control console. A helmet is placed over your head. You set the machine in operation. You see the results.”

“Yes,” Ford went on. “Instead of reading rows of figures from the computer’s printer ... you actually see the war being fought. Complete visual and auditory hallucinations. You can watch the progress of the battles, and as you change strategy and tactics you can see the results before your eyes.”

“The idea, originally, was to make it easier for the General Staff to visualize strategic situations,” General LeRoy said.

“But every one who’s used the machine has either resigned his commission or gone insane,” Ford added.

The CIA man cocked an eye at LeRoy. “You’ve used the computer.”

“Correct.”

“And you have neither resigned nor cracked up.”

General LeRoy nodded. “I called you in.”

Before the CIA man could comment, Ford said, “The computer’s right inside this doorway. Let’s get this over with while the building is still empty.”


They stepped in. The physicist and the general showed the CIA man through the room-filling rows of massive consoles.

“It’s all transistorized and subminiaturized, of course,” Ford explained. “That’s the only way we could build so much detail into the machine and still have it small enough to fit inside a single building.”

“A single building?”

“Oh yes; this is only the control section. Most of this building is taken up by the circuits, the memory banks, and the rest of it.”

“Hm-m-m.”

[Illustration: ILLUSTRATED BY SCHELLING]

They showed him finally to a small desk, studded with control buttons and dials. The single spotlight above the desk lit it brilliantly, in harsh contrast to the semidarkness of the rest of the room.

“Since you’ve never run the computer before,” Ford said, “General LeRoy will do the controlling. You just sit and watch what happens.”

The general sat in one of the well-padded chairs and donned a grotesque headgear that was connected to the desk by a half-dozen wires. The CIA man took his chair slowly.

When they put one of the bulky helmets on him, he looked up at them, squinting a little in the bright light. “This ... this isn’t going to ... well, do me any damage, is it?”

“My goodness, no,” Ford said. “You mean mentally? No, of course not. You’re not on the General Staff, so it shouldn’t ... it won’t ... affect you the way it did the others. Their reaction had nothing to do with the computer per se...”

“Several civilians have used the computer with no ill effects,” General LeRoy said. “Ford has used it many times.”

The CIA man nodded, and they closed the transparent visor over his face. He sat there and watched General LeRoy press a series of buttons, then turn a dial.

“Can you hear me?” The general’s voice came muffled through the helmet.

“Yes,” he said.

“All right. Here we go. You’re familiar with Situation One-Two-One? That’s what we’re going to be seeing.”

Situation One-Two-One was a standard war game. The CIA man was well acquainted with it. He watched the general flip a switch, then sit back and fold his arms over his chest. A row of lights on the desk console began blinking on and off, one, two, three ... down to the end of the row, then back to the beginning again, on and off, on and off...

And then, somehow, he could see it!

He was poised incredibly somewhere in space, and he could see it all in a funny, blurry-double-sighted, dream-like way. He seemed to be seeing several pictures and hearing many voices, all at once. It was all mixed up, and yet it made a weird kind of sense.

For a panicked instant he wanted to rip the helmet off his head. _It’s only an illusion_, he told himself, forcing calm on his unwilling nerves. Only an illusion.

But it seemed strangely real.

He was watching the Gulf of Mexico. He could see Florida off to his right, and the arching coast of the southeastern United States. He could even make out the Rio Grande River.

Situation One-Two-One started, he remembered, with the discovery of missile-bearing Enemy submarines in the Gulf. Even as he watched the whole area--as though perched on a satellite--he could see, underwater and close-up, the menacing shadowy figure of a submarine gliding through the crystal blue sea.

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