The machine said he was going to die today, and the machine was never wrong.
Some scientist somewhere had created a computer powerful enough to compute probabilities to the smallest decimal point. With it, a nation could become invincible. With it, any outcome was a foregone conclusion.
The only problem was that someone had built another one at the same time, and the two machines were waging a battle of quantum uncertainty on a macro level. As long as there were two machines, there could be no certainty. There could only be probability.
The machine was only wrong so much as its rival dared interfere in the outcome of any battle, and neither machine cared for the lives of soldiers. Soldiers were merely resources to be acquired and spent for maximum efficiency. The machine might intentionally lose a fight in order to win another five years from now. The plan was long term. Except it wasn’t because as long as there were two machines, the future was always uncertain, aside from a small detail here or there.
Jude was given his death notice before storming the battlefield. They did that just before so that a soldier didn’t chicken out. Why did they do it? They did it because it didn’t matter. It didn’t make a damn bit of difference. If he was going to die today, there was nothing he could do about it. Meanwhile, some committee had decided to let soldiers know how much their service was appreciated by handing them a medal in a red envelope before their last hurrah.
“You’re an honor to your nation,” said the sergeant, sounding bored with the affair.
Jude stuffed the envelope in his pocket. He didn’t bother to open it. The hatch popped open, and he charged into the battlefield. In the heat of battle, he forgot about dying.
He fought and he killed. When the dust settled, he stood exhausted among the carnage. Everybody was dead.
Everybody but him.
An enemy soldier stepped out of the smoke. This was it. Rather than fight his destiny, Jude lowered his rifle and let death take him. The other soldier held his rifle at his side. They stared at each other, waiting for the other to make a move.
“What are you waiting for?” asked the soldier.
“I was about to ask you the same thing.” The soldier tossed a red envelope at Jude’s feet. “Get it over with already.”
Jude held up his own envelope. He dropped his rifle and limped toward his enemy. Not his enemy. Just a soldier. Like him.
The soldier threw away his rifle and steadied Jude. “But the machine . . . ”
“Fuck the machine,” said Jude.
“So what now?” asked the soldier.
“Hell if I know.”
Jude crumpled his death notice and threw it away. The two soldiers, inconsequential variables in an equation that no longer concerned them, dragged themselves from the battlefield one last time.