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Memo from the Lab of the Moral Weapon

H. Baumgardt is a recent graduate of the College of Saint Benedict. She lives in Minnesota, working as a designer at a stained glass company while dreaming of dragons. This is her first publication.

Weapons don't care who they kill. That's the first thing you learn in Combat Capabilities Development and Command. In that way, weapons are like viruses. They don't discriminate, they have no morals. Around thirty percent of army casualties are accidental. You aim and fire and stand ten or a hundred or even a thousand feet away, and still something can go wrong. A damned shame. Flying shrapnel, a trick of the wind, a hand tremor at the last second, anything. And down falls the man firing, and the men next to him, and even the men next to them. A damned shame.
We are going to solve that problem. We are building a weapon that knows who to kill and who to spare. A weapon that cares, a weapon with loyalty, morals.
We're over five years into the project, and on the seventh trial. That first run, we programed the weapon to distinguish between people based on uniform. Kill the Redcoats, as we would have said back in the Revolution. But soldiers aren't in uniform at all times, and the equation leaves out civilians. Hiroshima and Nagasaki considerations. Sometimes civilian casualties can end a war. It saves lives in the long run, you know.
Our second trial targeted people based on language. But you have to account for your men in the field who speak the native tongues. Spies, translators, guides--even the common soldiers pick it up. We're not willing to needlessly risk the life of even one on our side. Not with this weapon, not one.
The third trial filtered by clothing, with the same results as the second trial. The fourth targeted religion, but of course there is always the possibility that our own soldiers might hold the same beliefs as the enemy. Indeed, the enemy could even hold the same beliefs as ourselves.
The fifth distinguished by physical characteristics. Skin color, eye and nose shape, hair texture, body build, height. We figured that with algorithms, the weapon could surely target that certain combination of features, the way you can just look at a man and know he's the enemy. Just know. But the longer we studied and tested, the more we realized that not only could the weapon not tell, but, in some disturbing test scenarios, neither could we. You have to be open-minded about these things, though.
By the sixth trial we were getting wise. More algorithms, resulting in combinations of religion, physical features, language, and uniform. We were sure this would be the one. But the processing time was too slow. Not only would a soldier need to enter target traits based on region, but the weapon had to calibrate before each use. The trigger thumbed, the pin pulled, the lever pushed-- and then a pause as the machine scanned and sensed and pondered every human within range. Inefficient. Ineffective.
Worse still (and this we hardly like to mention), fifty percent of the time the weapon didn't fire at all. It hummed and calibrated and apparently reached some conclusion of its own, sitting afterward unresponsive. It wouldn't fire. No sir, fifty percent of the time it just wouldn't fire. We're still not sure what the malfunction was. Too many variables, perhaps. It's clear to us, after all, who the thing was meant to kill. The differences it was meant to see and target. Surely this weapon, with all its algorithms and advanced technology, could tell the difference as well. Surely.
We do not give up so easily. We will build this weapon. In this seventh trial, we are testing brain-wave samples. We will find those most fundamental differences, unseen to the human eye. We will find what tells us friend from foe, good from evil. This is the trial. This will be the weapon which recognizes the enemy. The other.
It will know the difference between us and them. Even when we do not.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, April 13th, 2022


Author Comments

I love starting science fiction stories with a 'what if.' This story began with 'what if we made a weapon with morals?' It didn't take me long to conclude that such a thing is a contradiction in terms. To fulfill one purpose, it defeats the other. Now my question is how long would a lab like this take to realize it?"

- H. Baumgardt
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