by Duncan Long
Lightning War: Strategic attack loosely based on the concept of the Blitzkrieg of the 20th Century (previous era), employing massive, automated initial bombardment of a planet's defenses followed by the deployment of mobile combat forces. The speed and surprise of the attack generally prevents enemies of the United Federation from implementing a coherent defense.
Encyclopedia Militaria, 18th Edition, 2.016.826.
The computer whispered in her mind: Tell Artificial Intelligence Command we intercepted them?
"Do as I order. And confirm receipt of data."
A moment later: Photos received by command.
"Good. Prepare for our assault."
While technically the planned military action was an "assault," for all intents and purposes it was more akin to the proverbial shooting of fish in a barrel. Or even fish in a bucket - with grenades instead of guns.
Presently Commander Werek comprised the only breathing component in the operation that included fifty automated battleships. As her instructor at the academy had put it, "The AIs need a human in charge so they'll have someone to blame if the machines screw up." She and the other cadets hadn't laughed - they'd known there was truth to his statement.
The Phonusians on the surface had no time to react. After the initial crippling barrage aimed at defensive systems, the orbiting computers methodically hunted and killed from space, burning first colony halls and then homes, finally focusing on survivors scurrying from the wreckage like ants whose hill had been shoveled apart. A few sporadic final bursts finished the task.
Werek's organic mind had been incapable of following the numbing speed of the automated attack; all that registered was one massive flash, a war over, seemingly, nearly as soon as it had begun.
The commander swallowed hard. "Total enemy kills?"
Four million, one hundred forty-three thousand, two hundred fifty-six.
An unbidden tear ran down Werek's cheek. "Take the actors out of storage and prepare the lander."
Nearly an hour later, Werek waded ashore, wondering how machines capable of the pinpoint accuracy needed to slay over four million sentient creatures in just seconds could manage to miss setting down on the beach. Instead the lander had settled 40 meters offshore in nearly three feet of tepid ocean water.
"But this is perfect," the director reassured her, yelling over the noise of the surf. "Couldn't have planned it better. My actors can wade ashore. Just like in the old newsreels - they'll love this back home. Let me set up and we can get started."
"No hurry," Werek said, staring at a charred exoskeleton bobbing in the waves. A child or a parent? She could not tell. She forced herself to recall the pictures of hostages being eaten alive, the monsters starting with a screaming victim's arm or leg. She remembered human faces twisted into gruesome death masks before being finally being consumed.
And then, for a dizzy moment, she doubted; a wave of nausea passed through her. Were the pictures real? She felt disoriented. The logic should be - was - simple: The monsters slaughtered our innocent civilians, therefore we were justified in our surprise attack.
Yet her convictions seemed to modulate, from a peak of righteous indignation into a valley of doubt and through the cycle again. What's wrong with me? She raised her hand to her temple. Was it time to return to the center for - For what? A memory seemed to be hiding just outside of reach.
"I'm ready," the director called, breaking into her thoughts.
"Computer," Werek ordered in a tired voice as she finished wading onto the beach, outside of camera range. "Cue the landing party."
She faced the armored cargo door at the rear of the lander as it hissed open. A squad in battle armor leaped into the water, splashing toward shore, fake rifles discharging smoke and empty cartridge casings. As the humans advanced, bipod battle machines followed, belching fire and launching dummy rockets. Within minutes the men and mechanicals had waded ashore, racing past the camera toward their imaginary foe.
"Cut," the director yelled.
Robots and men came to a halt, the mechanicals waiting with the infinite patience of machines while the actors huddled around the director, anxious to see the replay on his portable studio.
Werek joined them, watching the raw footage, aware that eventually computers would process the images, creating variations of the actors and machines to generate a massive invasion force. Animated enemy combatants would be added, and then everything would be assembled and mixed with stock footage, yielding a series of epic battle scenes.
When the empire's loyal citizens saw the news stories, they'd believe they were witnessing thousands of human troops leaping from a hundred carriers. A few fighters would seemingly be cut down by enemy power beams; most would struggle to shore and engage the enemy. After such accounts had been fed to viewers for several days, the United Federation's victory would be announced. Then, according to the script, the Phonusians would commit mass suicide, leaving the planet open to another wave of human settlers.
Should any pacifists raise objections, the photos of the slaughtered colonists could then be released. Those protestors who managed to keep their last meal down would be at the front of the patriotic parade after that, proclaiming that the Phonusians had got everything they deserved.
Power to the sheeple.
The director spoke as the short clip they'd reviewed finished. "Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen. We've got our footage. That's a wrap."
"Ready to leave?" Werek asked.
The director nodded.
"Let's load up then."
The mechanicals immediately headed for the cargo bay where they would stow themselves. The actors followed leaving the commander and the director on the beach.
"Too bad we can't hang around," the director said, folding the portable studio and dropping it into his pocket. "I think this is the most beautiful planet I've ever seen."
"There'll be others," Werek said. "We've got three more on this tour."
Story and illustrations Copyright © by Duncan Long. All rights reserved. Originally published on the author's site at DuncanLong.com and slated to become the prologue to his novel Adam's Offspring.
About the author
Duncan Long is a seasoned writer with over 80 books in print including the nine-book Night Stalkers action/adventure series with HarperCollins, the science fiction novel (Anti-Grav Unlimited) with Avon Press, and a three-book young adult SF series (Spider Worlds) also with HarperCollins.
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