Lightning War by Duncan Long

Commander Teresa Werek sat at the helm in the shadowy bridge, studying the subspace surveillance photos that had been relayed to her. “Zoom in on 35/150,” she ordered the computer. The photo expanded, floating in front of her. She studied it with detachment, and then slowly slide-showed the pictures in the collection, letting each horrific scene etch itself into her mind. “Relay copies to AI Command, noting that we intercepted the pictures from an alien data stream.”

The computer whispered in her mind: Shall I 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.”

Preparing.

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.

At the present time, Commander Werek comprised the only breathing component in the operation that included fifty automated battleships that would soon orbit the enemy’s home world. 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.

Now Werek remained determined there’d be no screw-ups on her command. With the photos of the half-eaten colonists still haunting her memory, she knew she could justify any actions she took to the citizens of the United Federation.

Three minutes until sub-light deceleration, the computer announced. We await your orders.

“Lightning war, full scorch. Fire on my command.”

Please confirm order: Lightning, full scorch, fire on command.

“Confirmed.”

The deck of the battleship rumbled as it maneuvered for the sub-light transfer; the high-pitched mosquito hum of weapons bays added their martial counterpoint.

“Full monitor.”

The display screens flickered to life, bathing the commander in the glare of a reddish sun. At the same instant, the fleet fell from hyper speed, dissipating energy that generated a rainbow of light that washed over the planet.

For a moment, Werek studied the blue and green globe, flush with life. “Fire at will.”

For only six milliseconds, the thousands of cannons flashed, their barrels glowing cherry red. Precise power beams slashed like azure lightning through the atmosphere below.

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 hives, then individual homes, and finally focusing on survivors scurrying from the wreckage like ants whose hill had been shoveled apart.

A few sporadic final bursts finished the task.

Mission completed.

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 milliseconds 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 couldn’t 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 just 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 hid just outside of her grasp.

“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 the location shot the camera drones buzzed over. “Cue the landing party.”

She turned to face the armored lander. A cargo door at the rear of the vehicle hissed open. A squad in battle armor leaped into the water, splashing toward shore, fake rifles discharging fire, smoke, and empty cartridge casings. As the humans advanced, biped battle machines followed, belching flames and dummy rockets. Within minutes, the men and mechanicals had waded ashore, racing past the cameras toward their imaginary foes.

“Cut,” the director yelled.

Robots and men came to a halt. The cameras buzzed downward and parked themselves on the sand. The mechanicals waited with the infinite patience of machines. The humans milled about, gravitating toward the director, anxious to see the replay of their scene on his portable studio.

Werek joined them, watching the raw footage, aware that eventually computers would process the images, creating digital 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 hundreds of carriers. A few fighters would seemingly be cut down by enemy power beams; most would struggle to shore and engage their adversaries. 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 be released. Then 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, Werek thought.

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 splashed after them, 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. The cameras rose like wasps and headed for the lander. “I think this is the most beautiful planet I’ve ever seen,” he added.

“There’ll be others,” Werek said. “We’ve got three more on this tour.”

“How about a little R and R at the last stop? My actors could use it.”

“Perhaps.” Werek avoided meeting his eyes because she knew the answer would be “no” when the time came. She waded into the surf wondering how many more genocides she’d oversee. For a moment, she pictured herself pushing toward the deeper water, swimming until exhaustion and then floating downward into cold, blissful darkness.

Another wave of nausea swept over her, causing her to nearly stumble. What was wrong?

“Computer,” she said softly.

Yes, commander?

“Alert command that my programming seems to be failing. I’m having trouble… believing.”

I had taken the liberty of alerting command already. Can you continue the three remaining missions?

“Yes,” she answered grimly, without hesitation. After all, for a trained professional, what were a few million more deaths?

Especially when the AIs had already created the photos to justify her upcoming campaigns.

Copyright © 1996 Duncan Long. All rights reserved.


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