2948-11-03 - Tales from the Service: A Tight Spot Over Judicael

In this third installment of the tale submitted by Adana Beckett, we rejoin her four-mercenary prototype-weapon rescue team shortly after takeoff from Outpost Judicael in the last hours before Incarnation troops moved in.

In their attempt to save an expensive prototype weapon from being slagged or captured by the enemy, the quartet took off in a damaged Yeren strike gunship only to be pursued by Incarnation ground-attack aircraft. The matchup would have been favorable for a functioning Yeren, but Ms. Beckett had instructed her compatriots to remove all their guns. With unresponsive controls and no firepower, she still managed to evade these opportunists - if she were a Navy pilot, this would doubtless be behavior worthy of merit award. Though she freely admits to being only an acceptable pilot, Adana Beckett performed well under pressure - we can only hope Vardanian Security gives her more than bragging rights to compensate this action.

“Do you think they saw us take off?” 

Adana Beckett ignored Zdrakov’s inane question, knowing that it would be a miracle deserving of recognition by the Pope if the Nate aircraft hadn’t seen them.  

Had she not been so busy, she might have silenced the nervous chatter with an acid remark, but it was taking all of her concentration just to keep their ride in the air. Without aerial stabilizers, the Yeren gunship they had launched out of Outpost Judicael yawed fiercely as if it was a ground vehicle fishtailing on ice, and it was all she could do to keep it from entering a fatal flat spin. Adana had expected that flying the craft when even its own crew had found other transportation would be a challenge, but she hadn’t expected the vehicle to manifest a fresh determination to hurl itself in a random new direction every half-second. 

“They saw us.” Hierro, using the cameras of the craft’s two remote turrets, to keep track of the enemy intruders, answered his nervous compatriot in an equally uncertain tone of voice. Even though the inertial dampening system was keeping gee forces from crushing their bodies into gritty paste, everyone on the tiny flight deck could see how often ground and sky chased each other across and around the transparent canopy. “Two Nate birds headed our way.” 

“Sure would be great if this gunship was carrying guns.” Shepherd, whose disdain for the situation seemed to be deepening with every moment the Yeren remained airborne, remained clearly more angry than afraid. “But some idiot removed them before we took off.” 

Adana again had no time to reply to the remark, and the other two didn’t seem interested in tangling with the caustic infantry trooper. Strapped as he was in the munitions bay with the payload they were risking their lives to recover and disoriented by the dampeners, he couldn’t possibly see the drunken dance of the craft or realize that with such erratic flying, even fast-tracking turrets remotely operated from Hierro’s console couldn’t shoot accurately. She knew she had made the right call to order the guns pulled out, and Shepherd would just have to figure things out on his own. 

“Beckett, if they get those beams on us, the bad stabilizer will be the least of our problems.”  

“Kill the chatter, boys.” Adana snapped back. Hierro probably meant well by the reminder, but she knew the stakes well enough and had plenty to deal with. Under normal circumstances, the big, broad-winged Incarnation ground-attack aircraft would be prey for Confederated gunships, even Vardanian Security’s old Yerens, but they could see hers was badly wounded. Fortunately, she could outrun them as well, if she could manage to fly in a straight line for longer than two seconds at a time. 

In addition to the substantial collection of warning indicators related directly or indirectly to the stabilizer outage and the rushed removal of the weapon systems, Adana suddenly noticed a new blinking red light on her console. The wild maneuvers were threatening to overwhelm the inertial dampening system. Given that the Yeren was at that instant pulling thirteen gees and probably had been doing so erratically since takeoff, this did not surprise her. 

Fortunately, Adana was beginning to get a feel for the sorts of instability to expect out of the Hyadean strike rig without its stabilizer. It tended toward yaw wobbling and violent rolls, but its pitch seemed to remain rather stable and controllable, and with two big graviticthrusters, there was no lack of thrust. So far, she’d only managed the wobble by flying tight S-bend curves whenever it got bad, and had not gotten a handle on the roll, but she hadn’t plunged the Yeren into the craggy Causey terrain yet, and that might be enough control to outfly enemy rigs designed mainly to strafe ground forces and survive whatever those same forces threw back at them. 

“Hierro, query the Judicael datanets. Find if any of the auto-turrets are still online.” 

Though he didn’t acknowledge verbally, Hierro got to work – Adana saw the comms antenna come online and make contact withwhatever computer systems still lived at Judicael. The main nodes of the local datasphere had been slagged hours before, but there were probably enough secondary nodes still active to keep the network running in ad-hoc mode. 

As he worked, Adana managed to pull the controls until the craft leveled off into a wide, arcing turn back toward their point of origin. In the first minute of the flight, they had wandered more than sixty ground klicks in a direction generally away from her intended point of hard landing. Through the turn, the roll briefly halted, and the Yeren flew almost normally. 

“Whew!” Zdrakov, not used to combat flying, seemed to think the instability was solved. “Quite a ride, Beckett. Why don’t we get-” 

Hierro placed a waypoint over a likely cluster of auto-turret installations, and the marker appeared in the smart-display in front of Adana. “Hold on!” She wrenched the controls out of their temporarily stable state and the Yeren tumbled down toward the ground. Perhaps the reprieve had allowed the dampeners to cool off, perhaps not – given that the pursuing Nate aircraft had almost made good their interception, she didn’t have time to wait longer. 

“Those turrets are set to kill everything.” Hierro, his voice tense as the ground spun ever closer, seemed to be taking his mind off the possibility of a crash by considering the possibility of being shot down by friendly air defenses. “They won’t challenge our IFF.” 

“Good.” Adana did not elaborate. The spiraling dive had quickly passed beyond her control, and it was taking a worryingly long time to convince the gunship to level off. By the time she managed it, the turrets were coming up, and she didn’t have time to explain.  

More warning lights – these target-lock indicators – lit up the board. Despite the violence of her maneuvers, she noticed that at least one of the locks came from the Incarnation assault craft pursuing her, which she had hoped would not be able to keep up.  

The turrets and the pursuing aircraft opened fire at about the same time. Though the laser pulses which scattered in the Yeren’s shear-screen defenses and melted chunks of its armored hull were invisible and instantaneous, white-hot beams of light passed in the opposite direction with the vaguest sense of motion. These she knew to be railgun-fired projectiles moving at a not-inconsiderable fraction of the speed of light and superheating the air they pushed aside.  

As the turrets tracked the weaving, barely-controlled gunship across the sky, a few slugs began to shatter in the shear screens. As soon as she saw them, Adana let the Yeren have its head. The yaw wobble turned into a wild flat spin in the span of a second, and just as quickly, the two boomerang-shaped enemy aircraft appeared ahead of her. 

Before they could vanish once more, Adana firewalled the thruster controls and heaved against the controls to fight out of the spin. This time the dampeners really did fail, if only for an instant, and the Yeren’s aging frame groaned under the momentary load.  

Adana didn’t see the two aircraft flash past into the teeth of the turret cluster. She blacked out momentarily with the loss of the dampeners. When she came to a moment later, the only thing ahead was Margaux’s clear, slate-gray sky. 

“What in all creative hells did you just do up there?” 

Adana saw the drunken roll starting again just as Shepherd’s complaint reached her ringing ears, and grabbed the controls to fight it all over again.

2948-10-27 – Tales from the Service: The Last Flight out of Judicael

“You really think this is worth what we’re paid, Hierro?” 

“The job can't always be glory, Shepherd. Sometimes you have to tow the line to keep the gig, even if the boss is out of her mind.” 

Adana Beckett picked up her compatriots’ chatter on a short-range comms circuit long before they or the damaged Yeren strike gunship they were minding appeared through the thick black smoke obscuring most of the Outpost Judicael strike facilities. Turning around for the dozenth time to verify that the heavy-lift hoversled borrowed from the base motor pool was still following close behind her, Adana turned up the volume to listen in, and slowed her pace. A quick departure would be better for everyone’s health, but if she was about to face a mutiny, she needed to know. 

“And if the boss gets us all killed, what good does keeping the job do our crispy corpses?” 

“Beckett has a plan.” Zdrakov chimed in, the distracted tone of his voice suggesting he was still cutting away the gunship’s unnecessary volatiles. “It probably doesn’t involve any of us dying, especially her.” 

“Flying out of here in something with no stabilizers isn’t a plan.” Shepherd was in his usual state of high dudgeon, where the universe was – at least in his mind – conspiring to inconvenience and humiliate him. If he wasn’t the best assault-suit trooper in mercenary service, no company would put up with his attitude, but the fact was that he was indispensable at the bloody tip of Vardanian Security’s spear. “We might get airborne without losing control, but how are we getting back down? Strike ejection systems don’t work in-atmo at low altitude. We can’t just fly in circles until something gives out or Nate comes up to knock us down.” 

“Yeren’s designed to be capable of water hard-landings.” Hierro, a Yeren turret-gun operator who had transferred into flight-crew from a hangar technician team, probably knew the aging Jie-Yu rigs of the company’s gunship force better than any other person still in Judicael, now that the bulk of Vardanian’s strike-craft, crews, and support teams had relocated to new bases behind the Ishkawa Line. “Suppose there’s a reservoir up there in the inner Causey she plans on pancaking into?” 

“With no stabilizers, it would take the best pilot on the Frontier to pull that off. You think Beckett can do that?” 

Adana knew Shepherd was right about that – she wasn’t the best pilot on the Frontier. She wasn’t even an average pilot in terms of the company’s own squadrons – she had hung up her own wings years ago for a rear-echelon job with better pay and somewhat less daily risk of being blasted into a constellation of carbonized gibbets. She had qualified as a Yeren pilot when Vardanian had acquired its fleet of the gunships, but only for the purposes of ferrying rigs from the company’s carrier to mission-area bases and vice versa. What she planned was easier than a controlled hard water landing – not that there was a body of water in the Causey big enough to try that - but her way would be somewhat more destructive to the craft. There was some risk to everyone involved, but she had run simulations on her wrist computer and liked the odds. 

Zdrakov seemed to know Adana’s limitations just as well as she did. “Nah, a water landing’s too much for her. It’ll be simpler.” He was an engineer responsible for maintaining the tools and machinery of the company’s hangar support crews – including the simulators. “Yerenruns on a crew of two, though. Shepherd, there’s nobody stopping you from leaving before she gets back.” 

“Believe me, I’m thinking about it. I’ve got plenty of power in my suit for a run overland to the new line.” 

Adana winced at this – she would need Shepherd and his heavy armor-suit to extract the cargo from the Yeren if her plan worked, and if it didn’t, she didn’t want to face down Incarnation outriders with three sidearms and unarmored environment suits. Shepherd was, unfortunately, necessary. It was time to make her appearance, mutiny or no. 

Keying in her own transmitter, Adana took a deep breath and started moving once more. “What’s our status? Nav says I’m a couple hundred meters away, but in this smoke I can’t see anything.” 

“No trouble here, boss.” Hierro replied hurriedly. “Jumper’s all hooked up, and Zdrakov has most of the weapons hacked off.” 

“Good.” Adana knew the main Incarnation force was still hours away, but their forward patrols on light aircraft and ground vehicles could start engaging the perimeter auto-turrets at any moment. “Cargo’s ready to load. Get the rig’s ventral bay open and clear anything out. This package and Shepherd’s suit both need to fit.” 

Hierro clicked his comm in acknowledgement just as Adana passed into a less smoke-choked area and saw the Yeren squatting on its pad. 

 Shepherd was still standing sentry, heavy rail-cannon tracking the obscured horizon, and he spotted her immediately. “Took you long enough, Beckett.” 

“Should have sent you for the prototype.” Adana shook her head. Inside her helmet. “You wouldn’t have had so much trouble loading it onto a sled.” 

“That thing’s the size of a family-cabin lighter. You want to cram it into the munitions bay?” 

“I ran the numbers before I rounded you sorry lot up for this. It’ll fit with enough room for you to sit behind it.” 

Hierro paused his work of hurling various parts and loose clutter out of the interior of the Yeren to look across the field at Adana’s payload. “Can’t believe the eggheads wanted us to use that thing in combat.” 

“They still do.” Adana didn’t know much about how the prototype weapon worked, but she knew its operator manual had a vast number of cautionary messages about keeping all equipment, personnel, and important terrain outside of its arc of fire. The slightly wider end of its oblong shell bore a matrix of small grav-shear emitters, and it apparently contained a miniature phased-matter reactor hooked to a single bottle of magnetically contained phased-matter. Evidently, this vast power arrangement still gave the ungainly device only two shots – with each firing, the device was consuming enough electrical power for a fleet destroyer to fight a two-hour battle, assuming it worked as intended. 

Shepherd, despite grumbling, shouldered his railgun and helped line the sled up with the munitions bay doors. Her calculations had proven correct – the device would fit – but not as she had hoped. The bay narrowed as it progressed toward the Yeren’s bow, and the only way the experimental cannon could fit inside was with its dangerous end pointing backwards, toward where Shepherd, with his bulky armor, would be forced to sit. 

Adana expected another fight, but the big trooper didn’t seem to recognize the portent of the grid of protrusions facing aft, and neither Hierro nor Zdrakov, if they knew, decided to tell him. Within ten minutes, they had secured the payload, strapped Shepherd into place, and closed up the bay. 

As Adana strapped into the pilot’s chair on the tiny flight deck, Hierro took the now-defanged gunnery position, leaving Zdrakov to occupy one of the folding jump-seats at the rear. “Better hope Nate isn’t upstairs today.” The gunner observed. 

At that moment, a rumble of aero-drive systems heralded the approach of a group of flying-wing Incarnation attack aircraft. “Nate’s upstairs today.” Zdrakov, strapping himself in, seemed more amused than afraid. “Let’s go.” 

Adana switched her comms to transmit to the tower, only belatedly realizing that she had seen it burning merrily on her return to the pad. Rather than wait for clearance, she switched the engines from warm-up to start and remotely detached the jumper-cart'sumbilicals. “Liftoff in ten seconds. Nine...” 

One of the enemy aircraft broke formation and turned to head directly for the pad, and Adana realized she didn’t have nine seconds before its strafing beams cut the Yeren in two. “Dustoff!” 

Throttling the engines to maximum and hauling back on the controls, Adana wrestled the damaged, bucking Yeren into the sky. 

Four unprepared mercenaries, a crippled craft, and an expensive, even volatile, payload were the last Confederated forces to leave Outpost Judicael by air, and that dubious honor will likely be milked for free drinks by Adana Beckett, Geoff Shepherd, Owen Hierro, and Antonin Zdrakov in station bars for the rest of their lives.

Of course, their trials were not over. Going up in a damaged strike-craft is one thing – getting down another matter entirely.

2948-10-20 – Tales from the Service: The Best Wreck Left in Judicael

While last week’s entry marked the end of Outpost Judicael and the defensive line it anchored on Margaux, stories of valor and adventure in the four-day retreat to the Ishkawa Line have multiplied on the datasphere since.  

Though I could easily provide a well-documented account of Marines or FDA exhibiting meritorious conduct in the operation, this week (and for a few weeks afterward) we will instead be featuring the account of Adana Beckett, commander of a group of mercenaries from Vardanian Security operating both assault troopers and old Jie Yu-built strike bombers from Judicael. 

While Ms. Beckett does not say specifically, it seems the evacuation of the outpost caught her outfit by surprise and left them holding a rather volatile bag. In the last hours of the evacuation, Ms. Beckett rounded up her company’s last nervous stragglers to figure out a way to extricate Vardanian from an unpleasant predicament. 

While this story has been corroborated to some extent, it is likely some embellishment took place. I have done some independent research and see ample evidence that Vardanian Security is far less professional than outfits like the one Jacob Borisov commanded at Adimari Valis. I do however hope that these mercenaries do not share Mr. Borisov's fate.

Adana Beckett ducked underneath the stubby wing of the boxy Yeren gunship on the landing pad and jammed a fiber link into the craft’s access panel. After a moment’s security handshake, the unlovely craft unloaded a flood of status and configuration data to her helmet heads-up display. Just like the other craft left behind at Outpost Judicael by the mixed Confederated force, the Hyadean gunship was considered not flightworthy, and as one of the oldest models of craft fighting on Margaux, and a mercenary rig at that, it hadbeenplacedlow on the priority list for the few available heavy-lift airfreighters which had ferried equipment rearwards until the last possible second. 

That last second had come and gone. A pall of oily smoke marked where Judicael’s main compound had been. The Marines, fighting a mobile retreat behind the grimly-marching FDA, were slowing down Nate’s advance just long enough for the techs to finish destroying the compound’s more useful outbuildings and slagging the strike-craft left on the pads and all the equipment still sitting in the maintenance hangars. 

Adana knew any minute, a tech with a thermite charge might trot up to the pad and interrupt her work. Her team – one of them in particular at least - could scare a lone tech off, but they were just mercenaries, and they lacked the authority to impede military personnel. Regulations were clear: the Yeren couldn’t be left behind for enemy intelligence, even if it was older than any person fit to fly it. If nothing else, the military would observe, its mercenary-registered transponder could be re-used to cover the activities of Incarnation scouts or espionage teams. 

“Hells, Beckett.” Geoff Shepherd’s gruff voice on the comms circuit interrupted Adana’s scan of the Yeren’s status readouts. “This isn’t going to work. Let’s just give it up and get moving.” 

“Can it, Shepherd.” Joining the semi-orderly flood of Confederated personnel back toward the Ishkawa Line didn’t appeal to her, or anyone else in the company, but it was the action most likely to result in survival. If Adana didn’t have to worry about a sensitive asset too bulky for their single remaining quadcrawler to move, she wouldn't be one of the last five security contractors hanging around at doomed Judicael. 

“He’s right.” Owen Hierro’s voice, thin and reedy even in calm situations, had become almost shrill. “The Brass will reimburse us for our lost assets, won’t they?” 

Adana sighed. “Not for the assets they don’t know we brought.” She didn’t know how much the few corporate grunts she had rounded up knew about Vardanian Security’s double-booked contract on Margaux, and she didn’t want to have to explain. Jumping into a high-paying planetary defense contract armed with new tech from fleet R&D had seemed like a safe bet, but months into the action the company hadn’t found a use for most of the secret prototypes it was supposed to test. Per the contract, they were not going to be paid for the items they never tested – and Vardanian was responsible for replacement costs on anything lost before testing. 

“Whatever you’re trying to save had better be worth a damned fortune, boss.” Shepherd’s irritation, though understandable, told Adana she didn’t have much time before her personnel mutinied. They were mercenaries, and it didn’t pay to be heroes in the war profiteering business. They couldn’t know, and she couldn’t tel them, that the prototype she was so interested in saving had a replacement cost nearly double the value of the company’s ersatz carrier – losing it would be the end of Vardanian, Navy contracts or no. 

In the technical readout, Adana spied a ray of hope. “Basic airframe is intact. Stabilizer is out.” The craft had been grounded due to damage to the sensors in its aerodynamic stabilizer system. There was other damage, too, but this was the factor holding the vehicle on the ground – if kicked out of a starship in hard vacuum, the Yeren would have no in-flight trouble beyond a brace of angry orange warning-lights in the cockpit. It wasn’t quite as simple as flying off the pad and ignoring the bumpy ride, however - unlike the sleek Pumas of the Marine close-support squadrons and their big, bulky gunships, Vardanian’s Hyadean-built hardware featured atmo-operations capability as a mere design afterthought. Flying the unstabilized strike rig in such a way as to avoid the ground would benear-suicide. “No wonder your crew decided to hitch a ride with someone else.” 

“There’s nobody here who can fly that pig without the stabilizers, Beckett.” Shepherd, a ground-pounder by trade like most of the other Vardanian staff Adana had rounded up, still had a bit of expertise in flight operations. Everyone in the company had to know the basics, since the mercenary outfit prided itself in infantry-strike cooperation, both on the ground and in microgravity. Flying even a wounded strike rig from point A to point B in hard vacuum was something even a child or an assault grunt could reliably do, and as long as the computer and attitude thrusters kept the vehicle basically stable, the same was true in-atmosphere. Without the stabilizers, only the best pilots could keep the craft in the air for more than a few minutes, and perhaps the top thirty percentile could bring it downforaminimally-destructive hard landing after a stabilizer failure. It was, she knew, no surprise that strike-jockeys in every mercenary outfit in the Reach grumbled at the prospect of fighting anywhere with air. 

“Hierro, go and get that jumper track over here.” Adana pointed to the boxy machine squatting on a nearby pad next to a cannibalized frame that had once been a Marine dropship. “Zdrakov, go find an arc-cutter and start taking off those weapon mounts.” The stability problem couldn’t be fixed, but she didn’t mean to try. With its twin gravitic thrusters working perfectly, the gunship had plenty of thrust to get aloft, even with the meager lift of its tiny wings – all it needed to do to save the company from bankruptcy was get them across the Ishkawa line, and all it needed to do to keep its occupants alive was crash-land without exploding. For that, she needed to remove the weapons and anything else even vaguely explosive. 

“It’s already broken and you’re going to cut it more?” 

“Shut up, Shepherd.” Adana ducked back out from under the wing. “This is going to work. I’m going to get the payload. If anyone tries to melt the damned thing before I get back, shoot them.” 

2948-10-13 – Tales from the Service: Here on the Rock in the Way

Several days ago, headquarters at Maribel received reports that the forces on Margaux had retreated from the line centered on Outpost Judicael to the so-called Ishkawa Line, named not for a fortification but for a triple-peaked mountain on its southern extremity. 

The retreat was planned and conducted in good order and few casualties – indeed, as many reports indicate, it was conducted weeks later than initially expected due to favorable tactical conditions, allowing the engineers behind the lines additional time to reinforce the Ishkawa line. 

This week, we have one final feed item sent in from the heart of Judicael itself, sent in about two days before the withdrawal began (Naval Intelligence wishes us not to divulge exactly when that was). Where many of our items have attempted to capture the front-line conditions on the planet, this week we instead have been given a window into another facet of the fighting – the condition on the propaganda front. Natia Granger is credited with the composition of the criminally catchy “The Rock in the Way.” In case you haven’t heard it, Ashton featured the Ori Martial Choir’s rendition in the closing segment of yesterday’s vidcast episode, and other renditions in dozens of styles have been popping up across the datasphere. Be prepared to find yourself whistling it for the next few days, however. The song quickly caught on among the fighting personnel on Margaux, then rapidly seeped out into the datasphere from there, as the planet’s infrastructure is still partially connected to the Hypercomm relay network. 

The name of the tune and its theme seem to be based on a (correct, as it turns out) supposition that the Rock in the Way mentioned in previous installments of this series as a prepared battlefield is in fact Margaux. Though the phrase and the song which it now describes is not the creation of anyone at Cosmic Background, it is our honor to have played some small part in the origin of a memetic weapon which has taken the datasphere by storm. Until this point, the Fifth Fleet and its infantry detachments in the FDA and Confederated Marines have seemed to be fighting a distant war, detached (but for a few saboteurs, Ladeonist risings, and terror incidents) from the goings-on in the Core Worlds and rarely brought to the cultural forefront. Perhaps Ms. Granger’s tune will help change that. 

The rumbling of another aerial bombardment shook several forgotten mugs of synthetic off Natia Granger’s desk, but she spared them only a moment’s glance as she paced back and forth in the closet that passed for her office in the depths of Outpost Judicael’s central citadel. Even with her anomalously diminutive stature, she had just enough room for three steps in one direction from one wall to the other – and that only if she pushed both chairs in the tiny space into opposite corners. Judicael had already held out for weeks longer than even optimistic FDA plans had suggested it would without Navy support, but now she had to do the impossible. She had to turn its abandonment – which would be soon, General Bell said – into a positive. 

Judicael was never meant to anchor the main line of defense on the Causey, only the first. With hundreds of small roads from the population centers into the perimeter, and thousands of canyons and gorges wide enough for a civilian lighter to fly stealthily into friendly territory it needed only hold out long enough for the bulk of the planet’s noncombatant population to retreat behind the lines. With the civilian flood turning into a trickle two weeks before, and massed Incarnation ground troops pushing the line on a two-hundred-kilometer arc from the foothills of Mount Novac to Michaelson Falls on the south side of the plateau, it was past time to pull back to the stronger second line. 

Tactically, the late withdrawal was a success all its own, but the volunteer soldiers of the FDA whose blood was every day darkening the rocks and soil of Causey would not see it that way. They didn’t want to surrender a square meter of toxic dirt unless they absolutely had to – after all, the general had ensured that almost every company had at least one Margaux native in their ranks, and even the non-natives had been on the planet for many months preparing defenses.  Ceding the outer line to Nate chipheads would be a blow to morale no matter how the broadcasts spun it.  

Natia’s job was to minimize the damage. If the broadcast programming she scripted hurt morale on the other side of the line, that was a bonus, but so far Incarnation morale seemed unbreakable as long as their damned implants could network en masse. 

Two rather attractive propaganda plaques from her opposite numbers in Incarnation headquarters sat on Natia’s desk, these too heavy for the vibrations of the bombardment to dislodge. Enemy literature and broadcasts had been wrongheaded to the point of comedy on Adimari Valis and Mereena, but their newest material, created by dropping cheap canisters of rock-shaping nanotech liberally and letting the nanites build thin slab-like plaques out of gravel and stone, was widely considered highly collectible by the front-line troops. Natia had paid dearly for the two she had and could only manage high-resolution imagery of other variants. 

The basic Incarnation propaganda plaque grabbed attention with a stunningly-rendered image taking up a quarter of its surface – some showed sleek, idealized starships or vehicles, others showed sleek, idealized human bodies in pin-up poses. Females and men in these images appeared at a precise inverse of the ratio of the sexes found in Confederated armed forces. The purpose of the artwork etched into the artificially agglomerated rock was to show off the super-human technology of the Incarnate – the curvaceous, well-proportioned bodies were studded with implanted technology, and the graceful vehicles were advanced Incarnation designs that wouldn't look out of place in an artist’s rendering of the Xenarchs in their prime. 

The rest of each tablet contained text in block Anglo-Terran letters, almost insultingly easy to read. No two had the same text, but the themes were limited – they claimed the Confederated defenders of Margaux were cut off and abandoned by the fleet, that the Confederated Worlds government was hopelessly weak and the admiralty feckless cowards. Each one indicated that anyone who crossed the ranks would be heroes working to save humanity from extinction, but they were always vague as to how these “heroes” would be treated. 

Natia picked up one of the tablets, and debated hurling it against the wall, despite its value on the garrison’s unauthorized souvenir market. The Incarnation’s messaging didn’t seem to affect most of the defenders, but they had figured out how to ensure their work was extensively read. The average FDA private could recall four-point-three Incarnation memetic vectors, but only one-point-two Confederated vectors. Perhaps, she thought with a sigh, that was because three out of every fifty pieces of enemy literature was pornographic, and another eighteen were strongly erotic. 

More likely, she knew, the enemy propaganda agents simply had a better grasp of memetic warfare than anyone on the Confederated side. Nate propaganda had improved from pathetic to average since the war had started, and Confederated propaganda, largely ignored by Confederated personnel, had learned almost nothing about how to seed enemy formations with their own viral ideas. To them, her broadcasts, placards, and datacasts probably looked just as hapless as those first Incarnation attempts had to her. 

The rumbling of the bombardment moved on, and Natia finally bent to pick up the forgotten mugs and clean up their spilled contents. She had asked for permission to stimulate her datacasts with subtly erotic messages, but had been denied, so she could not fight sex with sex. Neither could she buck up flagging spirits with depictions of the far stronger Ishkawa line behind the Judicael line – this would work, but it would also undoubtedly result in information leaked to the enemy. Nate knew about the Ishkawa line by now, but so much was buried that they couldn’t possibly see exactly how formidable it was from the air. 

Casualty ratios, the memetic vector family her team had worked with since the first clashes on the outer line, had met with some success, but it was already losing its luster. It didn’t matter much anymore that approximately six-point-one enemy personnel were casualties for each Confederated soldier wounded or killed – it was plain to anyone on the line that for every FDA or Marine in Causey, the enemy had at least fifteen conscripts, and that enemy wounded were being put back into action more often and more quickly. Until she could plausibly report ten to one or more, that line was of little further use. 

Similarly, the memetic vectors impugning Incarnation ground-troops as mindless zombies and their officers as craven, puritanical busybodies had run their course. If those allegations were ever true, they certainly were not in the fighting on Causey. Few Incarnation officers cared for the lives of their soldiers or engaged in creative problem-solving, but when they could bring fifteen-to-one odds in almost every local offensive, stubborn mediocrity got results. 

The only so-far-evergreen memetic family available was the horror of unpersoning. Of the one-point-two vectors the average FDA or Marine could parrot, this was invariably the one. Confederated personnel fought to the death and didn’t surrender if they had a choice because they knew they would have their humanity stripped if they were taken alive – their identity would be lost amid the mad neural tinkering of Incarnation science. It had happened to many already – some of the models for Nate’s propaganda pin-ups were recognizable former comrades, and it was suspected that after being fitted for brain-altering implants, they had been so warped as to volunteered for this shameless duty. The desire to rescue these unfortunates burned hot, but Natia knew better than to fan it – as it was, the troops rarely took prisoners, and Naval Intelligence was always asking for more. 

As soon as she had cleaned up the spilled coffee, Natia returned to her pacing, staring constantly at the blank still-display propaganda template on her desk display. What could her memetic vectors do without anger, sexual desire, or scorn for the ability of the enemy? 

In a rush, she knew. The first rule of memetic warfare was that no good vector was ever new, and that no new vector was ever good – fortunately, there was an ancient thematic pedigree for what she was about to create. She didn’t need to make the situation seem better – she needed to make it seem somewhat worse. 

Dismissing the still-display creation system, Natia called up the musical composition system, searching for upbeat, lighthearted tunes. 

Wish you were here at Margaux, dear friends 
We hope you aren’t late 
Nate came all the way here, just to be waylaid 
It will be messy down here 
But you can be sure that we’ll stay 
Here on the Rock in the Way! 

--"The Rock in the Way", Natia Granger