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