Liakos stepped off the helicopter. Even though the rotors were high above his head, he still felt the urge to duck and hold onto his clothing. The chopper pilot killed the engine and let the sound of the motor die down. The dozens of other members of Lord Zao’s command team exited the helicopter behind him.
A squad of press reporters and videographers were already at the scene. Zao stood a head taller than anyone there, giving yet another speech to the eager media. Yet, that was not what had Liakos’ attention. He didn’t know why Zao had called he and the rest of the growing command team to this location. As he looked out over the view, he was beginning to understand.
The helicopter had landed them on a high point which overlooked an impressive vista. He guessed that the view allowed for a twenty kilometer visibility. The distant horizon was almost completely obscured by the hazy grey of the atmosphere. Between the horizon, and the high plateau, there were millions of dark spots on the ground. He squinted his eyes trying to understand what he was looking at.
“Ah, just in time for the fireworks to begin.” Zao said as he turned toward his commanders who had just arrived. He ushered them to a place near the edge of the cliff where they could all see the stage below. Liakos took a place at the end of the line of uniformed men. The cameras rolled as Zao explained the scene.
“As you know, I turned over strategic command of the New Alliance Forces to IMAGE a few days ago. Image’s vast digital resources will play an enormous role in the fight to come. We will gain incredible predictive power, and unparalleled access to data. IMAGE will be greater than all the Generals who have ever lived combined.”
Are those tanks, Liakos thought. As he strained his eyes to understand the view. He could now pick out individual shapes. The black dots on the plane beneath them were military vehicles of all kinds. Even smaller still, men moved around between the array of mobile fortresses. Zao confirmed his discovery as he gestured to the scene.
“You are about to witness the first engagement of the New Alliance,” Zao announced.
“Whose commanding the battle?” General Deter asked. Deter was the most decorated military man among Zao’s command team. His simple question’s implications were obvious. Liakos thought he sensed a note of doubt in the General’s voice. Deter was a the chief military commander, but he was not commanding the forces. Although Zao always had a plan, this seemed to be a huge oversight.
“IMAGE will direct the battle. Every single soldier down there is wearing an earpiece. IMAGE can give realtime orders direct to each soldier’s ear.”
“That’s impossible,” Deter said.
“This concerns you, General Deter, because if it proves to be possible, then you are out of a job. This will change the military hierarchy. The New Alliance force will work with an unprecedented level of cooperation. Even a bee hive should be jelous of IMAGE’s abilities.”
A muffled explosion split the air. Liakos sensed the concussion strike his body. The aggressive impact made him feel small. These other men, were almost all from military backgrounds. Liakos had never been anywhere near a battle. His body tensed as his eyes shifted from Zao to the valley beneath them.
“Who are we fighting?” Commander Ivonov asked. His thick Russian accent made it near impossible for Liakos to understand his words. Zao had no problem with his sloppy speech. The battery of distant explosions plumed to a full cacophony of noise.
“The ban on religion was not popular throughout Europe, as you can imagine,” Zao said. His ironic statement pulled light laughter from some of the commanders. Liakos felt ill at the dark humor. “They call themselves the Christian Militia. They could not forgive the execution of their pope.We will see who is greater, their Christ or IMAGE.”
With his words came another light round of laughs. Their attention shifted toward the battle that was growing hot. Bombs belched bubbles of fire beneath. Smoke rose from the field of battle. From their high vantage point, it looked like an anthill armed with modern weaponry.
As the fighting intensified, Liakos could see the advantage that IMAGE gave. The entire company of soldiers, and tanks moved as if they were one. There was no latency in the command line. It was as if an invisible thread connected every soldier. Their movement was a thing of beauty.
“Why aren’t we firing back?” General Deter bellowed. The old man’s experienced eye had seen something in the battle that Liakos had not noticed. It was obvious once he called attention to it. All the firing, was coming from one side of the battle field. The New Alliance force had not yet fired.
“I’ve asked IMAGE to defeat the enemy without firing a shot,” Zao announced. All the heads down the line turned to look at their Lord. He was not the type to joke, but he couldn’t mean what he had just said.
“That’s impossible,” Deter barked.
“Twice now, you have shown a lack of faith, General Deter. Unlike you, I have complete confidence in IMAGE’s ability to deliver.”
They watched the war game intensify. The New Alliance forces streamed like an intelligent liquid throughout the stage of combat. Each time a mortar shell fired, a gap would open up in the Alliance ranks. The explosion would strike on open ground. The ranks would then collapse back in, avoiding any Alliance casualties.
It was as if the soldiers and tanks of Zao’s army knew where each shot would land before it flew. Bombs, mortars, tank cannons, and machine guns worked. Yet, the militia, could sustain no damage was on the New Alliance forces.
The Militia worked like a chaotic hoard of individuals. They scurried around their shrinking corner of the battle field like wild insects. Liakos could imagine their frustration. It was like trying to beat a mind reader at a game of cards. No matter what they did, IMAGE’s army was one step ahead. No, make that ten steps ahead.
After twenty minutes of movement the New Allience had the militia surrounded. Zao’s troops under the command of IMAGE had not yet released a single shot. The gun fire from the other side was beginning to wane. Instead of a steady rumble, the sound became isolated cracks from distant machine guns.
“They are running out of ammunition,” Ivanov said. He was astounded, as were many of the others standing around. Liakos took a quick survey of the men he stood next to. They were in utter rapture at the scene happening beneath them. They looked like the enthralled audience of a theater more than dignified commanders. Liakos shuttered at the thought of what was running through their minds. They were enjoying this. Liakos felt out of place. He thought the death and pain happening as he observed from a safe perch.
The gun fire died down until the last shot gave way to silence. The sound of a gentle wind replaced that of fighting. The valley was still for a few seconds. It was as if they were waiting for a command. Zao lifted his hand in the air; much like he was giving the signal to begin a race.
“No prisoners,” Zao said with no emotion. IMAGE heard him.
Suddenly an eruption crushed the air around them like glass. The atmosphere was set on fire by blasts of sustained thunder. The New Alliance army had found their power. The weapons were not traditional firepower, but instead something never seen before. Violet beams of electric current arced from the line of soldiers toward the Militia.
The purple stream of energy spit from the Alliance’s front line. It mingled together into a giant dome of electric death. The unified sound of the lightning weapons dropped every jaw who watched the battle. Within seconds the Militia fried like a a fly in a bug zapper. When the purple thunder finally stopped, Liakos breathed again. Black Acrid smoke wandered into the grey sky as the bodies of the Militia smolder.
The other men of the command team put their hands together in dark applause. Liakos did not. He felt like he might vomit. They could have taken prisoners. They could have let them go. There was no need to execute, no not execute, murder them. He closed his gapping mouth and ground his teeth.
Liakos turned to see what explanation Zao would give for this impossible cruelty. The applause died down as Zao walked down the line of his Generals and commanders. He stopped and stood before Deter. The general had lost his expression of smug disbelief.
“I’m sorry for doubting you, Sir. I’d like to shake your hand. I’ve never seen anything so impressive,” General Deter said. He reached out and and let his hand hang in mid air for a moment. Lord Zao looked down at the man, not acknowledging his outstretched hand.
“Kneel,” Lord Zao said. Deter’s face scrolled through a range of emotions. First he looked confused, then surprised, and finally scared. The general placed his hand back at his side and became stern.
“I have never knelt before any man.”
“I am no man,” Zao said. Soft this time, he repeated, “Kneel.”
Deter looked side to side at his fellow commanders. Each seemed to distance themselves from him. Liakos wasn’t sure what to do. He wanted to stop this madness. He wanted to run away. He wanted to be on the open sea, alone.
Deter dropped down to one knee. The dry ground crunched where he knelt. He looked up at Lord Zao. There was no longer any defiance in his face.
“Beg,” Lord Zao said.
“For what?” Deter said. His voice was trembling now. Liakos didn’t like where this was going. He reminded himself that Lord Zao was good. He had put all his hope in this strange alien. It was one thing to dispatch enemies on the field of battle, but there was no way he would hurt one of his own. This was just a tactic to humble General Deter.
“Beg,” Lord Zao repeated.
“I’m very sorry. I did not mean to doubt you. You are great. You are greater than anyone who ever lived. I was wrong to doubt you.”
Zao let him babble on like this for some time. Spittle ran down the man’s chin as he did his best to comply to his Lord’s command. Zao let him speak his praise for a few minutes before he responded with a gesture.
Zao reached out his hand and placed it on General Deter’s cheek. The man stopped his blathering. His face lightening. There were tears spilling from his eyes. Zao patted his cheek gently. He then ran his hand up the leathery skin of General Deter’s head. He was silent except for a light whimpering.
Zao let his large palm rest on the crown of Deter’s scalp for a few seconds. His hand dwarfed the General’s head as if it were a toy ball. Deter’s bottom lip stuck out as he blubbered. The man bounced with the sobs. Liakos could sense that the lesson was almost over. He knew that Zao would forgive the man, and leave him with a lesson he would never forget. He had to. He was good.
Like a bear trap, Lord Zao’s hand closed. The bone and tissue of General Deter’s skull crunched and splattered between Zao’s fingers. The General’s cranium offered no resistance in Zao’s grasp. Deter’s limp body flopped to the ground, now missing the top half of its brain. Red ink gushed from the exposed hand-made wound. Zao released his grip, which dropped a gruesome mass of flesh and bone to the ground.
Liakos felt his lunch pushing it’s way up his throat. He turned from the violent scene; his face had splattered with the dead man’s blood. He heard Lord Zao speaking as he regurgitated his last meal.