Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast
She saved seven of them. The lucky seven out of her final twenty accounts. The other thirteen were gone.
Hailey couldn’t process the tragedy of it. Couldn’t feel their loss as anything more that a weight of failure that hung over her like a mountain.
Would there be lawsuits? Would the families be staring at her from across a courtroom, broken parents hurling rage and tears at the one who’d let their children die? Or would they understand?
She’d tried. It hadn’t been enough, but she’d tried against the impossible anyways.
Those were concerns for another day though. The only thought that was still sharp enough to pierce the hollow space fatigue and stress had carved inside her was that the crisis wasn’t done. There were still people who needed her. Hundreds. Thousands of them.
But only one had a name she’d known since she was a kid.
Somewhere in whatever electric dream the players had been banished to, Tessa was struggling to survive. Tessa, the bright, cheerful, point of light she’d followed into so many late nights. The girl she’d left behind when their guild fell apart. The woman she could have saved if she’d just reached out sooner.
“Meeting. Now.” Marcus said, shouting to make sure he had the entire support team’s attention.
Hailey put down her headset and locked her computer. It was still running and her GM account was still logged in. Unless someone unplugged it, she wasn’t in any danger of being drawn into the game herself.
At least not unless she chose to make the jump herself.
So many people had though. And so many of them were missing.
Hailey knew the odds, and had seen what the price could be.
How much did those weigh when set against Tessa though?
Interlude – Azma
Disobedience ran on a spectrum. Azma always made sure those assigned to her command were aware of that. She also made sure they understood the harshness they could expect for punishments based on the severity of their infractions.
Those who were surprised by the stricter standards she maintained generally fell into two categories; the ones who were smart enough to keep that surprise to themselves and those who felt the need to protest, usually by citing the Consortium’s official regulations at her.
From the former category, Azma drew her command staff. She reasoned that even if they intended to disobey her, they would at least be smart enough to do so for profitable and compelling reasons. Azma had no interest in suppressing intelligent responses to changing situations even if those responses contradicted her orders.
The latter category though? The underlings who thought they could dictate the terms of her authority to her? Those she educated.
It was a simple system, only complicated by the fact that she occasionally had to apply it to her “superior” officers as well. Their “education” tended to involve fewer applications of the onerous, menial duties she applied to recalcitrant underlings and more justified (in Azma’s view) homicide.
“Hello [Commander] Azma. I will be your new Executive Oversight,” [General] Miller said.
“[General] Whitemore has been transferred to other duties?” Azma asked, offering Miller a pleasant smile of curiosity. She honestly was curious, though only as to whether Miller was aware of Whitemore’s true fate and whether he understood what it meant for his own position.
“[General] Whitemore is in the morgue,” Miller said. “Or at least the thirty percent of him which we’ve been able to identify.”
“He was so far from the front lines though,” Azma said. “So far from danger.”
And yet not far enough outside her reach to escape paying the price for irritating her.
“Yes. His loss will be felt by all,” Miller said, being careful to be looking down at his notes as he spoke.
Good. He knew better than to risk making the standard pleasantries into an indirect threat. It was a mark in his favor. As was his lie about Whitemore, who would in truth be missed by no one. Better the trite and forgettable fiction than a serious consideration for justice, in whatever nebulous form it might exist, should be served. Even directed outwards, towards the imaginary enemies who had eliminated Whitemore, that sort of passion had a tendency to cause more problems than it solved.
“But we will move on,” Azma said. It was as much a command as a banal reassurance, and to his credit Miller seemed to understand that.
“Yes. Always better returns than yesterday.” It was one of the Consortium’s many mottos. A directive to all of the staff to be ever striving to earn the Consortium more than they had earned before.
As far as any of the members who were outside the decision making processes of the Consortium knew, the only allowed goal was eternal growth. Open a planet today? If you couldn’t open two tomorrow then you were worthless. And if you could, then you had better have three lined up for the next day.
Azma had never been foolish enough to dance to that tune. Her performance was measured against standards which she dictated, an arrangement she had crafted by delivering consistently above her nearest competitors within the Consortium’s ranks.
Even when those competitors were attempting to sabotage her efforts.
“And will the approvals for engagement be granted today, or does the delay Whitemore spoke of still remain?” she asked, as though the question was near irrelevant.
In a sense it was. She already knew the answer. She was only interested in discovering how Miller would present it.
“By morning, ship’s time, the approvals will be transmitted and on your desk,” Miller said. “The review of the world’s dual arcanospheres has been completed and you have been cleared for a doubled bounty on the conquest.”
“A pity Whitemore didn’t live to see the plan proceed forward,” Azma said.
“He seems to have lacked the vision to see the current scheme’s value,” Miller said.
Speaking ill of the dead was a social taboo in many of the cultures the Consortium had contracts with (or, in plain terms, owned). It was also as clear a signal as Miller could send that he had no interest in interfering in Azma’s prosecution of the war effort.
Azma smiled. Many people mistook her position as a subservient one. They thought she “worked” for the Consortium. Those executives who had survived their tenure as her superior were aware that the relationship was more a matter that the Consortium had resources and Azma allowed the Consortium to benefit from her use of them.
At least for the time being. None of them wanted to think what would happen when the Consortium was no longer a useful tool at Azma’s disposal.
Interlude – Niminay
Niminay relaxed back in her chair as Penswell massaged her shoulders and neck, wondering for the thousand and first time why Penny had never gotten half the fame she deserved.
“You’ve been up for three days now,” Penny said. “Would you at least take a nap in the chair? We need you not to fall apart before the fighting even starts.”
“Elven meditation blah blah blah,” Niminay said. “You know I can get by without as much sleep as a human.”
Penny’s massage along the back of Niminay’s neck became, briefly, a commanding encirclement around Niminay’s throat.
“Not as much isn’t the same as none,” Penny said. “You know this as well as I do.”
“There’s still so much to do though.” Niminay couldn’t blame Penny for wanting to strangle her. It was part and parcel of their relationship. Niminay saved the world, and Penny saved Niminay from herself. Niminay was reasonably sure that, between the two of them, Penny had the harder of the two jobs. Especially since Penny was frequently the one who came up with the brilliant world saving plans which Niminay got the lion’s share of the credit for when she executed them.
“Yes. There are many things to do. This is why we have many people to do them.” Penny’s massage returned to a more therapeutic mode of touch.
“It would be easier to believe that if I’d seen you get any sleep in the last twenty four hours,” Niminay said. She knew Penny was correct, but arguing increased the duration of the massage and Niminay wasn’t about to give that up a moment sooner than she had to.
“I’m just following the example of our fearless leader,” Penny said. “As are far too many of the commanders and staff that we’ve assembled.”
“You may have a point there. If I get six hours of rest though will they follow suite or will they panic and work even harder?”
“If you get six hours of sleep they’ll panic for the first hour, then see that things are under control, at least until the first Consortium fleet shows up, and they will then delegate like they’re all afraid to do at the moment.”
“What about the adventurers?” Niminay asked.
“It hasn’t been that long since they started arriving,” Penny said. “Probably most of them don’t need sleep yet.”
“Are they integrated enough yet to handle dealing with delegates for a quarter of a day?”
“It’s always hard to tell,” Penny admitted. “Some of them are frighteningly well organized. Others seem to barely pay attention if you light them on fire. I think overall though their individual team and guild leaders have things under control. Most of the adventurers will be looking to the people they’re used to taking orders from for direction on what to do.”
“There are so many of them though,” Niminay said. “More than I’ve ever seen gathered before.”
“I know,” Penny said. “If what Glimmerglass said is true then there’s something different about them too. Some new spark empowering them.”
“I believe what she says, and that worries me.”
“Because the world has never called for this many champions before, and if we’re being given an army this vast and powerful to work with, what is the Consortium bringing that will require this kind of strength to fight?”
Interlude – Brendan Reingold / Mellisandra
Somethings make the end of the world worth worrying about.
“Are you sure you want to join the other adventurers for the Grand Coalition? If a battle starts up, there’s no guarantee there’ll be enough tanks and healers to go around,” Brendan asked, trying to imagine how he’d arrived at a place where taking part in an epic battle between good and evil was something he’d rather have no part of whatsoever.
“From what I’ve been hearing from the other adventurers, it sounds like it’s not a question of ‘if’ a battle with come, just ‘when’ and ‘where’ with the leading candidates being ‘soon’ and ‘more or less everywhere’. That’s why I have to join up,” Mellisandra said.
“Damn. I really wish I’d played more,” Brendan said. “Maybe if I’d been there as inspiration, we’d have you at the level cap already.”
“More levels would be nice, but it’s not like there haven’t been other crises before. We’ll handle this one like we did the others.” Mellisandra had left her room at the Inn and was mingling with the crowd of adventurers outside a nearby tavern.
That she was talking to an unseen friend wasn’t drawing any attention since roughly 90% of the other adventurers were doing the same. In those cases, their communication was with distant guildmates or party members. From what Mellisandra had been able to determine, none of them were in direct contact with their ‘Inspirations’, though more than a few, possibly the majority in fact, were reporting that they’d found “new inspiration” – something within themselves that tied them to something greater still, rather than the sense of their ‘Inspiration’ being granted by an external power.
“How did we handle the other ones?” Brendan asked. “Let the high level characters tackle it?”
“Sure. The parts of it that they could. But there’s always enough trouble to go around and all we can do when we’re faced with hard times is manage them with the tools and talents we have. It’s not perfect, and sometimes we’ll fail, but even then we have to believe that our efforts matter. Maybe we hold the gap for one extra minute, or knock off an extra one percent health from a monster, and maybe that’s enough for someone else to rally to the position, or someone else to take the monster down. It’s investing in little miracles that we can never be sure of the outcome of, but if we don’t try, we’ll never make it to see the big ones.”