Interlude – Whiteweather
As with all things, action could only be taken at the proper time if success was to be ensured. Whiteweather gazed at the report on Azma’s fleet deployments and could almost feel numbers winding around her neck. The thought of pulling on that noose gave him a joy few other things could.
He was going to destroy her. It was for the good of the Consortium, of course, but primarily it was because he simply couldn’t tolerate her anymore. She had what he deserved.
“Sir, I have the analysis you requested from the New Expansions Analytics team,” one of Whiteweather’s underlings said.
Whiteweather took the report and scanned to the bottom line. The boys in Analytics liked to ramble on, when all that mattered was the final number to answer the question “had the expense of Azma’s strategy proven that she was a liability to the Consortium yet”.
The answer to the question was obvious and inarguable.
But the boys in Analytics got it wrong.
“Task Force Commander Azma is operating within acceptable expense parameters when both projected and immediate returns are weighed against the resources which have been expended and the one which are currently engaged.”
In short, Azma was doing a good job.
Whiteweather shot his underling. That would go against his bottom line but he wasn’t the one waging a prestigious campaign which had absorbed funding from the next five largest initiatives in their division, so he had more leeway for waste.
Whiteweather flipped back to the beginning of the report.
The bottomline was meaningless. A useless statistic used by the cheap under performers to hide their negligence until it was too late to do anything about it.
The breakdown of the overall project to open the new market was divided into broad areas of accountability. From transportation rates, to supple costs, to administrative fees, the overall cost of the war effort (Whiteweather didn’t bother trying to label it as anything other than what it was, one of the few traits he shared with Azma) was categorized into neat buckets to allow for consistent evaluation between wildly different operations.
Whiteweather passed by the top level summaries. Obviously they were distractions, having barely any more data than the bottom line cost. No, he was going to dig into the costs item-by-iterm and determine just where Azma was failing.
At his request, his terminal began loading the full itemized report of Azma’s little vanity project.
He could have had the original report delivered digitally. The paper version was an affectation meant to display his thoroughness. Also it showed the underlings where they ranked.
A scrubber drone was demonstrating that reality as well by cleaning up the remains of the one who’d brought in the initial report.
Whiteweather smiled. The scrubber drones had it right. They did they job, gave no backtalk and never asked for recognition or praise they didn’t merit.
She’d demanded recognition for everything she did.
And when she didn’t get it, people “mysteriously” tended to turn up dead.
Which was why Whiteweather wasn’t going to go against her directly.
He was smart enough, and vital to the Consortium. She couldn’t touch him.
But still direct action was wasteful, even if it posed no danger at all to him.
No danger whatsoever.
Whiteweather scanned his office for bugs and found only the expected oversight devices Upper Management installed in every critical employees office.
Azma didn’t have him bugged.
She didn’t even know he was building a case against her.
Why was the report taking so long though?
Did she have the data stream monitored?
Whiteweather scrambled for the cancel button but saw that the report was simply still downloading.
The item by item breakdown couldn’t be that large could it?
Fifteen minutes later he discovered that, yes, it both could be and was.
He returned to the top level breakdowns. The item-by-item review was a trap. Too easy to hide critical information in the sea of data. You needed a broad perspective to catch the errors Azma was making. A perspective only someone like Whiteweather could have.
He was going to catch her.
And he was going to destroy her.
And she would never see it coming.
He was sure.
Interlude – The Nightmare Queen
There was an existential threat to the realm. A force from outside the boundaries of the world’s reality was making war upon the [Fallen Kingdoms]. The Nightmare Queen was unhappy with that, and, usually, things she was unhappy with tended to disappear, eaten by hungry shadows and excreted into the slime pools in the lowest depths of the [Sunless Deeps] if they were very very luck. Despite the Nightmare Queen’s displeasure though, the [Consortium of Pain’s] forces were able to proceed with their conquest without restraint.
It wasn’t that she couldn’t stop them.
The moment the Consortium’s ships had passed into the arcanosphere which defined her universe, they fell within the Nightmare Queen’s dominion.
It was both her right and her responsibility to remove such parasites but she stayed her hand in the face of the ever more grave disruptions the Consortium’s forces wrought in the battles.
She wasn’t afraid. Not of the Consortium at least. Her Empress however had made a passing comment about allowing events to play out without interference, and so she took no action, a passing comment from the True Empress being essentially a mandate written into the structure of the cosmos.
“Hey, how are things going here?” Jin asked, appearing in the Nightmare Queen’s throne room with only an after image of the pomp and ceremony which should have accompanied the arrival of any visitor, and especially one as august as her.
“My realm is under assault by forces from without who are even now conspiring with those within the realm to wide the scope of the incursion, my Empress,” the Nightmare Q ueen said.
“How are you holding up though?” Jin asked. She could have taken the Queen’s throne without even a gesture, but she chose instead to wander to the sides of the room where the Nightmare Queen kept souvenirs from other incursions she had dealt with.
The pieces functioned as deeply alien objects d’art, serving to unsettle those who came into her presence as much as they acted as cheerful reminders of the victories she’d won in the past.
“How am I…?” The Nightmare Queen wasn’t sure she could parse that question. She understood the words and the intent, but it was something which had never been asked of her before, not even by herself.
She glanced around the room, as though an answer might be lurking in dark corners of her grand hall. When those proved to be empty, the Nightmare Queen looked inside herself instead.
“I…am well?” she said.
“Cool,” Jin said, picking up a Klein bottle made of shards of congealed space time.
“Have you come to a decision about this realm?” the Nightmare Queen asked. She could have said “about destroying this realm” but uttering those words would make them too real.
“Not yet,” Jin said. “Everything is still in flux, so its possible all of the worlds involved are still salvageable. That you’re still in good shape is a positive sign, though I’m sad to say it’s not conclusive.”
“Is there anything I can do to be in better shape?” the Nightmare Queen asked. Her own existence wasn’t completely tied to the state of her realm, but if the [Fallen Kingdoms] were lost then what remained of her wouldn’t be the Queen of anything.
“I don’t think so?” Jin said. “I’ll let you know if I find anything that could help, but the instability we’re looking into isn’t in you.”
“Is it something the invaders have done?” the Nightmare Queen asked. She transacted with reality on a deeper level than the inhabitants of her realm. Even the gods, when they’d been alive, couldn’t match her authority over what was and what could not be.
With a thought, she could sense the state of the material world, reads the hearts of those who lived within it, and follow the strands of fate which lead from each action as they split into the variety of outcomes which could occur. The vast depth of her vision showed her one thing clearly though; she was not omniscient.
When her True Empress spoke of the world being unstable, the Nightmare Queen held no doubt that it was true. She could find no instability anywhere she looked, but the effects of one were plain to seen.
More troubling though, was the sense that she herself had changed as well. Perhaps as a result of the attack?
“This goes well beyond anything like the Consortium,” Jin said. “Left to their own devices, they could have made it here, and they might have been able to conquer the realm, assuming you didn’t interfere. Even at their most dire though, they couldn’t inflict the kind of damage that brought us here. I’m not sure even you could, unless things changed drastically.”
The Nightmare Queen felt a chill. She could rewrite all life in the [Fallen Kingdoms]. She could change the fundamental rules of the world if she wished. What sort of destruction could be beyond even her?
Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / Burnt Toast
More experts had been called in to answer the impossible question of “what is going on here”. Hailey didn’t envy any of them.
“You look like you’re waiting for something,” Marcus said. He’d joined her in the support center breakroom, as eager to escape the pointless babble that kept spewing from Agent Limner’s mouth as she was.
“Waiting?” she asked. The only thing she was waiting for was her courage to gather up enough, and she’d thought she’d been hiding that fairly well.
“Yeah, maybe for us all to wake up and this to blow over?” Marcus said. “I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but none of this feels real. Or, no, maybe it feels too real. Like this can’t be happening to us, you know?”
Marcus was Hailey’s manager but that hadn’t kept them from developing a friendship based on mutual appreciation and respect. On Marcus’s part, all he’d had to do was treat her like a person and value the contributions Hailey made to the team, and on hers, Hailey had simply had to be willing to challenge him when the need arose without degrading him.
“I kept trying to tell myself that too,” Hailey said. “We’re support reps. We’re only important in an imaginary game. We’re nobody really. It would be so nice to believe that, but here we are, and this is all happening.”
“I just wish there was something we could do,” Marcus said. “I mean beside collecting information and coordinating things as much as we can. I know that’s helping, but, I don’t know, it just seems like so little. I mean, we’ve got kids who were playing this game who are honest-to-god risking their lives against evil space aliens.”
Hailey started to reply and caught herself.
Did she want to bring Marcus in on her plan? Did she want to make it that real? What if she decided to back out? Wouldn’t it be easier if no one knew?
“There is something more we can do,” Hailey said, putting her feet on the path she’d chosen before she was consciously aware she’d made her choice at last.
“Talk to the FBI?” Marcus said. “We both tried that and you saw how that worked out.”
“No. Not the FBI. They’re not on the front lines of this,” Hailey said. “But we can be.”
Marcus looked like he was about to make a flippant comment, but he stopped when he saw the look in Hailey’s eyes.
“What do you mean? We can’t use our GM accounts for anything. We saw what happened. It was bad.”
“That’s not our only option. Or it’s not my only option.”
“You can’t login into your old account though. We locked those out.”
“We did. After we knew what was going on for sure. But we didn’t terminate any accounts that were still logged in.”
“Wait. You were logged into your personal account?” Marcus asked. “You’ve been logged in this whole time?”
“Yeah. This whole time. Just waiting.”
“For her to be ready.”
“The other me,” Hailey said as luminous sparks rose from her hands and she became pure light.