In the quiet darkness there was no strife. No worlds were in peril. No one had left her.
She couldn’t wake. Wasn’t responsible for anything. Didn’t have anything to live up to.
And that was ok.
The view from space showed the world as it was. One great sphere, with no real subdivisions, all of its inhabitants part of a single, vibrant whole.
A whole which was not crumbling anywhere near as fast as it was supposed to.
“It’s not that we’re being sabotaged which I find disappointing,” Azma said, musing aloud to Grenslaw and Ryschild. She was used to taking aloud to keep her head clear and give her eavesdroppers something valuable to report to her coworkers. Total secrecy was rarely possible and terrifying when achieved. Far better to seed the reports concerning her with deliberate information than to allow her coworkers and superiors to come up with their own wild imaginings about what sort of schemes she was getting up to.
“I saw you had a budget item for ‘Intradepartmental Involuntary Cooperation Expenses’. Was that to cover the projected sabotage costs?” Grenslaw asked.
“That one’s to cover the blackmail and coercion expenses,” Azma said.
Her words would be reported directly to the committee which was (nominally) overseeing her operation. A voice would be raised in indignation that a loose operative like Azma was budgeting explicitly for nefarious purposes. As whichever of her many detractors waxed poetic on her many shortcomings, the rest of the committee would be reviewing the numbers and comparing them to the typical levels of graft required for operations. When they saw hers were forty one percent of the average and routinely deviated from projections by no more than five percent, a motion would be raised to table discussion of matters of ethics and refer the issue to the proper oversight body.
Azma liked dealing with the Ethics Oversight Committee. They were so refreshingly clear about the bribes they expected.
“Would it be this line item for ‘Unrequested Assistance by Intradepartmental Assets of Standard Substandard Quality’?” Ryschild asked.
“Yes, that’s the one,” Azma said.
“We seem to be well within the planned allotment so far,” Ryschild said.
Many of Azma’s less successful subordinates would have asked the question with a sneer or phrased it as an indictment of her management skills. Since promotion within the Consortium was usually a matter of seizing a newly opened vacancy in the ranks, taking down one’s superior was considered the sign of a solid work ethic.
Ryschild, and Grenslaw, seemed to be aware of the problems inherent in that arrangement, and so choose their words and tone of voice with the reality that Azma made a much better mentor and shield than she did an enemy.
“It’s not the rate of expenditure which bothers me,” Azma said, feeling as though she was speaking to an attentive class. The sensation was rather intoxicating. “If anything the saboteurs are a bit behind the curve – most likely because some of their schemes imploded on their own. I surmise that based on thew quality of the sabotage which we’ve seen so far. That’s what I find so disappointing.”
“Could someone be hiding a much better scheme behind a series of poorly executed ones?” Grenslaw asked.
“That’s always a possibility, and always worth remaining mindful of,” Azma said. “If that is the case here however, it’s frankly a bit insulting. Apart from the fact that sabotage is never going to make someone relax their guard, there’s the specific details of the sabotage. I mean they could still look inept and disarming and manage to introduce some form of impediment to our progress.”
“Damages to the fleet have included seven non-repairable parts,” Ryschild said. “Would you normally expect more than that?”
“Not so much ‘more’ as ‘better targeted’,” Azma said. “When you look at the parts which suffered irreparable failures, they were all ones which could have been accessed before the ships departed their last retrofit stations and before they were officially assigned to this battlegroup and therefor under our control.”
“Does that mean there’ll be a trail to follow back to the one responsible?” Grenslaw asked.
“Each of the ships came from different retrofit stations, and the manifests on them are clean. Whatever party or parties did this covered their tracks up quite neatly,” Azma said
A clever listener would know to be worried when Azma complimented an adversary. A wise one would note that she hadn’t actually said that tracking the culprit would be impossible. Given who she anticipated being involved however, Azma was confident that distinction would escape them.
“What impact will the..umm..lack of sabotage have on the overall operation?” Ryschild asked.
“It may raise morale a bit more than expected,” Azma said. “The defenders in the [Fallen Kingdoms] are performing a beyond projections, but that’s been offset by the fact that we’re not suffering significant losses from within our own forces. The plan had accounted for those losses and for the reinforcements needed to make up for them. Since we can keep more of the original units intact, we should see a greater efficiency in the next stage of the operation. That circles back to my original objection to the sabotage we have seen. With the troops in a better position than expected, even if there is a more significant act awaiting us, we have more and better resources available due to the bumbling attempts which have been made so far.”
“Can we be sure the saboteur is actually antagonistic?” Grenslaw asked. “Perhaps they are working to thwart another party’s sabotage for their own purposes.”
“A possibility, though a slight one,” Azma said, pleased to see the turnings of Grenslaw’s mind matched her own. “If the ‘accidents’ were the work of a benefactor mitigating worse calamities then they would have been well served to leave a calling card of some kind. I have been clear about my generosity in such matters before. I believe we are dealing with a very different sort of competitor though. The schemes which have unfolded suggest someone with a level of clearance comparable to my own, but with far less backbone.”
“They’re afraid to sabotage things too badly?” Ryschild asked.
“Oh, I suspect they’d be willing to destroy our entire fleet and sink the Consortium’s profits from this endeavor completely,” Azma said. “What they don’t seem to be willing to risk is being caught. They probably fancy themselves a master planner, and imagine me to be an barbaric interloper.”
Both Grenslaw and Ryschild turned to gaze at Azma incredulously.
“Barbaric?” Grenslaw asked.
“Of course,” Azma said. “I am the first of my family to be a part of the Consortium. And I am rather far beyond the place many would have set for me.”
She paused and waited to see if either would comment on that. Sycophants were in some cases more irritating to deal with than open detractors. Both Grenslaw and Ryschild however offered no opinions on her claims, waiting instead for Azma to clarify her statements.
“Also I have made it clear I do not suffer threats or affronts lightly,” Azma said. “The chain of command is useful for resolving some disputes in that arena, but largely it tends to work out best when such matters are permanently settled among those involved.”
“Is it uncommon for those to move against your interests to do so with all possible precautions?” Grenslaw asked.
“Strangely yes,” Azma said. “It’s shocking just how foolish people can be. I suspect a large measure of it comes from ego and paying more attention to tradition and politics than the realities before them, but then ego, tradition, and politics are likely the root cause of many failings among my peers.”
“Then this adversary is cowardly but wise?” Ryschild asked.
“If they were wise, they’d be working with me,” Azma said. “Cowardly however fits the bill. It’s why we can dismiss them entirely. To cause real issues they would need to be willing to take risks and make the dynamic moves which are difficult for us to prepare for. Since they are unwilling to expose themselves to risk though, we can allow them their little diversions and relish the horrible gnawing dread which must live inside them as they deny they own ineptitude.”
She was overplaying her criticism. She knew that. Short of cackling like a fiend, she couldn’t be more obviously putting on a performance for the sake of her eavesdroppers, but Azma knew the coworkers who held her in contempt and nothing short of beating them over the head with insults would succeed in making them aware that they were being insulted.
She breathed out a happy sigh, delighted at the thought of how her words would ring in the ears of whichever incompetant had decided that it was his turn to leap into the thresher of her displeasure.
Aside from a few small issues, her plan was proceeding near the top end of efficiency. She could foresee the celebrations already, though was gladdened her heart more was the absolute rage it would induce in those who were so desperate to tear her down.
“[Supreme Commander], we are receiving a report on the deep survey for new targets which you’d requested,” Ryschild said.
Azma clicked a button invoking Maximum Confidentiality. There were still people spying on her of course, but she knew who they reported to, and keeping senior committee members in the dark was more dangerous than allowing them to retain a clear vision that one was not plotting their immediate overthrow. Everyone else however could wait until she’d processed the information, especially since it had little to do with selected new targets for the operation.
She scanned the report summary and blinked.
“No results found?” She dove into the primary data to confirm what the high level overviews were claiming.
“The population center seems to have been replaced by some impenetrable field,” Grenslaw said. “Ships scanners seem to be adversely effected after conducting any active scanning of the region.”
“Also passive scans,” Ryschild said.
“I can see that. The problems are peculiar though.” Azma did not like what she was seeing. There was a tremendous amount of information to sort through, but her intuition was already convinced there was far worse news lurking in the data than what the summaries were presenting.
“In all cases, the problems seem to have clear up after the scans were discontinued,” Grenslaw said. “But there is a lag period on each ship. That doesn’t sound right. Does it?”
Azma’s nerves were dancing with anticipation.
“No. It doesn’t,” she said, her dislike turning to intrigue.
“It says in this report that the active sensors were rebooted completely but it wasn’t until the passive sensors were taken offline that the glitches they were experiencing resolved themselves,” Ryschild said.
Azma called up the report Ryschild was looking at.
“I’m not seeing any additional sensor readings even after they supposedly came back online,” Azma said. “Or the glitched data from the scan of the satellite moon.”
A terrible and fascinating suspicion crept into her mind.
“Where, exactly, is the ship these readings were sent from?” she asked.
“Off course and heading directly to the satellite moon,” Grenslaw said.
As feats of sabotage went, subborning several ships from her fleet through the use of an input hack on their sensor web was worthy of both her attention and her respect.
Azma was used to playing a game against opponents who were essentially unarmed when it came to a dual of wits. To match herself against someone of her own caliber would be costly, and dangerous, and delightful.
In all likelihood one of them would destroy the other. Neither could afford to hold back after all. If they did they would be destroyed or, worse, become the best of friends.
Azma felt a thrill at either prospect.
But an even more profound possibility occurred to her.
She had no idea how a ship’s sensors could be disabled in the manner the data was showing her. It should have been impossible, especially for the passive scanners. Worse, the crew was still communicating on secure channels and none of them were reporting what was actually happening.
They could have been turned. A mutiny would be a master stroke.
But Azma knew those crews. They’d been through enough campaigns with her. They wouldn’t turn easily.
That didn’t suggest the action of a brilliant competitors.
It suggested something new.