Azma had a keen sense of the forces she commanded, but seeing even a fraction of them rising from the planet’s surface to converge on the sentinel moon was still a bit awe inspiring.
“We have confirmation of the final assault party’s departure,” Grenslaw said. “Also the Arcanotech Division is reporting the modified reality stabilizers are in transit.”
“Good. What’s their estimate on final calibration once they’re in place?” Azma asked. She’d cleared the bridge and slaved most of the major systems to her own console. That Ryschild and Grenslaw were still present was a surprise, but a welcome one.
They were going to kill her. Azma had to hold onto that belief because she knew it was too too likely, despite every sign to the contrary. Even holding to that certainly though, the extra aid the two provided was more than welcome.
She’d extended too far. The prize she’d sought to grab was too large, to valuable for someone like her to be allowed to keep. She should have known that. Should have anticipated that the worst of her enemies would strike against her.
It wasn’t too late though.
She could survive the coming debacle. Easily in fact. The operation was going to turn a phenomenal profit, regardless of what happened with the [Formless Hunger]. Applied Xenobiology would be massacred no matter she did, and that would leave a troublesome mark on her record. People and powers she relied on would lose some of their faith in her. Her enemies would see new weaknesses to press her with. These and a hundred other issues would arise but none of them were worse than the problems she’d already overcome to reach her current station. The important failures, the ones she couldn’t recover from so easily, those could all be avoided by simply relinquishing her position in the operation.
If she drew in “advisors” and ceded to them the glory and wealth of “opening” a new world – especially one with dual Arcanospheres and a link to another world – then the blame for the massacre and the other problems which would arise would be spread among everyone who was set to benefit from the conquest.
Alone she was a valuable scapegoat, but if she was but one of many then the failures would be recontextualized as necessary and expected shortfalls so that no one important needed to take responsibility for them. A junior office or two would likely be needed as a sacrifice. Someone to make an example of so that the underlings would remember that their jobs were ones where mistakes would not be tolerated.
Ryschild and Grenslaw would be perfect for the role.
And she wasn’t going to do that.
Not because she cared about them. Caring about coworkers was akin to placing a plasma cutter on the side of one’s own throat and driving into the largest stretch of turbulence one could find.
No, Azma wasn’t going to sacrifice her underlings for the same reason that she wasn’t going to abandon her position in the Operation.
They were hers.
Her underlings. Her position. Her responsibility.
If she’d been capable of abandoning something she’d claimed ownership of when that ownership became inconvenient, she never would have advanced beyond the low ensign she’d began as.
At every step of her career, there’d been someone telling Azma that she should be happy with what she was given. That if she was smart, she wouldn’t upset her betters.
Most of those “betters” were enjoying restful naps in shallow graves, but it certainly would have been easier to do as she was told. Easier, more sensible, and ultimately fatal to everything that made Azma what she was.
Gazing out at the starlit void beyond the view screen, Azma felt the calm, wordless core within her she’d always turned to for guidance. Death and worse lay before her. Both were old friends. She knew she should fear them, should struggle against them, but either reaction would have been a distraction and so she accepted them instead.
Let death come, she would remain who she was and greet it as an equal. Let ruin and wrath descend upon her. The Consortium could cage her body, bind her mind, and ensnare her soul but she would only grow more perilous with each thing they took from her.
This wasn’t a time to hide or flee. This was a time to set traps and sharpen knives. She’d be putting both to use much sooner than she preferred.
“The projection on the reality stabilizers is two hours after initial setup,” Grenslaw said. “The techs included an official notification that their estimation is based on purely favorable conditions and that initial setup will require a completely pacified region around the [Formless Hunger].”
Azma chuckled. “Admirable work covering themselves there. They’re going to have thirty minutes though and their preparations are almost certainly going to be interrupted by at least two local insurgent groups.”
“Should we communicate that to them?” Ryschild asked.
“Standard procedure would be to withhold that information to avoid jeopardizing morale,” Azma said. “Standard procedure was designed by idiots though so we will not being doing that.”
“Will it be a mark against us that we deviated from protocol?” Ryschild asked.
“One of many,” Azma said. “At this juncture however we have less need to worry about what an official inquiry will find than normal.”
“Because no inquiry will be called for if we’re dead?” Ryschild asked.
“There is that,” Azma said. “In this case though, we need to play as though we’re going to survive. Playing for our own destruction doesn’t give us sufficient incentive to win.”
“If we do ‘win’, will that also give us control of the inquiry hearing?” Grenslaw asked.
“No. The inquiry which will be called will be authorized by those intent on destroying us. We don’t need to concern ourselves with it because it will already have all of the evidence of wrong doing which is requires to assign any penalties it cares to place on us.”
“That seems similar to playing a game where this leads to our death,” Ryschild said.
“There is a crucial difference,” Azma said. “If we survive, and we will, we need to do so in position where we have the power to influence or buy off those can overrule the official inquiry. The hearings will be presented as justice for the lives and resources which have been lost, but justice is only inflicted on those too poor and weak to escape its clutches.”
Grenslaw flashed a small smile at Ryschild who nodded appreciatively in return, each seeming pleased with Azma’s reasoning. Or perhaps Azma was seeing what she wanted to see. They were going to kill her after all. She couldn’t forget that.
“Send this message to the Arcanotechs,” Azma said, considering the hell she was sending her troops into. “Non-optimal conditions are projected. Extreme security protocols should be observed. Armed support personnel will be present but enemies of unknown capacity are known to be active in the area and will likely interfere. Advise deployment of reality stabilization devices once configuration values allow for automated refinement. Priority is given to retrieval of personnel.”
Grenslaw sent the message and blinked as a response arrived a moment later.
“They sent back a smiley face?”
“Good. They understood then,” Azma said.
“Non-optimal conditions” was a warning that she was sending them into a disaster in the making. “Extreme security protocols” allowed for the use of whatever tactics or equipment the techs deemed necessary to have a chance of succeeding. “The unknown enemies” were expected by everyone but mentioning them in the context of “the armed security” was an acknowledgement that the troops being provided were expected to be insufficient to safeguard even themselves much less the techs.
That might not be true of course. Azma was sending a possibly overwhelming force against the denizens of the [High Beyond] but given a [Formless Hunger] had already shown up there, Azma had little faith that worse wasn’t lurking in wait for the troops she was deploying.
What had brought the smiley face response though were the last two points. Advising “deployment once automated configuration could be enabled” and “prioritizing the retrieval of the personnel” meant the techs were free to do a roughshod setup of the kitbashed reality stabilization units they’d cobbled together and then allow the onboard systems to make the futile attempt to bring them into alignment while they (sensibly) fled as far away as they could possibly get.
In short, Azma was telling them that mission was doomed and they should make damn sure they survived it, if at all possible.
“A communique from the captain of the task force to the sentinel moon,” Grenslaw said. “He’s requesting confirmation of their landing coordinates, but he’s transmitted positional values for [Corsair’s Bay].”
“Amusing,” Azma said. “Pirell thinks this is a meaningless boondoggle and is trying to get back into a profitable work zone.”
“Should I send the correct coordinates?” Grenslaw asked.
“Send two sets of coordinates,” Azma said. “The correct ones and another set which will place in direct effect distance of the [Formless Hunger]. Specify that if the first coordinates are evaluated to be unworkable then they will be required to launch the operation from the backup location.”
“If they use that location they will be consumed by the [Formless Hunger],” Ryschild said. “Is Captain Pirell intelligent enough to understand that?”
“Pirell’s not the most imaginative of people, but he is very good when it comes to self-preservation,” Azma said. “It’s why I selected him to lead the task force.”
“Captain Pirell has replied with an affirmative and is continuing on the proper course,” Grenslaw said. “He has requested clarification on the mission orders though, specifically whether the retrieval of personnel applies to all members of the task force or just the Arcanotechs?”
“Inform him that all ground personnel have priority on retrieval. Ship-based personnel are expected to remain within the theater of operation until all personnel assets have been extracted,” Azma said. “Also specify that the penalty for early departure by any ship will be an assumption that the ship has been compromised by the [Formless Hunger].”
“We’ll destroy anyone who flies away early?” Ryschild asked.
“Warning shots first,” Azma said. “Without that threat though Pirell’s a little too likely to declare the ground troops “unrecoverable” and flee the moment things start going wrong.”
“Captain Pirell has replied with ‘Understood’, and nothing else,” Grenslaw said.
“Excellent. I’ll put him down as one of the people who will definitely be trying to kill me by this time tomorrow,” Azma said.
“We’ve given him some very nice ships to pursue that endeavor with,” Ryschild said.
“He’ll certainty think he has command of those ships,” Azma said. “But that’s a matter to worry about later.”
“He’s sent one additional report,” Grenslaw said. “Apparently Sergeant Kremmer’s squad was in range for a pickup when the transports were leaving [Corsair’s Bay], so they are reporting in for inclusion on the ground assault.”
Azma sighed and massaged the bridge of her nose.
Kremmer’s Razers were an elite unit, and, in a sense, Azma had been lucky to get them assigned to her forces. She’d worked with Kremmer before, which meant she knew exactly how to motivate them. They claimed all it took was money, but Azma knew there was more to their psychology than that.
The Razers were motivated by mayhem as much as wealth. They despised honor, which was occasionally useful, but it meant care had to be taken in unleashing them.
And Azma had no time left to be careful.
“Which ship are the Razers on?” she asked.
“They transferred to Captain Pirell’s ship shortly after extraction,” Grenslaw said.
“Unfortunate,” Azma said. “That precludes detonating the ship for now.”
“Should we transmit an order that the Razers are not cleared to join the operation?” Grenslaw asked.
“It won’t matter,” Azma said. “They’re going to smell blood and it will draw them in. No what we need to do is give them a special mission. One that’s sure to appeal to their natural tendencies. And, ideally, one that kills them before they can join this list of people intent on killing me.”