That it was all going to fall apart didn’t bother Azma. Disasters are frightening when they are uncertain, when they trouble they will create can only be imagined wildly. Asthma didn’t need to imagine what was going to happen. The data showed her clearly when and to what extent her plans were going to come to ruin.
“Report in from the [Arcanotechs],” Grenslaw said in the quiet of the emptied bridge.
“Relay it to my desk and tell them that we have heard their request and authorize deployment of the restraining devices at rapid overload levels,” Asthma said. Grenslaw and Ryschild both looked her with a faint questioning air. She hadn’t read the techs’ report but she knew exactly what it would contain and what course of action they would request to pursue.
The containment devices for a [Formless Hunger] were built, or in this case hastily cobbled together, with the intent of generating regions of massive energy density. The key to their success lay in focusing enough energy into a sphere around the target that the laws of physics within reverted to a primordial, and more malleable, state. Things like the [Formless Hunger] were dangerous because of the inherent violation of physical reality they represented. If one had control of reality though, then trapping a [Formless Hunger] became as simple as dictating that everything within the sphere be converted to some other form. It didn’t matter what form was chosen, the mere fact that the [Formless Hunger] was no longer “formless” would leave it pliable to the other tools the Consortium could deploy to inflict unquestioning loyalty on the beast.
Of course the trick in that strategy was generating a reality liquifying level of power in the direct vicinity of a creature whose only defined trait was an endless and mindless desire to consume said power.
It could happen. Properly setup containment devices would either generate the transmutation field with enough speed that the subject was altered before it could fight against the effect, or, in the more usual cases, the machine would succeed in a partial liquefaction of the local physical laws and would slowly turn the trapped entity into another state while the entity struggled against the transformation and attempted to consume the machines themselves.
Azma’s order had been an allowance for the [Arcanotechs] to try the safest, but far less likely to work, strategy of overwhelming the [Formless Hunger] with a syncronized assault and converting it instantly to some more malleable form. The machine could be programmed to handle the particulars of the operation once they were calibrated to account for the local conditions and the scope of their target.
Since direct observation of the [Formless Hunger] provided psionic connections to it which it had been able to use to suborn three ships already, correctly estimating the size of their opponent was something of a problem for the [Arcanotechs]. The initial, indirect, measures of the static field suggested it was limited to the borders of a small town which had been the gathering point for a number of natives.
The techs weren’t thrilled with that since “a small town sized monster” was still “town sized”. In the short time they’d had available though, they’d cobbled together or repurposed enough gear to believe they had at least a coin’s flip chance at achieving their objective.
Azma didn’t doubt their math, or their prowess in assembling the containment devices. She just knew that something in their initial assumptions would be wrong. There were too many variables for the techs to guess each of them correctly, and too much hostility from the universe in general for Azma to be granted a stroke of unearned good fortune like that.
In ten minutes the last of the techs would finish rigging up their containment device. The area was far from pacified, but Azma’s ground forces had managed to chase away or slaughter enough of the locals that the devices weren’t likely to be sabotaged before they could fire.
And they would fire. Five minutes after the last tech armed the final device. Azma was certain of that part too.
It wouldn’t be a flawless firing. Something would go wrong with one or more of the devices as they waited. With the techs scrambling to reach a minimum safe distance though no one would be able to address the issue.
That was fine however. Redundancy was a part of the system. Even with a few failures or a couple of devices lost to sabotage, the overall network would still fire. Singular heroics could no more prevent that from happening than they could ensure that the devices functioned successfully. Massive operations came down to planning and numbers, and Azma watched all of the numbers as they turned against her.
The key was making sure they were turned against her in the right direction.
Azma didn’t fear failure, because failure was as much a weapon as success was, if somewhat more challenging to wield.
“After the field fails to contain the [Formless Hunger], we will depart,” Azma said.
“We’re fleeing?” Ryschild asked.
“Exactly,” Azma said. “The Xeno division will be landing shortly and if I have to deal with them in person, I am likely to send them each out every one of the airlocks on the ship. Better to be engaged in some hands-on-management in the field for the next bit.”
“Should I call for the bridge crew to return to their posts?” Grenslaw asked.
Azma gazed around the empty bridge. She’d assigned the personnel she’d trusted to work the closest to her to positions throughout the ship and across the fleet. Automated systems and her two senior assistants had been more than sufficient to manage the actual running of the command ship’s main bridge, despite Consortium regulations to the contrary.
When the head of Applied Xenobiology arrived, he would expect to be greeted on the bridge, and when he inevitably staged his coup, he would replace all of the personnel with his own attendants. Assuming there was anyone to be replaced.
“No, they can stay where they are,” Azma said. “The secondary control rooms can handle the needs for this ship while we’re gone. I’ll set this bridge into [Invasion Lockdown Protocol] while we’re out.”
The protocol would render the bridge unbreachable until Azma was relieved of her position. That would be only a transitory irritation for her usurper, but Azma wasn’t above digging her knives in a little deeper and twisting when the opportunity presented itself.
“What will our destination be?” Ryschild asked.
“The satellite moon,” Azma said. “After the failure of the first attempt at containing such a valuable specimen, a manager with subject matter expertise will be required to oversee the second attempt.”
“Will there be a second attempt?” Grenslaw asked.
“Of course,” Azma said. “It won’t be the one I’m traveling to oversee of course. The coup should be completed well before then, and the Xenos will be rather eager to do the work themselves so they snatch the last shred of victory from my hands.”
“Should I order a troop detachment to muster into our shuttle?” Ryschild asked.
“It is tempting, but I don’t think so,” Azma said. “Wouldn’t want to frighten our incoming guests away from making their play to wrest control of the operation from me.”
“Sergeant Kremmer’s troop is currently unaccounted for on the battlefield,” Grenslaw said, her tone encompassing a world of caution. “No word from them yet via private channels either.”
“Not unexpected, but not comforting either,” Azma said. “Perhaps a detachment of troops would be advisable. See what sort of elites can be assembled in the next ten minutes.”
“Understood,” Ryschild nodded and got to work. They weren’t blessed with an abundance of time, but organizational talent helped mitigate that to a large extent.
“Send a message to Captain Pirell,” Azma said, glancing to Grenslaw. “Tell him to send a squad to investigate the whereabouts of Kreemer’s Razers. Explain that they have been given a special assignment but have failed to report in yet, so care should be taken with the value of the troops sent to retrieve them.”
For many other commanders, the order would be interpreted as a directive to send the most expendable troops they had to complete the task. Pirell was just smart enough to work out that if the Razer’s had accepted a special mission that it would involve a lucrative payout. A payout which they were unlikely to share with any of their fellow soldiers. A payout which had probably left them significantly weakened if they were incapable of reporting in on time.
Pirell was willing to sacrifice his troops, but sacrificing a shot at unearned wealth was not in his nature. He would scramble the most loyal troops under his command to retrieve the Razers’ bodies. If the Razers had to be converted to being bodies first, that was a sacrifice Pirell was willing for them to make. At least as long as whatever special trove they’d been sent to retrieve was brought back as well.
His troops wouldn’t return of course. The Razers hadn’t been sent after a special treasure. They’d been sent after a special foe – the lava creature which had wrecked the town and destroyed the first Consortium attack wave.
Azma knew they’d played around for a while on the surface, killing and re-killing the locals until Kremmer got bored. They’d found some lead to their quarry in the process. If they hadn’t they’d still be ignoring their mission objectives and playing with the locals.
Kremmer and his team weren’t likely to be dead, or even seriously wounded, Azma knew. Their dereliction of duty was as predictable as the impending disaster. The prospect of an interesting battle and the lure of treasure had been just enough to ensure that they would leave the killing grounds on the surface before Azma’s arrival.
They wouldn’t stay away long, but Azma didn’t need a wide window to facilitate their demise. Not if her suppositions about the [Formless Hunger] were true.
And if they wrong, then she would need to rely on even more drastic means than murder. She might need to actually pay them.
Glancing down at the tactical readout from the forces still engaged on the planet’s surface, Azma felt a smile drift across her lips. She dearly wanted to see the look on the enemy tactician’s face in response to the orders her troops were following.
From an external perspective, the areas the Consortium had ceded and the ones they’d redoubled their efforts to conquer or retain would have seemed like madness.
Azma had been forced to make disastrous moves in the grand game of their war, at least in terms of her original goal.
How long, she wondered, would it take for the enemy to understand that Azma’s goals had shifted?
Could they imagine the complexity of navigating the Consortium’s internal politics while also trying to accomplish anything of real value?
It would be so simple to chalk up the Consortium’s moves to a fractured mind, pushed beyond the brink by the successes the locals had achieved. The initial assault had been dreadful but as the danger passed and the tide turned in the local’s favor, the shock and awe would fade, replaced by the certainty that the first assault had been lucky. That Azma was no great and terrible foe, but merely a desperate one who’d chanced upon a strategy they weren’t quite prepared for.
Would Azma’s opposite number on the defender’s side perceive the traps Azma was laying? Would they understand which of the traps were aimed at the locals and which were repurposed to spring back on the next person to take charge of the invasion?
Azma hoped so.
Her opposite number was a worthy foe. After a day of battle, Azma knew them well enough to yearn for them to be something more. She had so many foes, and so few actual challenges. Playing the great game of life against lesser opponents taught her almost nothing. Only someone who could rise to her level, someone who could see through her stratagems and deceits could teach her how to be something more than she was.
Across the display in front of Azma, the signal came that the containment devices had been set to fire.
And five minutes later, they failed spectacularly.