Azma was glad her shuttle was under communication interdiction. Thanks to the self-imposed blackout, she couldn’t hear the Director of Xenobiology calling for her head. The cries of the troops on the satellite moon didn’t trouble her meditative focus either. Not even the desperate requests for new orders from the surviving fleet ships got through.
She couldn’t let them. They were too close to the [Formless Hunger’s] sphere of influence. Any full band communication channel could carry too much of the Hunger’s power along with it, so instead she had an antique ticker tape machine feeding her information as the shuttle moved towards the [High Beyond] on a purely ballistic trajectory.
Even with those precautions, Azma knew she wasn’t safe. The Hunger’s mind affecting powers didn’t rely on the actual data that was being transmitted. If it did, filtering and replicating its capabilities would have been trivial. Ticker tape was, theoretically, a small enough channel of information that the Hunger’s magic couldn’t easily ride the words into her brain but Azma tapped the goggles she was wearing to make sure their enchantments were still in place. A pleasing circle of lightning raced around each lens, indicating that nothing had tried to poke into her mind. Yet.
“More field reports coming in,” Grenslaw said.
“Analysis?” Azma asked. She would review the data later, but the time being she was forced to trust her subordinates’ ability to interpret the scant details they were receiving.
“There’s positive data the containment devices fired in unison,” Grenslaw said. “The rest of this is conjecture but it seems the [Formless Hunger] withstood the initial blast and redirected it. Ground forces were pulled back but several were not practicing the specified isolation protocols.”
“Is that your conjecture or conjecture from the remaining ground forces?” Azma asked.
“Good, continue.” Azma would have discounted the conjecture more for lacking direct insight, but Grenslaw had proven adept at eliminating bias and understanding the unstated or obfuscated facts provided in the official reports from the field.
“The target was able to enter the unsecured channels linking the overall force together,” Grenslaw said. “Roughly twenty percent of the deployed forces are likely now under the target’s direct control with another thirty percent either physically or psychically endangered as a result of being in close proximity to corrupted former comrades.”
“Ryschild, how much longer until we’re in the satellite moon’s shadow from the target?” Azma asked.
“Another thirty five minutes, forty if we want to achieve maximum security for outbound communications,” Ryschild said.
Forty minutes was both annoyingly brief and far too long. A longer delay would have placed the handling of the debacle squarely in the hands of the Director of Xenobiology, who Azma knew she could count on to take a bad situation and make it a thousand times worse. In the long term that would have been ideal for her cause, but it also would have meant the loss of all of the resources she’d deployed to contain the Hunger and she refused to be that wasteful.
“Do we have any carrier ships with power reserves greater than two hours?” Azma asked, turning to Grenslaw.
Grenslaw reached down and selected a small roll of tape from a pile stacked at her feet.
“We have five carriers which are still grounded,” Grenslaw said. “Of them, two have power reserves greater than two hours and two of the others are close enough together that either could be parasitized by the other to sustain full shielding for that duration.”
“Are any within range of our maneuvering jets?” Azma asked.
“I will need a few minutes to plot possible trajectories,” Grenslaw said.
“If we deviate from our registered course, our forces have orders to shoot us down on the assumption that we’re compromised,” Ryschild said. “I can supply additional data to Grenslaw if we need to account for evasive maneuvering.”
Azma hadn’t forgotten her fleets orders. The point of approaching on a ballistic trajectory was that without intentional maneuvering of the craft there were few opportunities for the Hunger to usurp control and sending it somewhere inconvenient, such as careening down to the planet’s surface or spiraling into one of the troop carriers at orbital speeds.
“Evasive maneuvers will not be required,” Azma said and to their credit, neither Grenslaw nor Ryschild questioned her.
The troops who were packed in the rear of the shuttle seemed less enthused by deviations from the plan, but they were cut off from enough of the informations which was arriving that they didn’t understand the extra peril Azma was intending to place them in.
“Our closest landing point places us within ten yards of the non-viable carrier. Our next best candidate are the two underpowered carriers. Without evasive maneuvers we can touch down at a spot within ninety yards of them.”
“And if we plan for a hard landing,” Azma asked. “Assume survival guaranteed but this shuttle does not need to recoverable.”
“We can land within fifteen yards of the ailing carriers or one hundred yards of either of the two acceptably functional ones,” Ryschild said. “The landings will require a full strap in though and may cause damage to the site.”
“Excellent,” Azma said. “Lock in the best course for the damaged carriers.”
“Are we going to transmit any orders to explain our new heading?” Grenslaw asked.
“No transmissions,” Asthma said. “Full comms isolation will be maintained until we are on the ground.”
“New course locked in,” Ryschild said. “Boost in one minute. Maximum burn. All personnel into full security rigs. No loose objects or active power taps.”
For the next sixty seconds, the shuttle and everyone inside it, Azma included, were under Ryschild’s direct command. Even as the leader of all Consortium operations in the planet’s Arcanosphere, Azma was required to heed the directive of a pilot during an active course correction.
The minute didn’t go to waste though.
Closing her eyes, Azma fit together the information Grenslaw had provided with the trends she’d seen before they left the Consortium’s command carrier.
Her troops – and no matter what the Consortium ultimately decided, they were her troops – had suffered fewer casualties than projected. Far more than she’d hoped, but Azma didn’t plan based on best case scenarios despite the effort she put into seeing those best cases come to pass.
She’d passed along explicit instructions to review informational security protocols to make sure troops wouldn’t be needlessly lost when the [Formless Hunger] flared out of control. That might have been why the number who were directly corrupted was only twenty percent rather than eighty or ninety, but Azma was still angered by the carelessness of the ones who hadn’t listened to the simple instructions they were given.
She guessed of the thirty percent who were directly at risk, they would lose a quarter of those before she could land and take control of the situation directly. Depending on how badly her forces were routed, another forty percent of the total troops might be lost as well. That was the worst case though, and while Azma accounted for those, her plans were focused around a more realistic and obtainable result.
Three percent. That was all she was willing to lose in the process of reclaiming control of the situation. That would give her seventy percent of her initial fighting force to work with. Likely the most talented or at least luckiest seventy percent too.
For as large a force as that was, it was far too small to oppose the rest of the invasion fleet with, and Azma had no intention of wasting it on such an endeavor. She would return her troops to the safety of the fleet’s distant carriers, and command the surviving ships to the rear of the lines to be inspected for any deep damage the Hunger might have inflicted on them.
The soldiers and the ships would be reabsorbed into the Consortium’s forces, but they would be hers still.
She didn’t expect sentimentality from them. As trained, and in some cases mystically bound, Consortium soldiers their loyalty would always lie with their owners rather than her. Or at least that was how the Consortium would see things.
Loyalty though was not so black-and-white a thing as the Consortium desired it to be. To be sure, the soldiers would obey the orders they were given, they would even execute her without question if properly directed, but there was so much space for personal interpretation and expression outside the extremes of direct control.
The techs who had been given exactly the orders they needed to survive what was guaranteed to be a company-mandated debacle would remember who gave those orders. When they were queried as to the events which occurred, they would give accurate reports, but even accurate information was open to bias.
The soldiers who survived might be called on to enact the Director of Xenobiology’s plans next but they’d know who had watched out for them and who’d brought them out of hell when the mission didn’t need them roasting in the pit anymore. They’d grumble among themselves and the Director would never hear a word of it.
But the people above him would.
The people who supported Azma did so for one reason only. They wanted someone effective in the roles they assigned her to. Her penchant for indirect murder was far from being a detriment in their eyes, because she wasn’t causing problems, she was removing them.
The protection she enjoyed from them was no solid shield though. Just as there was no sentimentality below that she could rely on, so too was there no one above her who wouldn’t cast her aside the moment they stood to endure a meaningful loss from extending their support.
In that sense, she’d fallen to one of the most precarious positions she’d ever been in, trapped in a soon-to-be crashing shuttle, with the reigns of a major operation falling from her fingers and nothing of value to provide the company to justify any continued patronage.
There was an instant before the full burn began when Azma could have taken it all back. She could have canceled the course correction and allowed the ballistic arc they were on to take the ship safety outside the [Formless Hunger’s] range. She could have touched down safely, and resumed communications to discover that she was required to submit her command to Xenobiology and she could have done so with grace and humility.
It wouldn’t have saved her, but she could have chosen to be cordial, and polite. She could have chosen to value the team above petty individual needs. She could have given Xenobiology and the Consortium in general everything they asked for or could ever want and she would still not have been spared. That was the trap.
The Consortium hungered for perfect, model employees. People who were totally malleable to their masters will. People who would give everything to the company without question or complaint. Who were eager to hurl themselves on the bonfire to fuel the engine of corporate growth. Not mindless people though. No the Consortium demanded their employees be clever, insightful, and innovative. They needed inspiring leaders and dynamic, self-driven go-getters.
Only the best and brightest were fit to be consumed by the Consortium’s endless appetite for growth.
And if an employee was all those things, and gave everything of themselves willingly, and was consumed fully? Then they failed by not having more that could be consumed. Only the weak and the worthless faltered and couldn’t give more regardless of what they’d given already.
The secret to the Consortium, in Azma’s eyes, was that it, like life, was all a game and the was only one rule.
Everything else. Every corporate bylaw. Every official policy. Every mandatory protocol. Everything was simply a tool designed to make sure you lost. When every card in the deck was stacked against you though, winning became much easier, because you no longer had any incentive to play by the rules at all. They simply became another tool in your arsenal and with the proper application of cunning and insight and innovation, that which sought to control you became all too easy to make dance to whatever tune you desired.
Azma’s vision wasn’t flawed. She was confident, but not to the point of hubris. Pride wasn’t going to be her downfall. To her credit, she was just as in control of the long game as she believed. It wasn’t her fault that she couldn’t foresee what was coming or just how badly out of control everything was going to get.