Azma wasn’t overly fond of the unexpected. She spent a fair bit of her time and mental prowess planning strategies for managing an unmanageable environment. That she recognized the impossibility of accounting for every possibility and was consistently able to cope with the chaotic tumults which arose around her was a considered source of pride.
“There is no managing this one,” she said. She’d taken off her warded goggles and was looking at the pit where [Sky’s Edge] had once stood.
The pit where her suborned troops were casting themselves into some subterranean labyrinth.
“The units who were not converted by the entity are requesting order from the local commanders,” Grenslaw said.
“The fleet’s interdiction field has not been lifted,” Ryschild said. “So far there is no sign of ship movement to suggest that the operation’s parameters have changed.”
Azma took in both pieces of data and paused.
It was tempting to issue immediate commands and claim control of the forces who remained. Tempting but likely suicidal.
She’s gone over the indirect data. She’d seen how the [Formless Hunger] had reacted to her gambit. Her ploy with the containment units hadn’t failed. It had been sabotaged. Someone, had transformed the Hunger. They’d stripped away the [Transdimensional] element of its nature and made it, effectively, real.
Which was a disaster.
As a real creature, it could be fought and corralled and put to a number of valuable uses. As a [Transdimensional Entity] thought it was worth as much as the rest of the campaign, even including the dual [Arcanospheres] the planet offered.
Azma had been planning to use that value as a tool to unlock the support of several useful individuals. Without it, her options within the Consortium narrowed considerably.
“Put out a general order for reporting,” Azma said. “All functional carriers now have firewalled data collection points where each squad’s official reports can be collated. Unit commanders are to review their squads reports for accuracy as well as sign off on the summaries of any squads in their zones of operation.”
“Now’s the time for paperwork?” Sergeant Fiori asked.
“We can’t evacuate the troops yet,” Azma said. “Our own ships would shoot us down. Also, our troops are currently low on trust. Anything we say will be rejected summarily.”
“I thought commanders had [Control Overrides] for all of the forces in a mission?” Fiori asked.
“We do. I need these troops functioning at maximum efficiency though,” Azma said. “Activating the [Control Override] strips the troops of the ability to react with situation appropriate responses. Mindless zombies who are never distracted may be useful in some circumstances, but these are not those circumstances.”
“As one of the potential mindless zombies, I thank you for that,” Fiori said.
“The paperwork serves a purpose beyond keeping them busy as well,” Azma said. “Soldier love to tell stories. In this case, those stories will naturally reveal the transformation our enemy has undergone. Once it’s clear that we are no longer fighting a [Transdimensional], we can open more communication channels and bring the local [Commanders] on board without them sending [Berserker] squads after us to satisfy protocol.”
“Some of the [Commanders] have reached that stage already and are requesting orders directly from you,” Grenslaw said.
“Have they tried to open communications with the fleet yet?” Azma asked.
“No. Several ships are in position for tight beam communications but no messages have been sent,” Ryschild said.
“Inform the commanders who request orders, that they are to bring their forces to our location,” Azma said. “We will be reviewing plans in person. No remote transmissions allowed.”
“That’s going to march a whole lot of them closer to danger,” Fiori said.
“We don’t know where the enemy has gone. So at this moment everywhere is equidistant from danger. Also, scattered we’re weaker,” Azma said. “Getting the troops together removes another issue as well, namely that transmissions can be intercepted. We don’t know what capabilities the entity retains but discussing our plans in the open presents too large a risk of the Consortium’s assets.”
That Azma considered her troops to be assets worth preserving was unusual in a [Supreme Commander] but then only an unusual [Supreme Commander] would be on the field Azma had chosen to join.
“Is there anything we should be preparing?” Grenslaw asked.
It was a polite method of asking ‘do you know what your orders are going to be yet or are you completely stumped by this frankly ludicrous turn of events?’
Azma wished the second possibility was an option for her. The thought of letting everything unwind on its own, of letting the whole world finally fall down, seemed so restful.
That wasn’t who she was though.
Worse trials than the one before her had forged her into the woman she’d become, and none of those had been ones where she would have survived by taking an easy out.
“Yes,” Azma said. “Before marching to our position, all troops are to be inspected, all wounds treated, and all weaponry recharged. If any squads have suffered partial personnel losses, their details should be communicated to the central data hub. [Commanders] are encouraged to combine like squads to reach optimal fighting strength under the command of whichever [Commander] has fewer forces to manage. If no viable options are present to restore the squad, or a chain of command for the combined squad cannot be agreed upon, we will handle the reassignment of those units when they arrive.”
“It sounds like you’re assembling as a fighting force again?” Fiori said.
“You have perceptive ears Sergeant,” Azma said.
“Will they be able to fight though?” Fiori asked. “They were routed pretty badly. That doesn’t tend to leave the regular forces in great shape. Even the speciality units like the [Artifax] may have command processing corruptions.”
“That’s why I want the troops brought here,” Azma said. “There are still too many of them to do full, individual reviews of, but a formation level review will tell me how far I can lean on them and expect the social cohesion of the group to keep them all functional.”
“Functional for what though?” Fiori asked.
“For the next stage of this campaign,” Azma said. “Our target has fled inside this satellite moon. We’re going to follow it in there. It’s either running to find something or it’s searching for an escape route Whichever it is, I want it.”
One of the great delights of Bryon’s life was watching other people’s plans implode. Under the current circumstances though he found himself at a loss for mirth.
“Why not just send an expendable ship in to verify that the moonlet thingy is safe to approach?” he asked, exhausted from listening to the endlessly whining from the Director of Xenobiology.
“This operation has turned into a total debacle, and it’s all on my accounts! I can’t afford to lose anything else!” Maldrax was capable of showing dignity, but apparently was choosing not to.
Byron could see why. In a hurried effort to claim a prize beyond measure, Maldrax had gambled on taking control of an ongoing operation away from a popular and successful [Supreme Commander] and said operation was losing value faster than if the world in question had been set completely on fire. The timing wasn’t quite perfect to pin the blame on Maldrax, but that only meant that, when people went looking for someone to assign blame to, the blast radius would be large enough to include Azma, Maldrax, and everyone else associated with the incident.
Byron was outside that blast radius, because of course he was, despite being the one who’d engineered Maldrax’s takeover. If the blowback extended past Maldrax, it would reach no further than Byron’s pawn Whiteweather, who was blissfully ignorant that he’d been manipulated at all.
Byron was safe.
He was sure of that.
He simply wanted to be more sure.
Azma had been a potential problem for a long time. Not a direct threat, but Byron was cognizant of how deadly indirect enemies could be.
Which was why he was so diligent about eliminating them. Carefully.
Azma wasn’t dead yet though.
Or at least wasn’t confirmed to be dead.
Which meant she was definitely alive.
It was tempting to offer suggestions on how Maldrax could change that, but Maldrax was malfunctioning a bit too much to send in that direction.
At least not yet.
Byron was tempted to let the man melt down completely, and achieve the rare feat of being terminated while still in active command of a fleet. It would stop Maldrax’s whining which was becoming an ever larger and more desirable perk, but it would also cut Byron’s view into the evolving situation of the operation and Azma’s current state as one of the living. Worse, letting Maldrax self-annihilate would mean someone less open to Byron’s manipulations would be given command of the operation, and that would be no fun at all.
“The key, as I see it,” Byron said. “Is that you have an asset and a liability in play and your information concerning each of them is rapidly aging to the point of uselessness.”
“I know that!” Maldrax face bulged with a rage he couldn’t quite afford to spew onto Byron and they both knew it. “What I don’t know,” he added forcing calm into his voice, “is what options I have to alleviate that state.”
“Projected losses to date,” Byron said. He didn’t expect Maldrax to understand, in fact he hoped Maldrax wouldn’t. It was far more fun forcing a Director to beg for knowledge.
“How could money I’ve already lost possibly help me?” Maldrax asked.
“Given who the previous commander was, I believe you’ll find a discrepancy there between ‘Projected losses’ and ‘Reported losses’,” Byron said. “Azma is frugal with her troops and assets. You are under no such constraint.”
“I don’t understand?” Maldrax said, the stress of the day making him particularly thick.
Or perhaps that how he always was. Byron had to concede that Maldrax’s current behavior wasn’t that far out of line with his usual mode of operation.
“The ‘Projected Losses’ for an operation are built into the operation’s budget. You’re not incurring any further costs by allowing them to happen,” Byron said. “Conversely any underrun in ‘Projected Losses’ is absorbed by Accounting for other projects that run over, so you can’t make any additional money for the operation by preventing losses.”
“Then why does that woman bother?” Maldrax asked.
“Currying favor with the accountants? Sentimentality? Who’s to know how the mind of so strange a creature works,” Byron said. “The important thing is that you can use the slack which Azma left you to discover the information you need about what has happened to our Transdimensional friend.”
“That could work!” Maldrax said.
“You may want to use some of your own people for that,” Byron said. “You’ll need sources who understand how to take the reading you need and whose results you can trust. That’ll cut down on the need to send multiple survey teams.”
It was also cut down on the forces directly loyal to Maldrax rather than the Consortium in general, which wasn’t likely to be lost on Maldrax.
“You make a good point,” Maldrax said, buying Byron’s argument without thought or question. “It will take time to get a proper team configured and outfitted though.”
“Then send in a low value crew for the initial pass,” Byron said. “Their results will be error prone and largely untrustworthy but even a small amount of verifiable data should be useful in refining what the actual team will look for.”
“We have ships holding position for emergency pick up it looks like,” Maldrax said. “Why would they bother with that? Oh well, I suppose it’s more of that woman’s inscrutable strategy. All the better for us though. I can have one of them move into place and begin reporting back immediately.”
“Excellent! That’s the kind of decisive action you need to stay on top of…” Byron began to say but cut himself off as Maldrax synched in the audio from the emergency pick up ship with the connection they were sharing.
“Yes commander?” a young ensign said.
“Wait!” Byron said. “Don’t make an open connection on a secure channel like this.”
“What is your current objective?” Maldrax asked.
“Direct observation of the troops,” the ensign said. “Of the troops. Direct. Of the troops. Observing. You.”
Byron moved to slam the cut off button for their channel but it was far too late at that point.
Behind him the shadows came to life and their eyes burned with purple fire.