Interlude – Marcus
Marcus felt like the center of a vast storm. Around him, the Egress Entertainment office was entering it’s six millionth hour of absolute chaos (Or was it only twenty four? It couldn’t have only been one day could it? Had he slept? Had he eaten? Did any of that matter with the literal fate of an world hanging on his shoulders?).
“Any luck getting the scenario designers online?” Hailey asked.
No. Not Hailey. Burnt Toast. Or BT.
Marcus could recognize elements of Hailey’s voice in BT’s. They used the same words and had the same inflections, but BT’s voice was scratchier. And older. She sounded like someone who’d walked a whole lot of bad roads and made the things that lived there regret all their life choices.
“Yeah, the FBI agreed to spare one of them. We’ll have an agent along as oversight,” Marcus wasn’t happy about the last bit. The chance that the agent would understand even half of what he was hearing was remote, while the chance that he might get spooked by some of the game jargon and decide they were all some kind of terrorist cell seemed uncomfortably high.
“I know these people aren’t Seers, but you’ll forgive me if I plan around their input as though they were,” Penswell said.
Marcus was willing to forgive Penswell more or less anything, mostly because she wasn’t supposed to be real.
No. The Penswell from the game wasn’t real. Whatever was happening, this Penswell was a living, breathing person. Marcus loved the idea of true A.I.’s, and as a result had a reasonably good layman’s understanding of what crafting a convincing A.I. required. Building an A.I. that could emote as clearly and with the complexity Penswell had shown in their conversation so far was even less plausible than there being an alternate universe out there which just so happened to resemble the game he was working on.
As he pondered how he’d gotten to a place where “alternate universe” was a plausible explanation for anything, Marcus sent off one email after another through the Broken Horizon’s game client. As far as his machine knew, “@BurntToast” was a viable delivery address while “@Penswell” didn’t exist. BT’s mail queue on the other hand was more than happy to forward on the chunked up bits of the server logs which revealed all the information Marcus could find about the Consortium’s invasion force.
It seemed like a ridiculous thing to be doing by hand. In a movie, Marcus imagined his character would be arguing strategy directly with Penswell. There’d be a sizzling undercurrent of sexual tension as they yelled random military-sounding things at one another, and in the end he’d either die while heroically inspiring the protagonists to carry on, or his advice would prove to have the one, secret insight the protagonist was able to apply at the last possible second to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Marcus chuckled at that thought. His reality was that he had no applicable experience for ordering armies around, Penswell was literally superhuman in terms of tactical genius, and he’d shipped her with Niminay since the first time the two characters were in the same room together.
All he could do was give her and the rest of the Fallen Kingdoms Defense Force the information they needed to make the best decisions they could with the resources they had.
“We should probably put the devs we’re bring in to the test before you go relying on what they’d been developing for a storyline for the World Shift event,” Marcus said, thinking that the only thing worse than no information was wrong information. “Even if our lore matched your world’s actual history before, that might have changed once this disaster happened.”
“It’s funny, we think of very different things when ‘this disaster’ is mentioned,” Penswell said. “For my people, the Consortium invasion is the disaster and the presence of so many [Inspired Adventurers] is a blessing, where for you this was all supposed to be an idle diversion?”
“It was more than just a diversion,” BT said. “The game, Broken Horizons, was how thousands of people interacted with their friends and loved ones. Before this happened, I wasn’t ‘really’ BT, in the sense that I’d never been in a fight in my life, or earned even one magic item, but in another sense I was her. To a lot of people, BT was the person they knew, the one who would have their back when they were trying something hard. I had friends I only ever knew here, and while the world may not have been ‘real’, what we had was probably more real than I knew at the time.”
“The people in the Fallen Kingdoms were meaningful to us too,” Marcus said. “You had stories and a presence somewhere we spent a lot of our time. When you and Niminay got together, it was Pride month here and we had players in tears when they got to that cutscene.”
“What?” Penswell asked. “I know that became common knowledge, but no one seemed to notice it much here.”
“That might be a difference between your world and our game,” Marcus said. “Or it might be that we didn’t have the other characters react much.”
“If you can see, and possibly script, even simple moments of our lives, it’s seems impossible that you couldn’t write the Consortium completely away,” Penswell said.
“I wish we could,” Marcus said. “I would do it in a heartbeat. Ever since the World Shift expansion launched though and changes we try to make with any sort of administrator level privileges erases the person trying to make them and the change they tried to create.”
“Whoever made this happen obviously doesn’t want us to have ‘god mode’ powers too work with,” BT said. “Using the information stream that exists between the two worlds didn’t seem to have problem though, and I figured if we only had it for a limited time, we had to make it count.”
“There is good news there,” Penswell said. “This information is definitely going to count. I have every answer I need to plan our counter offensive except one.”
“What are you missing?” BT asked.
“I can see our enemies, but the mind behind them is elusive,” Penswell said. “They have kept their true goals hidden so well that I fear even this could be a trick.”
“Oh, is that all?” Marcus asked. “The leader of the enemy forces is named ‘Azma’, let me send you the full Lore sheets on her backstory and her character write-up which has all of her personal capabilities.”
Interlude – Ryschild
Ryschild could see that things were starting to fall apart. Azma’s careful plans had hit the one pitfall she hadn’t accounted for; someone trying to kill her by supporting what she did.
Well not perhaps supporting. More like applying pressure in a direction that she was used to receiving nothing but resistance from.
It was fascinating to watch her scramble to limit the damage inflicted by a few bits of information which put her in a better light that she desired. So much of her attention was devoted to fending off the deeper repercussions of the wheels of corporate bureaucracy changing direction that she’d left her two subordinates largely unattended.
It was the perfect time to strike.
Ryschild didn’t bother glancing at Grenslaw. They both knew the opportunity which lay before them, and they both knew neither was going to avail themselves of it.
There would be subtle directives arriving from their backers shortly. Hints that they were free to fulfill their contracted agreements. Those would be followed by riskier and less obtuse directions to complete the assignment and, finally, by unambiguous orders to get the job done immediately.
Not that Grenslaw’s “orders” would ever arrive. Ryschild had arranged for the liquidation of Grenslaw’s principal backer as a courtesy move, since it was to be taken for granted that Grenslaw had already provided the same service for Ryschild.
People spoke of relationships being taxing and difficult but Ryschild had never quite understood why. There seemed to be almost always be a simple (if occasionally bloody) method of improving your opposite number’s day. So long as each person in the relationship was willing to step up and do the work there really wasn’t much to angst about.
“Twelve hours,” Azma said, looking up from the numbers which were spread before her. “This whole enterprise will fall apart in twelve hours.”
“That would be an hour after the arrival of the [Director of Applied Xenobiology]?” Grenslaw asked.
“Three hours,” Azma said. “The official itinerary notice lists is a smoke screen. Durger Wenfall maybe the most cowardly director in the Consortium but he’s got the quarterly review coming up and his division hasn’t produced anything in the last two months.”
“How much damage will he do?” Ryschild asked.
“In theory, very little,” Azma said. “He’s assuming direct authority over the processing of the [Formless Hunger] but the rest of the operation remains with this office. As far as the oversight committee is concerned, we’ll be offloading an extraneous portion of the operation onto more appropriate hands which should be a net boon to achieving the operation’s original objectives. They’ll likely hit us with a surcharge for any aid Applied Xenobiology provides with the natives, but beyond that no one will see Wenfall’s meddling as a burden.”
“But he will meddle,” Grenslaw said. It wasn’t a question. It was barely even a statement. Each of the people in the room knew the kind of impact uninvited managers could have on a project.
“He is going to do more than meddle,” Azma said. “I have filed an official report as to the current state of the [Formless Hunger]. It explains clearly that we do not have control over it, and that it still represents a significant threat. Unfortunately, Wenfall has already read the report, as well as a leak indicating that we need time to solidify the third party deal, and so he has decided that the official report is overstating the case and expects to arrive to find his new “asset” ready for delivery.
“And when it’s not?” Ryschild asked.
“He will see that he has been duped, be unable to accept any personal responsibility, and turn the issue around with a statement enumerating a comprehensive list of my failings,” Azma said.
“Does he have the clout to give that list any teeth?” Grenslaw asked.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Azma said. “He is on shaky ground from a performance standpoint, so no one will support him if the board brings him to task for that, but he’s also generally well liked by the oversight committee so they will side with him in an issue such as this where there is any chance they would be opposing the board or risking their solidity of their positions.”
“Can he be removed?” Rychild asked.
“It would be inconvenient to do so,” Azma said. “He’s weak and easily manipulated under most circumstances, while his successor has a particular grudge against me and is more protected than I would prefer.”
“An accident for both?” Grenslaw asked.
“That would be the simplest solution, but thanks to the leaks this has spread beyond the office of Xenobiology,” Azma said. “There are several other divisions who are looking at the [Formless Hunger] as an already acquired asset and have begin using the resources associated with it as collateral for their own projects.”
“Can we accelerate the time table on the [Formless Hunger’s] capture?” Ryschild asked.
“That appears to be the only option open to us,” Azma said. “Which means it’s going to fail.”
“Whoever created the leak will have accounted for that,” Grenslaw said, understanding Azma’s train of thought.
“Properly capturing the [Formless Hunger] is a plan with a low probably of success to begin with, and it’s one which we cannot eliminate the possibility of sabotage from,” Azma said. “So there will definitely be sabotage, and it will come a moment before it appears we have succeeded.”
“Can we plan around that eventuality? Perhaps use the sabotage as an explanation of why the [Formless Hunger] is not ready?” Ryschild asked.
“Failure for even the most justifiable of reasons will still appear as failure to the oversight committee. They will only be concerned with the loss of the investments they’ve made in relation to this. The blame will fall to me because I am a more convenient target than someone at a Director’s level.”
“What will we do then?” Grenslaw asked.
Azma blinked and a ripple of confusion passed over her features.
It had been the perfect time to betray her. She had to expect that they would. Ryschild allowed a tiny smile. Surprising someone like Azma was no easy feat, even if she didn’t stay surprised for very long.
“We’re going to secure the [Formless Hunger],” Azma said. “Withdraw our forces from [Corsair’s Bay] entirely, and the troops we have stations around [Crystal Bower]. Redeploy all of them to the satellite moon. We’ll need the entire area pacified within the next two hours, so they are to destroy anything living they find there.”