Azma expected the defenders of the world below her to fall, but she knew they weren’t going to fall easily.
“It seems to me that this plan of yours exposes us to undo risk over the course of an unacceptably long time frame,” [Commander] Melsworth said. “It’s like it was concocted by a junior program manager, eager to show off all the little cleverness they always think they have.
Azma leaned back in her chair in smiled. She didn’t often look forward to meetings with the [Commanders] who had been placed under her. Typically they were the useless flotsam of nepotism and personal conceits from those above her in the Consortium’s organizational structure. Such flotsam generally fell into one of two categories; either they were sycophants who brought no new ideas to the table or, like Melsworth, they lacked an understanding of their role and believed themselves to be by some measure her equal.
Meetings were tiresome to Azma, but educational opportunities? Those were always entertaining.
“Tell me, [Commander] Melsworth. Did I request your opinion?” It wasn’t a question despite the phrasing.
To Melsworth’s side, [Commander] Ryshild paled and began measuring the distance between himself and Melsworth with his eyes. Evidently deciding it was insufficient, he leaned back in his seat and tried to slide it away from the doomed man beside him.
“A good [Commander]…” Melsworth began.
“Uh uh uh,” Azma said, silencing the man with a gesture. With any reasonable sapient being, the gesture would have sufficed on its own, but Azma knew who she was dealing with so the gesture also included the [Command] to Melsworth’s air passageways to fuse shut. “Your opinion. Did I request it?”
Melsworth tried to gasp for breath but with nose, mouth, and throat sealed shut, no options were open to him.
“You may nod or shake your head,” Azma informed him.
He stared at her, anger and confusion warring behind his eyes. The rest of the room, meanwhile, had gone sensibly silent.
Good, Azma thought. Perhaps the rest will pay attention this time.
“I can see you wish to say a great many things.” She stared into Melsworth’s eyes as his face flushed red with his struggle. “You doubtless wish to know how I dare to assault someone of your rank. You are perplexed perhaps on how so simple a [Command] could have penetrated your formidable defenses. You are possibly even thinking of those who back you and how you can call on them to bring me into line. ‘This will not be tolerated’, ‘do you know how important I am’, ‘you cannot do this’. Several phrases along those lines I’d wager?”
She looked at him and watched as the red flush began to shade over to purple.
“Now it is occurring to you to ask ‘how much air do I have left’, and ‘how far is she going to take this’, and ‘doesn’t she know she can’t do this’.”
She tilted her head and opened her eyes slightly wider, a questioning look to test if her guesses were on the mark. The panic on Melsworth face was confirmation enough for her to continue.
“The answer is simple. Your rank means nothing, and I can do this because I am charged with absolute authority over the prosecution of the initiative before us. In short, my decisions hold the lives of everyone on all of our ships in the balance, and that includes yours.”
Azma looked around to make sure each of her subordinate officers was grasping the simple message she was attempting to convey. Brevity was a valuable tool for successful communication, but the object lesson who had current shaded completely over to purple was more likely to drive the point home. Or so she hoped.
“As you began to say, a good [Commander] recognizes the value of construction feedback. No plan is ever perfect and they can all be improved. Where you went amiss however Melsworth was in presuming that your feedback offered any value whatsoever.”
Melsworth jerked up, his eyes pleading as his body started to thrash.
“You wish to make a case for leniency? Or perhaps you have other feedback? More useful feedback to provide?”
Melsworth began nodding his head vigorously and pounding on the table with one hand while gesturing to his mouth with the other.
“You labor under a misapprehension still,” Azma informed Melsworth, fixing her eyes upon him. “Did I ask for your opinion?”
Melsworth raged pounding the table with both hands as his knees began to sag.
“I believe this is important to understand,” Amza said, turning to the rest of her staff. “[Commander] Ryshild, what do you believe is happening here?”
Ryshild straightened up and focus his gaze directly ahead onto a patch of empty air over the middle of the table, perpendicular to where Azma was.
“Disciplinary action,” he said, his voice as firm and crisp as he could make it.
“Correct,” Azma said, allowing a small smile to flicker across her lips.
Ryshild had been with her on a previous operation. He was as much the waste product of a nepotistic appointment as any of the others, but he had been tempered to some extent by his time under her command. A half dozen more such operations and he might rise to a level of at least bearable incompetence.
“And what is he being disciplined for?” Azma asked. It was too much to hope that one of the slack jawed fools before her might properly understand what Melsworth had done wrong, but history had shown that it was the perfect opportunity to weed out additional issues.
“He spoke back to a woman.” [Commander] Falcrest had whispered it sidewise to the woman sitting next to him. His next words would be something orbiting the idea that he was only joking.
Except his next words would never arrive.
Azma snapped her fingers and Falcrest froze into motionlessness in the wake of a wave of agony which erupted from his chest. Slowly, ever so slowly, the edges of his fingers began to crumble away to dust.
“Would anyone else care to guess?” Azma asked pleasantly.
Ryshild raised his hand, drawing a surprised and genuine smile from Azma. She nodded to him, intensely curious what answer the young man was willing to risk his life on.
“Was it Insubordination in Battle, sir?” he asked.
“Very good [Senior Commander] Ryshild,” Azma said, replacing the rank insignia on his lapels with [Senior Commander Wings] with a small wave of her hand.
Another hand rose.
“Yes [Commander] Grenslaw?” Azma asked, shocked and delighted at the unprecedented learning being displayed during the impromptu educational seminar she’d convened.
“Do all planning sessions count as battle conditions or is it because we’re inside the arcanosphere of a uncontracted global power?” Grenslaw asked.
“That is an excellent question [Commander],” Azma said with an appreciative nod. She felt like she should fan herself. Two intelligent responses in a single meeting? She didn’t remember choking out a Luck God recently, but such good fortune could result from little else. “In general planning sessions are not considered battle conditions, though special rules do apply regarding information security. Being within a hostile powers arcanosphere counts as being on [Full Alert] which carries less restrictions than [Battle Conditions].”
Two seats up from Grenslaw, [Commander] Falcrest was continuing to disintegrate slowly. Each mote of dust that fell from him carried a scream of pure crystallized agony. Azma filed a note to remind herself to have the air scrubbers cleaned and the dust collected from them. There were plenty of places that sort of thing could be sold for a tidy profit.
“So we’re not at [Battle Conditions] and you killed them anyways?” [Commander] Camden said.
Azma sighed and stared at him. The streak of intelligence had been so pleasant. It was really her own fault for thinking it could continue.
She tapped a finger on the table, waiting to see what Camden would do next. Grenslaw and Ryshild had brightened her day. She could give Camden one chance to save himself certainly.
“Well? Did you? I mean that’s pretty unprofessional isn’t it?” Camden said.
Azma looked across the room at the rest of the [Commanders]. Some were looking intently at her, as though eager to hear a serious response to the charge. Some were looking studiously at nothing whatsoever, likely wishing they could be anywhere else at all. Grenslaw and Ryshild were the only two shaking their heads with with their eyes closed.
“[Commander],” Azma began and gestured at him. Flames enveloped Camden and he leapt from his seat. “Were you under the belief that we were somehow equals?”
Camden ran screaming into the hallway, but Azma’s next gesture dragged him back to his seat where he continued to burn.
“Open question to the room,” Azma said. “Does it seem wise in light of what you’ve seen today to address the [Supreme Commander] of this operation with even the barest trace of disrespect?”
“No, sir!” several voices answered at once, and a tiny measure of Azma’s good mood returned. Killing them all might have saved time and aggravation, but it was nice to have at least a few potential candidates to mold into more permanent underlings.
Melsworth, still voiceless and breathless, thrashed, banging on the table to get her attention, before a great shudder went through him and he collapsed to the ground, consciousness finally fleeing.
“Excellent,” Azma said. “Now are there any questions?”
Usually the room was dead silent by this stage of the educational seminar. Once again though Azma was surprised as Grenslaw raised a hand.
“What is the current status of the fleet sir?”
“We are at [Battle Conditions],” Azma said. “The official notification was delivered to the fleet at the start of this meeting.”
“Shouldn’t we be out there leading our troops?” [Commander] Baris asked.
It was borderline, but Azma was feeling generous. Baris could live. At least until he decided to speak next.
“No,” Azma said. “You are, all of you, entirely unsuited to command. I have spoken with your command staff. They have their orders and are executing them as we speak. Frankly I should be monitoring their progress more directly, but the most valuable use of my time at the moment is keeping you all from interfering with their efforts.
“Aren’t our troops our responsibility though?” [Commander] Young asked.
Azma inhaled. It was a reasonable question, and it suggested a good mindset. It could have been phrased better, but she could work on that. Young had not intended it as an insult and so Azma would take the question for what it was.
“No,” she said. “They are my responsibility. Your commissions are as meaningless as your rank. The last thing this operation needs is someone striving for personal glory and promotion by changing a plan they don’t understand or are incapable of following.”
Grenslaw raised her hand and Azma nodded to acknowledge her.
“Is there a station from which we can watch the battle operations unfold?” Grenslaw asked.
“Yes, for those who care to,” Azma said. “Or you may return to your private quarters. Food and entertainment have been provided and are waiting for you there.”
Most of the [Commanders] looked all too eager to retreat to their rooms, but both Grenslaw and Ryshild waited behind as the others left. Apart from the three corpses, they were the only ones in the meeting room within a minute of Azma signaling that the other [Commanders] could leave.
“Only three deaths,” Azma said. “I seem to be getting soft in my old age.”
“Will there be any trouble relating to those sir?” Ryshild asked.
“No. They died under [Battle Conditions], so there will be a substantial payout to their surviving heirs, and their patrons within the ranks could not have thought very highly of them or they wouldn’t have been assigned to me.”
“Is there any special story we should use in explaining their absence to the troops?” Grenslaw asked.
“Only be sure to make it clear that I was the one who killed them,” Azma said. “In-fighting among [Commanders] is as common as it is terrible for the morale and discipline of the troops underneath them. I’ll fold the troops assigned to our three fallen comrades into the ones assigned to each of you. Please understand that this is a test. The other [Commanders] may object to the enlargement of your commands. Resolve it without sowing discord between the troops and you will receive a passing mark on the test.”
Neither one asked what the price of failure would be.
As the troops began to descend onto the surface of the [Fallen Kingdoms] both Ryshild and Grenslaw could see that failure was not an option.