Azma was in danger and she was losing her troops. Neither of those facts were acceptable, but what she was the least pleased about was that both were the result of the best plan available under the circumstances.
“We’ve lost contact with the expeditionary squad in Graph-7.5,” Ryschild said, continuing a steady stream of pulse rifle fire as he spoke.
“Kill order is prepped and active, awaiting command confirmation,” Grenslaw side, maintain a similar stream of fire to Ryschild’s.
“Confirmed,” Azma said, hating the waste of what were becoming scarce resources.
She had the loyalty of the troops she’d preserved in the [High Beyond] largely because she had preserved them. That loyalty could withstand sacrifices like kill orders she’d been forced to give a dozen times over as many hours. Azma knew that but she didn’t want to count on it.
Her troops might prefer a instantaneous death to the horror of being hollowed out by the foe they were locked in a life and death battle with but given the option to flee, an option which the Consortium was slightly late to offer, even if the offer would be an invention to a much messier and more prolonged death.
It was for that reason, and several other ‘optics’ related ones, that Azma had to lead her troops against the [Hungry Shadows] personally.
“I’ve got [Commander] Bukinar requesting permission to join the offensive and replace the terminated squad,” Sergeant Fiori said.
It was a good sign. The [Commanders] of the remaining Consortium forces knew what was at stake – everything to be blunt about it – and they knew Azma’s plan. She didn’t need to be secretive about it, couldn’t in fact. Her position was too precarious with the troops for her to leave them with any misunderstanding of what they needed to do and why. Also, and somewhat more importantly, the more she obfuscated her plans, the easier it would be for the inquiry hearing to insert all sorts of supposed malfeasance into the fuzzy areas in the reports they’d be reviewing.
The inquiry panel would do that anyways of course. It was a cheap and effective tool her enemies would be imbeciles not to deploy. She wasn’t certain yet what tack their constructed narratives would take, whether they would try to paint her as simply allowing her greed to produce a deadly strain of ineptitude, or if they’d dig deeper and invent motives that could connect her other failures.
Since she had, repeatedly, sabotaged the efforts of rivals and false allies alike, there were plenty of skeletons they could animate against her, and while any actual evidence of her wrongdoing would be nonexistent, trials within the Consortium were less concerned with uncovering the actual truth and more with defending the bottom line no matter from all threats real and imagined.
In a sense that was Azma’s saving grace. Despite being monumentally guilty of crimes against the personnel and equipment of the [Consortium of Pain], she produced results which exceeded the damage caused by a sufficient margin that “justice” would have negative profit implications, which was the closest thing to an invulnerable shield one can wield in the arena of Consortium politics.
“Have Bukinar hold position for the moment,” Azma said. “The Shadows cost us an scouting team. That’s not going to be allowed to stand, of course, but before we collect on our losses with interest, we have some infrastructure to put in place. The scouting party didn’t lose that struggle, they traded themselves to provide us with confirmation of our enemies location and minimum force strength. They’ll receive posthumous commendations for themselves and their associated units.”
Commendations came with no direct reimbursement in most chains of command within the Consortium and many commanders treated them as little more than shiny gold stickers to dole out for amusement value.
Azma knew the review boards for the common troops. She’d investigated them thoroughly in an effort to ensure that her standard troops composition was as well selected as possible. What she’d discovered in the process was that while the review boards were openly disdainful of the commendation system and frequently ignored highly commended units in favor of assigning profitable missions to less decorated squads, that was because they had an appraisal system in place for not only the troops but for the entire command staff who directed them.
Those of Azma’s peers who casually tossed out commendations were assigned precise numerical coefficients to diminish the weight of each junk commendation. Conversely the leaders who rarely gave any commendations also had their rewards decremented in effectiveness since history had proven that such rarely awarded honors tended to be the result of personal or political considerations rather than any sort of accurate reflection of the troops capabilities.
Azma had done that research early in her career and had been surprised to discover that the people in charge of the review process were quite open and willing to discuss their entire procedure. None of it was secret, but since the common troops were considered of negligible expense, value, and utility, relatively few people of Azma’s rank saw a reason to care.
“Bukinar confirms holding and asks if the hold is confirmation that his forces will be deployed?” Fiori said.
“They are to retain a ready state and be ready for deployment with all haste. The expected mobilization window is thirty seconds,” Azma said.
Ryschild’s rifle ran dry one second before Grenslaw passed a new power cell over. For the five seconds Ryschild needed to replace the [Pulse Rifle’s] power supply, perform the required diagnostics and cycle in a fresh charge, Grenslaw focused on providing carefully placed beams of stellar hot material down the corridor Ryschild had been keeping secure.
The [Hungry Shadows] massed around the bend of Grenslaw’s corridor had take the respite Grenslaw’s absence provided to surge forwards towards the beachhead Fiori’s team had setup, only to find that Azma was every bit as good a shot as her subordinates were.
“My team reports they’re inbound,” Fiori said. “Due in two minutes.”
“We can hold out for that long easily,” Azma said. “Tell them to drop to sweep and clear speed. I want them moving as though there is an enemy around every corner from there to here. Cover all flanks. Assume the enemy will attack at least twice before they reach us.”
Fiori’s response was to immediately communicate Amza’s order to the soldiers who were supposed to be acting as her bodyguards.
As [Supreme Commander], Azma was supposed to be protected at all times while in a combat adjacent environment. Since Azma had elected to leave the “combat adjacent environment” and was at the literal epicenter of the battle against the [Hungry Shadows], standard protocol didn’t have specific requirements for how her personal defense forces should be arrayed.
[Supreme Commanders] were, ideally, meant to be several planetary diameters away from any direct fighting, and it wasn’t uncommon for [Supreme Commanders] to direct the efforts of their troops from different planetary systems, in different dimensions.
Azma had used to ambiguity in the official protocols to repurpose her personal guard into a surgical strike force, providing the rational that they would be providing the greatest degree of security for her person if they stabilized the area around her.
Basically if the [Supreme Commander] wasn’t supposed to be in a combat zone and they couldn’t be removed from the area, then the area had to cease being a combat zone at all.
“Local enemy forces are falling back,” Grenslaw said.
“The retreat was uniform. They were responding to orders,” Ryschild said.
“Not orders,” Azma said. “There’s a single will behind them. We still have only one enemy despite the army we are faced with.”
“The enemy movements are not as coordinated as our [Artifax] forces,” Ryschild said. “Does it suffer from a communication lag with its subjects?”
“I don’t believe so,” Azma said. “When they retreated they all stopped and began moving away at the same instant. I think it’s fine detail control is lacking still. It’s no longer [Transdimensional] so it’s limited by the physical constraints of this reality more than ever before.”
“How quickly will that change?” Grenslaw asked.
“That will depend on the pressure we exert against it,” Azma said. “The more resources we remove from its control the greater the incentive will be to learn to properly control the ones it has remaining. Also the fewer forces it has, the less its attention will be split.”
“This won’t be the first time the fight’s gotten harder the closer we get to victory,” Fiori said. “Can we still proceed with the plan though or do we need to accelerate things?”
The plan was a reasonably simple one. Azma was using herself as bait, trying to keep the [Hungry Shadows] focused on the area of the [Ruins of Heavens Grave] she’d led her forces to secure.
She’d made a multi-pronged attack into the Ruins at first, and had brought a supplemental force to the prong that had experienced the greatest resistance. It had been hard and costly work, but her troops had broken through the [Hungry Shadows] assaults and pushed onwards as the Shadows began to mass in ever greater numbers to stop them.
By spreading outwards, plunging into the worst fights the Shadows offered them, Azma had made her team and herself impossible for the Shadows to ignore, which had in turn allowed her more offensively focused teams to have free reign tearing into the straggling pockets of Hungry Shadows.
Azma didn’t know if the [Hungry Shadows] were led by one special entity or if they had some other resource they needed to guard, but from the reports painted a clear picture that there was some asset they were desperately trying to protect. There was no chance that the asset would be as valuable as the [Transdimensional] entity the [Hungry Shadows] had been crafted from, but that didn’t mean Azma didn’t need it anyways.
The path back to the Consortium’s good graces for both herself and the troops under her command lay in a simple equation. There was still value that could be extracted from the scenario before them. In end, satisfying the Consortium’s naked greed was the beginning and end of victory. Failing to do that was where the complex strategies for shifting and dodging blame came into play, but with a debacle as large as the present operation had become, there would be unacceptable long term consequences even if Azma could survive long enough to have to worry about them.
“We stick with the current plan,” Azma said. “The enemy will develop to meet our capabilities. That will make the battles to come more difficult, but also increase the value of each corpse we can produce. Once the Consortium clears the command protocols and sends in the extraction forces, we’ll be able to provide proof that [Xenobiology’s] expertise is no longer required and that the projected profits still exceed the threshold boundaries for mission continuation.”
“You can pull all that off with what we’ve got here?” Fiori said.
“It’s a still a disaster by my standards,” Azma said. “Once the [Transdimensional] appeared, I should have been able to make this operation a centennial high point on the trend lines. Instead of career defining, we’re going to be struggling for exemplary in comparison to the best run campaigns this year.”
“What place will we need to achieve on the yearly review to regain control of the operation?” Grenslaw asked.
“How do you gain a place for an operation that’s not finished?” Fiori asked.
“Projections, and for the top end of the list, the confidence interval of the projections,” Azma said. “For reinstatement, being projected to be in the top five is likely sufficient, though first place will offer significantly greater security both during and after we complete the work here.”
“I am glad we have you to work that job,” Fiori said. “It sounds like a chaotic sea of backstabbing. I’d much rather just shoot people.”
“Management in the Consortium is often appear chaotic, but there are clear and predictable lines of self-interest, narcissism, and basic greed which make it far more orderly that it wishes to admit to,” Azma said.
“Incoming transmission from the fleet,” Grenslaw said and then frowned, with a puzzled expression creeping forward like a mask.
“They’re less late than I anticipated,” Azma said. “What orders are they giving now?”
“I don’t know,” Grenslaw said. “The transmission was cut off by my security gear. There was corruption in the signal.”
The world sank out from under Azma.
Grenslaw wasn’t saying that the quality of signal was degraded or that the data had been lost.
The command signal from the fleet was carrying Corruption.
The same sort of Corruption the [Formless Hunger] had used.