Bryon’s trip to the combat site was quick and uneventful and he hated that both of those things were true.
“The Consortium’s transportation network will be useful,” Gulini said.
They were traveling together under Byron’s credentials as the Count Gray and it amused Byron to think of how wrong everyone was to assume that he was even slightly similar to the identity he’d taken. Only Gulini understood what he was. They still had that in common even if every moment was causing them to drift apart into increasingly separate entities.
“It can be cut or blocked,” Byron said. “Once we’ve tamed our unruly self and lifted the last piece of us fully up to our present state we’ll need to tread carefully.”
“Being careful will only see us through a small portion of the Consortium’s holdings,” Gulini said. “As soon as we begin to feed in ernest, even if we limit it to this world, the change will be noticed and the area quarantined. We will be better served to spread rapidly before we begin consuming again.”
Byron looked out the front viewport of the shuttle they’d commandeered. The Consortium Fleet was too distant and too distantly spaced out to see with his bodies eyes but the shuttle’s telemetry scan showed the constellation of attack craft and support ships that were arrayed around the shining world ahead of them.
In each of the ships, Byron knew a piece of himself, an older, less evolved piece, had spread out and was growing as fast it could.
He knew it was there but he couldn’t feel it.
“The issue of consuming again may be moot soon,” he said. “We may be the ones to be consumed.”
“If we are, then we will not care,” Gulini said.
“Or we will writhe in agony forever,” Byron said.
He tried to imagine what it was like from the other side. What had the original Byron experienced? Fear certainly, though it hadn’t been long. Gulini had been the same. Surprise never having the chance to give was to a properly panicked response because the deed was over and done with too swiftly for his mind to process.
Byron pictured some fragment of his currently ascended self holding on, maintaining distinct qualities as the rest of what he was dissolved away under his old self’s touch.
Would regression be so terrible though?
He hadn’t minded what he was when that was all that he’d ever been.
But he was certain he would mind it now.
To be lesser? When he’d become so much more? Oh no. No. No. No. That was not what he’d been born for. That was not who Count Byron Gray was. He was, in all things, superior.
Gulini could see that, and the rest of themself would see it too. No matter how painfully the other him had to be brought to heel.
“Some of the ships seem to be secured against us still,” Gulini said.
“They may be a problem,” Byron said. “Our former self is unlikely to be in full command of the vessels we’ve taken control of. The isolation protocols were only partially compromised when we left.”
A ship exploded in front of them, the telemetry display showing the event as though it were taking place a hundred meters outside their forward window, when in reality the explosion was a hundred thousand kilometers away.
“So was that a case where the ship was comprised enough or did we have a reason to destroy it?” Gulini asked.
“We’re not that wasteful,” Byron said. “So I will vote for ‘not compromised enough’. If we’d been in control of the ship we would still be drinking it dry. Blowing it up had to the action of some sort of resistance force.”
“Our options seem fairly straight forward then,” Gulini said. “We can travel to one of the ships we know the original us made contact with and assist in suppressing any resistance that remains.”
“Or we can make contact with the ships which are still under isolation and gather information on the current state of the struggle from an outside perspective,” Byron said.
“There is a problem with that however,” Gulini said. “Those ships are under hard isolation protocols. They will shoot us down the moment we change our flight path to an intercept course.”
“That would be inconvenient,” Byron said. “If it were our only option.”
“I suppose we could also head for the planet’s surface,” Gulini said. “Our reception there would likely be worse than trying to board one of the secure ships though.”
“I suspect it would, but that’s still an interesting idea,” Byron said. “Perhaps later? Or perhaps we can add to our ranks for the purpose of sending an envoy down there.”
He was still unsure of the wisdom of creating too many independent entities such as themselves. On the one hand, they were the greatest threats to each other in any world they happened to be in. Cold logic suggested that eliminating Gulini and their prior, unevolved self was the safest and most sensible course of action. He gained nothing from Gulini’s existence.
But he still didn’t want to destroy Gulini.
The original Byron had never had any special fondness for the original Gulini. The old Gulini had been a useful tool, correction, a useful and expendable tool.
But Byron didn’t want to expend Gulini.
There was no reason for it.
He simply didn’t wish to.
Nothing to reflect on there.
If he changed his mind, he could always ‘expend’ Gulini then.
Then. Not now.
“If not to the planet, then where did you have in mind to go?” Gulini asked.
“Oh, my apologies,” Byron said, conjuring his thoughts back from the hazy mix of images and imaginings he’d been drifting into. “My credentials are enough to get us passage through the isolation barriers. They shouldn’t be. It’s a stupid oversight to allow in a real circumstance like this, but men of my position must have right at all times to control their property it seems.”
The property in question being both the ships and the people within them.
In practice, Byron knew that his credentials would have required review by the active commander for the forces whose quarantine he was breaking, but since the commander in question had always been consumed, it was unlikely that the credentials would be revoked.
His suspicions proved correct as Gulini piloted them to the outer reaches of the cloud of Consortium ships and docked them neatly with one of the vessels that was running completely dark.
The shuttle was taken into the docking bar by the automated force handlers, over the vehement objection of the ship’s technical staff from what Byron could see on the ship’s tactical communication channels.
When he and Gulini emerged from the shuttle, they found a contingent of marines surrounding them, weapons charged and on deadman switches.
Byron felt a puff of satisfaction at being greeted properly.
“Priority command structure override – personal key confirmation – orders to follow,” he said, and tapped the secured communication chit on the back of his hand to compel the local forces to accept him as their new commanding office. It was like the diet version of eating someone, all technology and magic with none of the delicious taste. Ultimately both left him feeling just as hungry as he’d felt before though so he supposed it wasn’t such a bad alternative.
“Sir!” the lead guardsman said as they all reoriented their weapons and snapped to attention. “Awaiting orders sir.”
“You seem to have encountered a small bit of difficulty,” Byron said. It wasn’t necessary. Speaking with those already bound to follow his orders was wasteful, in a sense. But what was the purpose of having something if not to waste it?
That didn’t makes sense, but he could feel that it was correct.
“Yes sir,” the guardsman said. “We were put under complete isolation in response to a report that primary containment had been breeched. Has the matter been resolved sir?”
“Not as yet,” Byron said. “The fleet is still in disarray and the command structure needs to be established. That’s why General Gulini and I are here.”
The lie came out effortlessly.
But then it wasn’t exactly a lie. Certainly it was misleading, but on review Byron found that every word he’d spoke was true. Gulini and he were there to put a new leadership team in place. That none of it would be servants of the Consortium was a detail no one was likely to be able to infer, which made it all the more fun.
“Take us to your command deck,” Gulini said. “Also, arm all primary and secondary weapons. We need to be ready if a portion of the fleet is unsalvageable.”
Which, in Byron’s case, meant the entirety of the fleet if things turned out poorly when he tried talking to himself.
On the command deck, he found the usual crew members waiting for them. The ship hadn’t suffered any casualties it seemed.
That was nice.
Eating dead people gave him even less than no joy.
“Count Gray, Sir, thank you for coming,” the captain said. “Can you tell us what’s going on? The isolation protocols have us completely blind.”
“The mission has been critically disrupted,” Byron said. “The project payout crashed so low even calling for an abort wasn’t sanctioned. As we speak, the greater part of the fleet is, with varying degrees of failure, struggling to hold off the advances of a [Transdimensional Entity] that was loosed through an unsecure comm system by the mission’s [Supreme Commander].”
“[Supreme Commander Azma] unleashed the entity on us?” the captain asked.
“Not her. Her replacement,” Byron said. “[Commander Azma’s] whereabouts are still unknown.”
That was dangerous. Byron wasn’t sure why he hadn’t thought of that before, but the piercing certainty that leaving Azma free to do as she wish would lead to ruin for everyone wasn’t something he could shake once the idea slammed into his mind.
Except, she wasn’t a danger to him. Or to Gulini. Or to their original self.
She was one woman with perhaps whatever Consortium troops were still holding out and in isolation. Nothing she could do could hurt him.
That was wrong. She was going to destroy Byron if he didn’t do something about. He needed to make her a priority.
But from where?
Why was he afraid of Azma?
Why was he afraid at all?
He was a [Transdimensional Entity].
No. He had been.
Before the piece had been taken.
Before he’d been a thing at all.
And before he’d become what his older self was.
“Are you okay sir?” the captain asked.
“No,” Byron said. “This mess is mine to clean up now and I’d really rather not be here.”
Still nothing but the truth.
“What can we do sir?” the captain asked.
“General Gulini has a list of the rest of the ships which are clean and under complete isolation,” Byron said. “Please configure the communication links to interface with them on a private network. I will provide the codes to authorize the charges involved once the new network is ready to deploy.”
The captain detailed two of the communication staff to carry out the orders, leaving Byron free to appreciate the view of the planet before them.
It was a lovely world. Not the most beautiful he’d ever seen. That honor was reserved for the planned and constructed paradises his credentials as a Count were just high enough to give him access to. For a primitive and unmanaged world though the chaos of its natural features had a rough and tumble charm which might look appealing in a painting of a place he would have no interest in ever actually visiting.
“The network awaits your approval, sir,” the captain said after Byron spent a few more moment lost in reverie.
“Thank you, Captain,” he said and took the offered datapad.
It accepted both his credentials and his orders to unlock all of the isolated ships in the fleet and expose them to the open, and corrupted, general communication channels.
It was time to meet himself, and it only seemed proper to return with a few gifts didn’t it?