Azma had started with the intention of taking over a planet. She was mildly annoyed that things had gone amiss to the point where she would instead have to take over multiple planets.
“When the scouts get back, have the sappers get to work on these tunnels,” she said. “Highest yields please.”
“That’s going to do more than collapse the tunnels behind us,” Fiori said. It was the sort of question Azma’s personal security chief should be concerned with, and Azma was pleased to see that Fiori had phrased it as a data point seeking validation rather than a refusal to comply.
She didn’t need her underlings to blindly follow her orders, but it was more convenient when their first reaction to potentially catastrophic orders was to assume that Azma had some sensible plan which they weren’t yet aware of. She’d had to space more than one (externally appointed) minion who’d been convinced they could overrule her orders if they didn’t understand them.
“This space is tactically valuable. I don’t intend to leave it behind to be used against us,” Azma said. “Also, it will be convenient if the fleet is unsure whether we survived the explosion.”
“How will we deal with the loyalty enchantments on the troops?” Grenslaw asked. “Those don’t emit any active broadcasts but they will turn up if the [Sensor Ops] division is corrupted and can catch the troops in the open with a scan.”
“We know from the assault that there are many areas on the planet’s surface our scan’s cannot penetrate. Those would provide a safe haven,” Ryschild suggested.
“The logs of the assault are clear on that, so I expect the fleet’s controller will be aware of those locations as well,” Azma said. “The next assault will begin as soon as the fleet is completely corrupted and the dispute between the [Hungry Shadows] has been resolved. Whoever emerges in control of the fleet will make those locations a priority.”
“That gives us only a narrow window of safety within them then,” Ryschild says. “How do you calculate it will be?”
“Not long enough,” Azma said. “The eventual corruption or destruction of the unscannable areas of the planet will take a significant amount of time, at least several days, but a targeted pattern will reveal our location far sooner than that. They would only need to deploy a strike team to a location and perform a local scan to determine whether a force as large as ours is present or not.”
“Yeah, hiding several thousand troops is not going to be easy,” Fiori said. “Especially since we’ll probably have to fight the locals for the use of those spaces.”
“Which is why we’re not going to hide in any of them,” Azma said.
“Is there an alternative to evading the scan or will we draw the opposition into a battle of our choosing?” Grenslaw asked.
“The former,” Azma said. “The troop location scan is keyed to the constraint web the troops are enchanted with. Once we reach the surface, I am going to invoke [Administrator Privileges] and nullify the web.”
“So the fleet won’t be able to track us, but the troops won’t be under your control anymore?” Fiori asked.
“Correct,” Azma said. “What each trooper does at that point will be up to their own discretion.”
“And if they all decide to kill you?” Fiori asked.
“Then I will have failed to judge their motivations so spectacularly that I deserve the death they will deliver,” Azma said.
“They will be faced with a hostile environment, filled with hostile, alien entities, no support, no supplies and no intelligence,” Ryschild said, thinking aloud. “Remaining as a unit with those they are familiar will be the safest and simplest option for them.”
“The units themselves may turn on us though,” Grenslaw said.
“Some will,” Azma said. “A greater portion will take the chance at freedom and disperse as far away as they can get. Of the ones that remain however, I expect we will see many of the elite units. Enough to dissuade those who would try to seek retribution for what has been done to them to date.”
“It sounds like there’ll be a blood bath,” Fiori said. “But one we can wade out of?”
“I expect minimal casualties,” Azma said. “Freedom is seductive and vengeance can wait. None of the troops with us have active [Agony Restraints] and no agony-level corrective measures have been invoked during this operation. For those who’ve been controlled by such things in the past, there will be no question that they will leave, but without current or recent torments to cloud their mind, the lure of escape will be a siren call they won’t be able to ignore.”
“Can’t the Consortium track us via other methods though?” Fiori asked.
“We’re leaving the comm net gear here,” Azma said. “That cuts off one avenue. The fleet could scan for the speciality troops such as the [Metal Mechanoids] but we have camouflage there as well. Thanks to the initial assaults failure, a literal army of our speciality troops were left behind on the planet. Scans will detect that the speciality units are present but narrowing down locations was all but impossible when we launched the second assault, and that should continue to hamper the fleets efforts.”
“So we can buy time from the Consortium discovering that we’re alive, and then more time before they can find us. Once they do though, will it be a problem that we’re about to lose a significant portion of our military strength?” Fiori asked.
It wasn’t a question of whether the Consortium would find them. Everyone knew that the Consortium’s resources made an eventual discovery inevitable. Assuming the Consortium bothered looking at all and didn’t simply erase the planet from existence with them on it.
“A problem, an opportunity, reducing our force strength is a move. It will have consequences which we and our adversaries will all attempt to capitalize on,” Azma said. “We hold an advantage in that we’re aware it will happen, and can plan for the chaos the departing troops will cause.”
“Many of them will come into conflict with the local defense forces,” Ryschild said, following Azma’s line of reasoning.
“But none of the deserters will reconnect with the Consortium troops who are currently on the ground,” Grenslaw said. “It will lead to a three way power struggle in the areas where they seek refuge.”
“And that will destabilize those areas enough that the local defense forces will need to redeploy their forces from the successful offensives they’ve been waging, placing them on a footing poised between attack and defense with most of the reactionary forces engaged is solidifying their defenses as quickly as possible,” Azma said.
“Will we forego making any assaults of our own then? So as not to draw attention to ourselves?” Ryschild asked.
“Sadly we don’t have that luxury either,” Azma said. “Our force will remain large enough that we will be observed. If the defense forces learn of an army moving and not engaging anyone, that will be a mystery and mysteries draw more attention than anything else.”
“We’ll take a defensible post then?” Grenslaw asked.
“No. We’re going to lose,” Azma said. “Understand, I don’t mean that our forces wouldn’t be capable of taking a solidly defended stronghold. Despite our low numbers, we will be able to engage virtually any force the defenders can muster. That is not knowledge which can be gleaned from the fleet logs or which the troops themselves are fully aware of. They have only each other to measure themselves against, and the opposition they’ve faced so far has been so irregular and under circumstances so far outside the normal range that they have no measure to gauge their own capabilities against.”
“Why lose then?” Fiori said. “If we could capture a stronghold, wouldn’t that give us a base to reform and resupply from?”
“As a general doctrine, direct plans like capturing a good base and defending it have exceptional merit,” Azma said. “Asking a force such as ours to execute on complex objectives breeds confusion and failure. Simple plans allow for a far wider amount of individual discretion since everyone can easily see the goal they need to move the situation towards. In this scenario however, simple plans will lead us to simple ends. On the one side we have foes who possess overwhelming force and can simply crush us if they are given the opportunity. On the other we have a delightfully brilliant commander who can anticipate and undo any effort we make that they can glean sufficient information about.”
“I feel like we should be worried about that, but you don’t sound worried,” Fiori said. “If I didn’t know better I’d say you were almost happy about it?”
“This isn’t happiness,” Azma said. “This is interested. I am happy when people exceed my expectations of them. I am interested when a problem presents itself which requires actual consideration to resolve.”
“It’s not a good idea for someone to get you interested in them is it?” Fiori asked.
“Not for them. No,” Azma said.
“I think I’ll try to make you happy then,” Fiori said.
“So far you’ve acquitted yourself quite well on that front,” Azma said. “You all have,” she added nodding towards Ryschild and Grenslaw.
It wasn’t accurate to say she was happy with her aides. In truth she was ecstatic with them. To the point where it worried her. People didn’t consistently exceed her expectations. They were, in her experience, reliably selfish and stupid.
But not Ryschild or Grenslaw.
Considering the circumstances they were all under, Ryschild and Grenslaw’s loyalty and competence had paid off for them well. Had they double crossed Azma at their earlier convenience, she would have destroyed them and been unsurprised. Had they waited until she was in a more vulnerable position, she likely still would have destroyed them, but on the off chance that she failed, their only future would have been one which involved being consumed by the [Hungry Shadow].
In truth there hadn’t been a moment when they could have escaped Azma’s influence safely.
But there was going to be.
The moment Azma released the loyalty constraints on the common troops, her authority and personal power would be at their lowest. She would lack the ability to strike back at Ryschild or Grenslaw if they turned on her. Worse, she would have very little leverage should they choose to join the forces which were sure to leave.
Azma didn’t enjoy working through that scenario, building plans and contingencies for the loss of one or both of them. Except it would never be one of them. If they left, it would be both of them abandoning her.
The parting wouldn’t even necessarily be acrimonious. They could develop their skills, and their power base, quite effectively if left to their own devices. It was even likely that once they established themselves in whatever role they pursued, they and Azma could enter into an alliance of shared interest.
Azma found she detested those scenarios and detested even more the ones where they wound up on the opposite side of a conflict and she was required to destroy them.
But detesting an eventuality didn’t mean she wasn’t required to plan for it.
Part of her questioned whether any of this was worth it. Any path she took was going to require a tremendous amount of risk and suffering and effort. It would be so much easier to admit defeat or simply just pursue survival.
Azma didn’t ignore that voice. Doubt and insecurity weren’t her enemy. They were a safety valve, a watchpost her mind presented to her to double check that the goal she was pursuing was worth the cost of attaining it, and that her evaluation of the paths she was choosing to follow towards that goal weren’t being selected for irrational reasons.
Looking at what lay before her wasn’t daunting. She acknowledged that. Her enemies were vast and her allies could abandon her. Her failure could be so spectacular that it would outshine the sun.
But then, if she was going to fail, would she want it to be any other way?