Azma wasn’t having a bad day. Azma was a bad day. One that actively stalked and took down the fools that stood before her. As a result, she was well versed in how well laid plans could be brought to ruin, and how impossible problems could appear from nowhere. She wasn’t immune to such issues herself of course, no one is disaster-proof, but she was used to at least being able to grasp the extent of the calamities which befell her plans.
“[Supreme Commander]? Your orders?” Fiori said.
Azma shook her head.
She’d been dumbstruck for three seconds.
It was the longest shock she’d allowed herself in over a decade.
“Full isolation,” she said, and knew it wasn’t going to be enough. “No. It got through that. We need physical isolation. No commands from the fleet period.”
“If we disable the repeaters and draw all forces into the ruins, we will be in a communication blackout till we emerge,” Grenslaw said.
“Consortium official monitoring will be lost as well,” Ryschild said.
“Give the order,” Azma said. “All forces, inside the ruins, immediately. Abandon materials which require any transport time. And all long range communication devices or monitoring pods are to be destroyed immediately, even if they are powered down.”
The fleet hadn’t been in contact with the ground forces during the assault on the [Transdimensional Entity] but the comm traffic and orders given had been collected in an unopenable data warehouse. Later, when the threat was neutralized, the data could be dissected and reviewed for evidence of orders which ran contrary to the Consortium’s financial interests.
The only reason to terminate the collection of that data, in the Consortium’s eyes would be to hide the details of transactions which resulted in a negative profit outcome for the Consortium in favor of personal gain.
They couldn’t express it in simple terms, but it boiled down to being afraid that the store clerks were going to steal money from the register.
With registers that stored the sum of the material wealth of an entire planet.
A short disruption in data collection was assumed to be malfeasance, and was met with intense scrutiny. For the short of permanent disconnection Azma was ordering, the Consortium wouldn’t even bother with scrutiny. Guilt would be absolutely determined merely by the scope of the absent data.
“And I have no other choice,” she said.
Because she knew what had happened.
Or what had to have happened.
The fleet had been locked down. Most of the ships had been in isolation mode. The main comm channel shouldn’t have been present to be corrupted in the first place.
Not unless someone had done something profoundly stupid.
Which, of course, is what the Director of Xenobiology had done.
It was inconceivable that someone of his experience and with his area of expertise could make such a mistake that had so many safeguards and regulations built in to prevent it.
But then, safeguards and procedures didn’t apply to the important people. They were trusted. They were allowed to do anything they wanted. And consequences were something for other people to deal with.
Right up until they finally made a mistake that was bad enough to catch them in its backlash.
“What do you think happened, [Supreme Commander]?” Grenslaw asked.
“The fleet has been exposed to the [Hungry Shadow],” Azma said. “That’s certain. For the main channel to carry the Shadows contagion, the whole fleet would need to be infected though.”
“But parts of it weren’t on the comm net?” Ryschild said.
“Correct,” Azma said. “Which means they were forced out of isolation and connected back to the net by an override.”
“The [Director of Xenobiology] was corrupted first?” Grenslaw asked.
“Yes, but he didn’t have the override privileges to break the full isolation lock on the fleet,” Azma said. “Which means the Shadow’s corruption has spread outside the fleet. There had to have been an open channel to someone with [Senior Executive] level privileges.”
Grenslaw and Ryschild both went silent, understanding as Azma had the implication of a corruptive entity on the scale of the [Hungry Shadow] running loose in the Consortium with [Senior Executive] level permissions at its disposal.
“This all sounds bad,” Fiori said. “But what does it mean for us? The operation’s scrubbed at this point right? Can we survive the [Cleansing Force] our bosses are going to send?”
If the Consortium couldn’t have acquire a commercially valuable asset, the next best thing was to insure that no one else could leverage it against them. In the place of the troops and space carriers which had been placed under Azma’s command, [Cleansing Forces] were given much simpler ordinance to deploy. Things like [Matter Conversion Bombs] and [Stellar Implosion Devices]. A typical “Cleansing” operation was carried out in less than an hour and did leave a very clean area in its wake, insofar as any degree of “dirty’ required particulate matter to still exist in the area which is only rarely still did.
“It’s entirely possible that no [Cleansing Force] will be sent,” Azma said.
“That would be a relief,” Fiori said.
“Because it’s entirely possible that the [Senior Executives] of the Consortium will no longer be distinct individuals to send that order,” Azma continued.
“Uh, what?” Fiori asked.
“It’s possible, though not guaranteed, that the Consortium as we know it will not exist beyond the next twenty four hours,” Azma said. “The former [Transdimensional Entity] has likely obtained the level of access required to spread throughout the Consortium’s uppermost command eschaleons. If so, it could be consuming them as we speak. One after the other.”
“That, uh, that sounds bad,” Fiori said. “Is there something we should do about that?”
“Yes,” Azma said. “We should plan to survive it.”
“Does that mean supporting the [Hungry Shadow]?” Ryschild asked.
“No. While it has an unimpeded path to victory, it’s win isn’t certain,” Azma said. “Also, there is no common ground we could stand on. It is our enemy now, and it has no need to accept an alliance or a surrender which doesn’t involve consuming us as well.”
“Do we make peace with this world’s other denizens then?” Grenslaw asked.
“They too have little reason to accept an offer of cooperation,” Azma said.
“So where does that leave us?” Fiori asked.
“Where we were before, but with greater clarity,” Azma said. One by one, she felt expectations and other bits of social baggage falling from her shoulders. “Satisfying the Consortium’s aims is no longer a priority. Nor do we need to concern ourselves with their understanding or appraisal of our performance.”
“So survival’s our only priority?” Fiori asked?
“No. Survival is insufficient,” Azma said. “If we play for only a short term gain, the long term will be lost to us, and the long term in this context is anything beyond the next twenty four hours.”
“What other options do we have?” Fiori asked.
Azma had an idea, but before she could allude to it, they were interrupted by one of Azma’s [Strike Team Leaders].
“[Supreme Commander], we’ve located the [Central Node] you tasked us to find,” Lt. Mabeeze said. “Resistance is growing, uh, substantial. Requesting reinforcements or permission to withdraw.”
“[Central Node]?“ Fiori asked.
“Withdraw along the path we’re transmitting to you,” Azma said. “Reinforcements will meet you in ten minutes. Hold out till then. Lose no one Lieutenant. None of your are expendable at present.”
“Understood [Supreme Commander],” Mabeeze said, relief echoing in his voice.
“What did they find?” Fiori asked.
“We’re going to verify that,” Azma said. “Give the order, we’re moving the command center.”
“Wait, we’re the reinforcements for Mabeeze?” Fiori said. “But there in one of the worst areas in the ruins. I don’t know if we can protect you there.”
“You won’t have to, not alone,” Azma said. “All forces, mobilize and converge on the following position. [Clear and Release] protocol.”
Throughout Azma’s remaining forces a silent cheer arose. [Clear and Release] meant they would proceed by killing everything in or near their path but that no provision needed to be made for holding ground as they advanced. The cost of moving in that fashion was that it left open the possibility of being surrounded as the enemy blocked off the path you’d taken, but given how spread out the enemy was, it seemed to be a given that the [Hungry Shadows] could surround them at will.
Azma’s camp was already setup to be highly mobile, so they had an advantage there, but since she’d been focused on drawing the [Hungry Shadows] attention to herself, they were faced with a challenging force of enemies who were well hidden and sheltered.
“Is the [Portable Bypass Generator] fully charged?” she asked, glancing to Ryschild.
“Charged and primed. All safety locks are still engaged though.”
“Disengage safeties and deploy,” Azma said. “The rest of us will need to stand back.”
The device Ryschild held up wasn’t a large one, just a fist sized handle connected tube that lead to a half dome apparatus which looked something like an inverted umbrella. It was an odd looking device but since it cost as much as a small battleship Azma was certain it would perform its intended function well.
Ryschild flicked the last safety off and depressed the trigger after aiming the [Portable Bypass Generator] the wall which was directly between Azma’s party and Lt. Mabeeze’s position.
And it generated a bypass.
Which is to say it disintegrated the wall. Step by step, the wall boiled to lava in front of the beam and evaporated into a form of raw energy which was funneled back down the edge of the beam and into the generator’s collection reservoir.
Azma wasn’t familiar with the underlying science beyond understanding that the device could bore holes through many different forms of matter and that it had a limited and non-renewable supply of fuel with which to do so.
As it turned out, one form of matter the generator could create bypasses through was the bodies of the [Hungry Shadows]. That allowed Azma’s party to proceed at a remarkably brisk pass, blasting through not only walls but also the enemies which stood in their path.
“Charge at 10%,” Ryschild said after they’d traversed the majority of the distance to the project rendezvous point with Mabeeze’s [Strike Team].
“Run it to zero,” Azma said. “We need to get to that [Central Node] as fast as we can.”
“Reports indicate that the enemy forces are converging on it as well,” Grenslaw said. “All of the enemy forces. Even the ones who weren’t engaging with us.”
“That’s almost as good confirmation as we’ll get with a direct inspection,” Azma said.
“Confirmation of what?” Fiori asked.
“The [Hungry Shadow] is a distributed organism,” Azma said. “It has no single weak point we can strike at. Or more properly, it had no single weak point.”
“I don’t understand. Did Mabeeze find that thing’s brain or something?” Fiori asked.
“Not its brain. Something new,” Azma said. “In the time we’ve been monitoring it, the creature emerged as an uncategorizable [Transdimensional Entity], then changed, for reasons still unknown, into a [Formless Hunger], and then changed again into a [Hungry Shadow] after our attempt to contain it. It is clearly reacting to this reality and is adapting to the pressures being brought to bear on it.”
“So it changed again?”
“It’s been doing nothing but changing,” Azma said. “But at each stage it’s become more limited, and more predictable, and, to be fair, more directly dangerous and purposeful.”
“So what’s this stage?” Fiori said.
“That’s what we need confirmation of,” Azma said.
“But you have a suspicion?” Fiori asked.
“We’ve exerted pressure on its forces by proving that its distributed bodies aren’t sufficient to overcome us,” Azma said. “It has the ability to multi-task and is aware of events wherever it possesses a body, but that natural ability is countered by our organizational structure and ability to communicate securely. Our forces can do what it can do, only with better gear and better overall direction because we have dedicated leaders.”
“So, wait, it’s trying to evolve into you?” Fiori asked.
“If we are very fortunate,” Azma said.