Breathing the air on a new world was always an interesting experience for Azma. So many of the worlds the Consortium conquered weren’t suitable to her form of life. Those she only experienced from within an enviro-suit or (preferably) as the view of a small orb her command ship remained in orbit around for a brief period.
Rather than a small orb, she gazed out on rolling green hills dotted with occasional stands of tall trees that soared high enough to scrape the high clouds that whipped through the sky. Around her stood all of the Consortium troops in the world that she knew to be free of corruption that had overthrown her task force.
The [Hungry Shadow] was going to pay for that. They might have made peace briefly, but she was going to destroy that [Entity] no matter what further metamorphosis it underwent.
The fire of rage that sparked that thought was one Azma held onto dearly. She couldn’t let it bloom into the curtain of red wrath that she wished to unleash, but to give up on that vengeance would be to lose a part of herself which had kept her going since well before she was inducted into the Consortium.
Turning her reflections elsewhere, a part of Azma was pleased that the breathable air meant a reduction in operational costs since each breath didn’t carry an overhead charge from the Habitation Systems Maintenance Division. She dismissed that thought with the observation that the Habitation Systems Maintenance Division wasn’t likely to exist past the end of the week unless she managed to do something about the formerly [Transcendental Entity] that was busy overwhelming the Consortium thanks to the singularly stupidity of the equally former [Director of Xenobiology].
That thought stoked flames of rage as well.
It was too late to make the [Director] pay for his errors. He was burning in the special agony of being consumed by the [Entity] and Azma doubted anything she could do would quite compare.
His legacy though? That she would take exceptional pleasure in dismantling. Even as an abject failure of a man, the [Director] would have left some successes behind, some projects or endowments for which people would remember him favorably.
At least until Azma got ahold of them.
That cheerful thought buoyed her spirits a bit. Destroying an enemy was always enjoyable, and in this context it implied she would enjoy enough of a future to spend on such pursuits.
“The last of our troops has come through the portal,” Ryschild reported without looking up from the tablet where the summary statistics for Azma’s remaining forces was scrolling along faster than an unaugmented human could have absorbed.
“Charges are set on the far side of the portal and awaiting your command,” Grenslaw said, similarly focused on a tablet which was listing the individual states of their remaining arms and munitions.
“Detonate the charges,” Azma said without hesitation. Cutting off any means of retreat wasn’t intended to leave them without a means of escape. A lack of escape options was a fringe benefit. The more important goal was to cutoff the [Hungry Shadows] ability to change its mind and attempt to follow them.
Behind them, a blinding flash signaled the implosion of the multiple gates Azma’s army had finished passing through. Far above, on the [High Beyond], the explosions had obliterated the chamber they’d been left in, collapsing a vast portion of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] as collateral damage. The devastation wasn’t enough to cover the fact that Azma and her army had escaped, nor would it obscure their trail enough to prevent someone from tracking them. It didn’t have to do either of those things though. All it needed to do, all it would do, was delay things a bit. A brief window of opportunity where Amza’s enemies wouldn’t even be sure if they needed to search for her at all.
It was all she needed. The respite would allow her to take the most dangerous action she’d ever considered. She paused for only a moment, reviewing her plan, weighing her options. Some choices were irreversible.
“Send the signal for attention,” she said, trusting Grenslaw would make it happen in the few seconds before she began speaking. With her thoughts as ordered as she wished them to be, she addressed her troops, speaking to them through a makeshift army-wide communications array which had taken two hours to assemble and which would be functional for no more than a minute before being permanently destroyed.
“[Supreme Commander] Azma to all forces in our assembly,” she said, her voice an implicit command, “we have arrived on hostile ground. This will not be a surprise. Our deployments are always on hostile ground. This ground, you’ll find, if less hostile than the ground we were standing on. We are on the planet’s surface and have left the former [Transcendent Entity] behind. We are also the strongest fighting force within this deployment hex.”
The troops who weren’t compelled to silent loyalty gave a small cheer when they heard that.
“We are not however safe here,” Azma continued. “There is no safety to be had on this ground or any other until we create some of our own. This will involve overcoming the local defense forces, the indigneous flora and fauna hazards, and…”
Azma paused there, gazing over her troops and the hill they were arranged around, taking stock of their morale, and where their remaining loyalties lay.
“And the [Consortium of Pain] itself,” she finished. The words were treason. Even suggesting to a deployed force that they should turn on the Consortium’s interests was punished with creatively cruel methods of execution.
“All local Consortium forces, aside from the ones you see here, have been or will shortly be corrupted by the [Entity] we discovered on the satellite moon,” Azma said, grateful that the loyalty spells would hold the army in check until she was done speaking. “The [Entity] has also managed to corrupt someone with [Senior Executive] level permissions. Contact with any Consortium forces via regulation Consortium channels can be assumed to guarantee conversion to the [Entities] will.”
She paused checking the crowd again. Many of the faces turned to her were untroubled. Some even seemed hopeful. It was a better response than the worst case scenarios suggested.
“Will local and out of system forces compromised, conflict against them is assured. The [Entity] must be eliminated and all affected forces cleansed. It will not rest so there can be no peace, and no safety until this aim is achieved.”
“Once this address is finished, this network will be destroyed, to prevent the [Entity’s] contagion from reaching us or spreading should we encounter one of it’s minions. Before that time though, I have one message for you. One command which will override all others.”
Her finger hovered over the confirmation button on the tablet in front of her.
“Be free,” she said and pressed the restraint release without further hesitation.
The effect was instantaneous. Every member of her army shifted in surprise. The [Artifax] units went wide-eyed, even when their eyes didn’t allow that to be a physical reality.
“All loyalty governors and compulsion spells have been deleted, by my authority,” Azma said. “Don’t fear that if you are captured, your current state will be held against you. Freeing you from the Consortium’s domination is recorded on my permanent log. You do not count as escaped or defective. From this point you can make your own choices, the first of which I will lay before you now.”
Azma was surprised to see the troops all watching her with rapt attention. She’s expected a small buy significant number of instant defections.
“You are all invited, though not required, to remain under my command,” she said. “Creating safe ground to stand on will require an army with at least a portion of the forces we have assembled here.”
None of the units were attempting to fire on her. That was an agreeable outcome and not unexpected but Azma had been aware that her calculations on its likelihood was derived from insufficient data.
They could have turned on her en masse.
Instead they were all looking to her.
“I will not make you any promises of our success,” Azma said. “Our current situation is unstable and without the Consortium backing we are accustomed to, victory cannot be assured.”
Better to avoid setting expectations which would be held against her later. Not that failure would be met with anything except rage and betrayal, but by setting a low bar Azma hoped to weed out those with the weakest tolerance for risk or negative outcomes.
“You are all familiar with how I lead, and how I will spend the lives of those under my command, if not from earlier campaigns then from this one,” Azma said. “I can make you no promise that you, or any of us will survive, but I can swear that if you fall, your deaths will matter. If you are overcome it will be at the cost of dozens of warriors as proficient yourself or hundreds of the unworthy. If you give your life, it will be to spare the lives of a dozen of your comrades.”
Battlefields were messy places and guarantees weren’t even worth the breath it took to utter them. Azma was still quite serious though. She had so little to work with. She would be damned before she let even one of the ones who stayed with her be taken away except at the highest possible price.
Azma suppressed a harsh laugh at the thought.
She was already quite damned. Dozens of contracts ensured that, and any judgment passed against her would be more than warranted.
But she still wasn’t going to let her troops go cheaply.
They were hers and, one way or another, no one would ever forget that.
“I give you this choice therefor; stay with me, assembled into new companies under my command, and walk with me to the future we will carve for ourselves from the corpses of our enemies,” Azma said. “Or, leave. Seek your own tomorrows. Carry my thanks for the service you have given so far, and depart to fight for whatever you choose to believe in.”
The troops were still staring at her, hanging on her every word.
Azma checked her tablet to make sure she had, in fact, released them from the loyalty constraints. Dozens of screaming warning flags confirmed that, yes, she had unleashed the army before her and had previously zero magical control over them.
The Consortium’s standard models indicated that Azma was already dead, at least according to the most prominent warning on the screen.
By all the metrics and based on historical trends, the Consortium program assured the tablet’s current bearer that the [Supreme Commander] had been terminated by a wild mob within five seconds of releasing the loyalty restraints. There was a helpful notation that the five second time reflected a modified delta of two additional seconds based on Azma’s enhanced compensation profile for the troops. With each second that passed another “9” was added to the “99.999%” probability that Azma had met a violent end.
And yet, as far as Azma could tell, she was still very much alive.
“If you choose to go, know that you will depart as honored comrades,” Azma said, trying to see if it was merely inertia which was keeping the army together for the moment. “There will be no reprisal and no ill will for the choice. There are official marks in your files already specifying that, once the the corrupting [Entity] we’re dealing with has been terminated, you are to be welcomed back as [Personnel in Good Standing].”
Not [Assets], not [Materiels], not [Living Munitions]. Azma’s directives would only carry weight if she was around to enforce them, but if she wasn’t nothing on the planet was likely to be either.
She looked at her army and waited for them to leave.
Some of them at least.
There had to be a sizable portion whose long shackled rage would send them screaming out into the world on their own.
Or at least a notable minority.
Or even one?
“We stand with our [Supreme Commander],” Grenslaw said, stepping next to Azma on her left.
“In this world and the next,” Ryschild said, stepping to flank Azma on her right.
From the army, from her army, a wild cheer arose.
No one was leaving.
They were all with her.