Culmination, Part 22

“What do you mean, ‘it never should have happened’?” Kryla asked carefully. “I read the reports about Phumelenin. Are you saying that something was falsified?”

“No, of course not!” Alaia replied quickly, shocked. “I just meant, I was never supposed to be in the Captain’s chair on Majestic Falcon. I had no idea what I was doing. I just happened to be the most senior officer left alive. I took command because I had to, and I just acted on instinct. I didn’t have any grand scheme. I just did stuff and it happened to work.”

Kryla eyed Alaia thoughtfully for a moment, and then, much to Alaia’s surprise, she started chuckling. “Commander Farlen,” she said, her tone a mixture of amusement and sternness, “do you think it’s different for any of us?”

“Well, I…,” Alaia began uncertainly. “When you’re in the Captain’s chair, sir, you just have such poise, such an air of command. Surely you know exactly what you’re doing at all times.” Kryla just started laughing even harder at this.

“I sure do have you fooled, don’t I?” she said with a smirk, and then laughed even harder at the bemused look on Alaia’s face. “I apologize, Commander,” she said once her mirth died down. “I don’t mean to make fun of you. I just find it surprising that you’ve advanced as far as you have without learning the ‘secret of command’.”

“The ‘secret of command’?” Alaia said, her puzzlement deepening. “What’s that?”

Kryla leaned forward and whispered, “None of us know what in Nerzaga we’re doing.” She leaned back, her expression perfectly serious for a moment, and then a wide grin split her face in two. “It’s a joke, but it’s also serious. You think I know exactly what I’m doing every moment I sit in that chair? You think every decision I make is the absolute best decision I could have made at that moment? Every commander in this fleet, and in every other fleet in the galaxy, is just acting on instinct. Instinct is the best weapon we have, Alaia! And from the results you got at Phumelenin, I think your instincts are pretty damn good.”

“It just…it just seems like there should be more,” muttered Alaia.

“Maybe it does,” Kryla said, her smile growing warmer. “Heck, maybe there are people who have such command of the battlefield that they can just see every move they need to make at every moment. But if there are, I’ve never met any. I’m certainly not one.”

“But you plan your moves several steps in advance, don’t you?” Alaia asked, her brow furrowed.

“I try to,” Kryla said with a shrug. “You need to try and anticipate what your enemy will do, of course. But it just happens. You don’t think to yourself, ‘oh, well, they’re going to do this, so I’m going to do this’. You just do it.”

“That…does basically sound like what I did at Phumelenin,” Alaia admitted.

“You see?” Kryla said with a smile. “You already know how to command. You just need to work on your confidence.” She leaned forward and fixed Alaia with an intense gaze. “And you don’t need to be afraid of me. Don’t worry about what happens during battle drills. Failing during a battle drill is meaningless. Take any mistakes you make and learn from them. That’s what they’re for.”

“I’ll try to do better, Admiral,” Alaia said, bashful.

“Don’t just try, Commander,” Kryla said, her voice and expression growing hard. “Do better.”

“Yes, sir!” Alaia replied, blushing and sitting up straighter. “I will, sir!” Kryla eyed her for a moment, and then her expression softened again.

“I know you will,” Kryla said in an encouraging voice. “Dismissed, Commander.” Alaia nodded, and then stood up, saluted sharply, and left Kryla’s office.

Well, thought Kryla in satisfaction, that went better than I expected. Of course, there was no guarantee that Kryla’s little pep talk would actually change anything. Maybe Alaia was right, and her performance at Phumelenin had been an accident. Maybe next time she was in command, she would freeze up and get everyone under her command killed. But there was no sense in dwelling on such possibilities. Alaia Farlen had the potential to be a great officer. All she needed was some confidence.

An alert sounded, telling Kryla that someone was trying to contact her, and she pressed the button to answer the call. “Yes?”

“Admiral Zomulin, General Hemetal has arrived,” said the voice of one of her aides.

“Excellent,” Kryla replied. “Show him into my office.” A few minutes later, the aide arrived, followed by Lord Hemetal and two of his aides.

“Good to see you again, sir,” Kryla said as she stood up and saluted.

“Likewise, Admiral,” Belfamor said, returning her salute. “How are your preparations going?”

“Everything is progressing as smoothly as possible, General,” Kryla replied, and they both sat down on opposite sides of her desk.

“Good,” Belfamor said, nodding sharply, “because in two days, the fleet departs for Trisitania.”

“That soon?” Kryla asked, her eyes widening. “I thought I’d have at least two more weeks to prepare! I haven’t fully integrated my units yet. Just this morning, you sent me a note that you’re adding 15 more ships to my fleet! They haven’t even arrived yet, and you’re saying that we’re leaving in two days?”

“Those 15 ships will be here tomorrow,” Belfamor said calmly. “You will have 24 hours to get them situated, and then the operation begins.”

“Why the rush?” exclaimed Kryla, exasperated. “Did the Emperor figure out what you’re planning?”

“Yes, but that’s not why I moved up the timetable,” Belfamor said, a slight frown appearing on his face. “I’ve looked over your reports. You’re as ready as you need to be, considering the resistance we’ll face on Trisitania.” He handed a tablet to Kryla, who perused its contents quickly, and then let out a low whistle.

“Are you sure this is accurate?” she asked, amazed.

“As sure as it is possible to be,” Belfamor replied. “75 percent of the forces defending Trisitania have been reassigned to other sectors. The capital is virtually defenseless.”

“We will be too, until this battle is over,” Kryla said in a warning tone, but Belfamor waved a hand dismissively.

“We’ll crush Neminatrix’s forces, kill or capture him, and then the rest of his troops will swear allegiance to Valador. What else can they do? There won’t be enough of them left to put up an effective resistance.”

“That’s a pretty big assumption,” Kryla said skeptically.

“That’s not your concern,” Belfamor replied harshly. “Your job is to capture Trisitania. Let me worry about the bigger picture.”

To be continued…

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