The Darkest Heart, Part 2

Kryla Zomulin was sitting at her desk, looking over some reports, when her niece came into her office. Kryla surveyed Neskatrai for a moment over her reading glasses, not saying anything, while Neskatrai simply gazed back at her impassively. Mostly impassively. There was a hint of worry in her brown eyes, but Kryla doubted anybody who wasn’t close to Neskatrai would notice it.

“Sit down, Neska,” Kryla finally said, gesturing to a chair in front of her desk and taking her glasses off. “You and I need to have a chat.”

“Is this about what happened in the mess hall?” Neska asked as she sat down, a hint of guilt in her voice.

“No, although I did hear about that,” Kryla said, keeping her face smooth.

“What are you going to do about it, sir?” Neska asked.

“Me? Nothing,” Kryla replied, her eyebrows lifting slightly in surprise. “Crew discipline is the XO’s purview. I’ll only step in if Commander Venrel’s measures prove insufficient, and in five years of having him as my XO, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve needed to intervene in matters of crew discipline. The Commander runs a very tight ship.”

“Thank you, sir,” Neska said, bowing her head.

“Worried about becoming the Admiral’s pet?” Kryla asked with a wry grin.

“Something like that, sir,” Neska admitted. Kryla just studied her for a few moments, and then she sighed.

“Okay, we need to get something straight,” she said. “Of course, when anyone else is around, you must refer to me as ‘Admiral’ or ‘sir’, but when we’re alone, I need you to call me ‘Aunt Kryla’, or even ‘Auntie’. Do I make myself clear?”

“Admiral, I-,” Neska began, but Kryla cut her off.

“Do you see anyone else in this room, Neska?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.

“No, but-,” Neska tried again, but Kryla cut her off again.

“I could make it an order, if I have to,” she said. Neska froze for a moment, and then she smiled.

“Okay…Auntie,” she said hesitantly.

“That’s better,” Kryla said, returning Neska’s smile. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten the little girl who used to squeal with delight when I’d show up at her house with a bag of presents at Festival. You may be a crewmember on my ship, but you’re also my niece, and I’m not going to forget that.”

“I’m…glad to hear that, Auntie,” Neska replied, her smile wavering a little bit.

“Now, down to business,” Kryla said, her voice becoming more brisk. “I understand you’ve been studying subspace wave theory.”

“Just…trying to be well-rounded, Auntie,” Neska said, her smile fading.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Kryla replied, a note of approval in her voice. “Sometimes it seems like ambition is lacking in the Fleet these days. It makes me very pleased to know that someone from my family is bucking that trend.”

“I…thank you,” Neska said, a little taken aback.

“You seem surprised,” Kryla said.

“Well, it’s like you said,” Neska replied, “nobody seems to have any ambition. Nobody takes this war seriously. So many of my fellow crewmembers have looked at me like I’m a mutant toad with three heads because I spend most of my free time studying.”

“You can be certain that I do not think you are a mutant toad,” Kryla said with a slight smile. “In fact, I’m planning to transfer you to engineering.”

“Engineering?” Neska replied, startled. “But I don’t have any training in engineering! I focused on command principles and battle tactics at the Academy.”

“I understand that, and I believe you will make a superb captain someday,” Kryla replied in a level voice. “Which is all the more reason for you to get some hands-on experience in engineering. The best captains are those who know their ships inside and out.”

“Is…that why you’ve stayed on Decimator for so long?” Neska asked hesitantly.

“Precisely,” Krlya said with a nod. “I know Decimator like the back of my hand. Some people even joke that I’m still single because I’m married to this ship, and there’s probably more truth to that than I’d like to admit. But in any case, I’m not saying you need to get married to a ship, but I am saying that the more you know every facet of how a ship works, the better prepared you’ll be to assume command someday.”

“I understand that, Auntie, but…engineering?” Neska said doubtfully.

“I’m not sure what the hesitation is, Neska,” Kryla said with a slight frown. “You’ve been studying subspace wave theory, so you’re obviously interested in the principles behind subspace engines. Just think of it as hands-on study!”

“Well, it’s not that…,” Neska said, still hesitant. “It’s just that, well, I don’t have any experience working with engine cores, and, well…”

“You’re afraid of making a fool of yourself?” Kryla said with an understanding smile.

“Well, yeah,” Neska admitted.

“That’s something you’re going to have to deal with if you want to be a captain someday,” Kryla said, firmly but not without warmth. “When you have a split second to make a life or death decision, you can’t be worrying about what people will think about you if you make the wrong decision.”

“Yeah, I had instructors tell me that at the Academy,” Neska said glumly, “but it’s easier said than done.”

“Well, you’re going to get an opportunity to confront your fears,” Kryla replied. “I’m assigning you to engineering, effective immediately.”

“Yes, sir!” Neska barked, suddenly sitting up straight and saluting. Kryla regarded her for a moment silently, and then smiled.

“That will be all, Neska,” she said quietly. Neska smiled back, and stood up to go.

“Neska,” she said just before Neska reached the door. Neska turned around and looked back. “Nobody in engineering is going to expect you to be an expert. Heck, most of the kids we get who studied engineering at the Academy don’t know what they’re doing when they get here. You’re going to be fine.”

“Thank you, Auntie,” Neska said with a smile. “I won’t let you down.”

“There’s no way you could, Neska,” Kryla replied, smiling back.

To be continued…

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