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The view was the one good point in Marienne’s office, allowing her to see the docking arms of Thor station and the blue-and-white world of Tiamat in its slow rotation beyond. It was the only interesting part of her office. Everything could be described as bland and functional, greys and blues the predominant colours. The walls were bare; the only personal items in the room were a few ornaments on her desk. Her chair was twisted towards the windows as she read the latest news on her tablet. A few articles had popped up about her after the interview—impressive for an event with only one in attendance. A knock on the frame of her open door made her turn around to see Major Kato waiting for her.

“Come in, Major,” she said. He walked to the side of her desk and stood at ease. His uniform was the same dark blue as hers, black cuffs and collar along with a simple silver star that showed his rank, and his skin was brown. Hers, like all generals’, had sky blue edges and a gold star.

“What do you have for me?”

“An update on today’s intelligence reports.”

“Anything I need to be worried about?”

“There has been another standoff at Sibilla. We came within combat range of Republic forces before pulling back. Apart from that, it’s just the usual: clusters being moved, reservists called up, and so on.” His face scrunched up for a second. “There was one item that stood out; Oranje has gone silent and isn’t responding to communication attempts.”

“What did the report say about it?”

“Intelligence believes it to be caused by a fault in the planet’s Net satellites and don’t call for any further investigation.”

“Let’s make sure of that. Keep an eye out for any more reports on the matter or similar incidents you may see. We do have a treaty with them; we’d better make sure we are fulfilling it.”

“Of course, General,” he said. His eyes flicked to her screen and saw the article she was reading. “You were right to be suspicious of the press conference.”

“He hung me out to dry. He must think I’m an idiot who wouldn’t realise I was set up.” She picked up a small glass ornamental bird from the desk and began twirling it in her fingers. “A single journalist there, and of course he had to ask those questions.” She almost threw the ornament at the wall but gently put it back in its place.

“That may have been what he was aiming for,” said Jan. “He must have known you would react like this. Maybe he is trying to make you angry?”

“Well it’s working.” She rubbed her neck. “I must have annoyed him even more than I thought. All I did was answer some questions. What’s so wrong with that?”

“Do you really need me to answer that?”

She just gave him a look.

“I’m no fool; I know my opinion is the minority. I’m just frustrated that decades of service are being ignored in the name of warmongering.”

“The press do seem to be going along with it as well.”

“Of course they are, they’re being leaned on by the government to be suitably patriotic. Only a few places speaking against the war are left now.” She picked up the bird again and held it close to her face, reflecting light onto her black skin. “He came all this way just to make sure I knew exactly where I stood and what he thought of me. All that time and fuel wasted, just to spite me. I was sure offering me this position would’ve been enough.”

“Do you know who got Home Command yet?”

“Nothing officially, but looks like Reiter will get it for certain. She is the best choice after me.” Marienne sighed. “Four decades of service, two decades at the Academy with the best record of all time, only to have the position I always wanted snatched away from me because it would not be politically convenient.”

“No one forced you to accept this command, General.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “I accepted because it’s still a very important position, and it is an honour to serve and protect. I take the oath very seriously. Remember that in the future, Major.”

He shifted his feet. “Apologies, General. I meant no offense.”

Silence filled the room before she let out a sigh. “It’s fine; we’ve known each other for long enough now to put up with the odd harsh words.”

“This is not a situation we’ve dealt with before,” he said.

“There hasn’t been a war for almost six decades, and now we seem to be very keen on starting a new one.” She snorted with bitter laughter. “We’ve been fighting the Republic for centuries on and off, five wars now, and each one has changed nothing.”

“There is talk that this time will be different, that we finally have an edge over them.” His eyes were filled with hope.

“It will be no different from any of the other wars. We’re both equal in power, and both sides work very hard to maintain that. It’s why we have the treaties with the independent worlds and why this command protects them as well. Neither side is going to allow the other to get a decisive advantage.” She rubbed her eyes. “That’s how it has always been, and it’s not going to change anytime soon.”

“Then why are they pushing for this war so much? Surely they must know something we don’t.”

She shrugged. “None of the intelligence has changed as far as I know, or at least the information I have access to, and unless we can magic up a few constellations from somewhere, our military will be matched by theirs.”

“There must be more to it. I can’t believe our leaders are that stupid.”

“They’re not. It’s just ego that is making them blind to what will really happen.” She took a deep breath. “That is enough talk on the matter for today, I think. It’s not like we can change anything about it. What else do I have to deal with?”

“You have your daily conference call with Colonels Roy and Niemi, General. They should be waiting for you.”

“Ah yes, they wanted to talk more on the plans for the next war games. I believe they think it will be very imbalanced against me.” She sat up straighter and closed the news articles. “Let’s get that done now.”

With a few presses on the screen, the call was sent to the two officers below her in the Outer Region Command. They each had control of a constellation each, the key fighting formation in the Space Force. Less than a minute passed before they answered, and their faces filled her screen. Light glinted off both of their bald heads, a fashion trend among many officers recently, though she herself opted for short hair bleached almost white.

“General.” They both saluted.

“Good afternoon, Colonels,” said Marienne, having another quick glance over the daily reports. “I see there is no news from you today.”

“Just another normal day,” said Roy. “Well, for us at least.”

She pursed her lips. “If you have anything to say about the press conference, then do so.”

His eyes flickered in response. “The marshal was very blatant with his intentions.”

“I can deal with whatever he can throw at me.”

“It has been the talk of my crew today,” said Niemi. “I thought perhaps you could speak to the whole command. They could use some reassurances.”

“This is the Space Force, Colonel. I’m sure your crew know better than to trust every rumour they hear.” Marienne tapped a finger against her chin. “However, I will issue a statement of intent, reiterating my aims for this command and what I expect from everyone.”

They nodded in understanding.

“I see we’re still playing chicken with the Republic,” said Roy. “War seems to get closer every day.”

“We’re not there yet,” she said. “I am surprised that High Command has allowed this to escalate so quickly. Reservists are still being called up.”

“Maybe they want to press the issue?” asked Niemi. “I don’t get the impression the president is feeling very patient.”

“We’ve not declared war yet, never mind the fact we’re nowhere near combat readiness. At least I can do something about that.”

“Have you considered our small”—she saw them glance at each other as he said it—“request to change the balance of forces for the simulation?” asked Roy.

“I have.” She picked up her tablet and read their message again, taking her time. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw them shifting in their seats as they waited.

“We both feel that the current balance gives the crews on your side little chance to prove themselves,” said Niemi.

She kept reading for a while before putting the tablet down. “I’ll adjust the forces.”

They both smiled.

“Another cluster will be transferred to your command, Colonel Roy.”

The smiles faded.

“General, with all respect, we feel it is already too unbalanced in our favour. Giving us more forces will just make that worse,” said Niemi. Marienne saw beads of sweat forming on her forehead.

“I feel the two forces are a good match. This will just… add to the challenge. It should be a good test for everyone.”

“We will outnumber your forces two-to-one. No, even more than that.” Roy’s brow furrowed with concern.

“Then I expect you will wrap up a quick victory tomorrow.” She leaned forward, her hands clasped together, resting them on the desk. “If that is all on today’s agenda, I think we have plenty to be getting on with.”

The confused expressions remained on their faces, but they saluted, and they were gone, leaving her with Jan.

“I hope you have a good plan up your sleeve,” he said. “They are right; it’s a very unbalanced scenario, General.”

“Well then, Major, let’s see if it turns out to be as easy as they think it is.”

“I will have the changes made tonight and give it a dry run so it will be ready for the crews tomorrow.” He tapped away on his tablet.

She sat, spinning the ornament in her hand. “So the bet is on again.”

He paused and looked back at her. “Maybe.”

Marienne raised one eyebrow. “Please. They didn’t do a very good job of hiding it—all that emphasis on little and small. They’re seeing if I react to comments on my height.” She had a glint in her eyes. “Same terms as usual?”

He hesitated before nodding. “This one is running over two months.”

“What’s the penalty this time?”

“If you shout at anyone for calling you short, little, and so on, the people who bet on you not reacting have to do a full shift naked. Vice versa for the people betting against you if you ignore the comments.”

“I’m amazed it’s still going,” she said. “I’ve never reacted to anything anyone has ever said about my height.” She smiled. “Well, at least what they’ve said in public.”

“It’s curiosity, General, that keeps it going year after year. People want to know how far you can be pushed.”

“A dangerous game to be playing with your commanding officer, don’t you think? I never thought too much of it at the Academy, but here I’m not sure it’s wise to let it continue. Especially with everything that is going on right now.”

Jan glanced at the floor. “I think it serves a very good purpose. It helps many relax around you. Your reputation does precede you, even with recent events. Let them have this fun, General.”

The ornament twirled in her fingers again.

“Very well, but I want you to keep an eye out. Make sure it doesn’t turn toxic with all this media stuff going on.”

“As you order, General. I need to finalise the preparations for tomorrow if I may go.”

“Of course. You’re dismissed, Major.” Marienne waved her hand. He had reached the open door when another thought occurred to her. “Jan, which side are you betting on?”

He paused in the empty frame before turning around with a sheepish smile. “I’ve known you for a long time General, and I learnt a long time ago to always bet on you.”


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