Lithia’s nails dug into the palm of her clenched fist, fury splintered across her mind. She crossed the room with terrible purpose, eyes locked on her target. Summoning the emotion and storing it at the periphery of her mind. Her stare drilled mercilessly into the man standing in the aisle, his head darted to the exit twenty paces behind. Lithia’s dark eyes rippled with emotion that was starkly absent from her face. They were devoid of colour except for a scattering of metallic flecks that glinted when they caught the light. Minutes passed as she stared through the man, relentlessly pouring venom into him. Finally, she spoke, her voice was steady, edged with scorn in every syllable. “Return to your seat sir, I am not finished.”

Silence hung over the assembly. She steadied her breathing, holding back the raging desire to bury her fist into the officer, into any of the assembled bureaucrats. It didn’t matter who, they were all equally responsible. He was a foot taller and met her stare stoically. His mouth opened a crack but no sound came. The unwavering accusation in her stare, the scorn emanating from her was palpable. Finally, his will crumbled and he moved to his seat.

Lithia twisted sharply and moved to the podium on the speaking floor. She cast her eyes around the room, most of the assembled men & women wore council uniforms of a white jacket and trousers. Scattered amongst the assembled councillors were a number of military uniforms. When she had entered to begin her address many councillors had stood to leave, Lithia had chosen a large man in an officer’s uniform to confront. It had worked and the others had returned to their seats long ago. She took a deep breath, recalling the anger that she’d stored at the edge of her mind, felt the quiet outrage bleed into her thoughts as she observed the small crowd of bureaucrats and officers. Lithia began to speak, her chin high and shoulders back

“Devan Baker, leaving a widow and 3 children.” she paused, “Sarah Green, leaving a husband and 2 children. Taren Veil, leaving a husband and Son. Hugo Sontag, leaving a wife and daughter.” She continued reciting from memory, relentless and rhythmic. “Sadre Rubin leaves no-one to mourn him. Devlin Pool, leaving two sisters and a brother. Tarrow Selemain, leaving a widowed mother.” As the names continued the assembly began to shift uncomfortably. “Mateo Kovic, leaving his parents with no surviving children. Zara Willems, leaving 2 orphaned sons.” She seized a lump in her throat, strangled it and forced it down into her chest. “Seren Tanzin, leaving a widow. Uriel Fallow leaves an orphaned son.” Lithia’s voice wavered for a heartbeat, but she would not allow herself to dishonour the names she read. The crowd would know the consequences their decisions whether they cared to listen or not, her people were not statistics to be glossed over.

As she approached the end of her mental list she cast her eyes around the room. They shimmered under the dim lighting, settling on every individual who dared to meet her gaze until they looked away. Standing tall with her chin high, every muscle in her body tense as if ready to strike.

“These are the men and women you have failed. Your decisions killed these soldiers,” she paused for a deep breath, “my soldiers,” she corrected. “You did not earn their loyalty and events have judged you did not deserve it, you have failed in your duty of care.”

Lithia looked back in her mind to the moment she received the casualty report.

“A meaningless assignment for headlines and propaganda.” Leaning forward she placed both palms on the podium and bellowed with the fury of a thunderclap, “You do not deploy my recruits until I deem them ready!”

A slight woman in white released a whimper as her hands spasmed in her lap. Lithia fixed her with a disgusted look and continued, “Any bureaucrat who circumvents my command will find themselves on my next list!” With the threat still hanging in the air, she gathered her possessions from the podium and walked down the aisle. No one spoke as she swept through the exit.

Lithia made her way through the corridors at a brisk pace, avoiding administrative clerks and other staff that decorated the bare hallways. She stopped in front of a wall of glass, a pang of anger and sorrow struck as she noticed the uniform reflected in the glass. Not the dress uniform the officers had worn in the auditorium, but the everyday skirmish gear of a real soldier.

“Colonel,” he announced, as he handed her a small sliver of glass, “transport is ready on the south wing.”

“Thank you, Becket.” She replied while retrieving her tablet. She noticed the list of casualties still displayed on the screen and waved the shard of glass over the pad. She had forgotten two names and would privately scold herself for days to come. The screen cleared and a fresh list appeared.

“The new potential recruits.” said Becket.

Lithia began thumbing through the profiles, “This is a short list, Becket.”

“If you were to lower the requirements a little we might”- his sentence was cut short by a curt glance that turned into a lingering pause.

“Expand the search, remove the service length requirements, but be strict when they are vetted. Assemble those with potential at the training facility in four days.”

With a stiff nod, she dismissed Becket and turned to watch the groups of people in white uniforms outside. A strip of fabric hung from each shoulder, cut into a point over the breast. Bands of emerald symbols distinguished their standing amongst their peers.

Travelling to the Islands of the Inner Circle always put her on edge, there was something about the white coats and highborns that made her skin crawl. Philosophers, scientists, the leaders of humanity. Toiling night and day to build a better future, so states the information ministry, but every time the council interfered the cost was high.

In theory, anyone from the second line or even the colonies could live here. If you worked hard and were gifted enough you would be invited to live in the inner circle, safe and insulated from the rest of the world, but Lithia had never heard of it happening. A dark part of her wished to see these people thrown into battle on the mainland, to experience the fear and loss first hand, and then see how easily they’d play with people’s lives.

The engines of the transport whined as Lithia lingered on the loading ramp. The craft climbed steadily into the air and swung west revealing the ring of islands shimmering below. Towers covered the land like delicate spindles of ice. Suspended high above them was a colossal halo of glass and chrome. The halo travelled the length of the island chain, and almost doubled the living space of the Inner Circle. If it wasn’t for that blasted thing we wouldn’t need the farmland on the mainland. Watching the ring of Islands shrink beneath the clouds she thought about how delicate it all looked.

Chapter 2: Debut