Common Ground

Thanks to Saxon Hawke and Layla Saitana for their written contributions.
The original posts are here.

Stacmon V – Moon 9 – Federation Navy Assembly Plant

Sakaane walked into the station lounge and paused to survey the room, noting pilots grouped here and there at tables. Their conversations were hushed, spoken to one another from behind glasses held up near their mouths, their shoulders hunched toward one another as if afraid of being overheard. As she watched, more than a few repeatedly made glances in the direction of a certain table. Some of them sniggered while others had lingering expressions of mortification on their faces.

My grandmother would have said we are hanging out the dirty wash for all the world to see by meeting here, Sakaane thought, annoyed. Requiring a public arena as a means to enforce decorum was ridiculous, though from the tension in the air it appeared she had just missed an example of how this setting might not necessarily achieve that end anyway. Could they really accomplish nothing without an audience? This is not how things should be done.

She turned her head, following the glances of the onlookers, and was not surprised to see Suresha Hawke and Layla Saitana sitting together. Taking a measured breath, Sakaane banished her irritation. That attitude would do no good here. Regardless of the venue, they needed this meeting. The alliance depended on it. She squared her shoulders and approached the table.

Namas, Suresha, Layla,” she said warmly, bowing respectfully to Saxon. “I hope you’ve not been waiting long.”

Saxon stood and returned the bow, before pulling out one of the remaining seats for Sakaane. He hadn’t had a chance to see her since her vacation, but he thought she looked refreshed, but somewhat annoyed. He smiled as he took his own seat.

“As it turns out, we’ve been waiting just long enough, I believe,” he said in a smooth tone. “Layla and I were just discussing sports. But what we wanted to talk to you about is Layla’s new business model. She’s been doing some exciting things while you were away.”

“Is that so?” Sakaane looked to Layla. “Please, do tell.”

Layla couldn’t be sure, but he thought she was being provoked. She clenched her first tightly, but was mindful to keep it out of sight beneath the table.

Keeping Sakaane’s gaze, she kept in mind what Saxon had said earlier.

“I’m trying to take a lead in the IPI’s Agoze initiative,” she said. “I’m hiring miners dedicated solely to that purpose. Everything we produce will go into the Agoze market at competitive prices. It’s my goal that if minerals are purchased in Agoze, they’ll come in an IPI crate.”

Layla gave Saxon a quick glance, but his face was unreadable. She decided to go on.

“But there’s more to it than that,” she said. “I’m also hiring pilots to defend my cargo shipments. Pilots that might not meet the high moral standards of ILF.”

As Layla spoke, Sakaane felt a genuine smile spread across her face. She’d not known what to expect from this meeting and knew there were far less pleasing things the IRAG CEO could have announced.

“This is great news,” she said when Layla finished. “I’m glad you’re taking an active interest in that initiative. Bataav will be pleased too. And it means IRAG will grow, which is good for IPI as well.” Shifting slightly in her seat, she crossed her legs and relaxed against the chair’s backrest, draping one arm behind it so her wrist rested on its top edge. “Lots of big crates with our name stamped prominently on them. Yes, I quite like the sound of that.

“As for the quality of your defense force… IRAG is your corporation. It’s not my business who you hire unless they cause problems for the alliance.” She looked Layla squarely in the eye but let her smile quirk a bit to the side. “But do me a favor? Give a heads up if things might hit the fan. And don’t tell me too much—plausible deniability, and all that.” Plausible deniability. Oh, Bataav would be proud of me.

“I’m still in the recuiting stage,” Layla said. “But I’ll send you a roster of my pilots when I’ve got one. As for causing problems, I don’t look to make waves with our friends or neutrals. But we’re going to be aggressive in our dealings with pirates.”

Layla took another drink from her glass, finishing it and signaling to the bartender for another. The alliance president’s smile unnerved her. Layla silently cursed the difficulty she had reading this woman.

“We won’t break the ROE, you have my word on that,” she continued. “But we will bend it as far as needed to fight the pirates on their level. I want our motto to be, ‘If it’s red, make it dead.’”

Sakaane laughed lightly at the desired slogan. A server arrived then with Layla’s drink; Sakaane pointedly waited until the young man had moved out of earshot before speaking.

“I like it,” she said, then added, “I fully believe in NRDS, though I also think it places all its emphasis on telling us what not to do, like a fretting parent following a child around. Blue and neutral are not red, don’t shoot! Yellow and orange are not red, be cautious but don’t shoot!” She paused. “But if it is red…”

Glancing at Saxon, Sakaane considered what to say next. She was well aware of his preference to avoid violence whenever possible and generally agreed with the position. Wanton, unchecked brutality was something she had no desire to promote nor be responsible for within the Intaki sov, whether as ILF’s Isha-Sainika or as the elected representative of the alliance.

But they also designated reds for a reason and it was still her job to do something about them. And no matter how amenable some enemies might appear at the diplomatic table, she knew too many would just as soon turn around and blow IPI pilots and assets to smithereens at the first opportunity than actually live up to any kind of agreement to end hostilities.

Granted, Sakaane knew very little about Layla and despite how well the meeting seemed to be going, felt she needed to continue to tread carefully. Whatever reason existed for her prior hostility toward Sakaane, and even given Layla’s obvious enthusiasm for her new business model, Sakaane also understood the woman would not be the type to declare reds frivolously nor simply go on a destructive rampage no matter what the moral fiber of her hired pilots might be. Saxon would not still be sitting at the table with them if that were the case.

Her thoughts wandered briefly to recent events. The sting of Darac Rin’s attack a month prior remained all too fresh. Whether a sole pirate like him chasing after one pilot like her, or an entire group coming after the alliance…they were still designated red, and that made them fair game under the ROE. IPI had a right to defend itself, and more so, a mandate to bring security to the Intaki sov.

“I have no love of pirates,” Sakaane finally said, quietly. “So by all means, blow the scum to hell and back.”

“I plan to,” Layla said, raising her glass in salute. She quickly downed the beverage, her gaze going over Sakaane’s shoulder toward the bar.

“I hate to drink and run,” she said. “But I just remembered some other business I need to deal with.”

Without waiting for a dismissal, Layla stood up quickly and followed another capsuleer out the door of the cantina.

Sakaane glanced over her shoulder as Layla walked out, then turned back and scrubbed a hand over her face. She couldn’t help the sigh that followed.

“That was the most deliberate and successful attempt to avoid talking about an issue I’ve ever seen.”

“Layla has a lot of growing up to do,” Saxon said thoughtfully. “She has potential, but conflict is in her nature. Some people say that the Sajhans are only happy when they’re fighting. I don’t know that that is necessarily true, but their interpretation of the Ida’s tenets on the freedom of the self are a bit extreme.”

Saxon studied Sakaane’s face for a moment. He wondered if he had pushed her too far forward, promoted her too quickly through the ranks. Perhaps he had, but if not her then who else? How many friends had come and gone over the years? Too many and too few remained who could take up the mantle of leadership.

“As for avoiding the issue, you are correct, but that was my doing,” Saxon continued. “Layla would sooner resign than apologize. This was…”

Saxon paused and took a breath, letting it out slowly.

“This was politics, Sakaane,” he said. “You’ll find that oftentimes you will know that you are right and the person across the table will know that they are wrong. You must be satisfied with knowing that they know and let it go at that.”

“I didn’t come here to wring an apology out of her,” Sakaane answered gently. “I came to find some way to resolve whatever the issue has been so we can move forward. If giving my blessing for her new business model is what she needed to end the antics when council is in session, great. I’ll be happy to put it behind us and get back to work.”

She paused to consider what Saxon had said and was glad for the experience and advice he offered. “Everything about being president is politics. The alliance needs its leadership to be united and working together. They’ll feel it if we aren’t, and so will our allies and enemies. People will gladly take advantage of any rift that exists. If I don’t have the respect and support of the council, and vice versa, IPI will flounder. I don’t want that.”

“I think you have the respect of a majority of the council, Layla aside,” Saxon said seriously. “And I don’t think her disrespect was much more than a juvenile reaction to a slight she perceived you made at the dinner. I’ll not make excuses for her, but Layla can be an asset when properly aimed. I think we’ve done that.”

Saxon looked around the cantina at the assembled pilots. They represented all walks of life in the capsuleer community. Stacmon was good for that. Nothing like a border town to collect the people who don’t really fit in anywhere.

“But you’re right about the alliance,” Saxon said returning to the conversation. “It needs leadership and guidance. We need to be working toward creating a network of industrial and martial forces that can serve as the foundation for a free Intaki state.”

Saxon glanced around again, mindful that whenever he was in public there were ears hanging on his every word.

“I’m growing weary of waiting for the Intaki Assembly to take the steps necessary to distance itself from the Federation,” he said. “There is too much fear of the unknown and too much devotion to patiently waiting for a solution to present itself. I fear that members of Assembly, save the Sajhan delegation, will not make the leap until they are sure there is a net to catch them. I see now that we must do whatever it takes to be that net.”

“Whatever it takes,” Sakaane repeated, frowning. Then she reached into her jacket and slowly withdrew her pistol. Since the election she’d taken to carrying it in a shoulder holster rather than blatantly displaying it on her hip as she’d done in the past. It was heavy and familiar in her hand.

Laying the weapon carefully on the table, Sakaane made sure its barrel pointed away from the Suresha and the safety was on. “Some people are not thrilled that a combat pilot is in charge of IPI. They wonder what dark creature I’ll warp the alliance into.” A smile tugged at her lips. “If Alain Octirant was still around I imagine he’d point to me as an example of how we really are ‘peacenik terrorists’ now.” Her gaze dropped from Saxon’s eyes to the gun and back again. “Granted, there are things I can, and would, gladly do with this, to defend myself, to defend Bataav, to defend you. Whatever it takes, to ensure the safety of the people I care deeply about. But I also know most civilized societies consider such things to be heinous crimes, which of course is true. Baseliners are incarcerated, or executed, or worse, for taking matters into their own hands.

“But not us, the supposed ‘demi-gods’. Whether this or a turret, CONCORD would do little more than mark a blip on my record and adjust my security status. Does that make it any less heinous?” She nodded to indicate the captain at the back of the lounge, working on his datapad. The strained expression on his face was familiar. “In all likelihood, tomorrow he will hire a new crew and he may say to them, ‘Whatever it takes to get the job done.’ And they will go with him, possibly not understanding the full gravity of what that phrase can mean until it’s too late.” Then she shook her head. “The alliance is different. Even though I’ve just sent Layla off to redecorate the sov with the wrecks of Intaki’s criminal element, we still must ensure we adhere to a higher standard, and not open a door that leads to a path we can’t easily come back from.”

She picked up the gun and holstered it. “I can appreciate your frustration. We do need to do more. As it is, the Assembly has just as much guilt to bear as the Federation. They argued for and won autonomy and a minimal navy presence. They had countless years to take advantage of that, put together their own defense fleet and strengthen their position by establishing themselves in space…but chose to sit on their hands and do nothing while pirate scum crept in and took over. It was their responsibility to keep Intaki secure and they failed miserably at it. They flirt with crawling into bed with the State, yet the State would rape Intaki without a second thought, package us up, barcode us, and congratulate themselves on a job well done. Meanwhile the Federation makes laughingstock of the Assembly: the navy was ordered to keep out, yet they can be found in our space every day. Their presence draws in the Caldari militia, which draws in the Gallente militia, providing more fodder for the Empyrean War, and the Assembly seems not to mind.

“The Assembly doesn’t need a net,” she said firmly, “the people of the Intaki sov do. A government so stagnant and irresponsible is not healthy. For Intaki to be free, we must be rid of the Assembly too.”

Although he had managed to not react to the open display of a weapon, Saxon felt his eyebrow arch in reaction to Sakaane’s last statement. It wasn’t the first time he had heard such a sentiment, but it was the first time in a while.

Throughout his career, Saxon had been careful to deflect as much blame away from the Assembly as possible, trying to focus public attention on the federal government instead. Despite that public presentation, he’d spent many nights thinking about the Assembly’s faults and misdeeds. There was certainly blame enough to go around.

“Saying that we need to be rid of the Assembly is a bold thing,” Saxon said. “What would you propose to replace it?”

Sakaane sat forward. “The idea of the Assembly shouldn’t be abandoned. It’s been an integral part of our society for generations. But the people currently in it… They do us no favors and have not done for a long time. They are who we need to be rid of.

“‘Bold’ is a good word. The current Assembly is not bold. Every now and again they show a flicker of potential. But before that flicker can properly catch, they shrink back and let it die. They’re overly conservative because past Assemblies have always been overly conservative. It’s a habit inherited from one cycle to the next, and like any addiction, it’s difficult to break.

“We need people in the Assembly who aren’t afraid to be bold. They must be willing to shoulder the responsibility of doing better than their predecessors and feel empowered to actually see it through rather than simply maintaining the status quo. We need people who understand that a healthy Intaki needs a presence in space: Assembly stations. Assembly agents. Assembly fleets. Having these will make them much less fearsome of distancing themselves from the empires.”

Saxon reflected a moment on what Sakaane had said.

“There is certainly truth to what you say, but I think it goes beyond a lack of boldness,” he said at last. “Despite what we have done, what I set out to do, it strikes me that the very idea of ‘being Intaki’ has grown too elusive to grasp.”

Saxon looked around the room and made a subtle head nod to get the attention of a passing hostess. After ordering a hot tea, he continued.

“To be honest, I fear the ‘Intaki culture’ is a mythology,” he said ruefully, he gaze drifting out through the walls of the station and into the reaches of space.

“Have you ever been to Rohaanar?” he asked rhetorically. “The zealots there are without a doubt the most devout and ardent followers of the Ida I have ever seen. There dedication is beyond question. But their interpretation is another matter altogether. You’ve seen what a few lifetimes of that philosophy has done to Jyotmimana.”

Saxon paused again as the server set down his cup. He nodded his thanks and passed her enough Federal notes to cover the cost plus a generous tip.

“In their own way, the same is true of the Sajhans, the Maatrukaanans, the Ud’har…” his voice trailed off as he gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “Each delegation to the Assembly is concerned with the affairs of their own homeworld. The movement for a sovereign Intaki is far removed from their minds and hearts. How do we put sovereignty back in the forefront?”

A finger of disquiet crept into Sakaane at the Suresha’s mention of Jyotmimana. Saxon was the third person in recent months to directly disparage the elder man to her. Yet when Bataav had introduced her to him, he’d specifically mentioned Jyotmi’s affiliations had changed, and every time she’d spoken to the man he’d been polite, if perhaps a bit eccentric.

ILF was no stranger to the idea of ‘reformed adversaries’. She could think of numerous examples where they’d been at odds with a person or group and later on been able to move past those differences. Nevertheless, Jyotmimana seemed held stubbornly outside the realm of all possible reconciliation and she wondered why.

It made her nervous. What was it about Jyotmimana that made people resent him so much today, if he’d given up his actions of yesterday? Bataav never volunteered many details about the work they occasionally did together, and despite her curiosity, she’d always respected his privacy and never tried to pry. She trusted his judgment and she knew his sense of honor wouldn’t knowingly let him go down a path he shouldn’t be on. But hearing overtures time and again about Jyotmimana being a corrupt villain of one flavor or another ate away at her confidence.

The weight inside her jacket suddenly wasn’t the comfort it had been a moment ago. Maybe it was time she found out what Bataav was really up to.

Pushing those thoughts aside, she brought her attention back to the conversation.

“If our culture is a myth, the Federation made it that way.” Then, to answer the Suresha’s question, Sakaane said, “We need to fuel a rise of nationalism among the Assembly and our people in general. Remind them where they came from and what the Gallente have taken from all of us.

“There are so many examples. How about clackers? A traditional Intaki musical instrument, but have you ever actually seen one? I don’t mean those cheap plastic knock-offs the Federation hawks in vending machines for children to feed their allowance into.” Sakaane’s face crumpled up with distaste. “That junk is about as close to being authentic as I am to being empress of Amarr. No, I mean a real set of clackers.”

Now it was her turn to stare off into space. “From the time I was a little girl I studied at Vidyaae ki Khaskaph. When first enrolled, students have to learn and demonstrate adequate skills with a variety of instruments before earning the right to specialize. But they never taught clackers.” Her gaze refocused on Saxon. “Why? Because they didn’t have even one. For a long time now nearly all of their instruction has revolved around classic Gallente instruments, though I was lucky to able to learn at least one which still has vague Intaki roots. There was a chapter on clacker theory. Just one.”

She shrugged. “But otherwise, the excuse is that the wood is ‘too expensive’, ‘too rare’. Really? So much so that Intaki’s premiere music school can’t even get them? And as capsuleers, we command the wealth of planets, yet we’d be hard-pressed to actually get our hands on authentic Intaki clackers too.” Shaking her head, she added, “Clackers are a symbol of Intaki tradition. In times long past, families fashioned them themselves and children learned to play them from their parents. It took great skill to coax the proper sound from them and it was beautiful once you got it right. These days the Federation has suppressed their production so much that people actually buy into the supposed ‘authenticity’ of plastic noisemakers that kids just bang around to frighten their siblings.”

She realized her tone had sharpened bitterly and took a moment to compose herself before continuing.

“There’s a wider scope the Assembly can consider. Each colony seems to specialize in a given area: Dubaana on fuel; Kapda on textiles, for example. And what happens with these products? Exported, mostly. Don’t get me wrong: exports are an important part of any economy. But while those products are shipped off, what do we see in Intaki? Pend Insurance, Federal Freight, and of course, FedMart, the worst offender for absorbing and wiping out local business. Even Astral Mining is a Gallente firm. These companies might employ many of our people but ultimately the benefit goes to the Federation.

“The colonies could be encouraged to start a shift: promote their wares locally over those shipped in by the Federation or by Ishukone. We can ask the delegations to urge their education ministers to boycott the Federation educational institutions and curriculums. Judges can be pressured to hear their cases in Intaki courts that favor our traditional laws. Everyone can refuse to pay federal taxes, and those in high offices should forsake Gallente titles and honors in favor of Intaki ones. This would ideally get the delegations thinking more along the right lines…

“Rediscovering bits of our culture this way can create passion for rejuvenation and freedom, and each of these activities is non-violent. We simply get them to withdraw cooperation with the Federation.”

Saxon thought about the clackers he’d played with as a child. They were his father’s and had been his grandmother’s. They were one of the few things she’d managed to bring from the homeworld during the exile.

His father had always wanted Saxon to be a musician. To learn the traditional songs and to carry on the thread of culture that had run through his family for generations. But Saxon wasn’t interested at the time. His eyes were always toward the stars. How he wished now that he could go back and listen to his father play or hear his mother sing. The melodies still echoed somewhere in the recesses of his memories, but he could no longer make out the lyrics.

“Encouraging the colonies to sell their products locally will only work if there is a market for them,” Saxon said. “As pleased as I am with the trade hub, I don’t think it’s at a point to shift the trade imbalance.”

Saxon looked about, aware once more that ears were listening in on his conversation.

“But, I like the idea of what you’re talking about,” he said. “Perhaps we should look into being more vocal in championing ideas such as these.”

Nodding in agreement, Sakaane opened her mouth to add something more but hesitated as a realization hit her. Startled by her own thoughts, she blinked and said nothing while the Suresha sipped his tea.

The realization turned over in her mind. This was supposed to be an alliance meeting, she thought, yet here we are discussing ILF’s mandate. How odd that it didn’t occur to me sooner. But it feels so natural to listen to him, as if ILF has been the subject all along.

Gazing at Saxon, she wondered whether it was just Layla who needed more time to get used to the change in IPI leadership. Maybe the two of them needed it, too. They had a unique, and complex, association to work out now. She was devoted to following him and ILF’s pursuit of independence. But IPI had always had more general goals that she was meant to uphold as alliance president. Now it seemed he wanted to change those goals.

But which one of us sitting here is really president? She glanced aside, aware that she was essentially anonymous to everyone in the room but he was not and never would be.

Then she shook her head slightly to dismiss the thought. Maybe that has nothing to do with why our thoughts turned so easily to independence. Have we simply fallen into familiar patterns? The teacher instructing his student? The Suresha and his Isha, plotting secession, as we might if I weren’t president? She imagined it would take some time for them to figure out how to not trip over each other as she became more adept at putting her lead of the alliance into practice. After all, they’d had little opportunity in the past to work so closely together like this. He would always be Suresha to her, but she also dared to believe her presidency might, on some level, make her more or less his equal…at least a little. Perhaps instead of the Suresha and his Isha, they would eventually simply be able to work together as friends who shared common goals.

She met his gaze again; he was waiting patiently for her to say something.

“To my knowledge, IPI has never openly campaigned for secession.” Trying to gauge his reaction, she added, “I support moving IPI toward adopting ILF’s mandate and championing, as you say, the ideas we’ve discussed. But this has to be done carefully. I must not alienate those member corps who disagree with secession. If they feel pressured to toe the line, they’ll leave instead, and IPI needs them as much as it needs ILF.”

Saxon placed his teacup on the table and looked for a moment at the small ring of grounds settling into a pattern in the bottom. He knew of some who proclaimed to divine the future in those patterns, and wondered for a moment if his own future was written there in the grit at the bottom of his cup.

“You’re quite right, the IPI has never had any sort of unified political goal,” Saxon said, still looking into the cup. He raised his eyes and met Sakaane’s. “When I spoke of ‘we’ I meant ILF. I cannot control the minds of the alliance leaders, nor would I choose to. But I fear that in trying to build the alliance I let my focus on ILF and its goals falter. We’ve wandered a bit from the path I set out on and I aim to bring us back on track.”

He paused a moment, allowing the ebb and flow of the conversations going on around him to provide some cover for his words.

“As you know, I have been devoted to a diplomatic solution and still feel it is the best road to Intaki independence,” he said. “But there are those who will only listen to the peaceful solution when the threat of force is leveled firmly against them.”

Saxon glanced about, conscious of where he was and who was listening.

“As much as I abhor violence, I have come to the conclusion that we must ultimately be prepared to use it to achieve our goals,” he said, quietly. “We’re not nearly ready to do that. We need more pilots and they need to sharpen their skills.”

Saxon knew he was getting into dangerous territory, particularly in a Navy station, but the spies who dogged him would know well enough where he’d been and who he’d spoken with to have some clue as to what was coming anyway.

“While we developed the trade hub we worked in relative quiet and let the pirate and militia scum pick at us from the edges,” he continued. “But the time for that has come to an end. It is time for me resume my role as gadfly of the Federation. To poke back at them and hold up a mirror to their warts, to remind them of the untended weeds they allow to grow in the garden of Intaki.”

Saxon could tell the volume of his voice was rising slightly.

“But the blame is not just the Federation’s to take. Intaki is a jewel that has been allowed to lose its luster, to accumulate filth,” he said. “And we must not forget that it is our own assembly who has allowed this to happen with their own inaction.”

The ILF leader stopped and let out a sigh.

“For years I have waited for those elected by the people, be it the Assembly or the Senate, to do something to truly serve the people that they had sworn to defend,” he said. “But year in and year out nothing is done and Intaki space remains as dangerous as ever. I’m tired of waiting. ILF was not founded to be a military institution, but it is clear to me now that Intaki is in need of one.”

Saxon shook his head and looked down at his hands. How hard had he worked to limit the amount of blood to stain them?

“I can’t tell the rest of the alliance what to do and I won’t try,” he said, returning his eye’s to Sakaane’s face. “But I’m going to do everything in my power to raise an ILF navy for the defense of Intaki space.”

Saxon studied Sakaane’s face for a moment and softened his voice before continuing.

“I’ve asked a lot of you this last year. And you have always given much of yourself to serve our cause,” he said. “As Isha Sainika you will be leading this navy. As President of the IPI, you will have many other tasks. I need to know if you think you can handle both. If not, I would ask you to search your heart and decide which path calls you most.”

“Never in ten lifetimes would I have expected to end up in either of these roles. I’ll freely admit I wasn’t prepared for the scope of the presidency and I made mistakes too,” Sakaane said honestly. Her gaze slipped to one side: the chair Layla had sat in was off-kilter to the table; the IRAG CEO had not pushed it in when she departed. “It…hasn’t been easy.”

Sakaane’s cheeks flushed as she thought about everyone who had supported her, including Saxon, and looked back to him. Her back straightened. “I may not have sought to become Isha or president originally, but these tasks fell to me and now I want to see them through. This is my path and I have embraced it. Should I turn away simply because it isn’t easy?”

She glanced at Saxon’s hands; she’d noticed his contemplative look and reached across the table to clasp them comfortingly. “You know I’ll follow you into the fire you’re proposing. Let the blood be on my hands,” she said quietly. “Mine are already stained. Besides, as it stands, I’m perfectly positioned to maintain balance: directing our combat forces while ensuring the alliance’s goals are kept in mind, so the violence doesn’t spiral out of control.”

Then she met his eyes directly. “Having said all this, there is something I need to know as well. You chose me to be Isha. You encouraged me to run for president.” She took a breath. “But are you actually ready to accept what I have become?”

Saxon looked down at Sakaane’s hands holding his own. It was a gesture of familiarity that he wasn’t entirely prepared for. Saxon hadn’t held the hand of another woman since he courted his wife. How many years ago had that been? It seemed another lifetime ago and in many ways it was.

Those were the days before the capsuleers, before the pod pirates. The Serpentis had been about the only pirates around Intaki then and they had seemed so deadly. Now, with their conventional ships, they seemed like gnats—weak swarms of annoyance.

Saxon hadn’t been the Suresha in those days. He’d just emigrated from the Syndicate and was living with his cover story. He was constantly afraid that someone would learn his true ancestry and that he’d be imprisoned or worse. As it turned out no one really cared who he was or where he was from.

The fake papers did help him enter the Naval academy. Good scores and a strong work ethic had taken him the rest of the way and it was as a young midshipman that he’d met Ujvala while on shore leave in Dodixie. She was traveling with her parents and seeing her in her traditional Intaki garb excited something within him. They only spoke for a few minutes that day, just long enough for her father to notice them and to chase Saxon away.

But that was all the time he had needed to learn her name and where on Intaki she was from. It didn’t take him long to save his money to pay a locator agent to track down her exact address.

Saxon shook off the memories and looked into Sakaane’s eyes. She was looking for an answer, but he felt she was looking for an affirmation as well. In truth, he wasn’t entirely sure of the answer. For over half a decade now he’d guarded ILF the way a mother jangli defends her young and now he was entrusting it to someone else in a way he hadn’t before.

There had been other Ishas, sure, but none like Sakaane. She was special and Saxon knew it. That’s why he found himself in the position he was in. Sitting across a table in a crowded cantina, holding hands and staring into her eyes. His mind wondered again as he briefly wondered what Bataav’s spies would tell his trusted advisor about this encounter.

“And what have you become that you were not before?” he answered her question with one of his own.

Sitting back and smoothing her hands over her hair gave Sakaane a moment’s cover to think. Then she said, “Beyond the obvious? After all, when I joined ILF, what was I? A few years younger than I am now, of course, but also less experienced and rather raw around the edges, a product of the various misadventures I’d had to that point.” She fell silent a moment as she recalled various events from around that time. “I was…a little lost. Intaki was home but it wasn’t the home I’d known before my…introduction to the Serpentis.” She frowned at that particular memory but shook it off.

“In any case, back then I was simply a pilot, one new face among your ranks. I did what I was told, I contributed where I could, and,” she smiled at Saxon, “I listened to your teachings. With ILF, I became someone who had found a better purpose. I could help make a difference in a way that mattered to a great many people, not just myself.”

The volume of her voice dropped. “Then what happened? One day not long ago I found I’d gained a shipload of responsibility I never expected.” She swallowed, trying to ease a sudden tight feeling in her throat. Speaking the words aloud seemed to cement her two positions with a great weight that embarrassed her, but she forged ahead nonetheless. “Very quickly I’ve become someone other people will look to for leadership. They’re going to rely on me to guide them and make wise choices. I’ve become responsible for their safety, their welfare, not to mention the success of the alliance and of Sainika, and to bear the consequences of my decisions and actions. Those can be much farther reaching now than when I was simply Kacha, or even Pasha.

“These types of things you have long carried the burden for alone,” she added gently, “and everyone, including you, is used to you doing so. So I asked what I did because just as I know I’ve had something of a difficult time fitting into the new reality of my life… I suppose I imagine you might have a similar feeling yourself. Life is change, but change can be…troublesome.”

Saxon nodded his head and was quiet for a moment.

“Years ago, I was visiting some friends on Ud’har. During a meditative walk I came across what looked like an acorn, but their were no trees with similar nuts anywhere around,” he said. “It puzzled me and I picked up the little nut and carried it home with me.”

Saxon was looking out the window again, staring into the past.

“My wife and I planted it in a garden, curious to see what would grow,” he continued, feeling a smile creep across his lips. “Had we known, we might not have done so. The tree grew fast in Intaki’s climate. Within a few years it was tall and wide as any tree in our neighborhood.”

He blinked and looked at Sakaane.

“Our children loved it. My sons built a fort in its branches and my daughters would decorate its trunk with colored ribbons each holiday,” he said, but his smile faded. “The tree grew and grew. In a decade, it was easily the tallest thing in our neighborhood. And then one night a storm blew in from the sea and tree was torn up. It destroyed our garden wall and blocked the street outside it.”

Saxon shook his head remembering how angry nearby property owners had been. He’d covered the costs of the damages, but there were still some in the neighborhood who referred to something as “a Saxon’s Tree” if it grew too large and cumbersome to be easily handled.

“My children, some of whom were grown adults at the time, mourned the loss of the tree as though it had been a member of our family,” Saxon said. “The change was indeed troublesome, but unavoidable.”

Saxon leaned back a bit and ran his hands along the synthetic material that comprised the table at which he sat.

“You’ve seen the desk in my office at the cultural center?” he asked. “It was made from wood at the very heart of that tree. The carver and carpenter who worked together to craft it tell me they’ve never seen wood like it. They say the desk will likely last a dozen lifetimes.”

Saxon looked directly into Sakaane’s eyes.

“Change is inevitable,” he said. “The tree could no more stop or control it than you or I can. Though the tree died, it was reborn as something else with a new purpose and a new destiny.”

The ILF leader smiled again.

“Fortunately, men and women don’t have to die to be recast in a new role,” he said. “I am pleased to hear that you will be staying on as Isha. As I said before, I plan to raise a navy and I can’t think of another pilot I’d want to lead to it.”

Saxon signaled to the server that he wanted another tea, and used the gesture as a means to quickly scan the room again. He was not surprised to see the utterly ordinary-looking Gallente man who had entered a short time after himself was now seated just a few tables away. Given his completely unremarkable appearance, nearly generic in every way, Saxon had pegged him as a Federal Intelligence Office agent almost immediately. There always seemed to be one around in the weeks following his return from Syndicate space.

Saxon continued his conversation as though no one was listening.

“I’m also eager to see how the new training program you’re implementing works,” he said. “If everything goes according to plan, phase one will bring in 100 new pilots by the end of the year. We’ll need maximum operational efficiency to get them up to speed and ready for phase two.”

As the Suresha spoke, Sakaane placed her elbow on the table, resting her chin in the palm of her hand, and listened to his smooth voice. In her mind’s eye she envisioned the tree and its inevitable fall and smiled when she recalled the desk he spoke of. He was very good at storytelling, something she wished she had occasion to hear him do more often.

But when he reached the end of his story, her eyes widened. If not for her chin in her hand, her mouth would have gaped open. “A hundred pilots!”

Sakaane sat forward again, resting both forearms on the table, and laced her fingers together. “It’s an ambitious goal. How do you propose we go about achieving it? And what, if I may ask, is phase two?”

Saxon could tell that he’d surprised his Isha and was glad that he had done so. If he could surprise those closest to him, his bold new course would certainly come as a surprise to others.

“I have a friend on Sajha, perhaps one of the greatest protest organizers on the planet, and—given the nature of politics on Sajha, that’s saying something,” Saxon said. “I asked him once how he got so many people to come to his rallies and he told me the answer was simple.”

Saxon paused a moment as the server set down his fresh cup of tea and collected the empty one from the table. He paid in Federation currency, again giving a generous tip.

“He told me, ‘I shake every tree and scoop up all the nuts,’” Saxon said, allowing himself a chuckle. “I’ve never forgotten that and I think it somewhat appropriate now.”

Saxon took a sip of his tea, taking care to savor each element. His grandfather had often complained about the quality of the tea grown on the station where Saxon had grown up, but he hadn’t understood the subtle differences until he’d come to live in the Federation. In the years since, Saxon had tried many blends and varieties, coming to know the spices and oils used to flavor each. He sometimes daydreamed that he owned a teahouse and chatted with his daily patrons. It was a nice dream, but he didn’t see it coming true in this life. He swallowed.

“In truth, I have a few tricks up my sleeve, but you should be aware that most of them will raise our profile in the public’s eye,” he said. “While this will bring us the infusion of new blood that we need, it will also call more wolves to our door. I know you keep our guard up, but you must make sure your pilots do the same.”

Saxon glanced around again, considering just how much information he wanted to divulge. He’d chosen this venue intentionally as he couldn’t very well issue a press release about what it was he was planning to do.

“As for phase two, I suppose I plan to do the same thing anyone who raises a navy does,” he said. “If the Intaki Assembly isn’t going to provide for the protection of its people, then someone else must. We have the resources, but lack the manpower. I aim to correct that and then we’ll fill the void.”

Sakaane was silent for a long time as she considered Saxon’s answers, such as they were. By virtue of where they were seated, she understood why they were vague. Nevertheless she hoped he didn’t honestly expect her to proceed based on metaphors about trees and nuts, and little else.

It sounded like a grand plan, and she did support it. Intaki did need a proper force dedicated to its defense. But the more she thought about it, the more her earlier annoyance about the meeting started to resurface. He’d certainly not come to this decision lightly, nor all at once. Why was she finding out like this, in public, when originally she had been led to believe the meeting would be to smooth out alliance issues?

Her annoyance turned to frustration as Saxon’s eyes flicked around, taking note of who else was in the room. She’d enjoyed the chance to sit and talk with him for so long, but having reached the point where she needed actual concrete information, realized the cantina was the least appropriate place for him to brief her about such a drastic change of strategy. He’d done it on purpose though, chosen this location so he could, what? Stir up the masses without having to shout his intentions from the hangar decks? The wolves would be waiting for them before they even had a chance to prepare.

He’d surprised her with this. She was on board with his plan, always would be, but still felt blindsided. Surprises used to be fun, but not anymore. The last few months had ruined that. She felt used, too, as a convenient excuse so Saxon could leak the information to…whomever.

Secrets. Plans and schemes. Games. Information people knew that impacted her, that was left unsaid until a moment when it was the most advantageous for someone else while she was the most unprepared. Too many other people seemed to know what the real picture of her life was and she had to scramble to adapt, catch up, figure out the real lay of the land after the fact. It was the theme lately and she was tired of it. Reacting, instead of acting.

The spies would report back that the Isha-Sainika was obviously caught flat-footed by the Suresha. And why should anyone outside ILF learn what ILF planned when the person Saxon wanted to be responsible for implementing that plan didn’t have a clue?

“You paid me a great compliment earlier,” Sakaane said finally. “The amount of trust you’ve placed in me is…beyond what I can put into words, and I can’t thank you enough for it. But…this,” she gestured vaguely to the empty space between them, “can’t happen again like this.”

The statement hung for the span of a few breaths. The spies already had their fodder but she supposed if they overheard a bit more it couldn’t do much more damage than what they’d already picked up today. She needed Saxon to understand her perspective.

“I learned recently that a filthy Serpentis pirate knows more about me, about my family, than I do,” she said, trying to keep her voice low and even, but the bitterness bled in anyway. “What he knows, the rest that I still don’t know, has nearly killed me three times. The last attempt was at the beginning of May.” She nodded to Layla’s empty chair. “Add to that the frustration of not understanding what I’d done to offend her and perhaps you can appreciate what my mindset was like when I took my vacation. I felt in the dark, about so much.”

Leaning closer to him across the table for more privacy she knew she didn’t really have, she said, “I came today expecting to discuss one thing but was presented with something quite different, so again find myself feeling in the dark about what is really going on. Granted, I know I was away for a month. But I would have appreciated a mail, a call, something, rather than having it…sprung on me like this.” She smiled slightly to soften her words. “It’s not enough to say you’re going to use ‘a few tricks’ to dump a hundred pilots in my lap as if we’re casually discussing the weather. I can’t lead, or help you lead, if you don’t include me when you’re planning something this big. I need to be on the same page, the same team, as you, to be effective.”

She sat back and pressed on. “This navy will create a lot of backlash that the entire corp will need to deal with. Our detractors will say you’ve betrayed your principles. They’ll say we’ve finally shown our true colors as terrorists, that ILF is war mongering, that it’s no wonder a combat pilot was elected to the alliance, and on and on. Anything to drag us down. Our own pilots, the miners and industrialists, and our allies, might have concerns about it too.”

Now that she’d started, she found the words flowed rather easily. She wondered if they sounded sharper than she meant them to be and made another effort to relax. She’d never been this direct or firm with him before and didn’t want him to get the wrong impression. Was her sudden need to assert herself a product of her recent experiences, or the fact he’d encouraged her, again, to step up to lead? In either case, lead she would, and forged ahead.

“You mentioned operational efficiency. To achieve that I need to know when and from where the new pilots will come. I need to know that these pilots will be put through the same security checks as any other new recruit, both for consistency and to protect the corporation. If you don’t think that’s feasible, then we need a plan to ensure we’re not opened up to infiltration by swelling our ranks to such a degree so quickly. Perhaps most importantly, Sainika will need standing orders so existing and new pilots know what is expected of them and can continue to function while I’m busy or absent. I need to feel free to write these orders as I see fit to run my division well.”

Glancing pointedly around, she added, “It would also be better if we discussed these specifics in a more secure location. There’s a lot to do, and we need to be able to speak without fear of who might be listening.”

Saxon looked into Sakaane’s eyes. There was hurt there, and anger too. She was a passionate woman and her heart was on her sleeve. He wondered to himself how she would do in the dark days ahead.

Standing from his chair, Saxon motioned for Sakaane to do the same.

“Walk with me for a while,” he said. “I feel a need to stretch my legs.”

Saxon led them on a circuitous path through the station, going past the offices rented by various corporations. Some were new and unknown to him. Others had been operating in the Placid Region for years. Saxon shared several stories about the corporations he was familiar with, making sure to control the conversation as he walked with ILF’s combat leader.

At last the pair arrived at Saxon’s rented quarters. When they entered an acolyte stepped forward to meet them.

“All is as you asked, Suresha,” he said. “The room has been swept twice, two recording devices have been recovered.”

“Thank you, Ossek,” Saxon said warmly. “You’ve done well. Now, take your leave and enjoy the facilities here.”

“Thank you, Suresha,” the student said bowing as he exited.

With the door closed and their privacy ensured, Saxon turned to Sakaane.

“You may speak freely,” he said.

A smirk that she wasn’t entirely successful at suppressing tugged at her lips. “I’m fairly certain I did that already. But, all right, I’ll add this: it was irresponsible of you to risk ILF’s security by announcing your plan in public like that.” Throwing up her hands, Sakaane let them fall with a slap against her thighs and then paced slowly through the generous quarters. “Just like it was irresponsible of me to sit there like a stunned, naive acolyte and let you continue talking about it.” Her voice quieted and she mused, “But it’s so easy to listen to you… Reminds me of—”

A sharply inhaled breath helped her catch the words that had been about to blurt themselves out.

Setting the realization aside for the moment, Sakaane turned back to Saxon. “Most often, you are ‘the Suresha’. You prompt meaningful reflection through stories and lessons steeped in metaphor,” she said evenly. “You also have incredible vision and you know full well the power you command over others. But this! Raising a navy?” She shook her head slowly. “The Suresha isn’t needed for that.”

Sakaane approached him. “What’s needed now is the CEO of a capsuleer corporation, to speak plainly and work with his senior staff so they are adequately prepared to execute his plans. No mysterious, metaphorical details. The questions I asked earlier are important. As your Isha-Sainika, I need that information if we’re going to accomplish anything meaningful.” She smiled delicately and felt her back straighten. “As president, I expect to have it, so I can properly prepare the rest of the alliance and adjust my recruitment strategy going forward.”

Gesturing to the nearby sofa, she added, “Now, can we please get started?”

Saxon gestured for Sakaane to sit, but remained standing himself. He looked at her as a teacher looks upon a favored student.

“You’re right,” he said at last. “I’ve guided ILF as a visionary, but in the days ahead it will need someone better equipped to take a hands on approach.”

He paused to look at his own hands. How much blood was on them? How many lives had they taken? He was a killer and there was no denying it, but Saxon knew his heart and mind weren’t in the place they needed to be.

“I’m going away for a while,” he continued. “I won’t be stepping down or anything so dramatic as that, but I need to reevaluate my place within the movement and I can’t do it from here.”

He gestured back toward the hall from which they had come and to the cantina beyond it.

“That…that was a bit of theater, and I apologize if you feel used by it,” Saxon said, a flat expression on his face. “You are no doubt being followed and spied upon already, but if it were known that I was actually leaving you in charge of ILF operations, you would not know a moment’s peace.”

Saxon shook his head sadly, trying to remember the last time he had been able to walk a street or enjoy a meal without the feeling that someone was recording his every action. After so many years, his file must be massive by now. Perhaps somewhere in the FIO headquarters was a server dedicated solely to his life and travels.

“While I’m gone I’ll be looking to you as President of the IPI to be the guiding hand,” he said, turning to face Sakaane directly. “Our pilots and those of the alliance respect you and trust you. So do I.”

It took a moment for his words to sink in. The course of their meeting had been a swirling, confusing mishmash of topics, plans, promises. What of it, if anything, had been said in earnest, and what would prove to be empty, never coming to fruition? Theater, Saxon had said. She bit back a sigh, not entirely happy at this final turn of events.

Then, thinking back to her musings about the dynamic of her relationship with him, she wondered if this might actually be the best course of action for the time being, and began to feel better. As president, Sakaane needed the freedom to call the shots without worry of being perceived as nothing more than a mouthpiece for his decisions, whether he was actually making them or not.

He was finally handing her the trust and authority to run IPI in her own way without being interfered with, second-guessed, or micro-managed. And ILF as well, until his return. A hands on approach, he’d said. Yes, that was what IPI and ILF needed. There was much to clean up and reorganize if they were to have any hope of accomplishing their goals.

Choosing to dismiss the comment about spies (for she knew very well that if Darac Rin and the anonymous benefactor had their fingers so deep into her business, so too must others already, but what could be done about it?) she found instead that she was nodding thoughtfully as the conclusion to their meeting turned itself over and over in her mind.

“Thank you,” she said finally, looking up at him. His face was guarded but she guessed at the struggle he must have felt to step back as he was doing. “I’ll do everything I can to strengthen ILF and IPI, to ensure our success. Your trust won’t be misplaced.” Standing, she wanted to offer her hand to him in a gesture of friendship and gratitude, but remembered his earlier reaction and decided against it. “Safe travels, Suresha,” she said instead. “I hope you find the revelation you seek.”

Bowing respectfully, Sakaane excused herself and left his quarters, intent on getting to work.