Thanks to Devan Corvel for participating.

Duripant VII – Moon 6 – Federal Navy Academy School

Deck 17 Bar ’n’ Grill had only a small crowd in it when Sakaane walked through the door. The chink of glass and dinnerware punctuated the quiet hum of conversation and a delicious aroma wafted out from the kitchen. Her stomach rumbled as she scanned the room for a likely-looking place to sit down. Having spent the last several weeks nourished only by her capsule, she was eager to treat her palate to some real food.

“My dear, my dear!” The bartender, Njal, waved her over. “It’s been some time, kainta. Where have you been keeping yourself?”

Namas, Njal.” Sakaane smiled and sat down on a stool opposite him. In his late fifties, Njal was originally from Intaki but had left Placid years ago to make his fortune. His travels led him to Duripant, where he’d opened Deck 17. This had proven a successful endeavor but he often joked his fortune was still waiting for him, even though Sakaane knew he felt tending his bar brought him a kind of richness ISK couldn’t provide. He was tall and lightly built, and like many Intaki men his age wore his grey hair long, but tied back at the nape of his neck with a leather thong.

Having been transferred to Duripant after completing a year’s worth of preliminary training in Scolluzer, Sakaane had become a regular at Deck 17, enjoying Njal’s easy camaraderie and the reminder of home he provided. Now, two years later, she considered him a good friend and knew he thought of her as the daughter he’d never had.

As always the bar was sparkling clean; she could see her reflection in the highly-polished and expensive mahogany surface. A young man sat at one end, several stools away from her, and out of the corner of her eye she saw him watching her intently. Aware that her hairstyle, pinned up and fanned out behind her head, leaving her neck bare, revealed her uppermost implant for all to see, she dismissed his attention as the avid—and sometimes fearful—curiosity she’d been long warned most capsuleers received from the general public.

To Njal she said, “Training exercises again. They’ve had us weaving through the belts the last few weeks, practicing maneuvers. If I never see another asteroid again it’ll be too soon.”

The skin around Njal’s blue eyes crinkled up as he grinned at her. “Ah, you love it. I’d never seen you so happy as the day they finally let you crawl into that space egg. How long ago was that now, a year? Year and a bit? You’re hardly ever outside it these days, at any rate.”

She accepted the drink he handed her—a tall glass of carefully layered fruit juices and soda called a Nebulae Fusion—and nodded. “I’ll graduate soon, early next year. Then the real fun begins.”

“Hmm.” He picked up an empty tumbler and wiped it out even though it was already clean. “So, pasta tonight?”

“Yes, please. Thanks.”

He excused himself to the kitchen; on slow nights like this one he often did much of the cooking himself.

Suddenly somber, she turned her gaze to the colorful drink fizzing quietly on the bar before her, reaching out to twirl the glass slowly between her fingers.

The real fun. The high-speed maneuvers they’d been running required the squad to disable their collision avoidance systems due to proximity to the asteroids. The Sergeant Major training them was of the opinion no self-respecting capsuleer should rely solely on the ship’s systems when navigating: “You got to feel your ship, make it a part of you, like a new skin! Know its capabilities like you know how to breathe. Know its size like you know your body. Use your instruments, but use your God-given senses too! Fleet engagements can turn into close-quarter furballs—so you better be prepared to judge for yourself if you can still fly through a rapidly-closing gap when your neocom is already shot to hell!”

But today during the exercise one of her squadmates had misfired his thrusters during a sharp bank around one of the asteroids and lost control of his Velator. She’d rounded the horizon in time for her camera drones to show his ship exploding in a ball of fire as it smashed into the surface and his pod spinning away from the wreckage only to crack open against a mountainous protrusion of rock.

She’d sped on by, narrowly missing his corpse as it tumbled wildly into the void. Capsule fluid had spewed across her hull and her ship’s systems had dutifully simulated a wet splat sound as the impacts registered. She cringed at the memory.

The cadet was fine; he’d woken up in a new clone an instant after his pod breached. And not that all of them hadn’t been well-instructed in the dangers of spaceflight and what hard vacuum would do to the human body…but seeing it first-hand was quite different than being told about it. She’d nearly been ill in her pod.

That is what the Serpentis saw when they blew the liner. All those people blown into space, their lives snuffed in an instant, bodies flung everywhere. None of those people got to wake up. Serpentis see it every day and still they go on.

Her fingers tightened around the glass and she took a swig.

The young man at the end of the bar was still staring at her. Pointedly ignoring him, Sakaane busied herself by studying the wide variety of colorful liquor bottles displayed on the wall behind the bar while listening with half an ear to the music Njal had piped over the sound system. Deck 17 was a decent-sized establishment but had no room for live entertainment so Njal fancied himself something of a DJ, spending a great deal of his spare time compiling playlists he felt would best suit the lounge.

A new song started up. She stiffened, the music streaming through the speakers all too familiar. Her half-swallowed swig of juice caught in her throat, choking her. She sputtered and coughed.

Just then the young man at the end of the bar sat up straight and snapped his fingers rapidly, a wide grin on his face. “I knew I recognized you!” he said, punctuating each word with further snaps. “I do, I know you! Oh man, what was your name…? My kid sister back home, she used to listen to you—”

Sakaane tried to hack away the juice, annoyed as he continued to snap his fingers and point energetically at her in an effort to jog his memory. Her voice floated through the air, seeming to mock her.

At a table nearby, Devan Corvel looked up from his meal, irritated at his thoughts having been interrupted by the commotion at the bar. Couldn’t a man have any peace to review reports and eat dinner? He’d been told Deck 17 had a quiet atmosphere.

The woman at the bar had her back to Devan but he could see rigid tension in her posture as she swivelled to the side, revealing an attractive profile. Meanwhile the young man looked like he was just barely old enough to be in the lounge in the first place. This kid, Devan noted with some amusement, also seemed to be at risk of having his fingers snapped clean off, if the woman’s glare was anything to judge by. But the kid was either oblivious to this or simply a twit. Or maybe both, Devan thought with a smirk.

“I got it!” the kid exclaimed and jumped off the barstool to rush up to her. “Sakaane Eionell, right? That’s one of your songs playing right now.”

“Please, leave me alone,” she croaked, clearing her throat and leaning away as he came near. Devan frowned and set his datapad to sleep, laying it carefully on the table in front of his plate. The kid was practically standing on top of Sakaane, much too far into her personal space for Devan’s taste.

The young man leaned over the bar and rummaged around, chattering away in an excited rush. “My kid sister, she’s big into music like yours, always prefers the home-grown stuff rather than the big names. I know she had pictures of you all over the place. She’ll die to know I met you! Can I have your—”

Sakaane jumped, startled, as Devan shot his hand in front of her to grab her accoster’s wrist just as he swung up to offer a pen and notepad to her.

“The lady said to leave her alone,” Devan said quietly, firmly pressing the wrist against its owner’s chest. His large hand easily circled the young man’s thin forearm.

The kid was forced to take a step back. Gawping at Devan momentarily, he then wriggled free and mumbled a red-faced apology before darting toward the exit.

Sakaane chuckled. “I think you scared him half to death.” The laugh caused another round of coughing.

“Idiot kid,” Devan said dismissively, waiting as she got her breathing under control. “You okay?”

Apparently embarrassed by his intense gaze—her cheeks flushed a pleasant shade of rose—she swiftly turned away. “Yes.” But he saw how she blinked rapidly and was cursing under her breath, and wondered if her watering eyes hadn’t been caused solely by the errant mouthful of juice.

He remained standing beside her, feeling awkward while she tried to discreetly sniffle and wipe her face. The song on the sound system was drawing to a close; her voice soared over them in crescendo, raising goose bumps on his arms.

“It’s a nice song,” he blurted.

Her shoulders bunched up again with tension. Then she sighed heavily and turned back to look at him. “Thanks,” she said shyly, though she continued to frown.

Disappointed, Devan found himself wanting to find a suitable compliment that would make those lovely lips curve into a smile. His eyes flicked from them to her green eyes—but when he saw she was gazing back at him, he quickly looked away. He recognized the pain of shattered dreams there, knew it well himself, but had no idea what to say.

That’s when he noticed her upper arm. She was wearing fatigues and the patch affixed there indicated she was a navy cadet.

Damn, he thought, trying to swallow the bitter feeling the patch elicited in him. Better not.

“Well,” he said finally, “I hope you enjoy your evening. Excuse me.”

Sakaane tried to find something to say as he went back to his table. “Thanks,” she said again, and cringed at how lame she sounded.

His gaze lingered on her as he stepped away. Her blush burned hot in her cheeks; his interest had been plain on his face right up to the very last moment when she’d seen a flash of something else: a crushing sense of dreams torn asunder, left blackened and broken on the floor.

She checked a sigh and leaned her elbow on the bar, scrubbing the palm of her hand over her face. That stupid song, she thought angrily. Why do the lyrics choke my throat when I try to sing? Why do my fingers freeze up when I try to play? Why can’t I just get over it? Even now, years later, she didn’t understand why there was still anything to get over. If I could then his comment wouldn’t have felt like a slap in the face.

“Ugh,” she groaned and picked up her drink, eyeing it critically before taking a cautious sip. She felt like a moron. The kid had just wanted an autograph—and what would have been so wrong with that? Music had been her life and way back when she’d worked tirelessly to promote herself at home—while her rescuer, she imagined, had probably wanted a date. She didn’t even know his name! So much for that.

Sakaane nearly laughed again. Surely his bitterly sad expression wasn’t due to her reaction to him. That would be silly. But what was it from then? The not knowing nagged at her.

She studied him. He’d picked up his datapad and was reviewing it intently while forking his meal—probably cold now—into his mouth. He was Gallente and, she thought, quite handsome, dressed in military surplus cargos and a zippered leather jacket, with a chiseled jaw and close-cropped dark blond hair styled up in the front. What looked like a metallic red tattoo adorned each cheek. But something about him was a little odd… Though she judged him to be not more than a few years older than her, somewhere in his mid to late twenties, his face seemed just a little too smooth, too…fresh.

When he reached behind his head to scratch an itch, she caught a glimpse down the collar of his jacket. The overhead lights glinted off a small neural socket embedded at the nape of his neck.

Ah, she thought, smiling a little. Probably podded recently. Now she regretted not being more receptive to him. While it was true her squadmates were all male, and some of them attractive enough, it was nevertheless difficult to find a guy whose only interest was not limited to “some good tail”, never mind that it was technically against regs. Baseliners, on the other hand, always seemed to go limp and squeamish as soon as their hands ran over the implants in her back.

Just then Njal emerged from the kitchen carrying a steaming plate of pasta in cream sauce. “Here you are,” he said. “Careful, it’s hot.”

“Thanks, Njal. Smells wonderful, as always.” Sakaane nodded at the end of the bar where the young man’s half-finished drink remained. “You can put that on my tab too.”

“Oh? Making friends, are we?”

She smirked. “Something like that.” With one last glance at her rescuer, who was still engrossed in the datapad, Sakaane swivelled the stool around and picked up a fork.

Devan barely tasted the food as it passed by his lips, more or less chewing and swallowing automatically, then repeating the process. Not that what he’d ordered wasn’t good. It was just that his brain was elsewhere.

The datapad displayed a chart listing several drone and ammunition types in rows, with columns of data for each. He cleared his throat and squinted, trying to concentrate on comparing attributes between similar items, looking for what would provide a good balance.

When he caught himself wondering which of these drones and what ammo Sakaane might use, he gave his head a shake and shifted uncomfortably in the chair. He imagined after the little incident she’d have left Deck 17 and would be long gone by now. Even if he wanted to go find her he wouldn’t be able to—not without a locator agent anyway, and surely she’d just find that creepy. Still, he refused to look at the bar to confirm. Doing that might prove himself wrong, and if she was still there, just out of his sight, he might be tempted to do something about it.

What the hell is wrong with me? Devan had no idea. She was Fed Navy. That ship had undocked and warped off into oblivion the moment he saw the patch on her arm. He’d been Fed Navy once, too, and knew better than to go near that organization again. I don’t even know her. A couple of awkward exchanges and staring stupidly at her means nothing. Dammit, she’s Fed Navy!

A button on the pad let him page into the local market orders and he scrolled through them. After several minutes of staring blankly at a sell order without noticing it was located fourteen jumps away, Devan sighed, put the datapad down, and finally let himself look at the bar.

She was still there, cheek leaning on her left hand, picking idly at a plate of noodles with a fork. Her left leg was crossed over her right at the knee and he noticed how her foot twitched slightly in time to lounge’s music.

Ah, screw it. Maybe that ship hadn’t warped off after all. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and got up again, clearing his throat quietly to announce his presence.

“Hi,” he said. When she looked at him she wasn’t frowning anymore but otherwise seemed only mildly surprised to find him standing there. Now he was near her again he could faintly smell—not perfume? Her shampoo perhaps. Those green eyes of hers stared right into him and he felt his insides tighten up pleasantly. “I, uh…” After another awkward silence he blurted, “Look. I could say something lame like, ‘Either I’ve been podded or you fell out of heaven’ but that would be lame, right? Right. So—” Yes, go on, keep babbling at her like that idiot kid did. Real smooth Devan, real smooth!

A smile crept slowly across her lips, matching the blush that spread once more across her cheeks, and he felt himself grinning in return.

“Yes,” she said, trying not to laugh, “it would be. But it might work, too.” She stuck out her hand. “Sakaane Eionell.”

Her fingers, when they wrapped around his, were warm and soft—no calluses. “Devan Corvel,” he said, and then gestured to his table. “Would you care to join me?” When she nodded her assent he reached out to carry her plate for her.

They sat down. His eyes kept straying to the patch on her shoulder. “So… Fed Navy? Don’t see many women enlisting.”

“So I’ve noticed.” She shrugged. “It’s a means to an end.”

“Why would you enlist when you obviously have other talents?”

Sakaane chewed slowly and then dropped her gaze to her plate. “Why does anyone do anything?” she said evasively. “I have my reasons.” The pasta got pushed around.

He waited until she glanced up to meet his expectant stare. She stared back, still chewing, and then swallowed. “It was a long time ago. Suffice it to say: Pirates and death. I lost…almost everything. Too much. So I enlisted. It was the only way I could get back at the Serpentis and make a difference. I’d gladly go back to my music if I could. But every time I try…it’s like there’s a crushing weight on my chest, and nothing…nothing comes out.” She shook her head sharply. “I don’t like to talk about it much.” Another awkward silence followed. “What about you?”

Devan was frowning. “I’m not with the navy anymore, haven’t been for a number of years. I work for a private firm headed up by a friend of mine. Golden Phoenix Inc. Much more lucrative and engaging than being the Federation’s gopher.”

“Why do you say that?”

He considered for a moment and then leaned forward, putting down his fork so both hands were free. “Let me put it this way. Even if I don’t know the details, I get why you’re doing what you’re doing. I’ve run into my own fair share of Serpentis in my day. But honestly, you’re going about it the wrong way. You realize you aren’t going to have a lot of freedom, right? You’re going to have to follow orders. The Federation will send you to the ass end of space to patrol trade lanes, babysit some diplomat’s kid, or pick up enough cigarettes for every cadet for the next four years. Most of the time they’ll send you out to kill Caldari. And sometimes…sometimes they’ll order you to do something you’ll have to live with, long after they’ve quietly filed it away.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Sounds like you speak from experience on that.”

“I do. It’s why I’m not in the navy anymore. I got tired of doing their dirty work, equipped only with their lousy intel.” He punched up some records on the datapad and handed it to her. “Back then I couldn’t even save up for a cruiser because I kept getting blown to smithereens.”

He watched the blood drain from her face. The pad displayed a long list of frigate losses and their associated ISK values. “Because of what happened…my mother requires nursing care,” she admitted quietly. “It’s expensive, but I haven’t needed much money for myself. I send nearly all of my cadet allowance home to provide for her.”

“After you graduate you’ll only be paid a pittance for what your skills are actually worth, and you’ll be responsible for acquiring all your own equipment. It will be tough to do both,” Devan said gently, taking the pad back. This time he brought up his wallet balance, and handed the pad over again. “Imagine the kind of care you could provide for her.”

While she stared in disbelief at the number, he went on. “The final straw for me came when they asked me to hunt down one of their deep cover agents. The guy’d been blacklisted for one reason or another and in retaliation was threatening to release information to the DED about things the navy had been up to.” He leaned back in his chair and glared at his nearly empty plate. “They didn’t ask me to bring him in. They just wanted him dead. He wasn’t a capsuleer, you see, so spacing him was permanent.”

“Did you do it?”

He nodded, slowly. “Had to. Orders. They don’t exactly appreciate it when you say no. But not long after that I resigned my commission. It hadn’t been the first time they’d asked me to do something like that for them, and I knew then it would never be the last. And think about it… What exactly was it this guy knew that was such a threat? What else goes on out there that we never hear about?”

“I have to finish what I’ve started,” she protested. “If I don’t graduate I’ll never get CONCORD clearance as a capsuleer. And…the situation at home, in Intaki… I’d always imagined I’d request to be posted in Placid, so I could patrol the pocket.”

“I’m not saying that won’t happen. Maybe the navy has changed in the years since I left, I don’t know.” He tried to backpedal, aware he’d made her uncomfortable. “Hundreds of thousands of other pilots make a career out of the navy, so it must work for them. My experience was different, is all.”

She continued to frown at the datapad and then eventually handed it back.

“What is Intaki like?” Devan asked, wanting to steer the conversation back to more pleasant topics. “I’ve never been there.”

Sakaane smiled and nodded to a display spanning one wall of the restaurant. On it was the curving horizon of a planet, deeply blue-green against a red nebula. “Intaki Prime, my homeworld. It’s beautiful. Tropical, with majestic forests and so much life. I spent a great deal of my childhood traipsing through the mountains with my father. Where are you from?”

“Mining colony in the middle of nowhere. Home is where my hangar is, really.” He grinned.

She laughed and relaxed. They chatted until their meals had finished and Njal whisked their empty plates away. But then, over Sakaane’s shoulder, Devan spied his associate, Eric Nevera, waiting silently just inside the entrance to Deck 17. Their eyes met and Eric made a slight motion with his head.

Devan smiled apologetically at Sakaane. “I’m afraid I’m needed elsewhere. But… I’d like to see you again. I’ll be in system for another few days.”

Sakaane reached for his pad again. “I’d like that.” She keyed in her contact details and then bid him good night.

Njal came by again to replace her empty glass with another Nebulae Fusion. “Now I know you’ve been making friends,” he teased.

She smiled and glanced over her shoulder to watch Devan leave. His earlier statements about the navy remained an uncomfortable jumble in the back of her mind. “Maybe. We’ll see.”