Thanks to Bataav, Caellach Marellus, and John Revenent for participating.

Somewhere in Syndicate

The journey from Intaki had thus far been uneventful, save for a brief, heart-pounding moment when their ships came out of warp kissing up against a bubble. Reverse thrusters fired and the hulls keeled over like cats desperately wanting to avoid being stuffed in a carrier. Crewmen—already at alert status—had leapt to battle stations, but the bubble was abandoned, or at the very least, unmanned at that particular moment. The two ships were cloaked anyway. Rather than crawling through the bubble to the gate, they’d warped off to a celestial, returned from a different vector, and continued on their way.

“You’re quiet,” Bataav observed a while later as they neared their destination.

Sakaane swiveled her camera drones to where she supposed his Buzzard might be beside her Anathema as they flew through the black together. Usually, she was the one prompting him.

Another jump came and went and she remained silent, thoughtful. An accompanying flash of gate fire was the only hint he could see that she was still with him.

“I was just thinking,” she eventually replied with a sigh. “The comments Syagrius and others have made about IPI and I-RED. They’re…troubling. We can’t afford to be seen that way anymore.”

“We do need to do more to dissuade opinions like those.”

“Which is ironic, considering where we’re going and why. But then, I suppose it couldn’t be done all at once anyway.”

“No. And we should be mindful of how it might be perceived.”

Silence again. Then she said tightly, “Surely there’s a way to coexist as allies with I-RED while ensuring the public doesn’t see us as their ‘pet’.”

“Something to think about,” Bataav said as they made the last jump.

The system was clear, save for a sudden swath of blue on sensors. Their ships darted into warp one last time, heading for the coordinates they’d been given for the I-RED base.

A short while later, Sakaane and Bataav approached the Taisho’s office, passing first through a facility that was clean, quiet, efficient. A few pilots they knew exchanged brief greetings with them as they passed.

John Revenent was waiting at the open door. He was tall; his hair was white, though his brows, mustache, and beard were smoke grey. Solemn brown eyes gazed at them over high cheekbones. He wore a black Ishukone dress shirt with the megacorporation’s insignia stitched in gold on the right breast pocket and had his hands clasped behind his back. Military slacks and boots completed the uniform.

When his guests arrived, each exchanged bows in greeting before the Taisho stepped aside to allow them to enter.

“Please make yourselves comfortable,” he said.

The office was largely Caldari in design and sparingly furnished. A single T-shaped stainless steel desk cluttered with various items and flanked by chairs at either end featured prominently. The walls were decorated with several tapestries of Intaki and Achura origin along with a rather large and realistic image of Intaki Prime. The planet’s sweeping horizon dominated the left wall above a handcrafted hardwood Caldari tea table. Standing at the opposite wall was a small glass cabinet filled with various beverages, including some with Suvala labels, while a chilled compartment held a case of Nouvelle Veiy.

Bataav waited for Sakaane to be seated before taking the chair beside her. Their eyes were drawn to the portrait.

“I never get tired of seeing the homeworld,” Bataav remarked.

John crossed to the cabinet and pulled out a bottle of Suvala plum brandy. “Indeed. Would you like a drink?”

Sakaane abstained, as was her custom, but Bataav accepted. John poured the brandy into two glasses and placed one in front of his guest before sitting at the head of the table. Bataav took the glass and swirled its contents gently to take in the aroma.

“Well,” John said once he was comfortable. “It has been some time.”

“I believe this is the first time we have met directly, Taisho,” Sakaane answered with a smile.

“It has been,” Bataav added. “How are our cousins in the Syndicate treating you?”

“Ah indeed…and they have been treating us well.”

“More favorably than some in the Intaki system I hear.” This from Bataav.

John sipped the brandy then placed the tumbler on the desk with his hands clasped around the glass. “Mhmm…”

Bataav nodded thoughtfully. “There does seem to have been a recent increase in activity.”

“Well that is why we are here, to speak about our issues with this activity, and to see what we, as in Ishukone-Raata, can do to help.”

“I think Sakaane is well-placed to describe some of the issues relating to our most recent war.”

Sakaane smirked. “Most recent waste of time, resources, and good people, more like.”

“Ah… Yes, my apologies,” John said. “News about the war had only reached my ears when it was ending.”

Bataav smiled. “We had intended to see the first week out on our own, but were making inquiries about allies for what we had assumed would be a second week of conflict.” He shrugged. “The second week never came.”

“But they still continue to linger in the area,” John guessed.

“They do, though you might be interested to learn that the Friendly Players Alliance contacted us ahead of what might be a wardec against Valkyr Industries. There seems to be a growing consensus against them.”

The Taisho nodded while Bataav went on.

“IPI has reached out to FPA to potentially share what intelligence we have. It’s reassuring to hear so many others are tired of VKYR’s activities.” He took another sip of the brandy. It went down smoothly. “It was actually good to receive so much vocal support via IGS during the conflict.”

“We would like to help as well,” John said, “but are finding it hard to do so. The less reputable organizations in Syndicate continue to strain our resources.”

Sakaane nodded. “We are having the same sort of struggle here. Valkyr was able to best us in most engagements.”

“We do conduct almost daily patrols to the Intaki area, but it would seem that is when Valkyr Industries is least active.”

“I think IPI understands I-RED’s current obligations so there’s no cause for concern on that front,” Bataav said thoughtfully. “So often our two organizations have stood together it was refreshing to face a threat ourselves. Despite the numbers I think it was good for IPI to have that opportunity.”

Sakaane nodded, pleased at Bataav’s ability to slip in the idea of IPI making an effort to stand on its own feet—even if said attempt hadn’t quite worked out in their favor.

But still, we have to start somewhere. Better to try and fail, then never try at all.

“That said,” Bataav continued, “it would be nice to turn the tables and apply some hurt. In terms of what I-RED might be able to do…and the President here might shoot this idea down…” He hesitated and glanced at Sakaane, who gazed back impassively but gave a slight motion of her head for Bataav to continue. He looked back to Taisho Revenent and made his proposal. “Valkyr Industries are…on paper…members of the Republic militia so some groups we could involve are restricted due to politics.

“It didn’t go unnoticed that a lot of support in public came from groups that had ties to the State as opposed to the Federation, but publicly our hands are tied.” He swirled the brandy a bit more. “I’d be happy to share our intelligence with I-RED as long-standing allies and you could…do with it as you see fit for an optimal result.”

Sakaane chuckled quietly but the mirth was short-lived. Militia involvement and our politics, she thought. Yet another murky IPI issue that needs to be dealt with. How many opportunities for true friendship and cooperation had been allowed to slip past because of current policies, simply because a given combat corporation happened to carry a militia flag? That one criteria alone caused more problems for IPI than it solved.

Brooding, silent, she sat back and crossed her legs at the knee, confident in Bataav’s ability, as IPI’s diplomat, to do most of the talking in this meeting.

There was so much to do. Review personnel activity. Improve combat readiness. Clean up internal policies. Clean up external policies. Improve public relations. Expand the corporation. Expand the alliance. Deal with a number of other issues that had been allowed to silently fester and were now threatening to disgorge their poison into the organization.

She bit her lip and fought down a sudden flare of frustration. Saxon was gone; it was up to her to deal with it. But just as how it would take time to change IPI’s reputation in regard to I-RED, so too would it take time to deal with the militia issue, and all the others. At least, with the war over, they would now have time to focus their energy on them.

One thing at a time. We’ll get there, she promised herself, and turned her attention back to the meeting.

John sipped his brandy. If he’d noticed Sakaane’s sudden silence he didn’t let on. “Well, it would seem we’re both thinking along the same lines. Our intel is very limited at this time.” After a pause, he added, “I was also thinking: perhaps Ishukone-Raata would send a small group of specialists to the area on a short term basis.”

“I think our most useful information is the location and configuration of two starbases in Placid. One of their own in Corvyn and another ‘independent’ base which they use in Ostingele to provide boosts to fleets in the system.”

A smile crossed John’s face. “That information would be very useful indeed.”

“I’ll arrange to have it sent to you when we are finished here.”

“We know of a few of their associates too,” Sakaane volunteered, “including the individual who precipitated the war.” A frown tugged down on her lips as she recalled the information. “Although she has pleaded innocence and I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt, I think it is still wise to watch her carefully too. She is easily manipulated by VKYR and as a pawn can prove dangerous.”

“Who would this be?”

“A pilot going by the name ‘Miss Sparkles’,” Bataav answered.

A few swift taps on a control panel on the desk brought up public information on Miss Sparkles for John to review. “Hrm.” Then he nodded. “With this intel we should be able to clean up the area at least.”

Sakaane tried to keep herself from wincing. I-RED ‘cleaning up the area’ and riding to our rescue. That’s how it would be seen and that wouldn’t do. “Could these be joint operations?” she asked aloud.

“Of course,” he replied.

It took little effort to like the man, Sakaane decided then. She knew he had always expressed support for IPI even when others hadn’t. Perhaps that would make it easier, when the time came, to talk with him about the future of the relationship between the two alliances. Surely he would understand her desire to ensure IPI could operate independently.

Dismissing the record, John sat back and regarded his guests again. “What about the…what was it, Old Miner corporation?”

“Ah. An Old Miner,” Bataav answered. “They’ve been in the system for some time but seem to be less of a threat. They’re a bit like DAXUS-AG next door in Brarel. Around in numbers but seem to spend most of their time running exploration fleets.”

“I was compiling battle reports for July earlier today, actually,” Sakaane said. “We were able to put out a decent amount of hurt to AOM.” There was no mistaking the note of pride in her voice. Small victories.

“They do have orbital assets, correct?”

Bataav nodded. “They do. There was an abandoned starbase which they took over.”

“Well as a secondary note, that should be dealt with as well,” John said brusquely. “Keeping the Intaki system clear of pirate infestations such as a strategic point like that would be beneficial.”

“I knew of the abandoned starbase before they took it and regret not suggesting we clear the tower to take the defense batteries for ourselves,” Bataav replied.

Sakaane groaned inwardly and couldn’t help but wince. Quickly, she ducked her head, hoping John hadn’t noticed. It was the first she could recall hearing of this from Bataav and the sting of the admission was worse for knowing IPI had missed yet another opportunity to be proactive.

“I wonder though,” Bataav was saying. “AOM appear to have some potential links to some of the larger nullsec power blocs, judging by other pilots who’ve been seen in the system. A single POS loss should be all right though. If we focus on too many targets I wonder if we’d be able to stand against them all. We’ve caught snippets of conversations between AOM and VKYR for example. I’d hate to make an effort to remove them that only gives them cause to work together. So far we’ve been lucky that they’re happy to take shots at each other too.”

Recovering herself, Sakaane said, “It would be excellent to turn them against each other if we could.”

John was nodding. “Indeed. Our main target will of course be Valkyr.”

“I agree. I think they are the highest threat at the moment.”

“All right. This is what I am going to do. To start I will be sending Develon-haani to survey the area while conducting patrols out of Syndicate. Then once we evaluate the threats, we will start sending strike forces to deal with starbases and hostile vessels in the area.”

“That would be excellent.”

“And what of the FPA?” Bataav asked. “Shall we let them know VKYR can expect to be under pressure? Or leave them to it? I can imagine they’d appreciate knowing when something was going to happen to coordinate gate camps or attacks of their own.”

“Have them contact me. I am sure we can work together on this.”

Bataav nodded. “As soon as I receive a reply to my correspondence I’ll give them your details.”

“Excellent.” John looked from Bataav to Sakaane and back. “Does that cover everything?”

“For ILF and IPI I believe so. Did you mention that there were issues regarding I-RED transport runs in Intaki too?”

“Mostly AOM causing issues with our cyno vessels, but they can be dealt with at a later date.”

“Do you run to a schedule,” Bataav asked, “or are they more adhoc?”

“No set schedule.”

“ILF is making efforts to keep pilots local more often. I’m sure an ILF overwatch fleet could be on standby for an I-RED jump freighter if we know one is coming.”

“Certainly,” Sakaane said.

The Taisho smiled again and looked at Bataav. “Excellent. I shall inform our Director of Industry to contact you.”

Bataav’s eyes slid sideways. “That would come under Sakaane’s remit more than my own.”

John nodded. “Well then…” He drained the last of his brandy. “If that is all?”

Sakaane nodded. “I believe so. I’m pleased we have an opportunity to work together.”

“It is always a pleasure to work with our allies in ILF,” John replied, smiling again.

Bataav placed his empty glass back on the table. “Can I ask—your Syndicate operations, how far toward Placid do they extend?”

John cast him a glance but then volunteered, “We have secured the JQV constellation, and have basically secured the MXY constellation as well. We do run daily patrols toward MHC and Harroule.”

“I’ve begun to work with the Intaki Space Police, but it’s in the border systems so was curious as to whether any intel I gathered while there would be of any interest. Of course if I’m too far from your area of operations…”

“Our intel on the Syndicate region is pretty reliable… But anything can help.”

They spent another few minutes discussing how Bataav might best supply information he came across. Then John said, “I do not mean to rush, but I have an engagement with some Patriots. You know how they can get, I am sure.”

Bataav smiled. “I do. We’ll let you attend to their needs.”

Sakaane stood. “Thank you for your time, Taisho Revenent.”

John rose from his seat and gave a slight bow of his head “Rikaato. Always remember my door is open, if you need to speak.”

“And mine,” Sakaane returned.

As they left, they heard the brandy being poured again and then the sound of a comm link being opened.

Later That Day
Intaki V – Moon 5 – Astral Mining Inc. Refinery

The couple sat together on the sofa in their quarters, Bataav pages deep into the latest intelligence reports from his sources around Viriette, while Sakaane was sifting through material on the ILF and IPI Galnet portal to determine what needed to be updated. She leant comfortably against Bataav, who had pulled the pin out of her twist and was gently running his fingers through her loose hair.

After some time, Sakaane tossed down her datapad with a dissatisfied snort. “We’ll have to overhaul the entire portal,” she said, then twisted to snuggle close to him. A warm feeling spread through her as he wrapped his arm around her and continued to stroke her hair. His lips touched the crown of her head.

Then he put his datapad down too and stared off into middle distance. “The background check for Caellach Marellus has come in. All clear,” he said after a moment. “Not that I really expected anything else from a CONCORD loyalist. I’d still like Airaken to accompany you though, keep this Marellus guy from sweeping you off your feet.”

She craned her neck to look at him. There was a glint of mischief in his eyes and a smile tugged at his lips. His fingers were still in her hair, playing with the soft skin behind her ear. Turning beneath his arm until she faced him, propped up by one hand braced against the sofa, she leaned close. “Kaint’Ahm. My beloved. No one sweeps me off my feet but you.”

“You have a few hours yet before you go to meet him, right?”


He kissed her. His hand groped for their discarded datapads, slid them off the sofa to the floor.

“Why don’t you come with me?” Sakaane asked later as she got ready to go out. “Not that he isn’t good company, but I’d rather have you along than Airaken.” She held out her hand to Bataav. “We hardly ever go out as a couple lately.”

He took her hand and kissed its palm. “I would but I need to catch up on some things from this morning. Besides, he specifically invited you. Go on and enjoy a meeting that isn’t politicking and strategy. I’ll be here when you get back.”

She kissed him goodbye. The kiss started to get more interesting but she tore herself away with a playful shove and a laugh. “I’ll be late if we keep this up. Hold that thought for later.”

It’d been ages since Sakaane had been to Rissa Bar—almost seven months to the day, she realized. Located in the more posh area of New Lenoika, the Intaki establishment catered primarily to capsuleers and other high-rolling patrons such as senior executives and managers living in the Astral Mining Inc. station. As it was tucked away on a lake hidden in the biodome city’s woodland area, Sakaane and Airaken had to take an AI taxi from the restricted capsuleer district. The car travelled a quiet road; she gazed out the window at a few skyscrapers visible in the distance beyond the marina on the lake’s far shore.

Rissa Bar itself was a white limestone building which seemed to glow under the dome’s artificially rendered early evening sky. As she entered, she recalled the Intaki three-colour paintings on display across the walls as well as the ceiling, which was open to the air other than for wooden beams running parallel across it. Small song birds flitted to and fro. The windows, too, were open, as they lacked glass panes.

Pausing just inside, with Airaken quietly shadowing her, Sakaane surveyed the main dining area. It hadn’t changed. There were a few patrons scattered about, lounging on comfortable seating or floor cushions, depending on their preference. Through the windows she spied servers attending to a few more patrons relaxing by the shore.

A man sitting at a table raised his hand to wave her over. She took a moment more to study him. Caellach Marellus had mailed Sakaane out of the blue, inviting her for a drink to commiserate over IPI’s recent war. She had never met him before and knew nothing about him other than the postings she’d read on the Intergalactic Summit, and vice versa. For him to have approached her now seemed a bit odd for that reason. Bataav had checked him out backward, forward, and every other way possible to ensure the invitation wasn’t a ruse for something else, which it didn’t seem to be.

His short hair and goatee were black. A dark tattoo ran from his right eye back across his cheekbone and he was dressed in comfortable cargo pants pulled over boots, a t-shirt, and a jacket. A smile sprang from lips that seemed otherwise accustomed to being drawn into a smirk, and she thought, even from this distance, that his blue eyes appeared guarded, though not hostile when he looked at her.

She glanced at Airaken and indicated Marellus’s table. “Him.”

Airaken nodded. His eyes darted around the room, gauging angles and lines of sight. He gestured at another table, just far enough away to give Sakaane privacy. “I will be there, ma’am.”

They parted. Sakaane approached Marellus’s table, nodding politely. “Namas,” she said with a polite nod. “It’s nice to meet you in person.”

He had risen to his feet at her approach and extended his hand. “Likewise. The pleasure is mine.” Whether he hadn’t noticed her bodyguard, or accepted the President’s escort and chose not to comment, she didn’t know, but either way, he didn’t seem perturbed by the Civire’s presence.

Sakaane clasped his hand firmly and smiled warmly at his greeting. “I hope you weren’t waiting long, Mr Marellus.”

“No, not long. I only got here a minute or so ago. And call me Cael. Can I get you a drink?” He smiled back at her and scanned the bar, looking for the nearest server.

She took a seat. “There is a fruit concoction I’m fond of. A Nebulae Fusion?”

He cocked his head slightly. “Do they know it or do I have to give instructions?”

“They should know it. If not, I’ve had Payloqan k’Adharnam here before as well. Expensive nectar from the homeworld.”

Cael motioned over a waitress as he retook his seat across from Sakaane. “Ah. Got a bit of a sweet tooth, have you?”

Sakaane smiled. The usual awkwardness at first meeting someone was quickly abating, which she was thankful for. Cael’s manner was friendly and she started to relax, flashing a positive glance at Airaken, who acknowledged it with a nod and settled into his seat, content. Her bodyguard’s gaze seemed to be caught by the view across the lake but she knew he was actually still paying close attention to her, ready to spring into action at the first sign of trouble.

She gave her attention back to her host. “In some ways! It’s a lovely treat and very appealing for me since it contains no alcohol or other intoxicants. It does impart its own natural warmth though.”

Cael nodded and ordered the Nebulae Fusion for her and a large chamomile tea for himself, and paid immediately. “I can’t ever say I’ve drunk something for the taste,” he said after the server departed. “It tends to purely be for the effect. Alcoholic or non-alcoholic.”

“I enjoy flavor.”

“Drinking something that sweet? You must do!” He chuckled and leant back in his chair.

“It’s not that sweet.”

“So how’s the head post-war?” he asked abruptly.

“I’m sorry?”

“I spent about ten months with Electus Matari cleaning up the shit stains of Molden Heath. Most groups were no different to the one you’ve just fought,” Cael explained. “Lying, conniving, little silver-tongued gits who had an excuse for every underhanded criminal act they’d done, trying to pass themselves off as victims to our aggression. Each time I had to engage in pointless diplomacy with them it sent me to bed with an enormous headache.”

Sakaane laughed lightly. “Ah, I see.”

He nodded. “The effects after some wars would persist for a week or two.”

She took a moment to gauge him, wondering how much to admit. His earnest, forthright manner encouraged her, so she said, “Valkyr Industries certainly gave us something of a headache. One in particular took it upon himself to harass me whenever I was in station, clogging up my communication relays with incoming requests and whatnot. The only saving grace was that he needed to be docked in order to do it, which kept him out of space and thus unable to harm any of my pilots.”

Cael waved a hand. “Oh, you get those. They hound the station you’re in. The station your jump clone is in. The station your medical bay is set to. Some wars aren’t won by who blows up the most ships. It’s about who makes it abject hell for the other side.”

Sakaane frowned and looked down at the table. “In this case I’m not sure we won in that sense either.”

“Well, that depends…”

The waitress returned with Sakaane’s drink and a full pot of hot water and tea leaves for Cael. He thanked her, steeped a cup, and then sipped it before continuing.

“Did you lose, in the sense that you had to surrender?” he asked thoughtfully. “Or that your alliance folded, or lost many members?”

Sakaane shook her head, trying to keep the smile from creeping up her face at what her host was doing. “No. CONCORD invalidated the war. Which is to say, Valkyr didn’t pay the bill to keep it going.”

“Then you won, and on two counts. The first being they chose to withdraw because they felt they couldn’t beat you. The second being that the kind of personality needed to employ half of their underhanded tactics means you’d be such an antisocial little git whom I wouldn’t invite to share a drink with.” He raised his tea to Sakaane and winked. “Cheers.”

Sakaane accepted the toast and they drank. After swallowing a gulp from the first layer in her glass, which was actually a slightly tart dull yellow citrus juice, she said, “Oh, they beat us. They were able to do that quite easily.”

“You didn’t surrender, and you didn’t sink to their scumbag level. I’d say you won. So they might have blown up a few more ships, won a few more fights. Said a ton of shit in Local that didn’t get a witty reply because you’re better than that. But was anything of great value lost? Anything irreplaceable gone?”

“Maybe a bit of our pride.” And all the crew who died. But she didn’t say that aloud for fear of casting a pall over their conversation.

“Perhaps when you look at it from another perspective that you are not them, and that it’s a good thing, that pride will come back. Otherwise, I’ll take a line the pirates of Molden Heath say, which may well summarize the attitude you should take toward Valkyr and their actions.” He leaned toward her conspiratorially. His dark eyebrows wiggled a bit and his blue eyes sparkled with mischief. “I believe it goes, ‘And not a single fuck was given’.”

Sakaane laughed then, deciding for the second time that day that she liked the man sitting opposite her. “The war was stupid anyway.”

“Exceptionally stupid for them, considering the bad publicity it got them, and talk of subsequent action from bystanders who didn’t exactly appreciate their public conduct.” He sat back and swirled his tea out of habit, as if it were wine or brandy. The small, delicate porcelain cup looked somewhat out of place in his large hands. “Anyway, to more positive subjects. What are your plans for IPI’s future?”

Sakaane remained leaning on her arms, idly wiping away beads of condensation on the glass. “Mostly I’m working on expanding the alliance and increasing activity.”

“Any initiatives you’ve got planned?”

“For IPI? Nothing different to the alliance’s regular activities,” she hedged, deciding to play it safe in case of listening ears.

Cael sipped his tea thoughtfully before putting the cup down. “I don’t envy you, you know. I find it burden enough to be responsible for the overseeing of my own crew. Extend that responsibility to being in charge of other capsuleers and, well…”

“When I became Isha-Sainika, I thought I had my hands full. But since my election…” She glanced away and blew out a breath, shaking her head.

He looked bemused. “Apologies. I’m not knowledgeable on the titles and their rank in your organization.”

“Oh! Sorry. I’ve become so used to speaking my own language again that I sometimes forget. Isha-Sainika means Director of Combat Operations. Isha is literally ‘leader’ and Sainika encompasses the rest. I suppose it would literally be ‘Leader of Combat’.”

“Ah.” His eyes unfocused briefly as he accessed his wetware. “And… Illoren, is it?” He was evidently reviewing her public data.

“Illoren is an ordinal number. It means ‘first’. In this case it refers to the level of security clearance I have within the corporation.

He nodded to indicate his understanding. “President and Director of Combat Operations… You must be overworked.”

Sakaane smiled and briefly wondered again how much she should admit to. It was easy, so far, to feel like she could just talk to Caellach Marellus. But, she reminded herself, it had felt that way at first with James Syagrius, too, and look where that went. “I’m…managing,” she said in the end.

He looked to Sakaane’s drink. “Well, when you start thinking of adding vodka to that, it’s a sign.”

“I wouldn’t doubt,” she said with a smile. “And what about yourself? What do you keep busy with?”

Cael drank his tea, dragged it out somewhat while he contemplated his response. “I try and spend as much of it in the pod as I can these days. It keeps me occupied and my mind off things. I do good work while I’m there. Outside of that, I still enjoy manual engineering. There’s satisfaction in being covered in oil while hitting a lump of metal with a wrench.”

The image of Cael covered in oil and wielding an oversized wrench like a cudgel came to mind and she started to laugh. It wasn’t the usual sort of pastime one tended to hear capsuleers talk about. After all, demigods were supposed to be ‘too good’ for grunt work, leaving it to the ‘lesser baseliners’. Supposedly. Her opinion of the man rose a notch.

Recovering herself and waving off his raised eyebrow, she asked instead, “What sort of pod work do you do?”

“Mostly DED contracts, breaking up pirate operations across empire space. I double it up with a personal business with a friend in salvage recovery and scrap metal refinement.”

“Anti-pirate work. We have that in common.”

“Any preferences as to which?”

Sakaane looked at him over the rim of her glass. The next layer of juice was bright orange. “I have a penchant for the taste of Serpentis.”

“I wouldn’t advise tasting them,” Cael said with a smirk. “They’re probably laced with narcotics.”

“Well, my ships like munching on them!”

“Your ships are clearly addicted.” Swirling his tea again, he added, “I find the Serpentis somewhat fragile. They’re unfortunately talented, and wasted, minds when it comes to science. But rather poor at flying their ships.”

She nodded. “I can agree with that. It’s pathetic how they throw themselves under my guns time and again. You’d think they’d eventually get the idea that when I show up on scan…it’d be better for them to leave.”

“It seems their minds are so focused on their narcotics…or more to the point, hindered by them, that tactical thinking is not their strongpoint. Even when you start putting large holes in their ships, they rarely tend to go, ‘This was a bad idea’.”

“No kidding.” She swirled her own drink. The glass was tall and narrow. The next layers, a pink and a blue, started to mix, becoming a pleasant shade of purple. “I’ve been killing them for a lot of years now.”

“That said, there are several groups like that. My personal favorite to ‘chew on’ is most definitely Nation. They recklessly lumber forward spouting the whole ‘No death in Nation’ rhetoric over and over. Then again, when they don’t actually have a say in their actions and are but puppets on strings…” He sighed.

“It’s unfortunate there are so many crime syndicates in New Eden. I have personal reasons for preferring Serps over any other. I wish I had the resources to fight them all.”

“I’m sure your reasons are most excellent ones. There’s no right and wrong. They all need to be dealt with.” He eyed her critically. “When was the last time you had the opportunity to go hunting? Just hop into the pod, grab a few news reports from various agents and track them down?”

Sakaane took another drink while she considered. “It would have been before my election,” she realized. “I honestly can’t remember.”

He frowned. “If you can’t remember the last time you did something, it’s a sign it’s time you did it again.” A pause. “Well…within reason.”

“Agreed. I joke that these days I mainly fly a desk! But it’s not actually that far from the truth.”

“You should join me sometime, if you can pull yourself away from the joys of paperwork, form filling, and dealing with the hypocrites that roam the Intergalactic Summit.”

Sakaane smiled. “I don’t actually spend a lot of time on IGS, thankfully.”

“I’ve come to realize these days more and more that any time is too much time. It’s starting to become one of those unreasonable things to never go back to, no matter how much time has passed.”

“True. It’s unfortunate that IGS is one of too few ways to easily reach many other capsuleers, though.”

“What about a public mailing list?”

“For speeches?”

He nodded. “Transcripts of. Hit the audience you want without the attention and not-so-smart-arsed remarks of those you’d rather avoid.”

Sakaane shook her head. “I’m not sure that would be very effective for us. The audience we want probably wouldn’t willingly subscribe. Plus, people are lazy.”

“Something I also have found with increasing concern. The lazy capsuleer seems like an issue that shouldn’t exist.”

“Possibly it comes from how much wealth we accumulate and how quickly it comes.”

“But surely that should have the reverse effect? More wealth allows for the undertaking of bigger accomplishments.”

“Perhaps. Or for more excesses.” She grinned. “I wonder how many of our fellow pilots are actually fat slobs who barely fit into their pod.”

“I’ve noticed the odd portly Amarr or two in my time. And I must confess spending my fortune on large drinking sessions…and a new clone to replace the permanent liver damage.”

Sakaane couldn’t help but giggle. “I’ve been to two of Impetus’s holoreel conventions, and you’d be surprised.”

Cael snorted at the mention of Impetus. “They… I’m not a fan of their movies. Or some of their other projects.”

She shrugged. “The conventions are fun though.”

“Have you ever heard of the name Elois Ottin?”

“I have not.”

Cael used his teacup to gesture at Sakaane. “Look her up sometime. She use to be one of their biggest movie stars, got caught in a Drop scandal. Now? Well, when you’re a washed up softcore porn actress with a drug addiction and a hatred for the Federation, there’s only one place for you.”

Sakaane raised an eyebrow. “I’m not much for pop culture anyway.”

He contemplated his empty cup, thought about refilling it from the pot the server had left him. “I came across her story while working on another case on behalf of Federal Intelligence, which was enough in itself to leave a bad taste in the mouth. Impetus might throw a good party, but I think I’d be mindful of their underhanded dealings that go on.”

“I don’t partake of their products to my knowledge. I like the convention simply as a means to meet other pilots outside of ship-to-ship communications.”

He nodded. “I should try to make next year’s then, if just to see what the fuss is all about.”

She smiled. “It can be quite fun.”

“Would that be your official recommendation of it?”

“Yes!” Something of a wistful look crossed her face. “I met my partner there in person. Out of pod, we were able to grow very close.”

A furrow marred his brow. “I’ve never been great with relationships. I doubt I’d be able to echo that kind of experience.”

Sakaane felt a warm flush in her cheeks. “Well. I suppose I could say that it helped that I needed him to save my life the same trip.”

Cael sat up, interested. “Oh?”

“Just another nail in the coffin for the Serps, really,” she smirked. “One of them was there and took an interest in me. Assaulted me when I was briefly alone.” She looked down at the table and spoke quietly. “If Bataav hadn’t burst in just then I’d probably be dead. The kind of dead a capsuleer doesn’t come back from.”

He looked down at his cup of tea pensively. “Heh. The hero saves the girl.”

“Unfortunately the idiots at the local DED office let the pirate get away and he’s still out there, hunting me.”

Cael remained quiet and stared into his teacup, looking somewhat troubled. Sakaane noted his expression. “I’m sorry. Did I say something to upset you?”

He shook his head. “No. Just reminded me of something. Nothing to concern yourself with.”

Suddenly feeling awkward, Sakaane nodded but stayed silent.

He sighed and stirred. “I need something stronger.” Squinting toward the bar, he tried to work out the various bottles of alcohol along the back wall.

Sakaane hesitated. “You could…try the green stuff.”

“The absinthe? Hmm, it leaves a terrible taste in the mouth.” He met her eyes. “I know I said I don’t drink for taste, but I won’t intentionally drink bad taste instead of alternatives.”

She shrugged and smiled slightly. “I’ve not had it myself, but other people have always remarked about how the local variety tastes a bit like gasoline. Yet they still drink it.”

He let out a “Heh” before looking back to his tea and deciding to stick with it. The scent chamomile wafted up as he steeped another cup. “You should see the idiots that drink actual gasoline.”

Sakaane’s eyes widened slightly. “Er…”

He grinned, the earlier melancholy gone. “Some pirates one night in another bar, causing trouble, drunk out of their skulls. Wagers were made and they started drinking petrol. It was all fun and games till one had a victory cigar.”

“Oh dear.”

The grin widened. “It was an effective way to claim their bounties. Wish I’d been the one to think of it.”

Sakaane laughed.

He gazed at her in earnest. “I’m glad you accepted my invitation, Captain. We may not have had chance to get off on the right foot, but IGS is hardly the best place to fully get the measure of someone.”

She nodded. “I agree. It’s very impersonal there. You can also call me Sakaane.”

He inclined his head. “Duly noted. Some people can be so uptight about not referring to them by some tediously long rank. I just refer to each capsuleer as captain.”

“When in formal settings, I do prefer to be referred to with my rank or title, as a matter of respect. But this is informal.”

“There are too many of us, with too many long titles to try remembering them all. I’m also really not one for formality, especially the bullshit sort created purely to make ourselves feel more important than we truly are.” He adopted a falsetto tone and a facial expression to go along with it. “‘I am Chief Commander John Doe, First of his name, Imperial Seneschal of the Divine Coven and Defender of the Purity of the Faith’…” He hung his tongue out briefly. “That kind of bullshit.” The tea was steeped to his satisfaction, so he took a sip as if to rinse a bad taste from his mouth. “As I said though, this has been a pleasure.”

“Indeed it has,” Sakaane said, and meant it. “Thank you again for inviting me.”

He winked at her. “I hope it’s the first of many evenings, Sakaane.”

“Thank you.”

“It’s been a while since I could sit and talk freely without pressure. Far too long.”

“Why is that?”

“People seem to be less friendly these days, less sociable.” He shrugged. “Eyes follow each other in public gatherings, ears listening in to be judgmental. Everyone’s so busy being concerned with each other’s affairs they forget how to hold a damn conversation.”

She laughed. “I couldn’t agree more.”

“I’m glad someone else sees it this way.” Then, casting her something of a guilty glance, he blurted, “I suppose I owe you an apology.”

She blinked in surprise. “What for?”

“My first impressions of you when we crossed paths on the Galnet.” He twisted the cup on the table. “They were quite wrong.”

Sakaane flushed with embarrassment. “I’m glad for that, then. I’ll admit there were a few things you said which made me wonder about you, and it can be hard to shake off first impressions like that. But you were right when you said earlier that IGS is not a great place to learn about other people.”

Cael leant back a bit more comfortably in his chair and folded his arms. “Go ahead. What did you first think?”

Sakaane’s blush deepened. “Well, there were a few things you said which made me wonder, um, how smart you might really be.”

“You wouldn’t be the first person to presume me to be an idiot.”

“But by and large I also knew that wasn’t really fair,” Sakaane added quickly.

He tried to keep a straight face. “So what you’re saying is I’m an idiot from time to time?” Then he grinned. “A rather fair analysis.”

She laughed again, thankful for his easygoing nature. “I’m sure we all are.”

“Well, don’t feel bad. I thought you were a stubborn, short-sighted bitch.”

Sakaane’s laughter choked off, leaving her mouth hanging open in a small “oh” shape. After a moment of staring fully at him, she looked away again. “I…get that a lot lately.”

He cocked his head to one side in a way that she was coming to recognize was a trait of his. “Why? Do you normally wear glasses?”

This time the heat in her face was of a different sort. “No, I’ve just had to deal with a lot of assholes,” she mumbled.

He spread his hands. “Welcome to space. You spent years trying to get out here. You’ll spend the rest of your life wishing you could go back.”

“Heh. Maybe. I knew I was going to have a bullseye on my face as soon as I became president, but…cripes.”

“Another reason I shirk from mass responsibility beyond my crew.”

She grinned a bit. “I sort of…fell into all this. In any case, I’m glad you don’t think I’m actually a stubborn bitch.”

“I never said that,” he replied, deadpan. “I just don’t think you’re short sighted…unless you’re wearing contact lenses.” Then he flashed a cheeky grin and winked at her. She smirked back. “For the record,” he went on, “I’m always available to talk, either in person or over communiqué. Both non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks, for when you’re having a really shit time of it.”

She smiled. “Thank you. I’m curious though… What did I do to earn that offer?”

He suddenly looked grim. “You think you’re the only one who needed this conversation?”

Looking at him and thinking of his earlier downturn in mood, she shook her head. “I mean…why me? As opposed to…anyone else out there.” She gestured vaguely in the direction of the dome and space beyond it.

“Well, I intended for some time to speak to you face to face out of curiosity. Get a measure for what kind of person you are. Intaki isn’t far from Aideron and Anwyns. We’re rather close to being neighbors in this giant mess of gates and networks.”

“That is true. Now I’m reminded… In your mail you mentioned there were a few things you wanted to talk about.”

“I wanted to see if my first impressions were confirmed or going to be changed. I took tonight to see a measure of who you are. Other things we’ll likely talk about in time, but tonight was getting to know you. And, well, why do I extend that offer to you? Because quite frankly finding reasonable level-headed and civil discussion is a rare and welcome quality these days.”

“I’m glad I didn’t disappoint, then. And neither did you, by the way.”

He eyed her. “I don’t think there was a risk of you disappointing. Though to be fair, expectations were unfairly low.”

She gave him a look.

He shrugged. “It wasn’t the best impression on IGS. But then again I think that’s not a topic to revisit for a while…if ever.”

“You’re referring specifically to when we posted to each other, or…?”

“I didn’t exactly have any other chances to make a direct impression.”

“Well, I had read other posts of yours.”

He attempted to look forlorn. “I’m sorry to hear that.” Then he said, “Well, I don’t know. Depends on which you read. If you came across my lyrical works then that wouldn’t be so bad. Everything else… Well, it’s IGS.”

She smiled. “I hadn’t read anything like that. Just IGS posts. You have an interest in music?”

“A little. Once in a while I’ll come up with a song or two. I may have put one of my works on there.”

“I used to be a musician and singer. That was…another life though.”

“You’ve got one pretty long life now. More than enough time to take it back up.”

“Maybe one day.” She smiled. “I’d like to. But for now that part of my life is closed to me. I’d be interested in listening to your work sometime though.”

He held up his fingers. “It needs two things: My guitar and copious amounts of alcohol.”

“Alcohol for whom?”

“Me! I perform far better when drunk.”

“Aha. I never had that problem,” she teased.

“I find I give less of a damn and belt out a better performance without inhibition.”

“That must be something to see.”

He nodded gravely. “I have had positive reviews before now.”

“You do have a good speaking voice, so I’m sure it translates well to verse.”

“It’s more the showman in me comes out after a few.”

Sakaane took another swallow of her drink. The last layer, a thick crimson juice, was bleeding up into the last of the purple. She wasn’t sure what fruit the crimson liquid came from. It had a smooth quality to it, almost like honey. “Well, you have to be entertaining for the audience too!”

“Indeed. Hence the alcohol! But that’s for another time.” He drained the last of his tea and stood up. “Unfortunately I have to get back to work. But it’s been a pleasure.”

She stood up too. “Same here.”

He extended his hand again. “’Til next time.”

Sakaane returned the shake. “I’ll look forward to that.”

Cael headed to the exit, giving Airaken a nod as he passed by.

Sakaane watched him go, then returned to her seat to savor the last of the Nebulae Fusion.

“Interesting man,” she said to herself. “I’m glad that went well.”

When the last her drink was gone, she left some hard currency on the table as a tip for the waitress, then left with Airaken.