Thanks to Anais Castells, Bataav, and Saxon Hawke for participating.

Essence Region – Crux Constellation – Mies System

Camera drones trailed the last wreck as it sped along, caught up in the green glow of the tractor beam. Once in range, salvagers went to work on it, and finally, sensors reported retrieval of the hull’s remaining useful components. The salvagers automatically deactivated, followed a moment later by the tractor beam.

For a few minutes Sakaane watched the wreck as it slowly drifted away from her ship, wondering who the crew had been, how many of them had escaped death today, and whether they’d chosen or been forced into a life of servitude for the Serpentis.

Eighty ships, all of them now like this one.

She set course to return to the agent, relieved to leave the battlefield behind.

The scene was one she’d often seen in recent weeks. Suresha Hawke had gone on sabbatical at the end of August and since then the corp had been subdued, with many pilots keeping mainly to themselves. Noting a lack of suitable agents in the area, Sakaane had taken the opportunity to return to empire space to pick up odd jobs here and there. All but a few tasked her with the destruction of Serpentis assets.

Not that giving the pirates a bloody nose had lost its appeal. There was still much to be done to eliminate the drug-loving criminals from New Eden and Sakaane eagerly looked forward to that day. But lately dismay had crept in, ringing as a discordant undertone in each explosion she caused. Surely, with wave after wave of Core Barons, Corelatis Platoon Leaders and the like disintegrating under the heat of her turrets, they’d wise up and pull back, pack up and leave the area, if for no other reason than to simply stymie the flood of losses she wrought upon them. But no. The Serpentis forces seemed limitless and all too willing to be sacrificed.

Why do they fight me when they can see it’s futile? Do their commanders really believe they have a chance? What had transpired over the last few hours amounted to little more than a slaughter, the mass murder of scores of people she’d never met. Even the Serpentis personnel transports had made no attempt at escape, seemingly placing all their faith in being protected by the squad of battleships escorting them. It happened every day in New Eden, with thousands of other capsuleers doing exactly the same as her. And still the pirates came.

Granted, at eighty to one odds, the math says they should win. She frowned. Perhaps they’re just stupid. Or maybe death is their only means of escaping the drug lords they work for. Either way, let them have their fate. I didn’t force them to stay. I didn’t force them to be what they are.

It wasn’t all bad. After Bloodtalon docked and disgorged its cargo of salvaged materials into the station hangar, Sakaane decided to disembark and visit the agent personally to wrap up the mission. As she dressed she took special care to tie her hair up in the traditional Intaki fanned style and even slipped on a silver headdress, retrieved from a storage bin aboard her ship. A grin lit her face as she confirmed her appointment with the agent.

Ophaeghe Aufer was busy at his console and had his back turned to the door when she arrived. This was essentially the same view she’d had of him over comms for the last month: not once had he looked away from his work to see who was calling, while a few times he’d not bothered to activate the vid feed at all. He’d simply been satisfied someone was available to take on the abundant work he offered and sent her on her way each time, letting his automated systems take care of the necessary tracking of her progress. That suited her just fine; it made this moment that much better.

She sat down in a chair and, after waiting a few minutes, said, “If you’re busy I can come back later.”

“Just a moment… Yes… That should do it.” He turned around, swiveling in his plush chair, and their eyes met. Vague recognition flashed over his face. “Er—”

Her lips curved into an amused smile but she said nothing while he tried to work out where he knew her from.

Finally, his face went a little pale, and then a little red. “You!”

“I’m flattered you remember. What was it you said? I’d earned a ‘black mark’ with Federal Admin and wouldn’t be able to find work with your associates again?” Crossing her legs at the knee, Sakaane settled back in the chair. “I’m afraid I must disappoint you, Mr Aufer. It seems you’ve been padding my wallet for quite some time now.”

“So I see.” A few deft movements with his hands brought up extensive transaction records on the holodisplay. Scrolling through them, he noted how the records stretched, with limited interruptions and the occasional job assigned from another agent from within the division, all the way to their original encounter in YC110. “I’m surprised you continued to seek work from us, given our first meeting.”

She smirked. “Better the devil I know.”

Aufer actually laughed. “I suppose that is as good a reason as any. At least you’re honest.” He rose from his chair and crossed to a credenza with a few decanters of liquor and a self-heating pot of tea arranged on it. “Can I get you anything?”

“I’m fine, thank you.”

“Suit yourself.” The tea steamed and filled the room with a tangy aroma as he poured a cup for himself. Returning to his desk, he glanced at the displayed records again. “You’ve completed the latest job then, I take it.”

“Indeed. I took my time, made sure to eliminate all the targets.”

“And Krayek Sarpanti?”

“I destroyed his ship. His pod got away.”

“Well.” Aufer sipped his tea. “You did this mission alone, yes? Given what you would have had to fly to take on their fleet I didn’t expect you to be able to lock and destroy a capsule. Very well.” With the cup of tea balanced in one hand, he put through some commands with the other. “I’ve paid the agreed fee and the bonus.”

“Thank you.”

He exhaled gently and sat back, staring steadily at her through the displayed records, which he dismissed a moment later. “You didn’t come here in person just to collect your payment.”

She recalled how nervous he’d appeared at their first meeting, and then how self-possessed he was the second time around, like now. “No, I didn’t. You’ve had your nose buried so far in your console for the last month I expect you have very little idea who is working for you right now, and I’ve had a hard day.” She smiled. “You should have seen your face. How is your brother, anyway?”

Aufer returned her smile. “He is a pretty unfortunate man. Every now and again his gun collection gets stolen, so, uh, big brother has to sweep in and get the kid out of trouble again. You know how it is…”

Sakaane arched an eyebrow. “Does that story really work on people?”

He looked at her a moment longer before casting his eyes casually around the office as though a CONCORD official might suddenly spring out of a corner, or a sign would light up to indicate where the proverbial bug was probably planted. Giving up, he shook his head. “Some pilots, like yourself, see through it. They’ll make a bit of noise but you’d be surprised how many don’t bother, or don’t care. That particular job is accepted more often than you’d think. It serves its purpose.”

“You don’t seem particularly bothered by this like you were back then.”

He shrugged. “I’m too busy. These days I can hardly get jobs for Admin listed fast enough, never mind work funneled through us from…other sources, before someone has taken them on. If a capsuleer complains about one, I just offload it to whoever is next in line, and the job still gets done. And there’s always someone else next in line.”

Sakaane frowned. Some of the dismay she’d felt earlier slid back into the pit of her stomach. Just as the Serpentis had too eagerly sacrificed themselves to her, every day tens of thousands of capsuleers threw themselves blindly at agents all over New Eden, accepting work for pay way beyond a baseliner’s imagination and accomplishing in hours what an entire navy might struggle to do in days, or even weeks.

Most baseliners anyway, Sakaane thought. Aufer was not a capsuleer and she expected the pay he earned was also beyond what someone planetside would make. Otherwise, why stay in the business?

Then she shivered. How much of the work agents like him assigned was really to satisfy designs crafted by entities whose purpose never became known to the pilots who rushed so eagerly to execute the orders?

Unlike most of the Serpentis pirates she’d killed today, even when a capsuleer’s pod was shot down, the pilot would usually rise again. Krayek Sarpanti, the ultimate target of her mission, had been an exception. Like her, he was immortal, for all intents and purposes. But suddenly Sakaane wondered if people like him and her didn’t suffer something worse: the death of conscience. She certainly didn’t feel guilty. Not really.

Standing, she said, “I’ll let you return to your work. Thank you for your time.”

“My pleasure.”

“One last thing, Mr Aufer.” Pausing at the door, Sakaane turned to look over her shoulder at him. “About your brother. Do not ask me again for assistance with any of his affairs. It would not be wise.”

He said nothing; the hand holding the teacup remained steady. But she saw his eyes flick from her face to the gun at her hip and back again. “Yes. Of course. I understand.”

Sakaane smiled. “Good.”

Intaki V – Moon 5 – Astral Mining Inc. Refinery

The trip home was uneventful. Sakaane docked and made her way to the quarters she shared with Bataav, looking forward to a quiet evening.

He greeted her as she came in through the door, then said, “I’ve been trying to reach you all day but it’s like your comms were down.”

“I’m sorry. The job took hours. I wanted to concentrate on it so I shut down all external comms. Why? What’s going on? Something to do with the Suresha?” Suresha Hawke had quietly announced his return the day prior. Sakaane and Bataav, among others, had been waiting for a follow-up announcement on what direction the corp might take next.

Bataav shook his head. “You’ve not seen the forum then, or checked your mail?”

“No.”

“You should.”

A sharp, cold feeling made her stomach sink as she fetched her datapad. She could just have easily retrieved the mail and checked the corporation message board through her wetware, but she’d been in her head most of the day anyway and wanted something tactile to look at…especially if the foreboding she suddenly felt was appropriate.

“Does it matter what I look at first?”

“Not really. Might as well look at the mail.”

She called up her inbox. In it was only one new message, sent to the entire corporation, from Mammal. It read, in part:

I’ve decided to more actively pursue my studies of Ida. Sadly, this means I’m going to have to let someone else take charge. Thanks for the support of everyone during my time as Isha-Sainika, particularly my fellow Aditipala and Karna warriors as well as Apollonius…

Sakaane looked up from the pad to Bataav, sitting next to her on the sofa. “This is a joke, right?”

“I wish it were. The forum post reads much the same.”

She sighed and tossed the pad aside, disappointed. “Have you spoken to Mammal?”

“Not since before the mail came in.”

“Hmm. I wonder if he’s in the corp office.” She stood, snatching up her jacket before leaning down to give Bataav a kiss. “I’m going to go look for him. Want to come?”

He smiled. “You go on. I was going to get some dinner started, and work on some reports.”

“All right. I won’t be long.”

There were pilots milling about the ILF headquarters when she walked in. Most seemed busy, presumably finishing off tasks before retiring for the evening. A few sat in the corp lounge chatting quietly with each other. She wondered if they were discussing Mammal’s announcement. The man himself was nowhere to be seen.

She was about to leave when she spotted Anais approaching. The other woman smiled. “Namas, Pasha. Do you have a moment?”

“Certainly. What’s up?”

Anais glanced over her shoulder at their fellow pilots, making sure they were just out of earshot. “I was wondering if you had considered stepping up to replace Mammal.”

Sakaane’s eyes widened and for a full minute she simply stared at Anais. “I… I don’t think I’ve had time to think about it yet, honestly. I’ve only just found out.”

“Oh, really?” Anais adopted a faraway look, then refocused on Sakaane. “You’re right, it was a recent announcement. I had a nap earlier so I’ve slept on it. I suppose that makes it seem older.”

“Aha. I was out all day on a job and paid no attention to comms.” She rubbed her forehead briefly. “I had no idea he would do this.”

Anais smiled. “Okay. It surprised me too. Just wanted to give you a nudge.”

Sakaane felt her face grow hot from a blush. “Well. I won’t say I’m opposed to the idea.”

“Consider yourself endorsed.”

“Thank you.”

Anais’s smile became a grin. “You’re welcome.” She left then, leaving Sakaane staring after her.

“Bataav, love, are you there?”

“Yes. Did you find Mammal?”

“He isn’t here. Must be planetside. But Anais has just asked me if I’ve considered stepping up to replace him.”

He chuckled. “I wondered who would suggest that first.”

She found a chair to sit on, studiously avoiding the curious gazes of onlookers. “You’re…serious?”

“Yes.” She could hear the smile in his voice. “I think you are a natural suggestion.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Fjorg got it.”

“I wondered about Fjorg but you’re also a respected member of Aditipala, knowledgeable about Amarr ships and experienced in battle. You’re an established FC too.”

Sakaane groaned. “So rusty at FC.”

“If it’s in people’s heads though… And Isha-Sainika would be the perfect opportunity to brush up on FC skills.”

“True.” Then she shook her head, feeling silly. Surely, she’d be last on any list of potential candidates. Fjorgan and Veruct’ar were both senior Pashas to her. “I’m, uh, kinda loathe to suggest myself though. That’s not really my style.”

“Anais might do it for you.”

“Hmm.” Am I really considering this? “We’ll see.”

She made her way back to their quarters. They had dinner and then retired for the evening, but despite feeling tired from her excursion to Mies, Sakaane found herself unable to sleep. Not wanting to disturb Bataav, she got up and padded quietly into main living area, deciding to pull a book from the shelf to read.

A little while later, she was alerted to an incoming comms request. It was Devan.

“Oh good, you’re up,” he said. “Just thought you might like to know I spoke to Saxon tonight.”

She closed the book, leaving her finger inside to mark her place. “What about?”

“I popped in the office earlier to drop off some reports and he was there, asking people for recommendations. I nominated you.”

Embarrassed, Sakaane knew she was blushing again. “Thank you.”

“No problem. Have a good night, eh?”

“You too.”

The channel closed and Sakaane tried to go back to the book, but her mind kept wandering, questioning whether or not she could be Isha. Finally, setting the story aside, she decided to call up the corporation forum and see what Mammal had posted there.

Instead, another post in an area of the forum reserved for ILF leadership and senior staff caught her eye. Its timestamp was just a few minutes old. She accessed it, read it, and felt all the blood that had previously rushed to her face drain away, leaving her cold and shaken.

Apparently Mammal isn’t the only one with an announcement to make, she thought. The post didn’t mention the pilot by name, but someone had obviously informed Suresha Hawke of their intention to leave ILF, including where they were going to. As Sakaane quickly pulled on a set of loose, comfortable robes, she knew it wasn’t the leaving itself that was the issue. It was where the pilot was going that had prompted the post.

She checked to ensure she’d not woken Bataav before she slipped out of their quarters, hurrying back to the corp office. When she entered, the office was dark and deserted for the night, but she spied a strong light coming from the rear where the private offices were located.

A knot of anxiety twisted up inside her but she strode forward anyway. The door to Saxon’s office was ajar and she leaned on the frame, taking a moment to observe him while he worked. A single lamp on his desk cast a warm pool of light around him but left the rest of the office in shadow. She knocked softly.

Saxon looked up. “Namas, Sakaane.”

Namas, Suresha. Keeni?”

“I’m well enough. And you?”

She smiled gently. “Well enough. I’m glad to see you back.”

He nodded. “I’m glad to be back and get back to what I set out to do five years ago.”

A moment of silence passed between them. He looked tired and a bit worn. She wondered how to broach the topic of his forum post. Taking a breath, she asked quietly, “I don’t wish to intrude but do you have a moment?”

He smiled warmly and gestured for her to come in. “For you, always.”

Pleased by his comment, she sat down. The intensity of the forum post was like nothing she was used to from him and served as a sharp reminder that she really didn’t know him that well. That was what made her anxious, but even so, now she was here and couldn’t just get up and walk out. Finally, she said, “I saw the forum.”

His lips twitched slightly. “A bit of frustration release.”

“Understandable. I was a bit shocked actually…and,” she swallowed, “wanted to ask if you are all right?”

He briefly scrubbed his hands over his face. “I am. It’s just getting to be a bit repetitive.”

“Agreed. Also not a nice way to return to corp.” She hesitated, trying to decide how best to proceed. “Your presence was missed and I’d hate for something like this to make a dent in things. The last straw and such.”

“Thanks for your concern, but this won’t send me back into hiding. I’ve got too many ideas to pursue.”

She smiled, relieved. “I’m glad.”

They fell silent again. She could see he was thinking, and wondered if she ought to leave. Just as she was about to excuse herself, Saxon spoke again.

“By the by, your name has come up as a replacement for Mammal.”

“Oh my.” Reflexively, she winced, and then hoped Saxon hadn’t noticed. Knowing that her friends had thought of her to succeed Mammal was flattering, but he had made the announcement just that day. Setting aside whether or not she felt the Suresha would actually consider her, she hadn’t expected there would be any sort of serious talk about it this soon. “His announcement also took me by surprise today.”

“I wish I could say the same thing, but he’d given me some hints a while ago.”

“I’ve not had many opportunities to talk with him recently.” She dropped her gaze to her lap. “I hope it’s not also the first step for him to leave us.” She bit her lip. If he’s brought this up he must not think the idea is as far-fetched as I expected. Aloud she said, “I have to admit I’m a bit…embarrassed. I don’t know what to say about me potentially replacing him.”

“You shouldn’t be embarrassed. Your progress has been noted and remembered.”

Her face grew hot. “That’s very kind of you to say.”

“It’s kind to say you like someone’s hair when you don’t,” Saxon laughed. “It’s honest to compliment a job well done.”

Sakaane laughed too and started to relax, settling a bit more into the chair. “Thank you.”

He leaned forward, clasping his hands together on the desk. She was obviously self-conscious. “Unless you tell me now that you do not wish to be considered, I will go on as though your name is still on the table.”

Sakaane held his gaze and thought about it. She’d been ecstatic when Mammal had promoted her to Pasha directly from Kacha. But being Isha was so much more than a rank. She’d be responsible for a great deal, with many of the corporation’s pilots looking up to her. A position like that was something she had no experience with. Could she really do it?

Anais, Bataav, and Devan all seem to think I could.

She raised her chin and straightened her back. “I wish to be considered.”

He smiled and nodded. “If you were to get the position, what would you do with it?”

Sakaane shifted in the chair, finding she suddenly had a great deal to say. “I’d like to see a few things tied up that were discussed on the forum some time ago but not acted upon. Mammal had talked about writing up some standing guidelines or orders for Aditipala to follow but I don’t think he did. I’d like to see more ILF only roams. I’d like to see the Karna pilots merged into Aditipala. Most of them fly with Aditipala anyway, so there is no reason to deny them that title. Their Karna activities can be in addition to the role. I think we should engage them more as well. They don’t really do much of anything on their own…”

“The original idea for Karna was that they would be special ops and fly in support of the Aditipala. Like EWAR, stealth bombers, remote rep, et cetera.”

Sakaane nodded. “But I don’t believe they get to flex their muscles in that capacity terribly often.”

“What would you do about that?”

She thought about conversations she’d had with Bataav. “I’ve heard a few of them express interest in Karna-specific ops. They don’t seem to have anyone able lead such as FC so I would like to give them opportunity to do stuff that is for them. It’s good for them to fly with Aditipala but they should get together on their own too. It’s not enough to have a Karna pilot bring a single stealth bomber on a regular roam. They get killed that way. And potentially slotting them in as remote rep or EWAR is great but sometimes pilots need to have their own limelight or they feel taken for granted.” She paused to think some more. “I would also encourage Bataav to delegate more to his pilots. It appears he more or less does all the intelligence gathering himself, which is commendable but… He needs to give them things to do.”

The Suresha was nodding. “Valid points, all. I’m also afraid that we’ll soon be losing Veruct’ar if he isn’t given something to do. What would have in mind for him?”

Sakaane frowned. “Bataav has explained his role to me before but I always seem to forget, which is in itself a giant hint that V’s role needs something.” She tried to remember. “Bataav is head of intelligence gathering while Veruct’ar does… See? This is terrible. At the very least Veruct’ar should be leading the Karna pilots for Karna roams.”

“His role has never been clearly explained to me.”

“Oh dear.”

“To be honest, I often forget he is in the division.”

She felt bad for it but chuckled. “Then I don’t feel so bad in admitting that it didn’t occur to me either until you asked. I’d want to give him a more defined role then, definitely.”

Saxon sat back, picking up a polished globe of stone and rolling it between his palms. “He asked to be assigned to the division and I put him there. But, to me, he’s always seemed more like an Aditipala pilot. Perhaps I’m missing something though.”

“If he asked to be there then perhaps it is worth having a discussion with him about what he wants to do there, rather than simply imposing something.”

“Everyone who is in a division is there by their choice. I’ve never assigned anyone without their consent.”

“Yes, of course. But since nothing comes to mind about what he’s doing…”

“Combat, mostly.”

“But that’s…Aditipala…hmm.”

Saxon nodded. “Which is why I fear he’ll follow the path to I-RED.”

Sakaane dropped her gaze again and sighed, thinking about the post on the forum. “I’m torn about people who go there. On the one hand, did we want them if they were so easily persuaded, rather than speaking up and asking for change here? On the other hand, it’s really disheartening.”

“I’d like to say you get over it, but about the time you do, someone else goes there.”

“Like a scab that almost heals and then gets torn open again.”

“Precisely.”

Sakaane ran her fingers through her loose hair, tucking the locks behind her ears. “I’d have to think about Veruct’ar. He is a good pilot, very versatile, good as a scout on roams I’ve led, and I know he’s stepped up to do some of the freighter runs. But neither of these things are very Karna-y. It would be a shame to lose him.”

“Scouting could be a sort of specialized operation.”

She considered. “That’s true. And a good scout on a roam is gold. Lousy scouts get people killed. But he couldn’t be a scout all the time.” She paused again to think. “I’d also like to do something about recruitment.”

Saxon smirked. “Recruitment is perhaps the longest four letter word I know.”

“I promise I will wash out my mouth later.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“When I was with TGPI I was Director of Personnel and so in charge of recruitment. It’s a hard, thankless job. I think ILF does pretty well at recruitment but we could probably do more, streamline the process mostly, get everyone doing the same thing so apps are treated the same. I know Bataav has a number of ideas about this. The after-recruitment part is important too.”

“I’d love to hear these ideas. I’m certainly open to changing how we do things so long as it doesn’t open us up further to infiltration.”

She grinned. “I don’t want to steal Bataav’s thunder so I will let him go over all his ideas. I probably sound like a bit of a broken record but he and I brainstorm quite a bit… But after we get new people in I’d like to encourage the corp has a whole to engage them more. New people are usually shy by nature. It’s a new corp, they don’t really know anyone, so they generally stay quiet.” Sakaane sat forward and spoke earnestly. “I make it a point to say hello. I think everyone should take two minutes out of their day to do that, but it doesn’t often happen in my experience, in any corp. That was something I learned at TGPI. At certain times with ILF I have felt I’m the only one carrying a conversation in corp, with new people in particular.”

“Well, not to change the subject from recruitment, but—” He had that faraway look in his eyes and she expected he’d just received a mail. “—I’ve got a bit of good news, or bad news, depending on how you look at it.”

“Er? Okay.”

His blue eyes refocused on her. “Veruct’ar is leaving for KISEC. That’s the bad news.”

Sakaane slumped back against her chair. “Damn.”

“The good news for you was that he was really your main competition for the Isha slot.”

Her jaw dropped. Then Saxon’s words registered. “Wait, what?” She put two and two together. The forum post wasn’t about this. “That means the other pilot who is leaving must be Fjorg.”

“That’s correct.” He smiled thinly and placed the stone sphere back on its base. “Feel like you’re being promoted to captain of a sinking ship?”

“I think I need to consider my answer to that question carefully and ensure my life insurance is paid up first.” She grinned and then shook her head. “Seriously though, no. It’s not a sinking ship.”

“On another tangent, your promotion would make you Bataav’s superior. Will that be a problem for your…relationship?”

Sakaane wondered, if her cheeks got any more red, whether there would be enough blood left in the rest of her body for it to function. “He was my superior originally,” she said hesitantly, suddenly feeling awkward. “I don’t believe it is or would be a problem. Do you have concerns about that? I’m surprised no one has commented before now…”

“I don’t have a problem if you don’t have a problem.”

“I love him. I can still send him in to get blown up.” Her grin widened. “As I recall, I’ve gotten him blown up before.”

Saxon chuckled and reached across the desk, offering his hand to her. “Congratulations. You’ve got the job.”

Sakaane blinked at him, then leapt forward and clasped his hand. “Thank you!” Then she continued to gape at him and eventually managed, “I’m…really quite speechless actually.”

“Well, you’d better think up a speech, because I’d rather not be the one to prattle on our forums. I’ll make a short announcement and you can take it from there.”

“I’m sure I can handle that. And you could never prattle.” Her heart fluttered in her chest. “Do you recall, a year ago, how you said to me you could count on one hand the number of pilots who left and then returned to ILF? I’m glad I’ve been able to make good on my promise.”

He smiled. “As am I. You’ll notice your new title comes with new abilities. Use them with care.”

“Certainly. One of the reasons I left TGPI was due to—” She’d been about to say, the CEO abusing his power but thought better of it. “—someone abusing the privileges of his director role. It’s not an experience I intend to repeat or inflict on others.”

“You’ll not have the full director slate of roles, but you can do quite a bit. If you find yourself in need of some role, let me know and I’ll be happy to consider granting it.”

“I understand. Perhaps another time when you’re free we could spend some time going over exactly where the boundaries of the role are, and your expectations. I asked similar of Mammal when he promoted me to Pasha. I found it useful.”

Saxon spread his hands. “My expectations are really simple. Grow your division and make it run well. Look at what Apollonius did for the industrial division and use that as a guide. To that extent, use your granted authority to make that happen. Always act in the best interest of the corp and that is all the boundaries you will need.”

“I will do my best. If I’m ever unsure I will seek your counsel.” She fell silent, thinking. “I wonder about something.”

“Yes?”

“I’m not as…stoic…as most Intaki. The term used most often is ‘fiery’. Do you suppose this will lend well or not to the position?”

“I can’t imagine that it will hurt. After Mammal’s tenure, perhaps fiery is just what we need.”

She nodded. “Perhaps. I do believe my political opinion is somewhat different than his. Which brings to mind another question. Mammal stepping down will mean he is retaking the rank of Pasha, yes?”

“Yes, until he decides on a more permanent direction. If he moves away from combat entirely, we’ll come up with something else to call him.”

“All right. My understanding has always been that he primarily supports what is best for Intaki in general, which may or may not be secession. Whereas I am happy to give the State and the Feds the boot. Mammal as Isha presented not exactly an opposing force to that political position but perhaps a tempering blade that may or may not have added some balance for other pilots. Me taking the role will change that. I wonder if he will have any issue with it.”

“To be blunt, if he does he can take it up with me. I’ve allowed my own secessionist feelings to be tempered and I didn’t like the results. ILF was founded as a secessionist group and by the Ida that’s what we’re going back to.”

“So you and are on the same page then.”

“Indeed.”

“I think this is good. It will help to have a more unified front on that topic.”

“Agreed. You’ve seen my Recall Roden post, correct? That’s just the opening salvo.”

“Yes I did. Denying the vote was a farce in the first place. It should not have happened.”

“It was a sham to rig the election. No doubt in my mind about that.” He briefly looked distant again, and a second later Sakaane’s wetware alerted her to a new comms request from him. When she accepted, she found herself authorized to access a permanent channel for ILF leadership. “This is where the cool kids hang out,” he said aloud with a smile. “Well, it’s where the leader-types talk about leader things.”

Sakaane smiled, reminded of the conversation she’d had there with him which had brought her back to ILF. “I haven’t been in that channel for a year.”

“Welcome back.” He stretched and saw the time. “It’s nearly three in the morning! I’m afraid I must bid you good night and return to the surface.”

She stood when he did, surprised at how much time had passed. “I’m sorry to have kept you so late. Thank you again. I enjoyed speaking with you tonight.”

He came around the desk and clasped her hand again. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that we had the opportunity to speak. I’m sure you’ll do great.”

They left his office together, pausing to lock up at the main entrance.

“Have a good night, Suresha.” Sakaane bowed.

“You too. Suprab nahi.”

She watched him walk away, then turned to head home, eventually giving in to the temptation to run through the corridors. Excitement made each step light and effortless.

Isha-Sainika. Director of Combat Operations. Me!

As she ran she thought about why she’d become a pilot and how her desires had shifted so strongly since coming to ILF. Originally all she’d wanted was to inflict pain on the Serpentis for the pain they’d inflicted on her. In TGPI she’d happily spent months doing exactly that, but hadn’t really accomplished anything to speak of, save a certain amount of personal satisfaction. Frustration release, as the Suresha had said.

These days she wanted to see his vision of peaceful secession come true. Her world and its people and their colonies deserved to truly shine as New Eden’s jewel. But while pursuing that goal, Intaki still needed to be defended from the Serpentis and the myriad other pirates who sullied the sov with their presence. It was the purview of the diplomats and anyone who believed in independence to talk to other diplomats and politicians and lobby for secession but she knew pirates could rarely be dissuaded by anything other than the business end of a gun barrel. Saxon had now given her a chance to really make a difference in that department.

Her pace slowed until she came to a full stop.

The corridor’s wall was broken by a brief square of sheerite that provided a view outside the station. Standing before it, Sakaane gazed at the expanse of stars, with the curve of Intaki Prime just visible to the side. In the distance came a brief flurry of light: weapons fire. The exchange was followed not long after by an explosion, and more fire.

Sakaane, watching, became thoughtful.

The way of the warrior is a difficult path. A warrior must be able to accept he will shed the blood of other beings who are not unlike him. He must know when to engage and be unafraid to retreat. He must not be headstrong or reckless. He must have great strength, skill, and discipline.

He must also have a purpose. But a warrior should not exist only to fight and kill his enemies. If that is his only purpose he may be little more than a murderer whose actions are excused by the organization empowering him to fight.

A warrior should fight for something. He should know his path is difficult because one day it should end, not necessarily because he was bested in battle, but because his goal was achieved: that of the opportunity to lay down his arms and live in peace. If this is not his goal, why is he fighting? There must be something more than simply being a mindless instrument of war.

She remembered the dismay she’d felt earlier and the reason she’d been up in Mies to begin with. Her goals may have been uplifted because of Saxon and ILF, but even so she still wanted vehemently to put an end to the Serpentis. That would not change. She hoped by hitting them hard there it would pull their forces away from places like Intaki. But also she’d been somewhat bored. With corp activity subdued, she, like others, had been left idle.

ILF should not exist to breed prolific killers or collect enemies simply to give idle pilots something to do. It exists for the betterment of Intaki and her people. It’s true we need warriors to help achieve that end, but simply being a cudgel would make us no better than them. Our warriors must understand this as well and temper their desire for combat with other worthwhile activities.

Another ship exploded. In her mind’s eye she saw many explosions repeated, each one a product of her actions. As Isha it was now her responsibility to organize ILF’s combat pilots and rally them to the corporation’s cause. And like the pirates she had fought today, she knew all those reds would be more than happy to throw themselves into the fray and die for what they felt was right.

We must stand together against the tide of crime and corruption. Let them come and die at our hands if that is all that can be done to bring peace. But I’ll not have Sainika pilots simply engage in a bloodbath as an excuse to mitigate boredom as I did today.

There was one last explosion beyond the window. Then the weapons fire ceased and a moment later she saw the flash of the victors entering warp, and wondered whether they were friend or foe to ILF.

Shortly thereafter, Sakaane arrived home and pulled her clothes off as she fumbled through the dark.

Bataav stirred as she slid into bed beside him. “There you are,” he mumbled sleepily, sliding his arms around her. “Isha.”

“I can’t believe it.”

“I can.” He pulled her close, his lips searching for hers. “Congratulations.”