Thanks to Tycho Antus, Bataav, and James Syagrius for participating.

“As long as you look for someone else to validate who you are by seeking their approval,
you are setting yourself up for disaster.
You have to be whole and complete in yourself.
No one can give you that.
You have to know who you are—what others say is irrelevant.”

Intaki V – Moon 5 – Astral Mining Inc. Refinery
Capsuleer Residences

“I’m going down to the surface,” Sakaane suddenly announced.

Bataav looked up from the intelligence report he’d been studying. Sakaane sat across the room from him in a large window box spanning one whole wall of the living room. She’d barely moved since that morning, keeping her thoughts to herself and staring moodily out at the vista of the dome.

He followed her gaze. Evening was falling on the station and Ramacandra was beginning to darken the dome’s false sky. Someone had parked a Myrmidon overhead; it hung like a frozen dagger against the black disc of the moon, a ghostly visage that slowly solidified as the dome turned transparent for the night.

“I’m nearly done this report,” he said. “I can be ready in a few minutes.”

“I’d rather go alone. I need…some time to myself.”

He shook his head, picked up his datapad to input a few quick commands. They’d been over that already. “Then one of my men will meet you at the spaceport.”

Finally, she looked at him. Her green eyes were guarded and defiant. “What have you been training me for, if not to be able to take care of myself? I told you before, I won’t live in fear—”

Bataav was firm. “It’s not how things are done. You aren’t just a random face in the crowd; you’re important to the movement, especially because Saxon is away. You’re president and acting CEO and more.”

“Am I?” she muttered, still smarting from the prior night’s exchange with James Syagrius. Bataav seemed not to hear. More loudly, she said, “The Suresha doesn’t go around with armed guards tripping at his heels.”

“The Suresha doesn’t have a psychopath trying to murder him,” he countered. “Besides, the team isn’t doing much good on the surface if Darac is going to target you stationside. Your martial arts training isn’t complete either.” He rose from his seat and crossed to her, bent to one knee so they were at eye level. Her hands, when he took them in his own, were chilled. This close, he could see how tired she was, the stress that bunched in her shoulders and pulled her lips into a hard, thin line. “We need you to be safe. I need you to be safe.”

She said nothing, though several times took a breath as if about to protest. It was bad enough that Syagrius had treated her like a child without Bataav sending her out with a babysitter too. But she also knew she was being unreasonable and he was right: going out alone was not how people in authority did things, especially when they knew they were under threat. What was it Saxon had said to her? “You are no doubt being followed and spied upon already.”

Despite being followed and spied upon himself, Saxon usually wandered around alone, and while daring, it was also reckless. And how often had she reminded others these past months that she was not Saxon?

Yet still every choice I make is compared to him, whether by me or others. He wouldn’t have let James be so disrespectful, she thought for the hundredth time that day. I’m haunted by his shadow, his legacy, and not just because he is Suresha, but also because—

A barrier in her mind crashed down, blocked off that avenue of thought, and she looked away angrily. Comparing Saxon to her father had been an accident, a brief moment of clarity which had come unbidden during that last meeting in his quarters. She feared to go near the thought again. The uncertain truth about her family and the life Nasiir Eionell had really led left her choking for breath without adding that to it.

A sharp shake of her head settled her mind. Whatever Saxon did or didn’t represent, it didn’t matter right now. In her heart she knew Bataav only wanted to protect her.

He waited patiently as she struggled with her pride. When the battle came to an end, she nodded.

“We’ll get him soon. I promise.” His finger gently lifted her chin until their eyes met again. “But until then—no unnecessary risks. If not myself, then at least one of my team will guard you until Darac isn’t a threat. Agreed?”

Her throat felt uncomfortably tight. “Agreed.”

Intaki Prime – Southern Hemisphere – Drahaana City
Spaceport

Bataav had obviously done more than just arrange for a bodyguard: upon landing, the gantry from the shuttle to security was cleared of foot traffic. Sakaane quietly disembarked first while behind her she heard the flight attendants smoothly keeping the other passengers, still strapped in their seats, placated about the delay.

Strolling alone down the ramp, Sakaane had to admit to herself it was nice to not have to fight a crush of people. A small smile tugged at her lips. Rank had its privileges.

On leaving the gantry and passing through security, she decided even if the terminal had been full of people, she still would have known the commando that was there to meet her. He was hard to miss: tall and formidably built, with a wide chest and thick, well-muscled arms and legs under standard Caldari body armor. His brown hair was shaved and his squared jaw sported a close-trimmed beard and moustache. A scar like ragged lightning curled around the right side of his face, while a tattoo of three small rectangles marked his left cheekbone.

She found him standing only a short distance away, next to the baggage carousel, in a relaxed military stance. His eyes were alert, scanning the open space, but when she appeared, darted to her instantly. His posture stiffened as he snapped to attention.

“Madam President,” he said respectfully. If he was at all awed by the fact a capsuleer was standing before him, he gave no sign.

Sakaane, on the other hand, stared. He had a pistol on one hip, a dagger at the other, and an assault rifle on his back. The armor sported numerous compartments which she knew could conceal any number of other small weapons and munitions. Impressed at Bataav’s ability to have a person so armed cleared for access to a public facility, she decided this warrior probably didn’t even need half as much of what he carried; he looked like he could fight a war by himself bare-handed.

“At ease,” she said finally. He relaxed back into the military stance, but only just. “Your orders?”

“To protect your person from harm, ma’am, and obey your instructions.”

“What if I instruct you to return to my estate and leave me alone?”

He frowned. “That would be in violation of my primary order and thus I could not obey.”

Her tone was cool. “Do you know what I am, soldier?”

“Yes, Madam President. I have also been briefed on the…limitations…imposed on capsuleers outside their capsule. Hence my orders.”

“And if you should fail in your duty?”

He met her gaze directly and spoke, not to boast, but with quiet confidence. “That will not happen.”

Sakaane contemplated him for several moments, then nodded, satisfied.

The carousel behind him began to turn and passengers started filtering into the terminal. “Do you have any bags?” he asked while watching the people warily. The people watched him back and seemed all too happy to steer clear of the big Civire with all the hardware.

“No. I’m not planning on staying long.” She gestured. “Shall we?”

The rest of the spaceport was crowded with a usual mid-morning rush of travellers. Those in the crowd who saw the pair coming gave them a wide berth, while the oblivious were gently but firmly set aside by her companion. Sakaane, more than any other time in her life, felt eyes on her, and was glad for it. She was President of the Intaki Prosperity Initiative; she should be noticed. Her back straightened; her chin lifted.

The commando was silent at her side. She was reminded then of the evening spent sitting on the front step of her estate, when she knew the team was around yet they were so quiet as to be invisible. One—she wasn’t sure who it had been—had accidentally startled her. Maybe it had been him? She glanced at him but couldn’t be sure. It’d been dark and she hadn’t gotten a good look.

When they reached the hovercar he’d brought from her estate, Sakaane said, “I’ll drive,” and got in. He grunted and folded himself into the passenger seat, laying the assault rifle across his lap with one hand resting lightly on it, ready to snatch it up in a second. The car’s engine hummed to life.

They sat unmoving for several minutes. Sakaane stared out the windshield at a mass of other parked cars, all empty. Now she was here, she realized she had no real idea where she wanted to go.

“Damn,” she muttered, and killed the engine.

Her bodyguard sat quiet and patient beside her. He seemed to fill the car and yet was unobtrusive, as if he could melt away into the background like a shadow.

Sakaane turned to him suddenly. “What’s your name?”

“Airaken, Madam President.”

“Airaken,” she repeated. Probably his family name. Making up her mind, she started the car again and it floated out of the lot. “Have you ever been to the Intaki Cultural Center, Airaken?”

“No, ma’am.”

She nodded. “Good. That gives us something to talk about for the next couple of hours until we get there.”


It was early afternoon when they reached their destination. Sakaane had attempted to chat with her new companion but found her mind drawn to irresistibly to things she’d rather not discuss, so had lapsed into long, troubled silences as the hovercar sped across the countryside. Airaken did not speak unless spoken to first. Although fully kitted out, he’d not complained once about being uncomfortable in the confines of the car with the still-warm autumn sun streaming in on him. When she asked, he explained his armor kept his body temperature regulated.

At the center, Airaken exited the vehicle first, circling around to check their immediate area and then to open the door for her. Sakaane paused to look up at him before getting out. Intaki’s sun cast a red glow on his armor, made him seem bloodstained. He bore her scrutiny passively and offered his hand to help her.

She chose to walk through the gardens first. A few acolytes were busy tending the flowers, mainly uprooting annuals that had gone past their prime and replacing them with new plants that would flourish through the upcoming cool and wet (by Intaki standards) winter. The students cast a few alarmed yet curious glances at Sakaane and her armed escort but did not bother them.

The path took them to a familiar clearing where they paused in the shade of a tree.

“This is where I gave my acceptance speech after the election.” She pointed. “They put up a temporary stage just over there.” For a moment, she saw the stage, the podium, the crowd, the press, and relived the thrill of it all. “Seems like a lifetime ago.”

They moved on, eventually entering the center itself. Airaken’s combat boots tread heavily on the polished floors, the sound echoing off that of the heels of her own boots. Acolytes and staff alike paused to bow and offer greetings as she passed, though Sakaane, head bowed, caught up in her own thoughts, hardly noticed.

The sound of footfalls stopped. They had left the public area and wandered into the staff wing. Expecting to find herself at her office, a space set aside for her that was essentially a copy of the office she usually used on the Astral station, Sakaane was instead surprised to see the nameplate on the door before her read: SAXON HAWKE.

Why had she come here?

The troubled thoughts from the drive resurfaced.

She pressed her palm against the door. The wood was warm and suddenly it seemed she could feel his presence, as if he was standing there beside her or sat at his desk working. But the door was locked, the office dark, and she wondered when the last time he’d used it had been. She’d not seen or spoken to the Suresha since June, and to her knowledge, neither had anyone else.

“I’m going away for a while,” he’d told her. “I need to reevaluate my place within the movement and I can’t do it from here.”

Reevaluate his place. At the beginning, when she’d first come to ILF, she’d known him to be the CEO, the President, the Suresha. Now, especially since the election and over the last two months, she didn’t know what his place was anymore and wasn’t surprised if he didn’t know either. He’d left behind a neglected, stagnant alliance that she now struggled to clean up and reenergize. He’d left behind a corporation that could not hold its own even against petty thugs like Darc Kaahar and his lackeys in VKYR. How often had she and Sainika been told their CEO abhorred violence? How many talented pilots, how many friends, had left for greener pastures because they had felt like the black sheep of the corporation, grudgingly tolerated but ultimately held back and essentially unwanted by the same man they’d all looked up to?

“I won’t be stepping down,” he’d said.

Suddenly angry, she glowered at the nameplate. You should step down. You didn’t just ‘go away’. You abandoned us, a long time ago. You don’t act as a CEO; you barely graced your pilots with your presence as it is. You might be called “Suresha” but when was the last time you actually acted as our leader?

She knew she wasn’t being entirely fair. Oversight of Sainika was her responsibility. It was as much her failure as Saxon’s for not pushing harder against his pacifist ways to ensure ILF could properly defend itself in a very hostile New Eden.

We have to change. Her eyes went back to the nameplate, her thoughts to the echo of his presence. You did build something great. I’ve tried to walk your path because I was afraid of destroying your legacy, of not living up to your expectations. But it’s not enough; it isn’t working, and people like James Syagrius know it. I can’t be you. I don’t want to be you. They’ll continue to chew us up and spit us out if I try to be anyone other than me.

You spoke of creating a navy, then said the idea was all theater, and nothing has come of it. You turned Layla loose on me for the sake of your own designs, not because she actually contributes anything tangible. Her new ‘business model’ must have been just another bit of theater too. Since June she’s done nothing to make good on her word. I should have IRAG dismissed from IPI along with all the other non-contributing corporations.

“The world you want IPI and ILF to live in doesn’t exist,” she told the door. “New Eden is a dangerous, violent place that thrives on war and conflict. When it shows up on our front step we can’t continue to leech off our allies and then pat ourselves on the back for a ‘job well done’.” Comments came to mind, spoken by people like James Syagrius, but also by others. I-RED’s pet. “We actually need that navy. We can’t afford the perceptions others have of us. We’ll never be respected if we can’t back up our claims with actual strength of arms. That’s just how it is.”

Her fingers curled in on themselves; fingernails dug into her flesh. She felt like pounding down the door. “If all I’ve been to you is an opportunity for you to ruffle feathers and be an actor on a stage of your own making for the sake of your ego, yes, it’s time for you to step aside. I am President. For all intents and purposes, I am CEO, and I’ll do the job you should have been doing all along. I will lead, I’ll follow my own path in my own way and take ILF and IPI where I feel they need to go, and damn your legacy!”

The outburst startled her, left her shaking and gasping for breath. She snatched her hand back, casting a quick, guilty glance around, as if Saxon might have heard and suddenly appeared. Her anger, now spent, left behind a cold, hollow place and a taste like ash in her mouth.

You said you trusted me, she added silently, gulping ragged breaths to calm herself. I have to trust myself.

Airaken stepped up, touched her elbow discreetly to draw her attention. His eyes shifted pointedly down the hall.

She turned to find an acolyte, a young dark-haired man wrapped in a sand-colored robe, standing some twenty steps away, apparently uncertain if he should approach. He glanced nervously between Sakaane and her bodyguard. After another moment’s hesitation, he came forward and said, “He still isn’t here,” with a darting look to the closed door.

“No,” Sakaane answered simply. She wondered how much he’d heard and then decided she didn’t care. It was the truth.

The acolyte nodded gravely. “I understand.” He retrieved a datapad from a pocket hidden in folds of fabric. “There are things, responsibilities, that have gone untended since his departure. We weren’t sure if we should ask you about them.”

She accepted the datapad, glanced over it, handed it back. “Yes, you should. Forward all such matters to my office from now on. I will see they are taken care of.”

The acolyte bowed so swift and deep she was surprised he didn’t snap in half, and she knew then he’d heard every word of her argument with the door. “Yes, Suresha,” he said.

Saxon’s lingering presence shattered, fell to a heap of shards at her feet. She sucked in a sharp breath; the walls tilted. Airaken automatically reached out a hand to steady her.

“What did you call me?” she whispered.

The acolyte looked up. “Suresha,” he grinned. “Thank you. I will make sure the others are informed.” With that, he hurried off.

Astonished, she stared after him, even after he’d rounded a corner and disappeared.

“‘Suresha’,” Airaken repeated, rolling the unfamiliar word over his tongue. “What does it mean?”

“Esteemed leader,” Sakaane murmured, blushing.

The mercenary blinked, confused by her reaction. “Ma’am. You are empowered to control a corporation and you are president of an alliance. This you earned, through your talent and skill and dedication, and so you are an ‘esteemed leader’. A locked door and an empty office are not.”

She smiled.

It was time to leave. As they departed, Sakaane was certain she heard something akin to the sound of glass quietly crunching beneath her feet.

Intaki V – Moon 5 – Astral Mining Inc. Refinery
IPI Offices

The first thing that needed to be done, she decided, was to deal with James Syagrius. They might have a difference of opinion, but it wouldn’t do to tolerate his denigration of her. After that, it was time to clean house in earnest. IPI and ILF needed a shakedown: full procedural review, personnel assessment, the works.

And then, Darac Rin. Bataav’s agent in the Serpentis cell continued to work diligently to get close to the pirate so she could be rid of him. But once the agent had completed his infiltration, what would she do then? There could be only one fate for Darac, she decided, but it would have to be executed appropriately.

A grim smile played across her face. An idea came to her about how it could be done, a fragment of a morsel of something she’d heard rumors about when she’d been in the navy all those years ago. A terrible, awful device, but one ideally suited to the karma Darac Rin had earned. It would take careful investigation to find out more, to confirm whether the rumors had any truth to them. She considered asking Karan to look into it, but discarded that as a bad course of action. The fewer people involved the better. This, she should do herself.

She entered her office, Airaken preceding her and speaking in undertones to a comm link, reporting their arrival to Bataav. Her bodyguard stalked through the spacious room, checking for anything amiss. Once satisfied no one was about to leap out from behind the sofa, he retreated to a corner and stood at attention.

Sakaane turned one of the chairs in front of her desk to face the middle of the room and settled into it, mentally preparing herself as if going into combat.

A moment later, the lights dimmed and the holoprojectors, recently reinstalled, flicked to life, overlaying her surroundings with a representation of James Syagrius’s office in Slays.

He appeared in his usual place, standing behind his desk, and gave her a quizzical smile.

“Good afternoon, Sakaane.”

“Namas, James.”

He avoided eye contract, preferring to organize the items on his desk. “I hope you are well?”

“I am,” she replied confidently, and meant it. “And you?”

“Well, I have been in,” he paused to stretch and consider, “three incarnations of me. But I still have aches and pains.” A small smile. “It disturbs my wife if I don’t keep my clones age appropriate. Otherwise quite well, thank you.”

Sakaane nodded politely but remained silent, choosing to let her opponent make the first move.

At length, James stopped what he was doing and sank down into his chair with a sigh, studying her for a moment. “You and I don’t seem to have much luck with our chats, do we?”

She gazed steadily at him. “No, we do not.”

He nodded, drumming his fingers on the desk. “Why do you think that is?”

“We are different. We have strong feelings toward our respective people.”

“A very polite and political answer.” Then he asked, “What do you think I feel about you?”

Sakaane took her time and decided a question like that was a trap. She sat back, hands resting lightly in her lap, and said, “Mr Syagrius, we may have our differences, but please do not make the mistake of thinking that you can chide me as if I am one of your children.” Her tone was cool. “You took offense to a comment I made. Fair enough; it is your right to be offended by someone else’s opinion. But it is my opinion and I am just as entitled to it. If it is your first choice to react to opinions you don’t like by storming out and disconnecting like a child who isn’t getting his way, that is another matter.”

“A very thorny statement, but it didn’t answer the question.” He smirked. “I am paternalistic, I admit. It’s a fault of mine. But only to people I like, and you are correct it is your right within the Federation to be a prejudicial bigot. As it is my right to react to it as I please.”

Behind her, out of sight of the holoscanners, Airaken stirred restlessly. An oblique motion of her head cautioned him to remain where he was.

“The thing is,” Sakaane said, pointedly ignoring James’s obvious attempt to get a rise out of her, “I and my pilots have opinions thrown at us on a daily basis which are bigoted. We are called pirates, hypocrites, terrorists, anarchists, and worse. We might find these opinions insulting, but if we reacted to them the way you reacted to me yesterday, then I am certain we wouldn’t have the friends nor the successes we do. We can face another’s opinion and not rankle.”

James sneered, “I understand you do victimhood very well, but we all face criticisms. The venue nor the time were appropriate for your little outburst. I think you know that, but are simply too prideful to admit it. And still you haven’t answered my question.”

Sakaane said instead, “As it stands, I’ll repeat that what I said was not meant as an insult. I quite like Tycho. He has been good company.” Then she added, “Your transmission protocols must be corrupted. There was no ‘outburst’.”

James sighed loudly.

She raised an eyebrow. “I can see how my comment could have been misunderstood. Nevertheless, that wasn’t its intent.”

He frowned at his desktop, not looking at her, and nodded brusquely, once. “Sakaane… You are the leader of an alliance of good, if occasionally misguided, people. I actually think you and yours are trying to make things better for all people in Intaki.”

It was a compliment, after a fashion. She accepted it without comment, continuing instead on her original line of thought. “On the other hand, several times this session already, and yesterday before you left in a tantrum, you purposefully made comments to smear me. So please, tell me, which one of us is the bigot?”

“Have I said anything regarding the Intaki people?”

“A bigot is a person who is intolerant of any differing creed or belief,” she said patiently. “You did not need to make any comment about my people to meet that description.” Her eyes narrowed. “You have proven yourself intolerant of me unless I meet a standard you decide is acceptable.”

“That is correct, society has standards. If you are rude you will be treated rudely.”

A sliver of exasperation began to creep in. It was like talking to someone deaf and blind. “Except that I was not being rude. My comment was spoken kindly and meant well. You chose to see it otherwise.”

“So you kindly implied that finding a tolerant Gallente is a surprise.”

“It is to me, based on my experience, as most pro-Federal Gallente that I have dealt with react to me the way you have done. They express scorn to the heritage, beliefs, and language I hold dear. If I have only seen a majority of poor examples, and then am treated to one which is the complete opposite, should I not celebrate it? Even if I may have chosen my words poorly in doing so.” She swallowed her embarrassment and hoped her face hadn’t flushed too much. “When Tycho expressed interest in my language and specifically asked me for references, I could have easily scoffed and made some petty comment about why he would care. Instead I shared with him and later said to you what honor I felt that he had taken the time he did. For that you became inflamed and angry and stormed out.” She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

“My, you are a peace maker.” He fell silent.

She waited, warily.

“You acted appropriately. It’s called being decent. I hope you’re not mistaking dislike for the Intaki with disagreement with secession. I have lived throughout the Federation and have never seen what you have expressed.”

It wasn’t an apology, but then, she supposed it would be a cold day at Intaki’s scorched equator before James Syagrius said he was sorry. This would do.

“The Federation has elected Intaki for the highest office, and yes even FCO elected an Intaki as its first chancellor. One wonders how many Gallente are in leadership positions in ILF or IPI.”

“Ethnic Gallente?” Why did it matter? She did a quick mental assessment anyway. “At present, none have a leadership role within ILF. But then, we do not have many ethnic Gallente members, though there are some. As for IPI, it is each member corp’s purview to choose a councilor. Their selection criteria is up to them.”

“I see.” The glint in his eye suggested he felt he’d scored some sort of point.

Unconcerned, she crossed her legs at the knee, smoothed out the fabric of her slacks. “What race the councilors are is something I’ve never paid attention to. I rather care more about whether or not they get the job done.”

He waved a hand dismissively. “But all of that aside you still haven’t answered my question. What do you think I feel about you?”

“Why do you suppose I haven’t answered?” she challenged back.

He considered. “Perhaps you don’t know, perhaps you don’t want me to know, or perhaps you are afraid of the answer.”

Now it was Sakaane’s turn to smirk. “Or none of the above. We are acquaintances, Mr Syagrius. You came to Intaki proclaiming to want to be a ‘good neighbor’, and though we did get off to a cool beginning, after that particular hump had passed by you have since made a few spectacular displays of kneejerk emotion and figuratively backhanding me instead of taking a moment to give fair consideration as to what my intent might be. For my part I had been able to move past my initial suspicions and had gone so far as to extend an invitation to consider membership in my alliance, and this is the thanks I get? It is curious that you think it befits a good neighbor to spit on the people who had come to you with an outstretched hand.

“So what do you feel about me? After last night’s tantrum, I’m not sure I particularly care. And thus I choose not to answer your question.”

She noticed then, that Tycho Antus, COO of Reclamation Technologies, had quietly entered James’s office. He was nodding, though she wasn’t sure at what.

“Namas, Tycho. I apologize, I am sorry you entered in the middle of that. Your CEO and I do not see eye to eye at the moment.”

“Namas. Don’t worry for that, I expected that kind of discussion between you two.”

“Hello Tycho,” James said.

“Hello James.” Tycho poured fresh orange juice from a waiting decanter and gave a glass to James. He started to offer one to Sakaane, momentarily forgetting she wasn’t really there. “I am sure this situation will be all right in the near future.”

James Syagrius chuckled, but did not reply to Tycho. Instead, his words were directed at Sakaane. “Again you play the victim very well. Whether intentional or not I don’t know how you expect people to respond when you insult them. I am interested in what ‘displays’ I have demonstrated, and how I have ‘spit’ on you.”

Sakaane felt her eyebrow reaching for her hairline again. “Do you not hear yourself speak?”

“One might ask the same thing of you.” He sighed again.

“In any case, if one of my peers feels slighted by something I have said, I expect them to react maturely and ask for clarification.”

Abruptly, James turned away from her and said, “Tycho, the ice operation has started. Are our haulers on the way?”

“They are ready to assist us when we will need it.”

“Should I contact our friends to clear out the riffraff?”

“We don’t need them for now. If they want to dig our ice, we will call our friends then.”

James decided to grace Sakaane with his attention again, while she thought ironically about his comment on acting rudely. “I am not one of your peers and in any case…I expect a leader to know better than to insult a potential friend.”

Sakaane snorted. “Interesting. You say you are not my peer. Then what are you, if I am supposed to believe you are a potential friend? I also believe there is an old saying about pots and kettles and the color black which applies.”

He chuckled. “True enough.”

“Listen,” Tycho cut in, “I think we all have common point and interest here. In RECLT, we want also to develop the system’s business. So why don’t you put off your differences and become concentrated on what is our concern?”

“That had been the original topic,” Sakaane said easily.

“Exactly. So be cool, and think that the Intaki system need us to be close. And I think that nobody here want to insult the other. We all have considerations for the two parts.”

James smiled at Tycho the way a proud father would over a favored son. Looking at Sakaane, he said, “See why I hired him? Good sense.”

“Mhmm.”

At the very edge of her sight, something moved. She glanced away from the two holographic men to find Airaken had edged his way along the wall of the office, carefully remaining out of the scanning radius of the holo system.

“Please excuse me for a moment,” she said to James and Tycho, and left the chair, stepping out of their sight.

“What is it?” She kept her voice low so it wouldn’t be picked up by the comm system.

Airaken jerked his head in the direction of James Syagrius. “Typical arrogant, self-entitled Gallente.” He ground out the words. “He needs to learn how to speak to someone in your position, ma’am. If he ever comes here I could teach him.”

Sakaane tried to hide a smile at the eagerness in his voice. “I’ll keep that in mind.” Then she became serious. “I can’t change what he is. But through him, Tycho offers a good opportunity for us. This is the last chance I’m giving them.”

Airaken frowned and fell silent.

She patted his arm and turned back, paused for a moment to listen before rejoining the transmission.

“Thank you Tycho,” James was saying. “Sakaane and I seem to be unable to speak to each other without causing insult.”

“Because both of you have passions. Think logically, not with feelings.”

James chuckled again. “If I thought logically I would close the channel.”

She stepped back into scan range and returned to her chair. “Come now, be honest. You’ve done that once already.”

Tycho shook his head. “No, reasons are more deeper than that. We must be unified, against pirates notably. We must share a common aim.”

“Ahh yes but that there is the problem. The aim.”

“Which aim are you referring to in this case?”

“The status of Intaki as a Federation member or an independent power.”

“What does that have to do with doing business in the Intaki sov?”

“So it’s business and not politics that IPI is interested in?”

“I do believe we had that discussion already,” Sakaane said tersely.

“Again with the non answers?”

“No. I just see no reason to repeat myself when we already extensively“—she stressed the word—”discussed IPI’s political position yesterday. You also admitted to speaking to Mammal about it.”

“You have an abrasive manner,” James accused.

Sakaane sighed. “I simply don’t like having my time wasted. If you cannot even pay enough attention to a conversation to remember the details a scant twelve hours later, I can’t be bothered to repeat it all for you. Believe it or not, I do have other things to do as well, and you have done nothing but try my patience since yesterday.”

“Well then go do them.” His lip curled. “But considering your manner I think the title Queen might fit you better than the one you wear.”

Tycho held up his hands. “Patience!”

“Again with the snide insults,” Sakaane said.

“The political reasons are different between entities, but it seems we could live together,” Tycho said, looking desperately between them.

“It was provoked,” James declared hotly.

Tycho shook his head. “No. You two react with your background.”

“It has nothing to do with background, Tycho. She is insulting!”

Look who’s talking, Sakaane thought angrily, but held her tongue.

“So breathe, and don’t think about things which oppose you, but things which bring you two together. You think that because you react with your background. With diplomacy, you must keep your head cool.”

Sakaane took a breath, but not to think of what might bring her closer to Syagrius, as the idea made her skin crawl. “If you had already patiently explained something to me over the course of an hour or two, in great detail, and then the next day I acted as if I had no clue about anything you had said, would you not be exasperated?”

“No. I would answer the question, figuring that there was a reason for it. Like the addition of another person to the conversation.” James motioned toward Tycho.

Inwardly, Sakaane groaned. Perhaps James Syagrius suffered from some kind of short-term memory loss. He was fully aware—or should have been—that Tycho had been present during the prior evening’s meeting and also that she’d met separately with him at James’s own behest to discuss what IPI was about.

Or, she surmised, perhaps James was deliberately being obtuse simply to give him an excuse to be an ass and provoke her, which would give him more reason to complain in his smug way about her behavior. Or maybe it had something to do with how the VKYR war ended. Or none of the above. Maybe it was just how he was. Her head began to swim.

“The question you asked was already extensively answered, to you and to Tycho on a separate occasion.” As much as possible, she tried to keep her tone level.

“Would this be considered wasting time?” James was saying. “A ‘no’ would have answered it.”

A ‘no’ would have been the wrong answer, though I’m starting to think IPI should be more political than it is, to save the sov from people like you. She kept these thoughts to herself as well. “Why would you ask a question you already know the answer to?”

Tycho, ever helpful, inserted, “So maybe Sakaane could propose a brief synopsis of the politics inside IPI, that we could consider as strong and definitive?”

James sighed and stood up. “Please excuse me. I have personal matters to attend to. Good luck, Tycho.”

Tycho looked a bit bewildered, but said only, “Thanks James. Good business.”

Sakaane wasn’t at all surprised to see him bailing again. “Suprab nahi, Mr Syagrius,” she said politely.

He paused long enough to nod politely at Sakaane and then strode out of the office.

Sakaane decided that was conclusion enough for her and would not now pursue RECLT’s admittance to IPI knowing the attitude their CEO carried. He would be worse than Layla in council chambers, though she supposed it would give Layla a new target to chew on. But no, that wasn’t the kind of alliance Sakaane wanted to run. It would be a never-ending cycle of chaos and conflict spurred by James, aimed at us so-called “Intaki bigots”. She thought rationally about it: inevitably, James would just pull RECLT out of the alliance anyway, so she would save herself, and her membership, the trouble.

As she was about to excuse herself, Tycho said quietly, “So do you understand when I was talking about James’ worries?”

Sakaane smiled, somewhat sadly, and wished, then, that he was CEO instead of James. “Yes, I understand. He is a patriot to the Federation.”

“Yes, so this side of his personality must be ‘preserved’. He is worried about some secessionists inside IPI.”

“Unfortunately, if he cannot respect those of us who are secessionists, like how we respect our existing members who are not secessionists, then there can be no place for RECLT within IPI.” Her fondness for Tycho kept her from saying more than that aloud. He obviously felt loyal to James and it wasn’t her place to try to convince him otherwise.

“I think he will respect that. Let him have the time to integrate that he will work with secessionists and also patriots.”

Sakaane shook her head. “There are individuals within my alliance who are much more vocal about their feelings than I am. If he cannot handle me, he will find it impossible to deal with them.” Suddenly, an image of Layla chewing on James’s back came to mind and she had to work hard to keep her face neutral.

“I think it is just a question of time.”

“Perhaps.” She glanced at the credenza in her office, hidden beneath a slightly flickering representation of a bookcase, and retrieved a glass of cool water from it. “Truly, Tycho, it baffles me that you and I have been able to get along well but James and I do not.”

Tycho smiled. “I have not the same background and feeling than James, but he will be all right with the idea of IPI. I was a captain in the navy and I feel free to be inside IPI.”

Sakaane returned his smile. “I appreciate that sentiment.”

They continued chatting for some minutes about the state of the market in Intaki, each content with the other’s company, when a soft knock sounded at her door and Karan poked his head in. When he saw Sakaane was on a call, he began to duck out again. She halted him with a glance, invited him to speak with a tilt of her head.

“Excuse me, Madam President. I’ve received an information packet from the cultural center. I wondered if we might briefly discuss it?”

She nodded. “Please excuse me, Tycho. I’ll check back with you shortly.”

When she returned some minutes later, Tycho was still waiting for her. He acknowledged her presence but his attention was caught by a report in his hands. She attended to some of her own while waiting for an opportunity to wrap up the discussion.

The door to James’s office opened then and he strode back in, pausing at the sight of the two of them. “Are you two still at it?”

Sakaane looked up. “We chatted for a while, and had shared a comfortable silence the last few minutes.”

James crossed to his desk and sat down. “Tycho is a good man, and a fair miner.” He winked at him.

“Yes, he is.”

Tycho set aside the report. “Ho, thank you!” He grinned. “So you are agree on one point, it is a good beginning!”

In the background, James muttered, “I would imagine she and I would agree on a great many points if we could ever get to them.” Before anything else could be said, James asked, “So putting aside the question of RECLT joining IPI may I ask you a question about your vision of the future?”

Sakaane cast a glance at Tycho before answering. “Sure.”

“If you are busy with other matters just tell me.”

“I am always busy,” she said, suddenly feeling tired. “What is your question?”

James frowned and shook his head at Sakaane’s tone. “Should your desire for Intaki independence come to fruition, what would be the role of the Gallente minority within such a state?”

“That question doesn’t have an answer because it wouldn’t apply. It implies a class of superiority based on race. But in the Intaki sov there are people of all races and it is independence for all of them that is being striven for.” She looked from one to the other and back again, baffled that this was even a concern. “When we say ‘Independence for Intaki’ we are talking about this area of space, not the bloodline.”

James nodded. “You understand why I ask?”

“That type of question is often asked of us,” Sakaane answered unhappily. “Many people assume we are going to expunge everyone from the area if they don’t meet a certain genetic profile. In actual fact, anyone who wants to live here in peace is welcome to do so.”

James rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Yes, well, the reason for the question is this. Should we decide to apply and should you decide to accept, I plan to move my family here.”

She didn’t see what difference that made. “I was aware you’ve been looking at locations on the surface. You could move your family here regardless.”

He chuckled again. “My wife came for a visit. She is a very traditional Ni-Kunni woman,” he added with a roll of his eyes that Sakaane found distasteful. “She fell in love with Intaki. While I am not Intaki, and while I don’t support separation, I see the economic development of Intaki as key to keeping her within the Federal Union.

“Should, at some point in the future, the legitimate representatives of the Intaki people, expressing the popular will of the Intaki people, decided on independence, then I will support it.” He leaned forward, rested his arms on the desk and laced his fingers together. “I want you to know my mind on this matter so please bear with me, then I will listen to whatever your reply may be.”

Sakaane nodded.

“Firstly I don’t see how associating ourselves with IPI would be beneficial for RECLT. I am not even sure there has ever been a Gallente corporation in IPI. Secondly I don’t think IPI’s ‘council’ or whatever you call it would accept us, and I don’t want to subject myself or my membership to that kind of stress or disappointment. I don’t actually know what we have to offer IPI as we are miners and traders, not fighters. As you know we hire out to have that done when necessary.

“Having said all that…” He sat back. “I greatly esteem Mammal. He is a man of character and conscience. I have communicated with a number of your members and they all have been very nice. Except for the one that targeted me”—he smirked—“but that was a misunderstanding, and she was very nice about it afterwards.

“Should—and that is a very large hypothetical from both sides—should we join I would support the alliance in peace and war. I would keep my ‘disagreements’ where they belong: in council. If I could not publicly support a particular stance IPI took I would remain silent to the outside world, as my fate and that of my membership would be tied to yours. Sound relationships even if not friendly ones are based on trust and respect.”

He smiled toothily “That was about it.”

“I see.” Sakaane sat back to consider, watched as he slowly stroked the soft leather arm of his chair with his fingertips. “To start with, our membership is so varied that to label it as specifically ‘Gallente’ or ‘Intaki’ or even ‘Caldari’ wouldn’t be meaningful. Since we are not political race is pretty irrelevant. If you believe traders and miners would have no value in IPI then I’m afraid you still have no understanding of what IPI is. I am severely troubled that you see fit to judge the council without having met any of them while in the same breath being dismissive of our alliance structure.”

She spread her hands. “But in the end, if you see no benefit from associating with us then I am not certain what value there is in continuing. If you misunderstand us on such a fundamental level then I have to wonder what exactly it was that you took away from your time speaking with Mammal, or our other members, or reading our charter, or our mission statement. Or from having me describe the alliance to you, and via Tycho when he relayed our conversation, for that matter.” She shook her head, unable to contain her exasperation any longer. “Have you really been wasting my time?”

She went on, frowning. “You focus quite heavily on race. You have used it multiple times today as a means to detract from IPI’s mandate. By undermining our mandate on that level I will dare to say you start to attempt to make us out to be the bad guys. If you have such criticisms of us, why do you have any interest at all in joining us? You asked earlier if any ethnic Gallente held a position of authority in ILF. Ypsasieh Yug was for a long time Superintendent of our industrial division. He recently stepped down of his own free will to pursue other activities. Secondly, da Rokha, CEO of DAROK, is also an ethnic Gallente and serves on the IPI council. Since you are so concerned about race, perhaps you could tell me why you think there is such a high percentage of Intaki in IPI over others?”

“Your comment about the Gallente and tolerance indicates that race, at least in your mind, isn’t as irrelevant as you might think,” James retorted. “I also note that despite your own rude and disrespectful tone you choose to judge those same characteristics in others. As to misjudging your council, perhaps I have, but I see them through the lens of their leader. As to wasting ‘your’ time. Your time. Really, are you that conceited? As to mandates and mission statements…words, put into practice by people. People like you. So yes forgive me if I dare to ask a question.”

His face darkened. “As to what I learned from Mammal. A hell of a lot more than you have. And as to the percentage of Intaki in an Intaki organization. I could care less.”

And yet you brought up the number of ethnic Gallente that have or do exist in IPI multiple times, Sakaane thought. You are transparent, James Syagrius.

“My question wasn’t meant as a indictment, but you seem to have a habit of finding offence where none was intended,” he was saying. “And to the last and largest ‘question’. Why? Why do ‘we’ want to join IPI. I listen to my members. They think it is a good thing. They want to be a part of something positive and bigger than profit or themselves.”

“You have the audacity to accuse me of finding offense where none was intended? Which one of us had a temper tantrum twice in a row over a perceived slight, and which one of us was forced to explain multiple times that it was not intended that way?” Sakaane demanded. Her hands balled into fists. “You are preposterous and incredibly manipulative. If you want to say you are judging the IPI council through its leader, then you should consider that I can do the same for your corporation based on you, but haven’t done so since I haven’t met any of them except for Tycho.”

“So you say. Is this how you treat all of your potential friends?” James sneered.

Sakaane stood up, slapping her thighs. “This is a waste of my time. I cannot fathom why I should continue to listen to this drivel. You slight me and my alliance and then accuse us in the same breath of playing the victims. There is no point to continuing. If I am supposed to consider you a potential friend, Mr Syagrius, I must value my self-respect quite poorly,” she said scathingly.

“I am a better friend to you than you know. But I agree, this is a waste of ‘our’ time. Tycho, have you seen enough?”

Tycho shook his head. “I see that a lot of progress must be realized between you two. But I have a question.”

Against her better judgment, she prompted, “Please, ask.”

“You two seem to be angry, but what about the opinion of the two bigger entities, RECLT and IPI ? Maybe the members will not have problems with that. Maybe the only problem is that you two are too deep in some business and politics to be quiet. And so, when members of RECLT and IPI will be in peace, you two will be quiet with each other. I am convinced that the two entities have more in common than differences, so don’t let those little differences be a canyon between us.”

“Perhaps all of this is a misunderstanding,” James admitted. “But she doesn’t respect us, Tycho.”

Tycho faced his CEO directly. “I am sure she respects us. Her presence here attests it.”

James blinked in surprise.

“And when I spoke to her, the tone of the discussion was very quiet.”

“Thank you, Tycho, I appreciate that.”

“So as I said, the problem comes from your two personality. Just hypothesize that tomorrow, RECLT will be integrated into IPI. You two will not be agreeing at the beginning, but with the time of collaboration, you will learn on each other.”

“She would be our leader,” James protested, “and to be very honest, I don’t know if I can forget some of the things that have been said. She may feel the same way.”

“She argued that we will keep our independence inside the alliance. I felt no fear by her leadership in the alliance.” Tycho shook his head. “I know that some words are difficult to forget. But all war must be ended. Peace are built after war. You two must do effort to collaborate.”

“They will want us to change,” James protested again, and Sakaane felt he was grasping at anything he could in an attempt to find fault so he could be right. But then he turned his eyes on her and asked, “So do you think this is a clash of personalities or something more substantive?”

“Both.”

“Do you think it can be resolved?”

She was about to answer ‘no’ but Tycho spoke first. “I think it’s a clash between you two, for some different reasons, but not between RECLT and IPI. These could be resolved by working together. And be quiet.”

“Did you just tell me to shut up, Tycho?”

“No. I said to be quiet in general, for all times.”

James laughed.

“And don’t think that a lot of sentences could be aggressive,” Tycho admonished. “All people here are gentlemen and women.” He looked at James again. “And I repeat, when I engage the discussion with Sakaane, I had nothing negative to say about what she said. I never detect any negative thing for RECLT.”

James’s face flushed red. “I see. So you think this is my fault?”

“No. This is what you two are thinking now, but it will evolve. You have background, passions and emotions. It is normal. But with time, if RECLT and IPI work together, things will be more quiet and cool between you two.” Tycho turned again to Sakaane. “Sakaane, do you think that RECLT’s aim, or feeling, are incompatible with IPI? Does RECLT need to deeply change?”

She’d remained in the conversation for his sake, pleased and grateful for his support and reasonable attitude. “In general? Overall? Based on what I have been told, I don’t think so. Supporting trade and economy in Intaki goes to the alliance’s mandate. Being active in the Intaki sov and with other alliance members satisfies that expectation. You both obviously have ideas about how you want to go about your business in this area, and have already been doing so.”

“So RECLT don’t need to change, and we will keep our spirit and management independent,” Tycho said triumphantly. “It is why I think that the admission of RECLT inside IPI is not a danger for us.”

They fell quiet. Sakaane took the opportunity to think over her decision.

“Allies should respect each other…and trust each other,” James finally said. “We will be in Intaki trading. I am willing to see how things develop between our two organizations. As you two seem to get along so well, I will task you with development of friendly and…respectful ties between the two.”

“It will be a great honor to do that.”

James nodded. “Remember, the decisions you make affect everyone.” He settled back in his chair.

“What do you think about that Sakaane? Can we work closer to demonstrate that RECLT and IPI have much more in common than differences?”

She wanted to say no, but understood that answer was borne of her distrust and dislike of James Syagrius, as Tycho had pointed out. Yet she also knew there could be no future for RECLT in IPI while James was in charge. Still, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to see if they could associate together outside the alliance. Be ‘good neighbors’, as Syagrius had originally proposed.

“That would be nice,” she said finally.

Tycho smiled, nodded. “So I will be pleased to plan that with you. I hope it will drive us to something good for the two entities!”

“It might be best to take this conversation to your office, Tycho,” James said stiffly. “I have things to do. Ms Eionell, my office will remain open to you. I will mail you the key code.”

“Thank you,” Sakaane replied, just as stiffly. A moment later, after Tycho had departed James’s office, she authorized the transfer of the comm signal. The projection morphed to that of an office which had no furnishings save two chairs and stacks of boxes.

Tycho entered and apologized for the mess by way of a sheepish grin. But seeing that she was properly connected, said, “I will go now. I hope that we could negotiate soon.”

Sakaane nodded. “We can talk again soon.”

“With pleasure!”

They said their goodbyes; the transmission ended and the projectors went dark. For several moments, Sakaane thought it all over. The conversation hadn’t quite gone as she’d hoped, and she probably should have quit the conversation when James had first departed, but in the end it hadn’t ended that badly either. Not great, but not bad.

“You have no intention of going through with it, do you, Madam President,” Airaken said.

“I will talk with him again,” Sakaane said, “but not about joining IPI.” She turned the chair around and noted the time. No wonder she felt so tired; no wonder Karan was around. It was technically early morning on the station. By travelling to the surface and back she’d inadvertently stayed up all night.

She stretched; perhaps she could fit in a quick nap before the day’s appointments came up and the pilots of her command needed her. But she looked forward to it; it was time to get to work.