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

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

The cider’s aroma wafted out of the cup as Sakaane poured from the pot Karan had waiting for her. The liquid was a pale coral color and smelled of berries. She’d just taken a careful sip of the hot liquid and was about to sit down at her desk when her aide poked his head into the office.

Suprab heti, Madam President,” he said. “There’s a call coming in from Tycho Antus, COO of Reclamation Technologies. Do you wish to take it now?” He glanced at his datapad. “You also wanted me to remind you of this morning’s appointment.”

“Thank you, Karan.” Her nose wrinkled; faintly, despite the fact her office was spotless, she was certain she could still detect the salty odor of fire suppression foam, which the cider and the room’s incense wasn’t strong enough to cover. It reminded her of her last encounter with James Syagrius and she felt a small pinch of anxiety in her gut. “I’ll take the call in the conference hall.”

Picking up her own datapad, Sakaane carried it and the cup through to the meeting room, which was decidedly free of offensive scents. It wasn’t really a hall in sense one might expect; though it could host up to fifty guests at a time, in standard lighting it was drab grey and seemed alarmingly empty save for a few simple chairs placed haphazardly here and there. Behind a door, nearly hidden in the panels of the wall, was a small storeroom containing a collapsible table and folding chairs which could be brought out for guests to use. Usually, these things were left packed away, and Sakaane made no move to retrieve them, opting instead to set her cup and datapad down on a small side table beside the closest chair.

The call routed through: lights dimmed and holoprojectors blinked on, morphing the area immediately around her into a representation of the office Tycho was calling from. The conference hall could handle numerous feeds, allowing remote guests to confer together and with ILF or IPI officers without needing to make the oft-dangerous trek to Intaki. Meanwhile, the alliance members and any local guests could enjoy seamless integration of multiple virtual environments. For this reason, the conference hall rarely needed any additional adornment.

Tycho appeared before her in what she recognized as James’s office. As always, he was dressed in a smartly-pressed white shirt and dark slacks. When the connection between them completed, projecting her avatar to his location, their eyes met and he smiled in greeting. She smiled back; she quite liked Tycho and was pleased to hear from him.

“Dear Sakaane,” he said, his pleasant, accented voice vaguely distorted by the transmission, “I want to talk for an important thing. Can I?”

“Certainly. I’m available for another twenty minutes or so.”

He nodded and sat down at James’s desk, lacing his fingers before him in a relaxed gesture. “I was thinking about your offer that RECLT join IPI. I, and some other members, think that it will be a good opportunity for both IPI and RECLT. I would like to discuss this, and also if IPI could bring some guarantees to RECLT, to be sure that we will not be enrolled for some actions.” He paused briefly, then added, “RECLT is an industrial corporation, so I think there will be opportunities for IPI and RECLT if we can exploit our skills to the alliance, notably the development of the Intaki trade hub. We are active this time to develop trading in Intaki.”

Since her last encounter with James, and having before that witnessed the questionable company he kept, serious reservations about pursuing the relationship with RECLT had cropped up in Sakaane’s mind. But Tycho always seemed so genuine and enthusiastic that she wondered if he honestly knew anything about all that. She was quiet for a moment while she considered how to continue.

“Have you read our alliance’s mission statement?” she asked finally.

He nodded. If he’d noticed her hesitation he showed no sign of it. “I know your objectives. They are concordant with ours.”

She decided to be cautious. “You mentioned guarantees. What sort of guarantees are you looking for?”

Tycho took a minute to think before answering. “You know that James is very protective with the corp,” he said. “He wanted to protect it when FCO wanted to do some actions contrary to RECLT’s interests. So I think that if James could have a role in the alliance decisions, to be sure that a war will not put our corporation in danger, he will appreciate it. Like he had in FCO.”

“Each corporation that joins IPI is required to designate a councilor,” Sakaane answered, uncertain whether to remind Tycho that the alliance had just come out of a war it hadn’t declared. “The councilor gets one vote on alliance matters which require a vote.”

He nodded again. “And also, despite our status of industrialists, and former member of FCO, we want to be considered as full member, and so have the same rights. I know that some people could be scabby to us.”

Sakaane blinked at this, surprised by the suggestion that any member of the alliance might not be seen as equal to the others. Granted, she’d given RECLT a cool reception upon their arrival in Intaki but that had everything to do with the timing and what FCO had been saying in public then. Considering to have RECLT join IPI now should have been, she hoped, a far cry from where they’d started.

Or maybe, she mused, his comment had something to do with how they’d been treated in FCO. But she could only guess at that.

Aloud, Sakaane asked, “What rights are you referring to?”

“By joining, I hope that RECLT members could have the same access to the IPI’s assets like the others members. And also participate in joint operations for mining for example, as we are not FCO spies. I don’t want RECLT members becoming strangers in IPI due to the former alliance with FCO.”

Sakaane had been partway through a mouthful of her cider as Tycho finished speaking. Spluttering somewhat into her cup, she placed it back on the small table and again was silent as she thought how best to reply.

“Perhaps I should tell you how IPI works. I think you are perhaps making a few assumptions that are based only on your past experience.”

“Maybe,” Tycho admitted. “Inside FCO our role was…limited.”

Sakaane gathered her thoughts. “When a corporation applies for membership to IPI a few things must happen: the corporation must commit to establishing operations within the Intaki sov. The corporation must be prepared to pay a deposit fee to IPI. And, finally, the IPI council must vote in favor of admitting the corporation to the alliance.

“If all of those things are satisfied, the corporation becomes a member. They designate a councilor and that councilor is expected to participate in council matters. There are no other limits. Alliance operations are open to everyone who wishes to participate. None of them are mandatory.” She tried to smile reassuringly and thought of his earlier comment. “IPI is not in the habit of declaring war against other entities. Any member corporation can schedule an alliance op if they wish. Alliance members can enter the POS shields of any other alliance corp’s POS.”

He’d listened without interrupting and was nodding again. “It will reassure James, I am sure. For the admission, I think those conditions will not be a problem. Could we participate in the POS supplying?”

“If you wish. We have alliance ops to procure ice. A few of our members have starbases in the area.”

He seemed pleased with that. “We have a good supplying capacity, so I think it will be interesting to participate in it.”

She picked up the cup again and wrapped her fingers around it to absorb its warmth. The conference room was slightly too cool for her taste; she’d have to remember to send a note to maintenance. “As for the politics of the alliance, we have a variety. ILF and IRAG support secession for the Intaki sov. EKEN does not. DAROK is more or less silent on the issue for now. These particular avenues are currently for each corporation to pursue, not the alliance.”

“Yes, I understand it.”

“So long as the member corp supports establishing peace and prosperity in Intaki and can respect the beliefs of its fellows in pursuit of that goal, that is sufficient.”

“For us too.”

She nodded. “You could always discuss with Mammal Tafren about working beside secessionists. Get his impressions.”

“I think James was afraid to must participate into a war, so if IPI, as you said, don’t push to war, it will be good for him. So RECLT want to perform trading and mining. I think our competences in it would be profitable for IPI. Also an alliance with IPI could open to us new windows.”

“Our war history shows that the alliance has only declared war once against another group,” Sakaane pointed out. “In all other cases we were the defenders. It’s not in the alliance’s nature to be aggressive on that scale.”

“I am happy to hear that.”

“We do want to fight piracy in the Intaki sov but we do so through our combat patrols.”

“Piracy is our enemy too. I think that some members could join a patrol from time to time.”

Sakaane nodded. “Your corporation would be free to pursue its own activities provided they don’t reflect poorly on the alliance and don’t put the alliance in a compromising position.”

“Don’t worry for that. I can assure you that our business is honest and safe for the alliance.”

Sakaane bit her lip as she felt a lick of doubt. She struggled to reconcile what Tycho was saying against what she had experienced with James and in the end simply tried to set the uncertainty aside. “And, ideally, the activities will occur within the Intaki sov,” she added. “We have been placing a lot of emphasis on this lately. There is no point to joining IPI if the member corporation is not in the local space.”

“We have some interest there. Personally I have nearly all my capital invested in Intaki at this time.” Then he said, “As traders, we travel a lot. But RECLT have an office in Intaki, so we are present in the system.”

“If you travel a lot, what are the chances your corporation might decide to move out of Intaki in the near future?”

“Officially we want to be free to establish our HQ in a high-security system, as we have new pilots,” he answered. “But we are always present in Intaki because we want to develop the trade there. And James is present since a long time in the system. With the admission of RECLT into IPI, we will be better anchored in Intaki and we want to develop all types of activities there, so I can guarantee you that we will be active in Intaki.”

Sakaane couldn’t be certain but she wondered if Tycho was overly rushing to reassure her. Rather than having that effect, she began to feel even more anxious about the possibility of having RECLT join IPI. The memory of all those pirates appearing remotely in this very office wouldn’t leave her alone. Yet at the same time, she wanted to believe Tycho meant nothing else toward her or IPI other than the honest support and friendship he described. Her thoughts started to spin in circles.

“Do you think your other members would make the trip down here as well?” she managed, trying to cover for her confusion, and took a gulp of the cider. It was cooling, but still hot enough to burn uncomfortably as it went down.

“When they will be well fitted for it, yes. They are traders. If we can participate into the POS’s supplying, they will come when they will be well prepared. I am present in Intaki since three or four weeks, but I have already a big business there.”

“That’s good to hear,” Sakaane said honestly.

“Our members will follow that. So this is why I asked for participation of RECLT in POS supplying, and also ammunitions and equipment.”

She nodded. “You mentioned having concerns about FCO and how your members might be received by us.”

“Yes. I guess that some IPI members could be afraid at the beginning to have former members of FCO.”

Sakaane admitted to herself that was probably a fair assessment. The incident—she hesitated to call it a debacle—on IGS between FCO and I-RED had passed fairly quickly and while there hadn’t been a lot of talk around the proverbial IPI or ILF watercooler about it that she was aware of, there had been some. She knew what her own reaction was. After all, considering the timing, she’d distrusted FCO’s arrival in Intaki and now again she had similar suspicions she couldn’t currently reconcile. But they’d also made some headway toward working together. There were just suddenly one too many oddities when she considered things closely.

Again her thoughts spun wildly and she decided it was a good thing she was sitting down.

What did the others think? She thought Anais had seemed keen to grow ties with FCO when they first appeared in Intaki, while some others had reservations about having such strong Federation loyalists around. Now that RECLT had left their ranks it would be understandable if their members worried about having those impressions following after them.

“EKEN was also a member of FCO,” Sakaane started to say.

Tycho stood up abruptly. “I must go away for now,” he said kindly. “I was pleased to talk to you. I wish that RECLT could join IPI. I will talk to James too.”

Sakaane blinked and nodded. “We can continue discussing it,” she offered.

“Yes. I will tell you after. So, good day Sakaane!”

The connection began to fade. “Suprab heti, Tycho.”

She sat quietly for several moments after that, unsettled and not entirely sure why, until it finally registered that her wetware was nagging her about a comms request from Karan.

“Your appointment, khasri,” his voice said in her head, “was for nearly half an hour ago.”

“Damn,” Sakaane muttered, scrubbing a hand over her face and gathering up her things. “Please tell Bataav I’ll be right there.”


Some hours later, Sakaane returned home for a break with Bataav accompanying her. They had spent the rest of the morning in a training gallery, running through sets of hand-to-hand maneuvers and firearms target practice.

“My everything hurts,” she groaned, easing down onto the sofa and massaging a thigh muscle. “Whereas you look like you’ve just been out for a leisurely stroll!”

He smiled. “It’s not as bad as all that. Your shooting is good. Here.” He offered her a glass of water. “Your previous navy martial arts training did more for you than you think. You just haven’t kept it up as well as you could have. It’d be much worse if you were starting from scratch.”

“Are you saying I’m fat?”

Bataav snorted and poked his finger at her decidedly un-fat stomach. “Just out of practice, hon.”

She squealed and laughed and tried to wiggle away from his tickling finger without slopping water all over them.

“You’re in a better mood,” he observed, catching her in his arms.

“Hmm.” Sakaane leaned back after taking long pull from the glass and setting it aside. “That call from Tycho this morning put me off. I don’t know… He’s so friendly, but not in that too friendly way, and I really want to believe that he and RECLT would be a good addition to IPI, especially for the support they could give the trade hub. But then when I think about how things have gone with James…” She sighed and shifted uncomfortably. “My gut tells me to be wary. I feel like I don’t know enough about what’s going on. What their motivations are.”

It was a comment Bataav had grown accustomed to hearing from her lately, while the mood swing was plain on her face: where a moment before she’d been happy, if a bit tired, now her brows were knitted together and a frown pulled down the corners of her mouth. A different kind of tired expression crept into her features. She was bothered, more intensely than she might otherwise be, he thought, by the feeling that something was being kept from her, and he knew she’d be thinking now, peripherally, about more than just how things were going with RECLT.

He brushed some loose strands of hair way from her forehead. They’d both had an intense workout and the twist was in danger of falling out completely. “You don’t think you can take him at face value?”

She stared at the ceiling, her eyes darting from side to side as she jumped from one thought to another.

“I think I would, if not for everything else I’ve seen. The ties to criminal elements James has worries me. Tycho is his COO. If he knows about that, he plays it very cool. But if he doesn’t—” She sat up and propped her elbows on her knees, resting her forehead in the palms of her hands. “Part of me would hate to walk away from this. We have DAROK now, but IPI still needs more corps with more than just a handful of people in them. Maybe—”

She fell silent. Maybe I just want this too badly, something to point to so I can say I finally got something right for IPI.

“We have reservations but that doesn’t mean a decision has to be made yet.”

“I just don’t want to open IPI up to something that will backfire on us later. We’ve had too much of that kind of thing lately as it is.”

“I know.” He tugged gently on her arm until she turned to look at him. Cupping her cheek with his hand, he stroked the skin gently before stealing a kiss. “Come shower with me,” he said after. “Wash all this away for now.”

Gazing at him, Sakaane leaned close and kissed him back, intensely.


Later, when there was no more hot water left, they dressed and shared a meal before preparing to head back to work.

The door opened in anticipation of their egress, but they paused together at the sight that greeted them: there on the floor, as if masquerading as a small doormat, was a plain envelope.

Sakaane’s hand, which Bataav had been holding in his own, clenched.

“What–what is that?” she hissed, and immediately felt stupid for doing so, for of course she recognized it and knew full well what it was.

Bataav bent and carefully picked it up by the edges, casting furtive glances around the outer foyer as if expecting to catch Darac lurking about, but no one was there. The door closed behind them as they retreated inside.

He carried the envelope to the table and laid it down.

The silence stretched while they stared at the delivery. Bataav was still, his expression dark. Sakaane had gone pale and remained standing slightly behind him.

“Do you want me to open it?”

She stepped fully up to the table. Her hands twitched forward, then snatched themselves back. “I–I don’t know—” Blood suddenly pounded through her head and she gasped as if she couldn’t breathe.

He reached out, but suddenly Sakaane had the envelope in hand and whirled away, a strangled scream in her throat as she tried to rip it apart. When it failed to tear, she gave up and attempted to crumple it instead. The envelope bent a little but refused to comply otherwise; there was something stiff inside to keep its contents from being folded over.

“Why is he doing this?” she shouted, turning to Bataav and throwing the envelope back on the table. It skidded across; his hand shot out to pin it down, keeping it from slipping to the floor.

“Because he’s a pirate,” Bataav replied evenly. “Because he can. Because he’s a psychopath. Take your pick. Hey.” She was pacing like a caged animal, her face pinched with anguish and outrage. He pulled her close. She clung tightly to him.

“Toss it. Don’t give him the satisfaction of disturbing you like this.”

She seemed to consider it, but then, turning her face from where it’d been buried against his neck, said, “I have to look. I have to know.” Her gaze drifted back to the envelope. It taunted her from the table, a blatant offer of secrets from her past, things she didn’t know that had led to everything else that was her life today. “That scum-sucking Serpentis— Bataav, if he knows something else… If he’s done something else…” She looked him in the eye. “You told me once you don’t know if your father is alive or dead. If something turned up that might tell you, wouldn’t you want to know? Even if it was the worst thing in the world?”

She gave her head a shake. Her hands bunched into fists over the fabric of his tunic. “I know my father and brothers are dead. They couldn’t have survived explosive decompression. But everything about why they died—! Why were the Serpentis after my father? Why did he hide that he was a capsuleer? I have to know.” She looked back at the envelope. “The only man who knows is Darac Rin.” Her tone hardened. “I swear I will kill him for this. But before then, he’s going to tell me everything I want to know.”

Bataav recognized the conviction in her voice and part of him was glad for it. He understood well what she meant by what she said; it was something of himself he often kept hidden even from her, and that had been one aspect of the still-lingering strain on their relationship since the conversation they’d had in April. She’d begun to trust him again more recently, especially since he’d started the physical combat training. It had been a way he could include her more in his world and open up his past to her, and now he wondered if the way she felt might help her better understand why he usually kept himself reserved and distant.

Yet at the same time, part of him regretted that she’d been pushed to this point. Even six months ago, while he knew she was happy to blow up pirate vessels, he wasn’t sure she would have gone to the extent of what the tone in her voice implied. He watched her: stress was etched into her features and it often drove her to distraction these days. He wanted very much for her to be happy again.

Bataav retrieved the envelope. “Yes, I understand,” he said quietly, handing it to her. “But you understand, this won’t be the last one.”

“I know.” Her fingers trembled as she fumbled to open it.

The photograph, a large glossy print like its predecessors, slid out of a hard, protective wrapper. It was out of focus and very dark, as if shot in a room containing very little light. In the center, a mostly rectangular blob caught whatever miniscule light was present and seemed to be something upright but angled, as if leaning against a wall.

They studied it.

“This is less distinct than the first one,” Bataav said.

She put the photo down on the table, almost reluctantly, and tried to shake the foreboding the picture elicited. “I…have no idea what this could be.”

He wouldn’t patronize her by suggesting it was nothing. Coming from Darac Rin, it had to be something. Sliding his arm around her waist again, he simply said, “Leave it be for now.”


She tried. The rest of the day was spent flitting from one task to another in a vain attempt to keep her mind occupied. An invitation arrived for the I-RED Tea and Press Conference, which she accepted. She spoke at length with Bataav about RECLT. Then she rearranged her office. She visited the corporation lounge. Then she and Bataav undocked and blasted their way through the rats in Intaki’s belts.

Finally, exhausted, she went home. The photo was still on the table; she spent some time looking at it before shoving it away in frustration.

After dinner, they lounged quietly in bed together, comfortable in each other’s company, until Sakaane sighed softly.

“What is it?”

“Tycho is on comms and wants to speak to me again.”

“Talk to him tomorrow.”

She shifted, not wanting to leave Bataav’s embrace. She was tired and hurting and wanted to forget about the world outside the bedroom. But instead she said, “He’s available now and asking for me. Probably better to speak to him tonight than delay just because of…stuff. Duty calls.”

“Hmm.”

Given the hour, Sakaane opted to connect to the channel via her wetware, rather than get out of bed to use the comm panel in the main room.

“Dear Sakaane,” Tycho said in her mind, “Did you speak about RECLT admissibility to other officers in IPI?”

Her reply was just as inaudible, except to him. “I have only discussed it with Bataav so far. I’m not prepared to bring the topic to the council itself quite yet,” she said honestly.

“And what is Bataav thinking about that? Does he agree?”

She glanced at her lover and tried to smile mentally to lighten her next words. “You’ll have to forgive me, but I am not prepared to share his opinion either.”

He didn’t seem perturbed. “I understand well, don’t worry.”

Then she said, “My feeling is we need to explore the potential more first.”

“I see.”

Bataav watched her intently. She tapped her temple, indicating to him to monitor the private channel they always kept open. He nodded.

To Tycho, she said, “Our groups are still new to one another and I’m sure we both have concerns that we should continue to talk about.”

“Exactly. We want to develop the Intaki trade hub too and protect it from pirates.”

“This is good.”

“Pardon?” Another name slid into the channel just then.

Sakaane tensed. The newcomer was James. She passed a significant glance to Bataav and updated him. Then to James, she clarified, “I was responding to Tycho.”

“But take a seat, James,” Tycho said. Sakaane imagined a wide grin on his face as he said it. The two men would be in James’s office, of course.

She heard a chuckle and hoped it meant James was in a better frame of mind than the last time they’d spoken and wondered if he would ask after her sudden—but unintentional—disconnection. “Well, thank you.” There was a pause, and then James asked, rather skeptically, “So, did I interrupt something?”

“We were speaking about some…business for RECLT. I think this could be very interesting for the two parts. Do you remember our discussion in that bar on Caille? I was speaking with Sakaane to resolve our worries, James.”

“Whose discussion? I don’t remember Sakaane being on Gallente Prime?”

“No, just you and me.”

James was quiet for a moment. “Do forgive me Tycho but I have a lot of conversations. We were talking about how so?”

“You wanted to find trustworthy partners for our business capacities inside Intaki.”

Again, James was quiet. When he spoke next, Sakaane thought he suddenly sounded on edge and wondered why. “Yes.”

“And Sakaane told me that we could participate actively to the Intaki development, to bring our skills and men to help them to bring a better future for Intaki.”

“Oh, I see.” James’s tone had changed again but to her remained difficult to judge. “Well that is good to hear, but we are already active participants in trade within the Intaki system.”

“He means from the perspective of being within IPI,” Sakaane interjected.

Tycho’s smile was audible. “I wanted to introduce that more slowly, but Sakaane is more direct.”

At that, Sakaane felt confusion. Why did the idea need introducing? She had, after all, originally made the offer of joining IPI to James.

“So you wish to join ILF, Tycho?” James was asking.

“Oh no, but I think our corporation could participate closely to IPI activities, by becoming a member of this alliance. By doing this, we will help them to transform Intaki into an active trade hub.”

“I see. Well I knew you were enamored with Intaki, Tycho, but I didn’t know you were be smitten,” James teased.

“Ho I am a little romantic, James. I think this passion could help Intaki people to have a strong economy in their system.”

Sakaane rankled a little. “Pardon me, but IPI has already done much to strengthen the economy here.”

“Indeed it has, Sakaane,” James said. “I’ve looked at the numbers.” Then, to Tycho he said, “Well, I value your opinion but I am unsure how joining IPI will be of benefit to our associates, many of whom rely on trade for their livelihoods.”

“I know it, James. It was why I was speaking to Sakaane to be sure that RECLT could have benefits to be a member of IPI.”

James’s sigh was audible over the feed. “As you know I am actively looking at alliance options to insulate us as a independent industrial corp. But I don’t want to make any mistakes. There have been enough of those. We also need to bring value to any alliance we join. I am unsure if we could do that in this instance.”

Sakaane wasn’t sure if he was speaking directly to her or not, so remained silent and tried to smooth down her emotions.

Tycho interjected, “And Sakaane, I do agree with you. IPI has an important role in this. But there is always work to do. It will be a complicated way. And it is why I like to come here and propose my products. That is what I told you earlier. I am more idealist than James.”

She felt herself smile; some of the knee-jerk tension eased. “I agree, there is much work to be done. I simply do not wish the efforts made to date to go unnoticed.”

“Absolutely. I will never unnotice all what you did. It is very important and serious tasks you accomplished here.”

James was chuckling again. “Now you see why I have to watch this sweet talker very closely, Sakaane. He will try to sell Matar Face Gel to the Amarr! But this is a serious topic, so forgive my mirth.”

“No need to apologize. I appreciate a good joke.”

He went on. “The pilots I have encountered that belong to IPI have for the most part been kind and decent people. So I don’t question their value as potential allies. Having said that I am not sure they are ready for us, or we are ready for them.”

While part of her felt some relief at his statement, as if she’d just been let off the hook for the reservations she’d been carrying, there was a sense of letdown as well at the likelihood this just wasn’t going to work out after all. She sat up, breaking free from Bataav’s embrace, as if the motion would help her concentrate better on the conversation. He quizzed her in their private channel and she briefly outlined to him what had developed.

“I expressed the same worries to Sakaane earlier,” Tycho said.

“I understand that some of our members are very eager to join a pro-business alliance that is less politically ideological. But I wonder if they understand what joining IPI might mean.”

Uh oh, Sakaane thought privately, not liking the sound of that at all. She thought back to when she and Bataav had been negotiating with Twilight Labs. In the end that had fallen through, it seemed, because somehow they didn’t have a clear understanding of ‘what joining IPI might mean’, and by the time she realized, it was too late to do anything about it. That had been a disappointment, the first of her term in office.

Suddenly, strangely, she found herself wanting to save the situation with RECLT.

“Please,” she prompted, although dreading the answer, “tell me what you think it means.”

James chuckled again. “Well for one I would imagine you would want the majority of our business to be done in Intaki, meaning that our membership would need to make Intaki their primary home.”

“That is correct. There is not much point in joining the Intaki Prosperity Initiative if one is not in the Intaki sov to support the initiative.”

“That in itself isn’t too large a problem. However. We mine ice in the Federation. I’m not sure our membership could make a living mining in or around Intaki. Our primary ice fields are very far from Intaki. Now, I understand that you mine Amarr ice for yourselves so I assume that means you have a supply somewhere that is mined.”

“Indeed. It’s generally a well-attended alliance operation when we do so.” Then, she offered, “There are at least two ice belts within the Intaki sov and several more nearby though.”

“Without being specific is the Amarr location in high- or low-security space?”

“Hisec. CONCORD regularly assists us with security.”

She expected he was nodding.

“Do you keep ships in that system for the purpose of procuring ice?”

“I imagine so. I don’t attend the ops myself. Not a miner, you see.”

Again, the chuckle. Sakaane, inexplicably, felt her unease increase.

“I assume the ice gathered during these operations is donated to the alliance?”

“Not specifically. Several of our members have Amarr towers.”

“I am confused. So ice harvested during these ops is not gathered for the alliance’s needs?”

Sakaane was confused too. “Starbases are owned by the member corporations, not the alliance.”

“So ILF’s miners mine for ILF and so forth.”

“Right. The operation is therefore just a group event. Those who attend, do so and come because it is an opportunity to socialize and work with friends. If a pilot chooses to donate his mined ice to another corporation that is up to him.”

“I see an opportunity here,” James said, his tone brightening. “So hypothetically speaking. Should at some point RECLT become a part of IPI it is possible that we could run operations in this system, as that is how my membership makes the money to trade and thus contribute to the Intaki economy.”

“Certainly. Members are encouraged to schedule their own ops and invite the rest of the alliance too. All our ops are voluntary.” She felt like a broken record, but then considered that perhaps Tycho hadn’t had an opportunity to pass on what she’d told him earlier.

The channel fell silent. Sakaane glanced over; Bataav had dozed off. She pulled the blanket up around him and sent a command that plunged the room into darkness.

“Most of my membership are ice miners,” James said eventually. “There would be little enough for them to do in Intaki on a permanent basis. Their job is basically to mine ice that Tycho and I buy and sell. We use those profits to buy products we sell here in Intaki.”

Sakaane’s confusion mounted and became coupled with frustration. He said he saw an opportunity regarding mining ice with us but now thinks there’s not enough for his people to do? She reached for a datapad lying on the side table, drew up a region map, and counted. One ice belt next door in Agoze. Another one, three jumps way in Eugales, plus yet another one jump further in Aubenall. Five more were only a handful of jumps from Slays, where James and Tycho were located just then. Slays was a bit further than she’d ideally like, but it also wasn’t terribly far, either.

She sighed and decided to move on for now. “Tycho mentioned the corporation’s status within IPI might be of concern to you.”

“Did he?” James’s tone was displeased.

Oops. “It’s a fair question,” Sakaane amended, suddenly sure she’d gotten Tycho into trouble and feeling bad for it.

“Don’t be insulted, Sakaane. Everything is a concern to me, especially when it relates to the good of my people. But yes I do have concerns.”

She wasn’t sure why it was her who might have been offended. “I wasn’t insulted. I would probably have been surprised if the topic hadn’t been raised.”

“I mentioned that you are very protective for RECLT’s interests,” Tycho said.

“All corporations approved for admittance to IPI are required to designate one of their own to serve on the IPI council. This person has one vote on behalf of their corporation when matters require a vote, and otherwise is expected to be the voice of the member corporation to the alliance,” Sakaane explained. “This effectively means each member corp is equal.”

She heard nothing in reply, so asked, “What concerns do you have?”

“To be honest your alliance governance wasn’t my primary concern. I have had a few conversations regarding it and read what is available regarding your charter.” He seemed to take a breath. “I won’t shade the truth. My opinion of IPI has changed as I have come to learn more about it. Mammal played no small role in that evolution. But we are talking about my concerns. I am sure you have your own?”

“I expect you spoke to Mammal regarding the topic of ILF and IRAG being secessionists, whereas EKEN and DAROK are not.”

“I understand that IPI takes a ‘neutral’ stance on separation,” James replied. “And I understand that differences of opinion on the matter are respected within the alliance.”

Sakaane nodded in the dark. “IPI benefits from having no specific political goal. I suppose improving the economic and security landscape here could be seen as political, but in a general sense.”

“I don’t see how improving the standard of living of Federation citizens could be considered so, but I suppose you are correct. My membership is made up of very…trusting people. We have very little internal conflict.”

“In an outward facing way, IPI isn’t here to represent one political opinion over another as far as secession is concerned. But we do represent a force working to correct the failings of the Federation in the Intaki sov.”

“Not to mention the failing of the local Intaki population represented by their Assembly. But perhaps we should avoid politics.”

“Yes, the Assembly is as much to blame as the Federation. But you are right, it is probably better to not become derailed.” Thinking back to something he mentioned, she added, “A difference of political opinion has never been a problem between member corps in the past. But, admittedly, in the past, ILF has usually been the only active voice for IPI. During my term my goal is to change that and bring in many voices.”

“My primary concern involves the State and its proxies,” James announced abruptly. The smirk in his voice carried.

Sakaane felt she’d suddenly stumbled into dangerous territory again. “Oh?”

“IPI’s relationship with I-RED is well known,” he said. “This in and of itself isn’t a problem, considering I-RED’s opposition to the State Protectorate forces on occasion.”

She remained silent for a moment, fearing she knew where this was going, then said simply, “They are trusted allies.”

“Our former association with FCO may be a problem then.”

“Why should that be, if the association is truly former?”

“I am not in nor do I plan to be in the habit of trying to prove myself to I-RED.”

The lingering frustration she felt flared to annoyance. Yes, this again. “You would not need to. We do not answer to them,” she retorted.

“I am glad to hear it.”

Frequently as she’d risen to more notable ranks in ILF, Sakaane had come across people who expressed sentiments like this, and every time she heard it, she wanted to throttle the person who said it. Yes, they had a close relationship with I-RED. No, they didn’t operate like I-RED or command the numbers I-RED had. But so what? Comments like his smacked of disregard and outright ignorance to what ILF and IPI were: fully formed, independent organizations in their own right.

She wasn’t anyone’s pet and neither were the people under her command. They cooperated or collaborated with I-RED at times, but nobody called the shots in ILF or IPI other than the Suresha, herself, and the leadership team.

“I trust you did not believe so in the first place,” she managed, tightly.

“I did and the general perception is otherwise.”

Sakaane frowned. Something would have to be done about that.

“But we have been talking about my concerns. I am sure you have some of your own?” James asked again.

She tried not to be angry but suddenly found it difficult. “Well, my foremost concern at the moment is having learned people think my alliance answers to I-RED!”

He laughed. “I didn’t think you cared what folks in the Federation ‘thought’ about IPI?” Then, without waiting for an answer, he went on, “Personally, I think you should, as public opinion within the Federation can be used to do great good or ill, depending on how it’s channeled.”

Sakaane’s face started to hurt and she realized she was scowling. “I have no desire for my alliance to be perceived as a pet of the State, whether it be to an ally or otherwise.”

“I understand that but we are discussing me and mine now. Your public relations perception problems can be fixed.”

She grit her teeth but tried to stay polite. “Please realize that my statement also applies to the Federation. IPI is its own entity and answers only to itself.”

“I believe you,” he chuckled.

“That being said,” she added more calmly, “we have friends from all the empires, and do not begrudge any of them, even if they begrudge each other. We have discussed IPI’s political umbrella already. Nevertheless, my main concerns about your corporation centers around your political stance. I am also concerned about FCO.”

“As would I. Are we speaking of my political stance or RECLT’s? RECLT’s political aspirations are expressed in our corporate description.”

“Both, if there is a difference.” She took a moment to think carefully before she went on. “As the alliance collects more active members, their voices will be heard. It will be important that representatives strike a balance between speaking on behalf of their corporation so as to not misrepresent IPI or place the alliance in a difficult position. This is something I myself am quite mindful of, being president and Isha-Sainika.”

“All I can suggest is that you read the few public statements I made while a member of FCO, to see if you discern from them my personal opinion of actions taken by the alliance as a whole.”

“I have read them. I may have to refresh my memory though.”

“Having been on the sharp end of the unilateral actions of others I can understand your concern.”

“I am also concerned about any lingering effects or influence FCO may have on you or your group,” Sakaane admitted.

“We have many friends in FCO,” James said, “But FCO is RECLT’s past.”

“We have new members who never know the FCO,” Tycho volunteered. “In fact only James and myself knew the FCO period.”

“As our primary concern is business you have little enough to fear regarding our public statements. If I have something to say I will say it in council. As a part of the whole and respecting the democratic process”—James paused for effect—“I will support the decisions of the whole. If I can’t then I would leave the association.”

She considered. Those statements, at least, were reassuring. She didn’t like having opposition spill over into public and agreed: any council debates should be just that: council debates.

When she didn’t immediately say something, James added, “Should, and after all we are just speaking hypothetically, should we join IPI I would continue my interactions with FCO, understanding the bounds of the possible and appropriate, to redirect their efforts.”

“Redirect them how?”

She could hear him smiling again. “Do you have children, Sakaane?”

“No.” In the dark, despite herself, she felt a blush creep into her cheeks. “Although some of my fellow pilots occasionally like to rib me about when they might hear the ‘pitter-patter of small SakBat feet’ in the corp offices.”

He laughed again, and this time it sounded genuine. “Well imagine if you did. If that child went astray, would you abandon it to its fate? Or would you continue despite its actions to direct it to a more constructive path? That is the ‘how’ of it.”

“Aha.” Feeling that was inadequate, Sakaane tried to explain. “Please understand. Tycho described you as being protective of RECLT’s interests, which is understandable. I am likewise protective of IPI’s, and ILF’s. And FCO does not rank very highly in my book.”

“The feeling within FCO is mutual.” He took a breath. “I won’t lie to you. I don’t know if I will ever be ‘done’ with FCO. I helped bring it into being, I tried to shape it, I tried to protect it with means both honorable and otherwise.”

A flag tripped in Sakaane’s mind. And otherwise?

“When at last I saw I was not being listened to and that they were intent on a destructive path, I had to protect my membership.”

That, she felt she understood. “It is difficult to see a dream…die.”

“That is the beauty of dreams. They never die.”

She thought about the photo, still sitting on the table in the dining area, and everything that photo was linked to, and for or the first time in a long while felt her throat tighten and her eyes sting. “Oh yes they do.” Her voice, though inaudible and transmitted solely through her wetware to the system four jumps a way, was hoarse with emotion.

Clearing her mental throat, Sakaane tried to push aside the uncomfortable reminder of her family and her original career and concentrate on the matter at hand. “In any case, I suppose Bastian sees my pilots as…what is the favorite term? Peacenik terrorists.”

“No,” James said. “He sees you as hypocritical anarchists who wrap themselves in the flag of perceived victimhood of an ill-informed people. But I won’t split hairs.” She heard the smirk again.

Ugh, she thought, but let the barb pass. “I wonder what he uses to justify such an opinion.”

“If you look at it rationally you’re missing the point. You need to understand how the Gallente form their opinions and how to change them. Often enough the truth of a situation has little to do with them.”

“I think our track record should speak for itself. Anyone thinking to call us anarchists or terrorists or pirates is woefully ignorant,” she said shortly.

Just then, Tycho announced, “I must let you go for tonight. Good night.” After a slight hesitation, he added, “Suprab nahi!”

“Good night…” James said, and, once Tycho had disconnected, quipped, “Great Maker he has gone local.”

Sakaane smiled, thankful for a moment’s distraction from the intense topic to something more pleasant. “Tycho has been doing quite well with his Intaki. His accent is a bit thick but I’m honored that he has picked it up so quickly.”

“I will keep a closer eye on him then.”

“Why?”

“He is impressionable and likes to please. Those can be dangerous traits.”

“I suppose,” she said, reflecting on how one portion of ILF’s mandate was cultural preservation and education. The Federation had eaten away at their traditions, their language, swallowed them up in the behemoth conglomerate that was so often just referred to overall as “Gallente”. How many Intaki in the Federation could trace their roots to their ancestral homeworld but had no idea of its history and culture? How many Gallente citizens went about their daily life believing that everyone everywhere was just like them and no more? And yet Tycho, with no real prompting from her, had gone ahead and looked it up. She was happy he’d done so. “I find his open-mindedness and curiosity refreshing,” she remarked lightly. “Especially from a Gallente.”

James was immediately short in response. “I haven’t heard you address him in our tongue. I suppose that is too open-minded, or does that door only open one way?”

“I cannot do what I do not know.”

“Funny, he managed to learn, but then I suppose that’s just how we Gallente are.”

She checked another sigh of irritation and began to realize just how late it was. “There is no need to be snide, Mr Syagrius. Frallente is a language I have not had occasion to study.”

“I am not being snide,” he snapped. “I am just reacting to your bigoted comment about my race. And that is one of the primary examples why I don’t think we should consider joining IPI.”

Her temper was close to breaking free at that, but she tried to counsel patience in herself. “Why do you suppose I am a secessionist?” she asked gently. “My opinion is borne of my experiences. My Intaki fellows who live within the Federation are usually ignorant of their homeworld and its traditions. They are overwhelmed by the Gallente way of life.”

“That is presumptive arrogance young lady and despite our differences I would not insult your race.”

Sakaane rankled further and struggled to stay calm. “Why is it presumptive arrogance to comment on my personal observations?”

“Because your frame of reference may be limited. And again you’re being overly analytical. You insult, then wonder why.” A moment of silence passed while she tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t be acrid.

“So are you the leader of ILF or of IPI?” he demanded.

“My comment wasn’t intended as an insult,” she said instead. “There was no malice behind it. It was simply my opinion.”

Her voice suddenly replayed for them: “I suppose. I find his open-mindedness and curiosity refreshing. Especially from a Gallente.”

She nodded, though she knew he couldn’t see. “That is true. I did.” To her, it was a good thing, a positive gesture against what she, and others in her organization, had come to expect as the norm. Tycho had given her the very best kind of compliment and she wanted to acknowledge it.

But before she could explain this, James sneered, “Then you will fail. Good night, Ms. Eionell,” and terminated their connection.

The abrupt disconnect flashed a negative feedback burst to her wetware, leaving Sakaane feeling a bit like she’d just been slapped. Blinking at the silence, at first she felt bewildered that he was so offended, then angry at him and herself that the conversation had gone so badly.

Then it occurred to her that how she had phrased her statement might not have been the best she could have done, and flopped back onto her pillow with a groan. One wrong word, one poor turn of phrase.

Bataav stirred and rolled over, wrapping his arm around her.

“You were right,” she told him wearily, even as he drifted back to sleep, “I should have declined the conversation tonight.” Sighing, feeling angry and miserable, she tried to clear her thoughts but they were a jumbled mess that replayed all the worst parts of the day over and over and mashed them together like some kind of horror vid.

She tossed and turned, and sometimes felt like retching.

Eventually, she slept. And dreamed.

She was in the photo. The near-black sheet of paper swallowed her up. She was in the photo and suddenly it was real. The room was hot, its darkness choking, oppressive.

She stumbled forward, toward the indistinct blob. The closer she got, the larger the blob became, though no more clear, until it split apart into monstrous coffins, black and huge and terrible as they towered over her. She was rooted to the spot, stuck gazing up at them as they grew and grew until she cowered on the floor, little more than an insect before their colossal might.

The lids cracked open with an aching howl that deafened her, revealing an abyssal darkness beyond that was even blacker and more terrible than the lurid murk she stood in. That abyss sucked until she was engulfed and tumbled down forever.

The howl became laughter, raucous and cruel. Two voices, distinct and yet, at that moment, horribly the same, bellowing her failure.

Sakaane screamed and wrenched upright in bed, sheets soaked through with perspiration tangled tightly around her. The sound had scarcely left her throat before Bataav was on his feet, a gun in his hand, the room’s lights blazing to life.

There was nothing there.

He turned to find Sakaane sitting with her head in her hands, red-faced from embarrassment and gasping from the fright she’d given herself. Slipping back into their bed, he helped her extricate herself from the linens. He didn’t have to ask for her to see the question in his face.

“No,” she sobbed. “No, I’m not okay.”