Thanks to Saxon Hawke for his written contributions.
The original posts are here.
Intaki V – Moon 5 – Astral Mining Inc. Refinery
The docking tug released her ship; the pod gantry extracted her capsule. Sakaane prepared for the usual amount of discomfort that accompanied disembarkation.
“Have you been expecting a delivery, or a message?” Bataav asked over their private channel.
The black pod suit peeled off and hit the floor of the washroom in the captain’s quarters with a wet plop. Slimy rivulets of containment fluid dribbled down her body into inconvenient crevices. She reached for the shower knob.
Bataav hesitated before answering. “A courier showed up shortly after you left. His credentials seem to check out.”
The bar of soap squirted out of her hands. She let it fall unheeded to the floor and tried to fight down a sudden irrational surge of anxiety. Darac Rin’s couriers had had verifiable credentials, too, else they would never have been allowed on the station, never mind granted access to the restricted capsuleer zones. That hadn’t stopped them from bringing her ill news.
Bataav heard her soft curse. “It won’t be about that. We took care of it.”
Yes, they had—and the anxiety was swept aside by grim satisfaction that twisted her lips into a cold smile. But then several gobs of shampoo suds slipped past her lips, killing the moment. She spat and turned her face up to the water to rinse her mouth.
Still, was it possible the courier was from the Serpentis? She mulled that over in her head for a few minutes before discarding the idea. It’d been months since the escapade in Vey, and even supposing the local cells were happy about that particular turn of events, they’d probably be unlikely to send a gift basket to an enemy as thanks. This courier must be from someone else. But why the trouble to come in person? Anyone she could think of who might need to reach her could do so easily enough through secured comms.
“What did he want?”
“He refuses to say.”
“Wait a minute. The courier is waiting?”
“Apparently his instructions are to speak only to you.”
She caught the note of disapproval in Bataav’s voice and decided it would be best not to delay further. A few minutes later, a damp towel joined the wet pod suit on the floor.
Bataav was sitting across from their unexpected guest, a carefully neutral expression on his face and a drink seemingly clasped casually in his hands, when Sakaane entered their quarters. She had tossed on her usual fatigues but left her hair down. The redline tube had transported her across the station in a matter of minutes; her honey-blonde locks hung in still-damp waves over her shoulders.
The courier had his back to her. He sat rigidly upright in that way people do when they’re uncomfortably aware of having overstayed their welcome but are unable, or unwilling, to leave. A glass of ice water—long since warmed to room temperature, Sakaane suspected—sat untouched in a puddle of condensation on the coffee table.
Bataav glanced in her direction; the courier turned to look and then jerked to his feet. “Madam President,” he said, and strode around the sofa.
Sakaane held up her hand to halt his advance. “Bataav tells me you were unwilling to leave your message with him.”
The courier glanced over his shoulder. Bataav had risen to his feet and was standing within arm’s reach. His drink had been placed quietly on the table, leaving both hands free.
“Please, I mean no disrespect.” The courier looked back at her with an apologetic face. “My instructions are quite specific. The message must be delivered, personally, to Sakaane Eionell.” He paused. “Delivered only to you.”
“Whatever you have to say to me can be said to both of us,” Sakaane said flatly. “Or, you may leave.”
The idea of not completing his mission didn’t affect the courier as Sakaane expected. If he’d been under threat for not getting the job done the way he’d been told to do it, he might have panicked or been rattled enough to plead with her. Instead, the courier stood quietly, studying her as if to judge her resolve. Fleetingly, she wondered if he might leave without giving her the message at all.
Finally, his hand moved to reach inside the jacket of his uniform.
“Slowly,” Bataav warned.
The courier hesitated, then retrieved a white envelope slightly bigger than his hand. It was somewhat thick and uneven. Holding it up to Bataav, he then presented it to Sakaane with a polite smile. It bore her name on the front and nothing else.
She took it. Despite the bulge of its contents, the package was surprisingly light.
“My ship is in hangar 279,” the courier said. “I will be there, at your convenience, once you have read the message.” To Bataav he said, “Thank you for the drink,” then bowed to them both and showed himself to the door.
Her fingers ran over the envelope. It was a different color and shape from the ones she’d received before, and made of paper that had a slightly rough and stiff quality to it, as if manufactured in a more traditional, old-fashioned way. It reminded her of pages in the old leather-bound books in her father’s study. Her name had been written on the envelope in neat, precise handwriting, not printed or lasered on. A fresh scent carried faintly from the paper. Whatever was inside felt delicate.
Wandering over to the sofa, she sat down and showed the package to Bataav when he joined her. “What do you make of this?”
He shrugged. “Open it.”
The stiff crease of the flap flaked into soft fibers as she ran her finger under it. Inside was a note on a single sheet of paper of the same quality as the envelope, and a dried, pressed flower. The note was also hand-written. The first few words appeared somewhat clumsy, as if the hand which penned them was out of practice. But by the end of the first line, the script had strengthened, the hand gaining confidence and recovering its style. The flower had been carefully preserved: its long azure petals were unwrinkled; the stamens were full of bright orange pollen. Free of the envelope, its scent was that much stronger.
Sakaane cradled the blossom carefully in one hand and held the note with the other. It said,
Please come to Maatrukaanan. Please come alone.
Below was a postscript. The writing was a bit skewed from the rest, as if the hand had hesitated before putting thoughts to paper.
The kuvalavarsa are in bloom.
She turned the note over, but there was nothing else written on it. “The kuvalavarsa are in bloom,” Sakaane repeated, confused. “These grow on Intaki in some places. Why should I want to go to Maatrukaanan to see them?”
Bataav took the flower from her and studied it. Having been dried and pressed, the plant had become extremely fragile. It was a testament to the courier’s skill that it had been transported in the envelope without damage.
“You wouldn’t,” he said after some thought, “especially when the invitation is anonymous.” He nodded at the note. “But the courier said he would be waiting, so the sender must be confident you’ll accept. The sender must also know you’ll need to be convinced it’s safe and worthwhile to go. So this…” He carefully laid the blossom on the table. “This is a token meant to do exactly that. Is the flower significant to you?”
“Not at all.”
“Hmm.” Bataav reached for a datapad, queried a search string, then paged through a few results. After a few minutes he grunted and frowned. “It’s poisonous.”
She smiled and shook her head. “Most lilies are. I don’t plan on eating it.”
He continued to study the information on the pad, then smirked. “Lilies. Of course—kuvalavarsa are rain lilies.”
It took her a moment but she caught on. “So, it’s a metaphor.”
“Seems to be.” He set the datapad aside. “Nothing else stands out. If the courier is waiting then you weren’t intended to have to search long or very hard to figure it out. But it still had to be obscure enough that someone stumbling onto the message would probably dismiss it.” He looked at her. “You’re going to go, aren’t you?”
Sakaane smiled. “Sure. I’m curious about this one. Aren’t you? It doesn’t seem threatening.” She pulled on his hand. “Come with me. You can check things out before I go to the meeting itself, wherever that happens to be.” Heading for the bedroom with the intent to change and finish with her hair, she added, “What’s the weather like in Maatrukaanan at this time of year?”
Viriette Constellation – Vey II – District 4
The courier had arched his eyebrow when Sakaane appeared in the hangar with Bataav at her side, but otherwise hadn’t commented that she was not going alone as the invitation requested. Now they were in orbit some two kilometers off the District 4 satellite over Vey II. The two capsuleers waited restlessly inside a cramped cabin, each conscious of the fact they were in space, in lowsec, in a small, fragile ship captained by a baseliner, and neither of them were in their capsules.
The fact the ship was cloaked was only a small consolation. The system was rudimentary and would only function as long as the ship’s main thrusters remained dormant. If the engines fired, or if anyone else happened to fly too close, the cloak would pop.
But why would anyone choose right then to take an interest in that particular satellite? Just because District beacons lit up on sensors for any capsuleer who happened to have the parameters toggled on…
“My instructions are to wait here,” the courier had said over the ship’s internal comms when they arrived. “Special arrangements have been made to get you to the surface.”
They waited. A few hours passed.
Suddenly, alarms sounded through the ship, startling the capsuleers to their feet.
The courier’s tense voice crackled over the comm system. “We have a visitor. Algos off the port bow.”
Sakaane and Bataav sprang to the window to look. The destroyer had warped in at range to the satellite and was barely a smudge against the backdrop of stars. Lights on its hull blinked ominously like eyes.
It sat for a few moments, then abruptly swung around and warped out.
The alarms ended. The capsuleers began to breathe again.
Not long after, Bataav, arms crossed and leaning against the frame of the viewport to keep watch on the scene outside, stood up straight and gestured. “Here’s something. Look.”
A shuttle emerged from the planet’s atmosphere on a heading that would bring it to the nearby satellite. The logo for InterBus was emblazoned on one side and brightly lit.
“This is for you,” came the courier’s voice, “though I’m afraid you’ll have to use an escape pod so they can pick you up.”
Bataav and Sakaane exchanged looks that mirrored each other’s mounting trepidation, though they obligingly left the cabin and headed for the nearest access hatch, crawled into a pod that smelled faintly of stale vomit, and allowed a nervous, wide-eyed crewman to strap them in. A moment later the pod jettisoned, sending the capsuleers careening into space.
“Next time someone sends me a flower,” Sakaane said through gritted teeth as she fought against g-forces the pod wasn’t entirely able to eliminate, “remind me of this.”
Bataav grinned. His lips alternately stretched and compressed in unnatural ways as they continued to spin. “I think this is kind of fun.”
The laugh she would have laughed was knocked clean out of her by the jarring impact of being scooped to a cargo bay and the sudden return of gravity. They expected someone would appear to let them out but no one came; instead, a vibration that quickly increased in strength crept through the wall of the escape pod and into their restraints. The shuttle was descending into the atmosphere.
They landed without incident and were freed by a fresh-faced InterBus employee who apologized profusely for the inconvenience, hoped they were well, and quickly ushered them through the modest, compact spaceport. They were taken to an outdoor arrivals area away from the main gates, where it seemed small- and medium-sized shipments were handled. The employee promised they would be picked up shortly and then hurried away.
Sakaane shaded her eyes with a hand, blinking against the afternoon sunlight. Nearby, a sign proclaimed:
WELCOME TO MAATRUKAANAN
The forest that gives birth to the world.
Beyond the paved landing pads, parking lots, and terminal buildings, in all directions she saw rolling hills covered in a nearly solid carpet of trees. She assumed the colony itself lay beyond the hills.
“Well, we’re here.”
Various locals milled around the pickup lanes in front of them, most standing by idling trucks or other durable-looking land vehicles parked in NO PARKING zones, dusting off jeans and tossing hardhats aside while waiting to receive cargo from inside the building. As the minutes ticked by, they glanced with increasing interest at the two capsuleers, who stuck out in stark contrast against the locals’ rugged industrial air. Before leaving the Astral station, Sakaane had changed into crimson robes with silver accent stitching that caught the light. The robes were long and made of a soft material which comfortably hugged her midsection. A cowl piled around her neck in loose folds. Bataav was dressed in a dark tunic with intricate patterns stitched in black thread over the shoulders, plus dark trousers and boots.
“Have you ever visited this colony before?” Bataav said conversationally, though his eyes were carefully scrutinizing their surroundings.
“No. So no one here that we know, then.”
They fell silent, each contemplating for the nth time who the invitation might have come from.
An LAV that looked like it had been through its share of combat roared up to the curb. It was spattered with mud that partially obscured a logo. Only the letters STRY and VICE were visible below the emblem. A man with sunglasses, tousled hair bleached to blond from working outdoors, and a deep tan to match, wearing brown fatigues and a light jacket hopped out.
He took a long look at the capsuleers, then strode past them into the building. Sometime after, he emerged again, lugging a heavy box he could barely see over. He got it to the LAV, balanced it precariously on one knee and the rear bumper, and managed to get the vehicle’s trunk open all without upending the package. They heard him grunt with the effort of sliding it inside.
Once the box was secured, he approached Sakaane and Bataav and tipped a hat he wasn’t wearing. “Ma’am.” He cast an uncertain look at Bataav but then added, “Sir,” and jerked his thumb at the LAV. “Thayl, with the local forestry service. I’m your ride.”
“Wait,” Sakaane commanded as Thayl turned away. “Prove it.”
“Oh, right. I forgot.” He fished around in his jacket. “Here. Sorry, guess I kinda crushed it.” He pulled a kuvalavarsa from his pocket. Unlike the dried one that had come with the courier, this flower was fresh—or had been. It drooped limply on a broken stem and one of its azure petals was half torn off.
Sakaane took the flower from him. “All right. But who are you taking us to see? Where are we going?”
Thayl yanked on one of the LAV’s doors. “Let me get this for you. It sticks a bit. Rolled down an embankment the other day.” He made sure she was settled in, then slammed the door and went around to climb into the driver’s seat. Bataav chose to sit in the backseat, behind Thayl.
The forester gestured vaguely out the windshield as they roared away from the spaceport. “I’m taking you out thattaway. Currently surveying in the area and needed to come in to pick up some things, so it was no problem to take on the favor to pick you up, too.”
“Favor from whom?” Bataav asked.
“The bairaagi,” Thayl said easily.
Sakaane looked over her shoulder at Bataav. He shrugged at her. Bairaagi—someone who had withdrawn to a solitary place to live a life of spiritual seclusion.
She tried again. “Who—”
Thayl shook his head. “Don’t know much else. Stumbled across the place awhile back while trying to track down dry spots for fire season. In the middle of nowhere.” His face reddened a little. “Kinda crashed into it, actually.” He patted the dash of the LAV. “This baby got decommissioned some years ago, and we pick ’em up now and then. They’re great for us—lots of rough terrain where there aren’t any roads. Even decommissioned, they can still take a beating in the forest and run forever. Makes a hell of a racket going through the woods though.” He snorted a laugh. “So anyway, here I come, crashing out of the trees. Nearly ran over the hut before I realized it was there.”
He refused to say more for a while, keeping them entertained instead with talk about his work and the land around them. It’d been quite some time since they’d seen any signs of civilization when he turned the vehicle off the highway. The road wasn’t paved; the LAV’s big tires kicked up gravel as they gained speed again.
“It’s pretty remote out here,” Thayl said after they’d gone some distance. “That’s kinda why I like my job so much.”
The road wound its way more and more into the hills and the forest, and the farther they went, the more rough the lane became until it was little more than a couple of ruts between the trees. Thayl was forced to slow down to a comparative crawl to navigate the bumps and rocks and fallen logs that cropped up in their path.
“Guess you folks wouldn’t be used to this. You need this kind of a truck to get into these parts,” he said as he eased two wheels over a particularly big trunk. That side of the LAV pointed up nearly to the sky, with branches scraping unceremoniously across its outer casing. Sakaane clutched at the door handle, hoping her seatbelt wouldn’t give way and send her tumbling into Thayl, while Bataav had braced himself and was watching the forest floor creeping closer to his window. “We try not to carve too many new paths to keep the forest intact,” Thayl added casually as the rear wheel finally thumped over the tree. The LAV’s shocks protested but quickly stabilized so they could continue on. “But last season was bad for fires so we’ve had to go in a bit more than we like.”
Finally, the LAV lurched to a halt. Outside, a piece of blue forester’s ribbon fluttered from a low-lying branch.
Thayl looked at Sakaane. “You’ll have to go on by foot from here. The bairaagi forgave my intrusion, and even agreed to have me come check on things now and then, and bring a few supplies, but I had to promise to always leave this monster here.”
Sakaane looked. From the tree with the ribbon, a narrow walking path disappeared into the forest. Unstrapping herself, she shoved the door open and got out. Then, as an afterthought, she reached back into the cab and snatched up the flower Thayl had brought her.
Bataav started to get out too.
“Hold on now,” Thayl said. “You can’t go. You know the invitation is only for her.”
They exchanged looks. For a moment, Bataav looked like he wanted to argue, but in the end, slowly pulled his door shut.
Sakaane came around to his side of the LAV. “I’ll be okay,” she said after he rolled the window down.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere. You want to bet your safety on a flower?”
She looked at it, then back at him, and finally gestured to their surroundings. “Didn’t we already do that?”
Bataav looked unconvinced. He reached inside his tunic, producing a small pistol not much larger than his palm. “Take this, at least. I know you don’t have yours.”
She nodded; the robes weren’t conducive to wearing her usual shoulder holster, but the pistol he offered was small enough to fit into a pocket and she’d known he would be armed. She took it.
Thayl leaned out his window. “It’s just under a couple of klicks up the trail. You shouldn’t have any trouble. I have a temporary station set up not far from here. We’ll wait there and come back for you when you’re done.”
“How will you know that?”
Thayl smiled. It was a friendly smile and showed no trace of malice or deception. “The bairaagi has ways. After all, you’re here, aren’t you?”
He gunned the engine. Sakaane waited until the LAV’s bulk had lumbered out of sight, raising a hand in farewell at Bataav’s face looking back at her through the window. Then she hitched the hem of her robes up in one hand, carefully holding the dying flower in the other, and started up the path.
At first the path was cramped and closed in, as if wanting to be kept hidden from the forester’s road despite the bright blue tape marking its location. But after a hundred or so feet it widened into a trail lined by trees comparatively younger to those growing in behind them, and Sakaane wondered if, at one time, this part of the forest might have seen use that had since been forgotten, and all that remained was the path she strode on.
The path, more or less a bare strip of forest floor, was dry and relatively clear save for the occasional root and rock. She made good time and had little difficulty, as Thayl had promised. Sunshine slanted through the trees and the breeze picked up, rustling their branches and sending stray leaves and needles showering down on her. Sakaane lifted the cowl over her hair. Birds and small animals sang or chirped in the forest, while small, brightly colored butterflies danced between tiny pale flowers growing in the underbrush.
She began to enjoy herself and wished that Bataav was with her.
Finally, the path ended at a small clearing. She paused in the shadow of a tree, wanting to survey the area before making her presence known. As Thayl had said, there was a hut, though it was larger and sturdier looking than she’d imagined. Its entrance faced southeast to catch the morning light. Nearby, a stone firepit smoked, the grey tendrils curling upward before being whisked away. A chopping block with an axe dug into it sat nearby, while a fraying canvas chair had been placed upwind.
On the far side of the clearing was a man on his knees, tending to a bed of wild rain lilies. As she watched, he finished with his work and pushed himself to his feet, brushing off his hands.
Sakaane drew back as he walked toward the hut to give herself more time to study him before he noticed her. Then his head turned and she saw him properly. The shock of recognition ripped through her like lightning and she staggered, reaching out with one hand to clutch the nearest tree to keep herself from falling. A dizzying blackness swept over her vision. The other hand, still holding the kuvalavarsa with the broken stem laced between her fingers, fell lifelessly to her side.
She blinked and looked again, drawing in a few ragged, sharp breaths. The man before her was almost a stranger compared to the last time she’d seen him. His face looked more worn than she remembered, and even now the eyes cast about in deep contemplation, only seemingly noticing the immediate surroundings out of instinct. Instead of silken robes, he wore a coarse tunic made of what appeared to be hemp that she guessed he’d grown or harvested from the surrounding forest. His beard reached to his chest. The grey at his temples had lengthened into streaks that faded into long locks of brown hair falling down his back. He’d thinned considerably, too, in that way people did when their diet consisted of simple foods after having been accustomed to a richer palate.
Sakaane had come all this way not knowing who had summoned her, yet all the while expecting anyone but him. That it might have been him had never crossed her mind, had been the very furthest idea she would have considered. Now, the sight of him evoked a confusing whirlwind of emotion and she wasn’t sure if she should rush forward or just turn her back and walk away.
A gust of wind blew through the trees, pulling at her robes. The cowl slipped off her head but she didn’t notice. The sound of countless disturbed leaves and pine needles echoed the sudden roar in her mind. Her throat constricted tightly, painfully, choking her, and all she could manage was to breathe out his name.
Saxon hummed softly to himself, tending the flowers growing in one of the gardens surrounding his hut, when a stir of jaham in the distance caught his attention. The dove-like birds were always in their nests this time of day and their sudden flight told him that someone was approaching on the path that led to the clearing he’d called home for the last ten months.
Saxon cocked his head and listened. The forest was alive with sound, but nothing that stood out to him. That ruled out Thayl. The brawny forester made nearly as much noise on foot as he did in the mechanized beast he favored.
Then, as the breeze shifted and came toward him, he caught a familiar scent. It was masked in part by perfume and soap, but there was no way to completely hide the odor of pod fluid. Even a year out of the pod and Saxon recognized it instantly. He wondered if he would ever forget or if it had been permanently imprinted in his memory.
So many other things seemed to be fading from his memory during his time on the forest world. It seemed that with each passing day less and less of the old Saxon remained. He had taken this trip to clear his mind and find himself.
Saxon grunted to himself and plucked a weed growing amongst his lilies. Find himself. That was a lie. He’d come here to lose himself and he’d done a damn good job of it too. It had taken some work to get ahead of the spies that were tracking his movements, but coming here, to this remote spot, away from anything connected to his old life, had been the ticket to his freedom.
He laughed aloud at the thought. Freedom? He glanced around and gestured with his spade. This isn’t freedom, he told himself. This is a prison without walls. This is the sentence for our mistakes and we know that they are many.
Saxon shook his head bitterly. No, he thought, the time for penance is done. We’ve paid the price, our family has paid it. That’s why we called and why she has come.
And she had come. Saxon nodded and muttered, “I knew that she would.” He regretted the need for secrecy, but if she had declined, he wouldn’t have wanted certain parties to know where he was. But she hadn’t declined.
Saxon sighed slightly and scanned the flowerbed once more. There were no more weeds. Everything was in order. He took a moment to take in the fragrance and noted that the scent of his visitor had grown even stronger. She was nearby, but hidden from his sight.
Standing slowly, Saxon brushed the loose soil from his hands then wiped them on the sides of his tunic. Noticing that his breakfast fire had died down to coals, he turned and walked the short distance to the wood pile near his hut. In keeping with Maatru traditions, Saxon harvested only naturally-fallen trees for wood. Most recently he’d found limbs from a massive pine tree snapped loose in a storm. He gathered some up and returned to the fire.
Scanning the edge of the clearing for any signs of life, he detected a brief glimmer. The shine was not a part of nature and told him that she was most likely standing behind the large tree that often served as roost for an owl partial to the area.
As the fire sprang back to life, Saxon returned to his hut once again to fetch a well-worn kettle, blackened from use. He started to speak, but paused. He didn’t speak often these days. He licked his lips and cleared his throat before addressing the owl’s tree.
“The tea is nearly ready. Would you be interested in joining me?” he called out, almost startled by resonance of his voice.
Sakaane stood with her back against the tree trunk while the surprise—the shock—wore off.
Sometimes, she’d wondered if Saxon had run back to Syndicate. Other times, she’d pictured him swallowed by a wormhole or the victim of some unknown calamity, never to return. Later on, she’d mostly thought he must be with his wife and kids, no longer the Suresha, but simply the husband, the dad, enjoying the relative quiet of domestic life. She’d never imagined he might be like this, a veritable shadow of his former self, alone in self-imposed exile. Where was his family?
The petals of the flower smoothed out under the gentle stroking of her thumb. Blue kuvalavarsa promised peace, tranquility…truth. They only blossomed following a rain shower, so had come to represent spiritual awakening after a disturbance in life. That was the message.
She remembered the angry oath she’d sworn months ago outside his office and how she’d felt bitter disappointment, betrayal, even abandonment. In its wake she’d forged ahead with her own vision…and the longer he’d been gone, the easier it had been to believe he just wasn’t coming back. His presence had faded from the corp, from the alliance, from everywhere. The newest recruits had no idea who he was; other people had long since stopped asking if she’d heard any news.
His voice called out to her; the familiar baritone carried clearly but was rough from disuse.
Straightening her posture and taking care to brush her robes and hair free of needles, leaves, and bits of bark, Sakaane composed herself. Though time and experience had tempered her feelings, she couldn’t forget his ostentatious ‘theater’, his empty promises, his lack of leadership. Her oath and the resolve she derived from it remained firm. But he had obviously gone to great lengths to ask her to come, so she would at least hear him out. The hem of her robe whispered through the grass as she approached the firepit.
Seeing him this close, she was struck again by how lean he’d become. His hands were calloused from manual labor; the skin around his wrists and collar were dry and reddened from rubbing against the coarse edge of his clothing.
“Saxon.” She’d never used his name to his face before. No title she could think of seemed to fit him anymore. He wasn’t the man she remembered; she wasn’t the woman he’d left behind. “The kuvalavarsa are in bloom,” she said softly, and offered him the wilting lily.
Saxon smiled broadly at the sight of Sakaane. She looked very much as he had remembered her. The year must have been good for her and he was glad of it.
He gently took the flower from her hand, noting that her skin was soft, like the crumpled petals they’d held. Gazing at the flower for a moment, he thought how he too was broken before casting the plant and thought aside.
“Indeed they are,” he said at last. “But, you’ve come here for more than horticultural conversation.” He gestured to several large stones that served as seats near fire pit before taking one for himself.
Pouring tea into two earthenware mugs, Saxon handed one to Sakaane. He sipped the hot beverage slowly and cast his gaze out into the forest.
“I came here to think,” he began slowly. “I’d originally intended to join my family in Syndicate; to spend a month or two watching kendu matches and enjoying the ISK I’d earned as a capsuleer.” Saxon’s eyes met Sakaane’s. “I was a fool to think I could just walk away,” he said firmly. “I’d made too many enemies on all sides. I don’t know who came for us, but they quite nearly succeeding in killing not only me, but my wife and children as well.”
Shaking his head, Saxon took another, longer drink of his tea. It was a bitter variety that grew wild nearby. He’d blended it himself with a type of dried berry that he’d also discovered growing near his hut. The resulting combination had a sharp taste that finished with a sweet note.
“They’re safe now,” he continued. “But even I don’t know where they are. That was the price I had to pay; what my service to Intaki cost me.” Saxon laughed bitterly. “Did you know that the leaders in the Caldari militia once offered to make me ‘the king of Intaki’ if I agreed to add ILF to their ranks?” he asked, once more glancing around the clearing. “Maybe I should have taken them up on the offer.”
Dismissing the idea, Saxon shook his head, his long hair swaying back and forth. He looked once more at Sakaane and the smile returned to his face.
“But enough about what might have been,” he said. “Tell me about what is.”
Sap inside the branches burning in the fire popped pleasantly as the wood heated up. The stone Sakaane sat on was smooth and sun-warmed against her backside; she rested her forearms in her lap and held the mug of tea with both hands, dangling just in front of her knees.
“I’m sorry to hear about your family,” she said kindly. “It must be difficult for you to be separated from them and not know where they are.” Given his prompt, it seemed he didn’t want to talk further about it—not at the moment, anyway—so she moved on, first taking a swallow from the mug and savoring the tea’s berry flavor.
“For the moment, ILF is at peace. I’ve been working on a variety of things for the corp and much of it is starting to come together now. Recruitment has been decent and activity is up. A handful of clone mercs have joined our ranks, too.” She watched him carefully for his reaction, then gestured vaguely at the sky. “There have been a lot of changes out there lately. We’re doing all right with them.”
Sakaane put the mug down in the grass beside her feet. “There was a rough patch, early on. Two wars, and some growing pains… But we got through it all. Actually, the most extraordinary things happened during that second war.” A grin spread across her face. “I-RED and some other blues did what they could for us of course, but imagine my surprise when the reds from the first war spontaneously showed up to help repair our Customs Offices, while other reds and oranges pummeled Coreli if they could. The comments on IGS were…priceless.”
A large butterfly, attracted by the color of her robes, landed on Sakaane’s knee and folded its wings up. She watched its antennae wave in the air for a moment before a long proboscis snaked out to taste the fabric. Apparently baffled at finding no nectar to suck, the insect shifted slightly and then tried to taste again.
“Even Rocarion showed up to help,” Sakaane went on, and reached down to gently coax the butterfly onto her finger. It flexed its wings open as she lifted it, revealing a yellow and black pattern that shone slightly green in the sun. “Saved my ship and crew—full battleship complement—from certain death one night, if you can believe that!” She shook her head and laughed. “We didn’t win on the battlefield…but we must still be doing something right.”
The butterfly leapt into the air. Sakaane watched until it disappeared into one of Saxon’s flowerbeds.
“But just as how I didn’t come here to chat about horticulture,” she said finally, turning her gaze on him, “I can’t imagine you risked revealing your whereabouts simply because you wanted to have tea and catch up.”
Saxon took another drink and nodded his head slowly.
“When ILF was in its infancy, we struggled with how to address ourselves,” he said. “There were those who favored military ranks and suggested I be called the admiral.” He laughed out loud at the thought. “I was drummed out of the Federation Navy and the thought of calling myself an admiral was a bit of a joke,” he continued. “So we looked to our heritage and the titles of respect and leadership our people used in the past.”
Finishing his tea, Saxon sat his mug on the ground at his feet. The final drink had the strongest flavor and left a bit of grit in his mouth. He licked his teeth and swallowed before continuing.
“Isha is an old term meaning leader and was given to the division head,” he explained. “I took on the title Mahesha, the leader of leaders. Later, when I named AncientGuardian as my second in command, he became the Mahesha and I became the Suresha—the supreme leader of all leaders.” Saxon paused for a moment, studying Sakanne’s expression. She was a patient listener, and he appreciated that. Too many people rushed through and didn’t listen to detail. “The mantle is a heavy one and a yoke I bore for six years,” he went on. “I did the best I could do, but my time as Suresha is past. If ILF is to survive, it needs someone younger and stronger.”
Saxon studied Sakaane once more, trying to gauge if she understood the magnitude of what he was saying.
“My flame is dying,” he said. “It is time to pass the torch and I can think of no one I would trust more than you.”
It was a good thing she’d put the mug down, because as Saxon finished speaking, Sakaane’s heart leapt and her hands jerked. The mug, if she’d still held it, would have slipped free of her grasp and spilled the dregs of the tea over her feet and robes.
CEO of ILF, she thought, astounded. Suresha!
At times, she’d heard jokes passed around about how control of ILF could only be pried from Saxon’s cold, dead hands—and maybe not even then. He had built the corporation from the ground up and had seen it through many struggles. He’d defended them on the political stage, had lobbied for the freedom and independence of the Intaki sovereignty. He’d inspired so many people—like her—to find a better path to walk. This had made him more than just an ‘esteemed leader’, as she had thought the title meant, and more even than a ‘supreme leader of all leaders’. To her, at least.
The jokers had been wrong, though. Increasingly over the last two years, he had shifted more and more control of ILF to her, had come to rely on her more and more. He had patiently guided and taught her, and above all, had shown faith and trust in her. Her face flushed slightly. Like a father.
Maybe that was why it had hurt so much when he had gone.
Sakaane studied him. For all the criticisms she’d levied at him in the last year, behind the long hair and beard, beneath the simple hemp tunic, a glimmer of the man she still admired was there. And though a smile still pulled at his lips, it was sober and somewhat troubled. His family was precious to him, but so was ILF, and like any parent, he was reluctant to place it in the care of someone else. ILF had become precious to her as well, and she realized then what he was giving up and how he must have struggled to let go.
Her mind flashed over the many months he’d been gone, the things she had done, the promises made, and the oaths sworn. The mantle was one he had left with her, and she had borne it. She’d long ago decided this was one responsibility she wanted to keep, and now here he was, offering it freely to her. He had spoken the truth, and they both knew it. His decision was the right one.
Exhaling a steady, controlled breath, she met his gaze and said, “I accept. It’s a great honor. Thank you.”
Her eyes dropped to the rocks ringing the firepit. The kuvalavarsa lay discarded at its edge. Carefully, Sakaane reached out and plucked the flower out of the ashes, taking a moment to contemplate it. Then she tossed the lily into the fire proper. It blackened and burned away to nothing in a matter of seconds.
Spiritual awakening after a disturbance in life. New beginnings.
Sakaane rose from the stone and stepped away from the fire, hand on her hip while the other pulled thoughtfully at her lower lip. Coming to a decision, she turned back to Saxon. “A good friend of mine once told me, ‘Change is inevitable.’ He’d been telling me a tale of a great tree which grew, was loved, and died. But then it was reborn with a new purpose and destiny.” She smiled gently. “Do you remember?”
Looking around the clearing at the simple hut, the woodpile, the flowerbeds, Sakaane added, “You hid here from the enemies that threatened you and your family because you are a capsuleer and a secessionist. But in all the turmoil, I think you forgot another part of yourself. Thayl called you bairaagi, and it rings true. Oh, I don’t just mean the literal fact that you are out here by yourself.”
She approached until she was standing in front of him. The heat of the fire bled through the fabric of her robes to warm her legs. “You said your family is safe. Your enemies will have a new target once they learn you’ve relinquished all authority over ILF.” Her tone was kind. “I don’t think your flame is dying, Saxon. It just needs to be reborn, to find a new path to fuel it.” She held her hand out to him, palm down. “Come back with me. You are a good man, with valuable wisdom and insight into Ida. I’d like you to be my spiritual advisor, and to advise others, as you have always done. Become Tanmaya, the reincarnated one.”
Saxon studied the outstretched hand and considered everything the offer entailed. He hadn’t planned to return to the capsuleer life. He hadn’t planned for much at all, really. He knew bringing Sakaane here would compromise his location, but there were other colonies he could visit. Maybe not as remote as this one, but with the title of Suresha no longer hanging over him, it would be easier to slip into the crowd and be forgotten.
And that’s what he wanted, wasn’t it? To forget and be forgotten. But was it really? He thought of the the sacrifices he’d made. None of that could be undone now. He’d paid the price of admission, was he ready to leave before the show was finished?
Sakaane’s hand hung in the air like an unanswered question. Since the first day of the Intaki Liberation Front, he’d held no role but leader. He’d worked his whole life to be humble, but this would be the ultimate test of his humility. Could he watch as another captained the ship he’d built with his own hands, his own blood?
He looked to his own hands. They’d grown rough and calloused in the last year. How calloused had he himself become? Change is inevitable, he thought, but sometimes we have the luxury of shaping that change.
Saxon glanced around the clearing at the hut, his garden and the flowerbeds. This place had served its purpose, but the time had come to leave it and Saxon knew it.
Taking Sakaane’s hand, Saxon stood and turned away from the hut.
“So tell me,” he said as he began walking down the path away from his former home. “Where is Bataav hiding?”