Thanks to Bataav, Daniel Alpena, Devan Corvel, and Maruvindi for their written contributions.
The original posts are here.
Intaki Prime – South Hemisphere
Gray light seeped into clouds of mist rising off the surface of the pond. Wisps of vapor twisted and undulated in a slow, mesmerizing dance until they were lost from sight against the gradually brightening sky. The hush of night lingered, swallowing the echo of a shore bird’s call. The bird did not cry out again.
Dawn broke. The first rays of Intaki’s red sun speared the mist; morning exploded in the fog like a spray of blood and the vapors began to recede. The pond beneath the swirling veil was flat as glass and black as space.
Sakaane watched the spectacle from beneath the boughs of a tree growing at the water’s edge. She stood still, not wanting to disturb the quiet, almost cool morning. It was the height of summer in the southern Intaki hemisphere and the heavy, humid air hinted at the stifling heat that would soon come.
A low sound, not quite a slurp, caught her attention. She looked: some thirty feet away, the water rippled where a fish had risen to the surface. It had been a big one, she knew, mature enough to know to take its prey quietly and then slip away. Younger, inexperienced fish tended to get overly excited when food presented, jumping and splashing at the surface and thus making themselves easy targets.
The ripples reached the pond’s embankment, a sharp edge just inches from the toe of her shoe, and made the water lap gently against it. She looked down upon hearing the sound. The ground was covered in grass and ferns growing at the base of the tree; dew had soaked into the hem of her robes. The tree’s roots jutted out in a tangled mess below the waterline and disappeared into the pond’s dark depths.
A smile curved her lips. It was the young and inexperienced fish who, if lucky enough to survive a few close encounters, learned discipline and patience, and went on to catch bigger, better prey of its own.
The sun continued to rise and the air grew warmer. Behind her, Sakaane heard the clink of armor. Agis had been standing guard, but in his hands he held a thin box covered in black velvet rather than a rifle.
They are coming, Suresha,” he said. His voice, like the morning surrounding them, was muted.
She nodded and turned away from the pond and the sunrise. Clasping her hands in front of her, she looked to the path they had walked in the dark and awaited the arrival of the ILF pilots she had summoned: Bataav, Maruvindi, and Eric Nevera.
Eric’s eyes flickered open. The chime of an incoming message had roused him. He groaned and sat up in bed, scowling at the impatiently blinking indicator on the console of his quarters. Not a general corp notification, otherwise Aura would have suppressed it… Better be important. He dragged himself up, pulled on his discarded pants and slid down onto the sofa. He tapped the key to activate the display built into the coffee table, cursing for a moment and dialing the brightness down at his eyes’ protests.
Your presence is requested.
The remainder of the message was a coded set of coordinates.
Well, that’s cryptic, he thought to himself. Then he looked closer at the header on the message. It was from the Suresha all right. But… Hold on. Devan wasn’t included. That alone was enough to pique his interest. Even if Devan didn’t technically hold a leadership role in ILF, his being close to Sakaane meant he generally was informed of things going on. And she almost never contacted Eric directly outside of neocom chatter.
For a moment he pondered checking if Devan knew whether something was up, then thought better of it. If she hadn’t included him, there was a reason. And the sheer lack of information in that message from their normally concise leader spoke volumes. Better see what this is about.
He set all of his comms not to be disturbed. Showered quickly, grabbed a fresh set of clothes—something suitable for the location and time of year on the surface of Intaki where he was bound for—and stowed them in his pod’s small compartment. Once plugged into the capsule, surrounded by the familiar non-feeling of the hydrostatic fluid, he mentally ordered it to be loaded into his personal shuttle. No sense leaving a paper trail on public transport if this was going the direction he suspected it might.
It was still dark planetside when he landed and disembarked. Clothed again, the air was crisp on his face as he walked from the spaceport to the private vehicle garage, a sharp contrast to the closely-controlled climate of his pod. Entering the garage he approached his vehicle and keyed in the unlock code. Before he set foot inside though, he pulled out a device and quickly swept the chassis for anything that shouldn’t be there. Nothing out of the ordinary. Good.
The eerie pre-dawn light glinted off the vehicle’s hull as he sped along the road to his destination, far from the spaceport. He always found that unnerving when he was dirtside. Smudged light and indistinct shapes of the landscape racing by reminded him too much of decloaking ships. The sense of anticipation always felt like it could be interrupted by a thousand terrible things before the dawn’s promise was fulfilled. Shut up, brain, he chided himself. There was still plenty of time for things to go wrong during, or after…whatever this was supposed to be.
The lights of the spaceport and surrounding buildings died away in the distance. Time seemed to stretch in that wan light. Only the chronometer on the dashboard betrayed its steady passage as silhouettes of buildings were replaced by trees and landscape. After settling into the rhythm of the kilometers, driving further and further from civilization, the vehicle’s cadence finally shifted as pavement gave way to gravel. He was almost there.
As he pulled into the lot and parked, he noted only one other vehicle present already. So, he was the first to arrive aside from her. Leaving the vehicle, his breath made a plume in the cool, humid air. The mist that clung to the land seemed to add an ironically clandestine feel to the situation even as the sun’s light finally crested the horizon with crimson.
“Red sky at dawn,” he muttered to himself. Whatever bit of folklore was attached to that eluded him at the moment. He waited, leaning against the chassis and watching the dust settle back against the gravel road. The others should arrive soon and he didn’t care to do the talking first. He tucked away any emotion behind a perpetual scowl, as if the very air itself had offended him, accented by the small shrapnel scar on his cheek he insisted be replicated on each of his clones. He let his mind wander over that memory while he waited.
Two glossy vehicles reflecting dawn’s hues were an obvious sight against the planet’s natural flora. Having pulled over right next to them Maruvindi spent some time observing these surroundings. Air felt strange, but he was confident it was only his lack of visiting any planets for quite a while. It was an intriguing invitation, he thought, as he stood there staring at the sky trying to sight any familiar orbitals.
“Been here only for some hours and already missing the black?” Thoughts and feelings rushed through him. “Better be on my way,” he said to himself. Some light detection measures were probably planted to observe the area he was stalling in and he didn’t care to hear any complaints about how long it had taken him to walk the trail up to the meeting spot.
He met Eric, smiled and nodded to him in his subtle manner and stayed silent, not knowing what to expect next.
Breathing heavily he took a moment to check the path he’d emerged onto, after running through the woods behind him. He began running again instinctively knowing which way to go.
Hidden from view in the woods, two figures watched.
“He’s good,” said the large Civire. “I like that he refused the map and committed it to memory instead. It’s the kind of technique we were trained with, in the old days.”
His Achuran companion nodded in the dark. “It’s only right we train others the same way.”
As the runner disappeared from view, the two men shouldered their packs and emerged onto the same path, walking in the opposite direction toward the others.
Back at the vehicles, the squad gathered, an Intaki amongst them as if one of the unit himself.
“If he maintains his current pace he’ll be here within the hour,” said Korasen, the squad’s commander. “Airaken, wait for him. We will meet you back at the warehouse.”
A quiet tone pulsed, and as the squad continued to talk the Intaki checked his comms, raising an eyebrow as he read the message.
“Hmm. It looks like I may need to leave you to it. It seems I have an appointment with the Suresha.”
“Pass on my regards,” said Airaken. Only a few months earlier, he had been assigned to the Suresha’s side as her personal bodyguard before she had found her own. When the time came, Airaken had insisted he be allowed to personally clear his replacement as competent enough.
Bataav smiled. “I will.” With a nod to the rest of the unit he made his way to the small shuttle waiting in line with the other vehicles.
Less than an hour later, Bataav was at his destination. He stood for a moment and heard one of the vehicles ticking quietly as the engine cooled.
Good, he thought. The others had not been waiting long.
He began walking toward the lake where the Suresha waited along with the other members of ILF’s Karna wing.
Eric and Maruvindi came into view on the path some twenty feet from the water’s edge. Long shadows trailed after them on the ground, underscoring how Eric intentionally kept himself aloof from his commander. The latter approached with a smile and nod while the former skulked forward, his eyes darting suspiciously about. By the time they had crossed half the distance, Bataav had also quietly emerged from the trees and joined them.
Her pilots came together in a semi-circle. The sun was a rising ball of fire that concealed Sakaane’s features in silhouette but illuminated their faces fully. She said nothing and waited, taking the opportunity to study them.
Bataav was at ease and alert. As it was wont to do, her gaze lingered on him. Feeling her attention, the corner of his mouth twitched into a smile. Maruvindi stood next to him, his kind face showing polite curiosity. Eric, to her right, slouched with arms crossed and had started to fidget. All three squinted into the glare of red light streaming from behind her.
The sun crept higher and was finally eclipsed by the boughs of the tree, sending a welcome shadow across them.
“Suprab heti tayam,” Sakaane said. “Gentlemen. We stand here together at dawn. The rising sun brings us from darkness into a new day and a new beginning, and this is why I have summoned you.
“Recall now the reasons this corporation was founded: to foster economic growth in Viriette, protect the law-abiding citizens of the sovereignty, and above all, to win independence for Intaki and her colonies.”
The green in her eyes turned steely as her tone cooled. “We have not done as well by our mandate as we could have.” A thoughtful shift in their expressions told her they knew of what she spoke. “ILF has the opportunity, the need—the responsibility—to foster progress, to evolve into something better. To that end, it is time to reinvigorate the warrior ethos in every pilot and soldier of our total force. We begin this process today.”
Sensing his cue, Agis presented the black velvet box to Sakaane. It opened with a gentle creak.
“You three represent the whole of Karna,” she continued, turning to her guard and removing the first of three small objects from the box’s gold silk lining, “but this has never really been made explicitly clear. As Sainika pilots you are charged with the same combat duties as your peers in Aditipala, but Karna is meant to be so much more.” Displaying her palm to them, they could see she held a platinum medal hanging from a black, red-edged ribbon. Upon the medal’s face was etched a pair of black wings backed by a sword.
“You are Karna pilots,” Sakaane said formally, stepping first to Bataav to pin the medal to the fabric of his shirt. “Gallantly shall you show New Eden that you are well-trained and specially selected for this wing, fully knowing the hazards and responsibilities of your position. You must always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of Sainika.”
She moved next to Maruvindi, but continued speaking to them all. “You are our special forces pilots. You must dive heartily into battle with cutting edge materiel to aid Intaki’s allies and defeat her enemies. You fly in the grim places no others will enter and are guardians against iniquity. Your corporation expects you to move further, faster, and stealthier than other pilots.”
Hearing the Suresha speak, Eric had ceased his fidgeting and now was standing straight, though still managed to maintain his scowl even as Sakaane plucked at his shirt to adorn him with his medal. “You are intelligence specialists. You will gather information quietly from all viable sources, whether they be whispered rumors or shouted truths, and at all times use it for Intaki’s benefit.
“You are sentinels and hidden blades in the darkness. You are Karna pilots.” She stepped back and regarded each of them, pleased at how the medals reflected the red ambient light. “These are your obsidian wings. Wear them with pride and honor the Karna creed.”
Agis shifted, drawing her attention. She looked where his subtle nod indicated: someone was approaching on the path. Smiling with recognition, Sakaane turned her attention back to her pilots. “In addition to this, to assist in furthering my desire to revitalize Sainika and all of ILF, I would like to introduce each of you to your new Isha.”
The small gravel lot was starting to look a bit crowded, Daniel thought as he brought the groundcar to a stop and cut the power. Across the clearing, a discreet marker revealed the forest path, but he sat in silence for a moment to clear his thoughts.
The Suresha, he knew, was capable of astonishing subtlety. Anything Sakaane said or did might conceal some hidden message, though his Intaki comrades seemed to catch them without apparent effort. It was like an unspoken language, in which Daniel was barely fluent—not that he’d progressed much further with the spoken language. The symbolism behind this dawn appointment, however, was hard to miss.
He popped the canopy and climbed out of the groundcar just as the rising sun cleared the nearby treeline, bathing him in bright, warm light. He’d be stepping back into shadow as he entered the path, he noticed, and resolved to tread with caution. The theme of rebirth and fresh beginnings that Sakaane had carefully invoked wouldn’t be enhanced if he arrived out of breath and covered in mud. Besides, there were probably snakes in there somewhere.
It had been weeks since he’d last come downside, and as always the change from station-side was both enjoyable and oddly disturbing. Astral Mining had gotten the lighting right—not surprising, considering the number of Intaki natives who worked up on the station—but the sounds, smells and even the feel of the soft ground under his boots seemed wildly unfamiliar.
At least here I can feel a soft breeze on my cheek without looking around for the hull breach.
Not that the feeling of being out of place was unusual, even up on the station. He’d attended his share of ILF functions and informal gatherings, meetings and dinner parties with local Intaki. He always set himself apart—the smallish man sitting alone, dressed in dark, conservative Gallente garb, with a stern look on his face meant to ward off conversation. When that failed, he answered politely but briefly, seldom venturing an opinion. Let the Intaki do the talking. It was the Gallente way, wasn’t it?
They were never so rude as to ask the question that lurked in their eyes: What are you doing here? Daniel wasn’t sure he had an answer. He knew, to the core of his being, that his work with ILF was what he wanted to do—what he needed to do—but he couldn’t explain it, even to the friends and family from his old life, and certainly not to these Intaki. But somehow it had never been challenged. Sakaane and the others had never questioned his loyalty to ILF, or his commitment to Intaki liberation. He remembered telling her, “I’m loyal to people, not causes,” and that seemed to be enough—at the time.
Now, he knew, the step he was taking required a change. The people he’d met at the parties hadn’t understood him, but they hadn’t considered him very important either. Just a bit player—mercenary, perhaps, or adventurer. A hanger-on at the edges of the movement, following along for his own reasons. Many of those people were about to take a second look. A renegade Gallente, suddenly put in charge of combat operations for the Intaki separatists?
He heard a murmur of voices ahead and slowed his steps even further. Not for the first time, he wondered how the Karna pilots would react to the Suresha’s announcement. Very soon he’d be able to see for himself. Bataav’s face, he knew, would show nothing that he didn’t want it to reveal—and in any case, Daniel couldn’t imagine that Bataav would be taken by surprise. Sakaane wasn’t blind to the message that would be sent in elevating a non-Intaki to be her Isha, and she’d certainly have wanted Bataav’s input. He wasn’t sure about Eric or Maruvindi, and he was both eager and fearful to see what their faces would show.
As the path began to widen, he caught sight of the three pilots standing at attention before Sakaane just as she turned to see him as well. She smiled and nodded at him, letting him know that she was ready for him to come forward. Unconsciously his face took on its familiar stern aspect. As Sakaane spoke again to the three pilots, he stepped forward into the clearing and stood quietly at parade rest.
As the other Karna pilots turned to greet Daniel, Bataav stepped to Sakaane’s side, taking his place now as Mahesha. The semi-circle reformed, this time with Daniel in the middle.
His expression was stern. It was always stern, she thought, belying the modest, unpretentious personality underneath. It was that stern quality which would help shape Sainika into the fighting force she envisioned.
“Daniel Alpena,” Sakaane began. “When you joined us almost two years ago, you were a quiet member who dutifully went about your business for the corp. Today you are our foremost combat pilot. You took initiative to master the art of battle and have executed this task with utmost care and attention to preserving the corporation’s ideals. Never have you acted rashly or against our mandate.
“Furthermore, you willingly and freely assist your peers. You conduct yourself within and without the corporation with great integrity, honor, and courage. You fully embrace our ideals and have proven yourself to be a Liberator of the highest quality. You a role model for Sainika and all of ILF. I count you among the most loyal and dependable people I know. It should come as no surprise that I wish to acknowledge and thank you for your dedication by promoting you to the position of Isha-Sanika.”
She gazed at him a moment longer. He was like the fish in the pond behind her: once a green pilot struggling to learn the secret to defeating ILF’s enemies, Daniel’s tenacity had carried him through countless close calls and failed attacks to see him now gain countless triumphs. He had stuck with her and the corporation through its most troubling times and not once had she heard him complain. He had learned patience and discipline, and would now reap the rewards of his maturity and experience.
If he accepts the responsibility.
“Will you be a leader dedicated to training new Liberators and influencing the old?” she asked. “Will you forever be conscious of each person under your charge, and by example inspire them to the highest standards possible?
“Will you strive to be patient, understanding, just, and firm? Will you commend the deserving and encourage the wayward? Will you always remember that you are responsible to me for the morale, discipline, and efficiency of your division? Its performance will reflect an image of you.”
Sakaane paused one last time.
“Will you, Daniel Alpena, be Isha-Sainika, leader of ILF’s Security Division, and assist in building a combat force Intaki will be proud of, one her enemies will fear to reckon with?”
Sakaane’s praise brought a flush to Daniel’s face as he stood at attention. He thought back to his first combat experiences that he’d shared with this group, and the memory made him blush even more. His inexperience had been all too apparent in those first skirmishes. It was hard to believe that his comrades weren’t reliving the same battles, and snickering to themselves behind him.
I’ve come a long way since then, he realized. Indeed, eighteen months ago he couldn’t have imagined the path he’d taken to reach this point. He’d come to ILF as an explorer and scout. He remembered telling Sakaane that he was willing to serve in any way that the corporation could use him, but no one had ever tried to direct his path. His transformation, from hidden watcher to aggressive warrior, had sprung from within himself alone. Now ILF was adapting too, changing to take advantage of the skills he’d developed.
Last chance to back out, he thought automatically, knowing that it wasn’t true. He’d already agreed to this, in private conversation with the Suresha, days before. Breaking his word now was unthinkable, no matter what reserves of self-doubt he still harbored. Loyalty was the one link between the capsuleer and the humanity that he was straining not to leave behind. There was no power that could force a capsuleer down any course—except himself. I may fail in every task that I attempt, but I will be loyal.
Now it was time.
Don’t get tongue-tied.
Don’t make a speech.
Don’t step on Sakaane’s lines.
Don’t wait too long—it’ll look like you’re thinking it over.
Taking a deep breath, he met Sakaane’s eyes and said firmly, “I will, Suresha.”