Kezti Sundara, Grand Admiral of Amarr's Imperial Navy, stood alone inside the massive cathedral, dwarfed by the icons of eternity that glinted distantly in the lamplight. He remained utterly still, head leaned towards the vaulted ceiling. Quiet times were hard to come by in the Empire these days.
There was a metallic clank. Behind Sundara, on the other side of the cathedral, the massive doors slowly swung open. Footsteps echoed off the marble floor, then stopped.
"Welcome, Captain," Sundara said without turning around.
"Admiral," the Captain said.
"Captain, why do you think you're here?" Sundara asked in a quiet but clear voice.
"Tell me, sir," the Captain said in noncommittal tones.
Sundara noticed the Captain's reticence. He turned and stared directly into the Captain's eyes. "We're going to war, Captain. Fulfilling our lives' purpose. Aren't you pleased?" he said, with the slightest hint of irony.
"I really couldn't say, sir."
The Admiral sighed. "Alright. Speak freely. It'll be the last time in a long while, so enjoy it while it lasts."
The Captain made as if to speak, hesitated, and shut his mouth again. He broke the gaze and looked at the cathedral walls, whose tinted windows had changed hue and added a shining bronze to the evening's red rays. Eventually he said, "I don't think we can win this war. I don't even think there should be a war."
"Recent events pass you by, Captain?" the Admiral said. "I hear we had some action. A bit of revolt, even."
"The largest armada of Minmatar forces ever seen crosses over into our space, abducts millions of souls and causes untold destruction and havoc in the life of perfectly innocent people. The only thing that saves us right before the wave breaks is an intervention so definite and miraculous you could almost call it divine. And you, a leader of the Emperor's own holy fleet," the Admiral added, walking close enough to the Captain that their chests nearly met, "Don't think there should be a war."
This time the Captain held his gaze. "No, sir. I don't."
"We're still reeling after the Minmatar onslaught. We're changing leaders, which always throws a spanner into the works-"
"Master politico-theologians say we're experiencing a glorious sea change of unprecedented proportions, with nothing but celestial glory and heavenly fate that awaits us."
"Theologians can suck my Apoc, sir. We're the ones manning the guns."
Sundara betrayed a smile. "Alright. Carry on."
"Look, sir, I'm as happy as the next man that Sarum is back in power. I honestly am. But we're a sea of people, vast and heavy. She'll need time to route everyone to her cause, even the ones who believe in it. And if the Reclaiming is to restart in earnest, we'll need to do it properly right from the start. The effort won't allow anything less than a unified front, a genuinely unified one; not just the sycophants and paranoia of Karsoth's old court. We need to clean house before we move into anyone else's."
"You've given this some thought, Captain."
"Well, my superiors insist on adding complexities to my job, sir. I'm merely trying to adapt."
The Grand Admiral thought this over. He was sitting in a very comfortable chair, considering very unpleasant things. His Captain stood before him, a small figure in a vast and well-lit room. They were in a penthouse within shouting distance of the Crystal Boulevard. Lower military orders were ensconced in bunkers beneath the Boulevard's translucent shields, but the Admiral refused to let himself be cowed into those. Besides, in his career he'd attended many long meetings in close quarters with overexcited navy brass, and he knew exactly what it would be like. People thought better, up here in the fresh air.
"Complexities such as?"
The Captain took a deep breath.
"Aside from the time we need to sort out internal chaos, the external situation is so fragile that we can barely do anything at all. You can't sneeze in Luminaire without both our side and theirs locking and loading. If we fire even one volley ... well, their captains might have sense to hold back, but CONCORD will roar right in and stomp around, getting everyone excited, and sooner or later some idiot hotshot will see his path to glory. Everything gets set off, and all that's left of every planet in Luminaire is a series of smoking craters."
"Duly noted, Captain," the Admiral said. "We can't start another war in Luminaire, which burns some of our hawks no end. And we certainly can't ignore or withdraw from CONCORD unless we want to supercharge the current chaos. What else?"
The Captain, staring straight forward, kept a carefully blank expression. "There is something else, sir?"
"Captain, we just lost an entire planet to a madman. You've served under me for years. This is no time for doubts or secret thoughts. What else? And stand at ease, for goodness' sake."
The Captain maintained her stance but her voice softened somewhat. She said, "Sir ... what are we going to do about the capsuleers?"
Anteson Ranchel, who had been Vice Admiral of the Gallente Federation Navy right up until the point his predecessor made one of the biggest military blunders in Federation history, gave his best Captain a big grin. "Well now," he said, "That's a bit of a problem. A group of people so powerful they're practically a faction unto themselves. Immortal, fearless and wealthy beyond imagining. Born of all four empires but beholden, in truth, to no one but themselves. And utterly untapped, in this little skirmish of ours."
"We need them, sir."
"Of course we do, Captain. They'll turn the tide of the war. Every capsuleer worth their pod should be taking a stand right now, and helping the forces of right against the tyranny and violence that envelops us."
The Captain nodded.
"And where, might I ask," the Admiral continued, "should that stand be taken?"
"A long way from here, if it were up to me, sir," the Captain said. "Last thing we need is opposing forces of pod pilots shooting at each other right outside our planet."
The Admiral smiled. "Good. I'm glad I've got some people left with more brains than bravery. So where, Captain, do you suggest we put them?"
"The dark end of space, ma'am."
"If that's a euphemism, Captain," the Grand Admiral said, "Believe me, I've heard enough of them already."
For a Minmatar war room, it made a number of concessions to sanity. There were only two persons there, not several representatives arguing about policy or sharpening their weapons. The walls had tactical maps on them, not tribe banners, and the surfaces of the recon tables were completely free of small arms, painblades and replica Khuumaks.
"Long meetings, ma'am?"
"If I ever see another member of the Minmatar government, whether Republic or Nation, it'll be an eon too soon, Captain. Might end up putting them the same place you're suggesting we put our capsuleers. Sounds like a rotten use of good people, though."
"Not really, ma'am," the Captain said. "We need the lowsec territories. We need the resources there for anything and everything we'll be doing elsewhere."
The Admiral resumed her pacing around the room. Voices could be heard from somewhere far outside, either arguments or chants; it was hard to tell which, sometimes. "I don't like this, Captain. We did a full frontal attack and it was one of the most glorious moments in Minmatar history. We beat the Amarr nearly to a pulp, we flexed our might like never before since the great revolution. And we freed millions."
"Yes, sir. We beat the Amarr nearly to a pulp."
"Up until the point where they burnt us to cinders and brushed away what was left of the ashes."
The Admiral rubbed her eyes. Her name was Kasora Neko, she was in charge of the Minmatar Fleet and she had not slept for a long time. "Captain, I've had three meetings today with various Minmatar political officials who think that brandishing a Khuumak gives them free rein with war metaphors. I value your services, but understand that if you start the same, I will turn your innards into poetry."
"As it happens, I agree with you. I think we do need the capsuleers, more than many people realize. I think they're going to turn the tide of the war. I think they're going to be the war, in all honesty. There is no way we can get away twice with the stunt we pulled at Halturzhan, which means we'll need resources for a longer-term war, and we'll need to move around CONCORD. That means lowsec, and the only people crazy enough to fight to the death to hold those territories are the capsuleers. And that's not all. You know what's the most valuable resource in lowsec, Captain?"
"Well, there's Omber, and Noxcium, and probably Hemorph-"
"You're going to ask me what they refine to, Captain."
"The thought did cross my mind, ma'am, but you've had a long day."
"We need them for our efforts. And the Amarr want them for whatever hellish plans they're cooking up. The Empire fleets won't dare come into our territory again, not when they don't know what we're capable of, and not while they're sorting out their problems. So this Reclaiming," she spat the word, "or whatever they want to call their excuse for today's dose of misery, is going to start in lowsec, where we've got millions of people we can't possibly defend."
"And it goes beyond that, Captain."
The Captain was silent. His superior had not asked him a question.
"We've only just begun," the Admiral continued. The garden was quiet apart from the bubble of the sand waterfall and the distant whispers of the laser birds. "This first achievement is one of many to follow, so long as we can keep everything together on the home front."
The Captain looked to the birds. Hearing his Admiral, who had served in the Caldari Navy for a long while, criticize the State's infrastructure like this set his nerves on edge. There'd been enough instability already without the high powers consistently making it worse by acknowledging it.
"What do you think about going into lowsec, Captain?" the Admiral asked.
The Captain cleared his throat. Fleet Admiral Morda Engsten was an intimidating presence, and when she asked a question like that, she wanted a good answer.
"Well, ma'am ..." The birds were approaching, their halogen outlines flickering in the sunny air.
The Admiral sat down near the sand waterfall. "Speak, Captain," she said, not unkindly.
"I think it's an excellent idea whose implications are sure to be vast, ma'am."
"You think it's dumb."
"Like a rock, ma'am."
Engsten reached out and put her hand into the waterfall, palm upwards, fingers spread out. The sand flowed around them unrestrained. "Tell me more, Captain. You're not going to ruin anything, least of all your own career."
The Captain allowed himself to doubt this. Nonetheless, he had been asked a question, and he admired the Admiral. He took a deep breath. "I don't understand why we're going into low security space, sir. It feels like we're running away. Say what you wish about Heth's rise to power, he lined us up at last, and made us kick hard at the Gallente. We've got Caldari Prime back, which I didn't think would happen in my lifetime if it ever did at all. We've got a war here, Admiral."
"That we do, Captain," Engsten said. "Now tell me what gains we're fighting for."
"Well, our people have been oppr-"
"The gains, Captain," the Admiral interrupted. "Not the ideology. I want our final military goal."
The Captain began, "Well, there is Luminai-...", then caught the Admiral's gaze and fell silent. He thought for a while, then said in quieter tones, "We're not talking about Luminaire, are we, ma'am?"
The Admiral slowly shook her head.
"Ma'am ... we're taking this all the way, aren't we?"
The Admiral nodded without smiling.
"Luminaire is a bomb right now, one that could be set off by anything and which nobody can control." It felt like he was mindreading the entire military council in absentia. "So we go into lowsec space to test out our capsuleers and build up resources. And as we make those gains, we also gain territory. Gallente lowsec territory. Which brings us closer to Gallente highsec space."
"And Luminaire at last," Admiral Engsten said.
"And Luminaire at last, ma'am," the Captain said, a slight tremor in his voice. "Along with everything else. We'll take their edges, and then there'll be nothing left but the center. We'll do it, Admiral."
The Fleet Admiral put her hand in the sand again. "And there is no doubt in your mind that we can do this?"
"Of course not. We're Caldari. And we're in the right."
The Admiral smiled. The sand hissed as it flowed through her fingers.
Aside from the hiss, the room was entirely silent. The five Jovians inside sat and stared into the ether. They were surrounded by polycarbonate windows that showed the starry space outside.
The hiss came from an open comms line.
The Jovians waited.
In four different elevators on four different stations, two diplomats got in on the top floor. One, who represented an Empire Faction, took out from his pocket a small datapadand cracked a joke about wars. The other, who represented CONCORD, accepted the datapad, signed it with his identity key, and laughed at the joke.
The elevator ride was long and the diplomats spoke swiftly, coding and signing the necessary digital back-and-forth with practiced hands. By the time they got out, the four empires had petitioned CONCORD to ratify an emergency capsuleer militia procedure, and were now officially at war.