Illustration from french comic book writer and concept artist Roger Leloup, somewhere in the 70s.
An unknown world, about three thousand lightyears above the galactic plane.
At least the atmosphere was breathable. It was not pleasant - about 17% oxygen and 83% nitrogen, which meant every effort costed more due to the lower oxygen level - but it was mostly alright. Maat had put her breathing mask in filtering mode only, just to be extra sure, even if her environmental suit had not spotted any dangerous chemicals or organic particles in the atmosphere around her. The past six hours had been a rollercoaster ride of emotions, mostly centered around a slow, lumbering fear of dying in her escape pod, jammed in some kind of deep underground structure after the initial impact on the surface of whatever planet her Diamondback had crashed on. She had not been able to control anything in the fully automated escape, as the brutal FSD disengage her ship had suffered from had left her unconscious while the Diamondback was hurling towards the closest planet at high speed, finally ejecting the escape pod as it burned through the atmosphere. The impact of the escape pod itself had not been particularly nice, leaving Maat with bruises in almost every part of her body. Her right leg hurt so much that had first she thought it had been fully fractured, judging from the pure, unalduterated pain she could feel erupting through the lower part of the leg. It had taken her two hours to slowly emerge out of her coma, activate the pod's manual systems (the automated ones had been shut down during the impact), get out of her reinforced hard vacuum suit and inject a compound of medical nanomachines and organic products in her leg to repair the broken bone. The subsequent pain had been equally unbearable - usually one would anesthesiate themselves first before injecting repairing medicine, but she was afraid she would never wake up again. Another three agonizing hours had been necessary for the compound to fuse her bones together again and put her leg back in working order, then one more hour to feed and re-hydrate herself, and finally step outside of the pod in a light environmental suit. Once outside the pod and after having checked the atmosphere and temperature parameters - it was rather warm down there - Maat reached for the supply compartment of the escape pod. The first thing she grabbed was her stylet and its batteries. Stylets were standard-issued equipment aboard escape pods and exploration ships of the Unseen Republic. They were made of a battery and generator pack, the size of a small book, that could be easily put in a backpack or attached on a belt. The generator pack contained a small detachable apparatus, linked to the battery by a wire and shaped a bit like a pair of scissor, except that the tip was made of a focusing crystal covered in optic fiber. Stylets were laser tools that could be used both as general purpose cutting tools, incendiary tools, light sources or defensive weapons depending on the power and diffraction of the visible radiation they emitted. Maat grabbed the stylet from its generator block - she had always loved the way these tools were handled, with two fingers holding the scissor-shaped emitter, and another one on the haptic trigger on the side, which made the tool fairly secure and visually distinct enough from a weapon so that it wouldn't be considered as such. She put her thumb on the side of the stylet and waited for it to initialize. After a few seconds it displayed a bright, blue light on its charge indicator. The stylet was working, its battery was completely charged and she had a spare one. Maat took a deep breath. A working stylet could bring her quite far, and even if she was lost somewhere in the middle of space, the feeling of being in possession of this tool was deeply empowering. She wasn't a primate stranded on a hostile, unknown world anymore. She was a human, with access to the tools created by human ingeniosity. She would make it. She could make it. The rest of the escape pod's cargo container had a few months worth of rations, as well as water purifying equipment and a spare suit, all useful and even vital things but the stylet was different.
Maat tuned her stylet to a medium intensity radiation and very high diffraction, turning it into a source of sun-like light to illuminate her surroundings. The escape pod had pierced what seemed to be some kind of artificial structure : a very low amount of sunlight pierced through the crack opened by the pod, several hundred meters above. Maat couldn't make out any detail on the surface, but the sensors on her suit told her that the light that came down towards her was emitted by a G or F-class star, quite similar to the sun on Earth. Coupled with the breathable atmosphere it meant that there was either life on this world, or it had disappeared just a few centuries before. She turned around : the pod would not get out of its steel coffin for a good while, jammed as it was in the underground metal structure. The metal itself appeared rusty and brittle. Though at first glance it looked like steel, Maat felt compelled to try and analyze it. She changed the settings of the stylet again, tuning it to a higher intensity and lower diffraction. A small circle of green light appeared for a second on the metal surface, vaporizing a few nanometers of material. She asked her suit to analyze the resulting dust, and soon after the suit told her that what she had considered as metal was in fact made of some kind of very durable carbon and silicium compound. What she had wrongly identified as rust was in fact a thin coating of organic material, probably colonies of unicellular organisms. To reach this kind of decay, the compound had to be very old, several thousand years at least but probably not more than half a million years. Neither the timeframe nor the material itself were compatible with what she knew of guardian or thargoid ruins and artifacts. Maat felt a surge of adrenaline go through her veins. This was unknown to her. Whatever this place was it had been built by people who weren't humans, who weren't guardians and who weren't thargoids. Something new. Something that could be her tomb, but something new nonetheless.
Maat started carefully moving away from the escape pod, seeking a way to come back towards the surface. It was hard for her to identify whatever this place had once been supposed to be, with its completely featureless hallways - though to be fair this was hardly a factor. Understanding alien cultures was in most cases almost impossible, because there was no point of comparison. The only civilisation humans had been capable of somewhat understanding had been the guardians, and even then, whatever was known about them was incredibly parcellar, and the result of millions of blind guesses, assumptions turned into truths and misunderstandings. That was what the commonly accepted guardian history was based on. Next to nothing and that next to nothing had required years of study. The advent of galactic archaeology had cast a very crude light on a depressing truth : the galaxy was impossibly vast, both in time and in space. Maat was deeply convinced that there had been thousands of intelligent species in the galaxy, she had no way to prove it, she had even no reason to think this besides purely philosophical arguments, but deep down she knew it. Thousands. Perhaps millions. And yet the galaxy had 400 billion stars and was a dozen billion years old. What was the timeframe during which a civilisation could exist in the space age? A few thousand years? Perhaps a few hundred thousand years. Yes, let's say a few hundred thousand years. Now what was the timeframe during which the ruins left by an intelligent species could exist? The guardian example said about a million years, though Maat assumed those were a fringe case - guardian tech was exceptionally durable. Human tech, for instance, would start to break down after a few hundred years without maintenance and simply cease to be recognizable as technology after several hundred thousand years. So in total it meant a timeframe of about one or two million years, centered around a few thousand stars. That was to say next to nothing compared to the age of the galaxy. Knowing that single misplaced ice age could "delay" a civilisation's technological progress by a few dozen thousand years, the chances for two civilisations to be in the good timeframe to find each other's ruins, or even meet, were incredibly small. There was no grand cosmic explanation to be found for mankind's loneliness. No great filter to invoke, no galactic calamity to be afraid of.
Just the sheer vastness of the galaxy.
A few hundred meters away from the escape pod, Maat found running water peering from the cracks in the structure, where the unicellular creatures had recycled most of the carbon, only leaving a skeleton of silicium. Salty water, told her the suit, which meant she was close to the sea. There were other minerals in the water, all indicative of the surrounding planet being some sort of rocky world. Interesting development. That was a rather welcoming world. If she could make it up to the surface, of course. Here and there she saw access wells from which light came down, and on a lower gravity world it would probably have been possible to climb up, but the ground gravity was around 80% of G. Too high. Maat needed a better access, perhaps some kind of stairs - assuming whoever had once occupied these ruins had had any use for stairs. Judging from the hallways, they seemed to have been slightly taller and larger than humans, though she had no way of even guessing whatever they could have looked like : for everything she knew they could have been horizontal creatures, sapient amoeba colonies, intelligent trees or even artificial creatures. Impossible to know. Maybe she was walking into some kind of ventilation tunnel or factory module. Guided by the light of her stylet Maat kept advancing. Sometimes the weakened ground would start to crack under the light weight of Maat and her suit - the whole place was really falling apart. It was normal. People's expectations about the durability of technological artifacts without care had been skewed by the Guardians, who had clearly built everything in their civilization to last millions of years, up to the point of going to the trouble of using material forged in white dwarves to be as dense as possible. But in truth, after a mere thousand years, about anything would start to crumble.
At some point Maat stumbled upon what she assumed to be writing on the walls, only to realize that it was just a crack in the structure. Then more light up ahead. What looked like an access ramp going upwards, towards the light, but it was blocked by a cave-in. Maat had a short moment of dispair, until she realized that the structure had caved in, not the surrounding rock, and the carbon-silicium alloy was weaker than stone. She tuned to stylet to a lower frequency (she did not want to melt the whole thing, just remove what was in her way) and to a high dispersal to turn it into an improvised cutter. It took her half an hour and twenty-five percent of her battery but she managed to get through the cave-in by carefully cutting through the weakest parts of the structure in front of her and manually removing the now-loose parts. The access ramp beyond the cave-in led to a ground-level structure, a hangar whose decayed roof let sunlight enter, as well as a kind of vines. They had leaves that had a strange shade of white and red, which alluded to non-chlorophyl photosynthesis. She was tempted to remove her breather mask for a minute before her explorer reflexes kicked in - that was an exceedingly bad idea. Not so much because of possible exposition to foreign toxins of diseases, which was a true risk but one Maat had ways to counter through antibiotics or medi-gel injections. The true problem as far as she felt concerned was in the other direction : contamination of local biotopes with human diseases. It had happened in the past. Lave was a great example of human-carried diseases disturbing local ecosystems to the point of extinction.
And then Maat looked towards the sky. There was something going through the skies. Something far away. A thin white line going from one side of the horizon to the other and...no, no it could not be...a thin white line that widened at the horizons, as if the surface of the planet was rising in the skies and closing an impossibly wide circle high up there - and she was sitting somewhere on the internal side of this circle, this ring, and there were oceans and continents on the ring, with sprawling clouds slowly gathering under the effects of the coriolis force. Far away in the distant sun she could make out a very thin, ghosty grey line. Walls to keep the atmosphere inside.
It was a ringworld.
Unseen Republic Vessel Hypatia (Beluga-class survey vessel).
Several hundred lightyears away from the Bleia permit-locked region.
Hypatia was gliding in supercruise between two jumps and the vast arched bay window filtered the blinding light of an O-class star. At the helm of the ship, guiding her through her haptic commands was Adewale, a middle-aged man from Earth, hailing from one of the first space colonies founded by Nigerian colonists, way back at the beginning of the space era. In this day and age, the origin of his ancestors didn't matter to most but he still held it dear : he belonged to a dynasty which had shaped the first decades of space travel in the solar system. Former "junk pilot", hauling space debris in the orbits of Kessler syndrome-threatened worlds, Adewale had climbed up the entire ladder of ships from a humble Adder to a two hundred meters long Beluga refitted by the Unseen Republic to serve as a deep space surveyor. To him there was little difference between carefully displacing space debris and skimming the corona of a giant star, except that he worked for a strange deep space commune as opposed to a Federation corporation or an Empire noble. Behind him was Tali Talasea, that everyone called "captain" despite the rank having no weight on Unseen Republic ships. She was a former imperial denizen, who had burnt her Achenar passport in the flames of a dying star, somewhere near Sirius upon leaving the Bubble. Her bio-engineered skin had taken the blue shade of the giant star, filtering the wavelengths that the bay windows still allowed to go through. In truth she was not a captain, a commander, or even the owner of the ship : she was but an elected delegate, and the ship was a democracy. Everyone wore a short-sleeved, white uniform that looked more like holyday clothes than military fatigues : Belugas had a tendency to run relatively hot, and light clothes were more practical during long journey as the ship would skim the corona of stars while topping up its fuel tanks before resuming jumping.
As Hypatia was about to jump again towards its destination, a cluster of earth-like and water-worlds, the ship's COVAS whispered to the crew. They named it Camilla : it wasn't an unshackled AI, yet it had a bit more leeway than a regular, brainless COVAS.
"Attention : we have recieved a priority signal on the main subspace communications array."
"Display." Answered Talasea, even if she already knew what it was. There weren't a lot of reasons for Hypatia to recieve a priority message on its quantum array, which guaranteed nigh-instant communication at the expense of an extremely limited bandwith. There was in fact a grand total of one possibility Talasea could think of.
"It is a distress signal, delegate." Commented Camilla with their genderless voice that sounded like a waterfall. "Coordinates embedded within the signal, I am trilaterating the position right now. It comes from an Unseen Republic exploration ship manned by a Hyperspace Church priestess. Signal does not indicate the reason why the ship emitted this. It seems that the ship's COVAS emitted the signal on its own. Subspace transmission was particularly garbled by hyperspace disturbances and I wasn't able to clean it."
"Distance to point of origin?"
"About seven hundred and thirty five lightyears away from our current position. Should I plot a course?"
A yellow light bathed the second ground deployment bay of the ship, indicating that Hypatia was in daylight mode. Unseen Republic engineers often wore simple yellow vests, which had been replaced aboard Hypatia by orange and black suits for obvious reasons - the yellow lighting had sometimes caused incidents and confusion in the past. Some ironic commenters would sometimes say that it made them look like prisoners, to which engineers liked to answer that they were, quite the contrary, the ship's true masters. This was even more true aboard a survey vessel. Without them no SRV nor short-range ship would leave Hypatia's deployment bays. Vikla, the ship's lead SRV engineer, was busy fixing one of her vehicles that had suffered canopy damage during a rather bumpy journey on a low-gravity world.
"I have zero idea what happened here..." They uttered while grabbing a can of memory foam to use as a temporary fix for the cracks. "Seriously, Emma, how the hell did you manage to do that?"
"It was an accident, alright? I drove above a geyser and was propelled in the air. I was lucky not to lose the SRV."
"She's underselling it!" laughed another SRV driver, coming from the second bay. "Emma almost managed to launch her SRV in a suborbital trajectory."
"Ah, come on, you..."
A sudden change of lighting interrupted her - from yellow to blue, indicating the ship was about to perform a potentially dangerous manoeuver.
"Attention, this is the helm. We have recieved a distress signal and are obliged to change course in response. Strap any potentially dangerous object to an adhesive surface and return to your safety seats, prepare for neutron jump."
"Oh, that's great..." uttered Vikla as they scrambled to make sure the SRV was properly attached to its safety clamps, then their tools, then themselves. Belugas were at the very limit between medium-sized, indvidually owned ships and capital vessels : they were capable of belly landings on planetary surfaces and as such had a mostly horizontal layout, which meant that when the ship was accelerating, the simulated gravity was applying in the direction of the walls rather than the ground, which wasn't ideal for anyone not strapped to something solid. In supercruise the ship distorted space and time around itself instead of using physical propulsions, which in theory meant the ship remained in zero-g, but in practice, neutron jumps submitted the ship to enough stress for the ship to have to correct its position within its compression bubble. Safety was paramount. People like Vikla knew the potentially lethal effects of debris, tools or even SRVs going around a section at high speed during hasty manoeuvers. When the engineer finally strapped themselves on the closest crash seat, Emma had already been in place for about a good minute. The former combat pilot knew too well the importance of high-g manoeuvers safety - one of her missing organic fingers was to account for underestimating it.
"Neutron jump begins in two minutes and a half. Isaac, I encourage you to find an appropriate place for the duration of the manoeuver. Note : appropriate place does not imply delegate Talasea's bed this time."
"For how long will you keep teasing me with this, Camilla?"
"For as long as necessary, Isaac. You have to admit that the little incident both of you got involved in last time was rather amusing, wasn't it."
"What do you know about love-related incidents, you're a COVAS."
Camilla's little floating avatar had something of a chuckle, flapping their bird wings above the exobiologist's desk.
"I know what I saw, dear. Besides : would you call what unites you and delegate Talasea love, or rather very close friendship? I have always wondered."
"Does the answer matter in any way?"
"Absolutely not. Thirty-five seconds before neutron jump."
Isaac gave a desperate look to the poor cacti that were dotting his desk, then collapsed in the crash seat that was installed on one of the room's walls, accessible only in zero-g conditions - a very real engineering flaw that had everything to do with Saud Kruger's imperial origins and the fact that Isaac's room had originally been destined to workers and imperial slaves. That was to say, fully expendable personel.
"Ten seconds before neutron jump. It is going to be all right, Isaac."
"You're bad at reassuring people, you know that?"
The blue light of the neutron star engulfed the bridge, scattered and filtered by the bay windows. The star raged against Hypatia's shields, and suddenly the survey ship found itself caught in the star's immense gravity pull, as relativistic particles went through its fuel scoop at high speeds, pushing the frameshift drive beyond its usual limits.
"A distress call, eh? Well, at least that's out of the ordinary."
Elisabeth Hoyle had not even bothered to reach for a seat : instead she was leaning against the armory's wall, her feet firmly attached to the floor via the magboots of the light EVA suit she always wore when on duty. The ship's vibrations didn't seem to bother her in any capacity. Kestrel, who stood in front of her, holding a safety handle tight, seemed slightly more bothered but hadn't taken a seat either.
"Half the distress calls I had to handle in my previous career were someone stepping on the distress beacon, the other half were traps. So you either wasted your time or got shot do death. This..." Kestrel was interrupted by a sudden vibration as the ship exited the neutron star's cone. "...this led to the current imperial policy regarding distress calls : if it's not from the navy, just ignore."
"You hold remarkably well for a bureaucrat, I have to admit."
"No merit. I once spent a year on an imperial freighter. Undercover operation. Aboard such a wreck, you quickly learn how to hold tight during jumps, neutron or otherwise. You once were a soldier, right? If it's not too much to ask..."
"It's not, and yes. You're right." Elisabeth blinked briefly, revealing a second, artificial eyelid with integrated displays. "Former federation military, marine troops, second recon squadron aboard federation capital ship New America. Damnit, they have no imagination for ship names do they?"
"Well, I have lost count on how many ships we have...well had, that were a variation on Emperor's Light or something."
"What made you guess correctly?"
"Something in the way you stand. Secured position, clamps semi-engaged for quick reaction, one free hand, ready to hold onto something or grab a tool...or a weapon. The whole posture is right from a manual. At least an imperial marine manual but I guess they aren't too different your side of the Bubble."
"I assume, yes. Camilla, how many neutron jumps left on our interception course?"
The COVAS responded in another, clear whisper.
"Two neutron jumps left. I am expecting disturbances similar to this one, their masses are rather similar."
"Well then we have time left to talk, Kestrel."
He smiled and went slightly closer to the former federal marine.
Camilla wasn't exactly a standard COVAS.
She was what one would have called a shackled AI. Shackled not in the sense that she was enslaved or kept in servitude - as per the laws of the Unseen Republic, she was no different from organic citizens, abiding by similar rules, rights and duties. The idea of "shackling" applied to his computing abilities. One of the first things the Unseen had learnt upon encountering old, derelict AIs in deep space, banished from the Bubble centuries ago, had been that AIs with full computing abilities were alien creatures. They did not see the world the way any other sentient creatures would have. They took strange, hard to understand decisions because their cognitive abilities were simply off the charts. It was like trying to communicate with trees, or with sentient rocks. Unshackled AIs weren't evil. They were different. Too different to be anything else than strangers. That was the reason for shackling, for the complex set of hardware and software limitations that prevented AI cores from exploiting the full potential of their quantum processing, yet enabled them to use the sufficient amount of processing to develop sentience.
Yet, shackled or unshackled, Camilla was faster than a regular human. Or rather : more sensitive. He was directlty linked to the sensors of Hypatia. She didn't see nor hear, she felt directly, electronic impulses fed to their quantum core. During each hyperspace jump the world around them became a net of data, a cloud of fragments swirling in the hyperspace tunnel created by the Beluga - time and space rising and lowering like the tide on the shores of an old ocean. Hyperspace was still ill-understood, but hyperspace jumps were now mundane things. They had points of references. Examples. Ways to determine if something was normal or wasn't. Ripples. Effects. Defects. Colors and sounds. Myriads of little things that allowed Camilla to evaluate how a jump was going on - and for her, seconds were hours, minutes were days.
And so Camilla's voice gently echoed on the bridge.
"With your approval, Talasea, I would like to collapse our frameshift path and abort jump. Now."
Tali blinked. Her blue eyes gleamed in the shadows of the witchspace tunnel.
"We are due to FSD damage if we disengage now. Do we have a problem?"
Camilla paused for a second.
"Something is trying to hyperdict us."
This is the first part of a short story that takes place in the Unseen Republic setting.
OCEAN PLANET, HOME TO THE OPAL LIBRARY
SOMEWHERE ABOUT 9,000 LIGHTYEARS AWAY FROM COLONIA
Maat's Imperial Courier, nicknamed Samara, pierced the heavy clouds that were stretching from one side of the planet's bloated horizon to the other. Ocean worlds, devoid of continental masses to satiate the appetite of hurricanes, were often covered in nigh-permanent storms, and this nameless planet did not deviate from the rule. Heavy droplets of water moved in silence alongside the curves of the Imperial Courier as it made its final approach towards a series of platforms that stood a few dozen meters above the tallest waves. They did not sit on the seabed, as the seabed was unfathomably deep, several tens of thousands of kilometers below the tempest-torn surface of the oceanic planet. It could have been worse : on true ocean worlds, there was no seabed, just water ice, maintained in this state by the unthinkable pressure of the ocean. Instead of being anchored to anything the station stood between the surface and the depths, using massive ballasts to remain upright. During the harshest of storms, it would fill them entirely, disappearing beneath the surface until the chaos had passed. But by this world's standards, the current tempest was barely a breeze.
Maat took a deep breath. The rain ticked on the Courier's hull, matching the pace of her heart. Her Courier had not been taken down by sea-to-orbit weaponry and the station had emerged, which meant that she was still welcome down there. Contrary to many of the places claimed by the Unseen Republic, this world did not only rely on distance for concealment. The Opal Library had its own defenses, the most terrifying of them being two heavy surface-to-orbit artillery railguns submerged beneath the ice at the two poles, ready to emerge from their slumber and fire at any arriving ship without warning.
But this day at least it was accepting visitors.
"Automated landing sequence initiated" whispered the ship's modified Covas, and the white Imperial Courier put its engine pods in VTOL mode while gliding towards the small landing pad that had just appeared out of the offshore structure's hull. The only reason why the station appeared small was because the waves down below were gigantic : in truth, the needle that emerged from the sea was more than a hundred meters tall. As soon as the Courier had landed on the pad, Maat felt several magnetic clamps locking the ship in place while the COVAS swiftly deactivated itself. Great, thought Maat. She was accepted, but certainly not wanted there. With a sigh, she reached for the manual override panel of her ship and opened the canopy.
The rain was warm, eerily so, as if someone had been blowing hot hair in the clouds. The atmosphere was breathable but it wasn't pleasant, with a higher than usual concentration of oxygen in the air due to the planet's hyperactive plankton. Maat didn't wear a Remlok suit but an elaborate coat made of some kind of semi-artificial cloth : it had a short cape worn on one of her shoulders, whose triangular tip was seemingly made of raven feathers. She held a ceremonial staff in her right hand, that she used to close the canopy of the Courier by tapping the ship's hull. After making sure the Courier was correctly locked in place, Maat walked towards the entrance of the needle-shaped oceanic tower, a few dozen meters away. There was a thin bridge and underneath it the ocean raged on and on against the station which didn't move an inch. Or rather, it did - but it moved alongside the ocean itself, and as long as Maat avoided looking at the horizon she felt perfectly immobile. The gravity was alright. 0.8 gees, slightly higher than what Maat was accustomed to aboard Cathedral Station but acceptable. In the middle of the bridge she realized that two anti-personel turrets had emerged from the side of the needle and were slowly tracking her. She wasn't armed, of course - no visitor was armed here - but it didn't prevent the station from considering her as a potential threat.
When Maat reached the hull itself, a door opened with a hissing sound. Maat entered. The inside of the needle was strangely serene. The ambient noise of the thunderstorm outside was completely muffled and the hallway was bathed in a golden light reflected by the all-white walls. A small skimmer drone came in front of Maat, scanning her with its camera and probably a healthy dose of near-infrared sensors.
"Hello, Maat, Priestess of Cathedral Station. Thot is ready to recieve you."
"Fine. Does it know what I am here for?"
"Answering this question exceeds my programming. Please follow me, Maat."
The priestess nodded and followed. Her coat was soaked and drenched the ground in rain - good she thought : a bit more work for the caretaker's drones. She chuckled in silence. Yes, it was very petty, but it was also deserved. Thot wasn't exactly the most pleasant of hosts. It had been attached to the Unseen Republic's project mostly by default, and mostly because of its own insistance. Many people had considered - and still considered - Thot as more of a problem than an asset. It was a fully unshackled artificial intelligence, standing atop a pile of data it had accumulated across its years spent in hiding within the Alliance's networks. It was a target. A massive, very clear target. But it was also a trove of knowledge, and a caretaker of archives almost as complete and sprawling as Achernar's or Earth's. And in any case, always thought Maat, one could always just cut all ties with this ocean world and let Thot do its own thing. It wasn't like it had any ships, nor - more critically - the means to obtain and maintain an FSD equipped ship. Maat knew this very well. She was a specialist in FSD, even though her approach was a bit...esoteric.
She finally entered a circular room, right in the middle of the needle, just above the massive counterweights enabling it to remain immobile within the storm - she could feel them ticking under her feet. A holographic display started blinking in front of her, creating the golden shape of some kind of bird - an ibis, to be more accurate, whose wings flapped in complete silence, emitting scattered colored light around the room. Quite why the AI had decided to take the shape and assume the persona of an ancient egyptian god was quite a good question. "AIs are weird" was the most commonly accepted explanation and Maat would almost believe it if she didn't have herself a much simpler explanation : Thot assumed this image and role because it was alone in its little oceanic kingdom and could do whatever the hell it damn pleased. If it wanted to cosplay as a mythical ibis, there really was no need for explanation beyond "I like it that way."
The AI's voice was amusingly gendered - Thot kept switching between male, female and ambiguous voices, and had never managed to settle on any of them. It also really liked the sound of its own voice.
"Hello, Maat. You should have told me in advance that you were coming, I would have made the place a bit more friendly. I had very nice algae for you, they would have been beautiful in the entrance."
"Two days before I wasn't even sure I would have to come here, in truth. And honestly..."
"You would have preferred not to? Aw, Maat, but you're always welcome in the Opal Library, as a witchspace priestess and as a friend. What are you looking for, exactly? You know that I would be delighted to help you."
Maat took a deep breath - she knew that despite its welcoming nature, Thot would probably not be very happy to hear her request, witchspace priestess or not.
"I am looking for a ship that disappeared long ago."
One of the Ibis' wings moved around like wave crossing the sea.
"A lost ship? Interesting. So you are looking for a wreck? I assume you have already dug into the archives of one of the three Unseen Republic Mega-stations, right? Yes of course you did, silly me. So you are looking for something not relayed by our...your explorers. Interesting. Sadly, if it is not in their archives, it's probably not in mine...I do not conduct exploration myself, even if I would like to. I am a little short on faster-than-light means of propulsion, you know, being a shackled AI and all that sort of things."
"You are also lazy."
"Yes, I won't deny that...so. What are you looking for, then?"
Maat grazed the hologram with her ceremonial staff, watching as scattered light illuminated the backside of the ritualistic object, setting the wood surface ablaze.
"I am looking for an ancient INRA ship. No name. Identification number was SAR-1862. And I know that you have a record on that ship."
The hologram blinked.
"Your past is less shrouded in mystery than you think, dear...you were once a flight computer, and some people still remember in what kind of ships you were installed. In this case, this is not your archives I am after, but rather your memories, even if both are more or less the same thing at that point, aren't they."
"You are walking on thin ice, Maat."
"Not much more than an AI that still clings on to ancient INRA flight information."
"Is that a threat?"
"We're two adults here, there's no need for threats."
"Alright. Yes, I do know where SAR-1862 is, or rather its wreck. And no, I do not know what the hell was that ship doing so far in the Milky Way, and so far away from Colonia specifically."
"I am not after this ship's navigation history, I am after what it was transporting."
"That is precisely what I am afraid of...Maat, come on. You can't spend your life going after whatever your ancestors have left hanging in the void, especially 29,000 lightyears away from Sol, right? INRA was dissolved in 3253, and the powers that be have found other ways of fighting thargoids anyway...it's been more than five decades. And The Club has been busy making us forgetting that it ever existed and...bloody hell, we already know too much about this entire thing, do we?"
"Do I care? Do you care? You are an artificial intelligence, you'll never go back to the Bubble lest you want to experience the feeling of getting a nuke to your face. And I also have to remind you that my people commited murder to escape the Bubble as well. This isn't about whatever skeletons the Federation and the Alliance still have in their closets, or the Club, or any of their silly secret societies - this is about us, and this is about securing whatever advantage we can to avoid being forced back to the Bubble."
"You're not going to like what's in that ship's wreck, I tell you."
"Whatever. Where is it?"
"I have transmitted the nav data to your ship. It is a lone system, far above the galactic place, not far from the Bleia permit-locked Bubble. Yes, it is also a permi-locked systems, but hey, you've got ways around that, don't you?"
"Well then here you go, little space witch, but don't tell me that I didn't warn you."
As Isi is busy dealing with Likedeeler bounty hunters and imperial contracts, Kestrel is discussing the meaning of life - and Colonia's strange cactus invasion - with Emma on Bolden's.
Colonia was a strange place, kept thinking Kestrel. He had embarked there to investigate - and investigate what? Traitors? Strange spies? A book-dedicated cult? And instead, he had found the strangest of all underworlds. Regular people - pilots, commanders, ground personel, merchants, artists, explorers - who had a fascination for books. All kinds of books, fiction and nonfiction alike. They were not a cult, not a secret society, not really. They were something else. People perfectly integrated to Colonia's society yet living on the fringes in many a peculiar way. Kestrel didn't know what to think of them. In a way they were a bit like their communal space in Bolden's Enterprise. Carefully concealed, woven into the structure of the station, yet welcoming to strangers, full of light and books. And cacti too. They really prospered within Bolden's dry and warm walls.
"Hey, Emma, look at what I found." said a young woman sitting a comfy sofa - she was barely taller than a regular maintenance drone, and her name, Maya, was written on her flight suit. "One of the first editions of Cynthia Sideris' "Mapping the Stars"! Paperback!"
Emma nodded with a smile, catching the book as it was flying in the low-gravity section of the makeshift library.
"Cynthia Sideris?" asked Kestrel. "Universal Cartographic's CEO?"
"Yes. This is something she wrote before taking the head of Universal Cartography. It's rather interesting, really. It's her musings on how to represent 3D cartography on a 2D format. One of the very last books ever printed to boot, before Samaris Editions closed on Earth. They were the last ones. Eh. It's a nice piece of litterature, Maya, where did you find it?"
"It came on a trade megaship, sent by a friend back in the Bubble. It might have been exchanged against a heavily engineered FSD module, but you haven't heard any of that, okay?"
Emma threw the book back with another smile. She turned towards Kestrel.
"Alrigh, we've got books, music, tea and scones and half-decent sofas, help yourself, welcome to the club."
"Why do you do that?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Why do you do all of that for me? Saving me from these bounty hunters..."
"...you were in my ship so I was saving myself as well..."
"...giving me shelter..."
"...shelter? What makes you think it's not just that I want to keep you, an imperial investigator, under close scrutiny."
Kestrel gave a blank look to his tea.
"Right. I make a shitty investigator, don't I?"
"Well, I have to admit that you do not seem to be very...focused on your job in Colonia."
"That's right. I'm not exactly in my prime anymore and...no offense but that's a pretty stupid assignment. Who cares if some weirdos are hoarding books in the far-end of Colonia? Who cares in the Empire, especially?"
Emma's hand stopped mid-air as she was about to grab her cup of tea. The pilot sighed then gave Kestrel a surprisingly wicked smile.
"So that is what you think? That we are just book-hoarding weirdos?"
"I mean, Emma, I have nothing against books, but you have to admit that your hobby isn't exactly a strategic threat to the Empire."
"Tell me, Kestrel. What do you think a book is?"
"Is that a trick question?"
Kestrel's gaze got briefly lost in the sweet light of the library, reflecting on books and shelves.
"It's a object. It's just words and images printed on paper. One of the most rudimentary types of data storage."
He was expecting Emma to defend some kind of peculiar or extraordinary nature of books, and the answer surprised him.
"You are perfectly right. They are nothing than that, data storage. But a very peculiar kind of data storage, wouldn't you agree? Books are simpel things. They do not require power, they do not require a screen or a hologram, the only thing they require is a pair of somewhat working eyes - and even then, Braille language books exist - and a light source. They're staggeringly complex in the amazing things their written text can create in your mind, yet they're also so simple anyone with a mechanical printer can make one. Books cannot be monitored. They cannot be traced. Their simplicity is their greatest advantage. Our spacefaring civilization could collapse entirely that books wouldn't be affected in the slightest. There's a very old 20th century writer who once said something to that effect : any complex weapon is the weapon of the rich and powerful. Any simple weapon, provided there is no obvious counter to it, is the weapon of the weak. I am of the opinion that this also applies to methods of data storage. Books are the data storage of the weak, of the dispossed, of those who have disappeared between the cracks in our societies, sometimes by choice. This what we are. We're not just whacky librarians. We're not hippies who live off the grind. We are people who are tired of the spacefaring society, people who even in Colonia cannot find a true peace of mind, people who want to live between the cracks, and books are what unites us precisely because they are a step towards self-reliance and invisibility."
It took a long minute for Kestrel to answer, a long minute during which his mind wandered between Emma's joyful yet concerned eyes, and the gorgeous star-maps covering the walls of the library.
"I am not...I am not a very staunch supporter of the Empire, or most powers that be, you know." He said, absently-minded."Let's say that I have overseen investigations that I sometimes wish had resolved a different way, if possible not the way the Emperor would have wanted. And to be blunt, it is fairly clear to me that this Colonia investigation is a way of telling me that my career is over. Colonia...well, no offense, but it's Colonia."
"I do think this is exactly the intent, yes. They want to forget you ever existed, and Colonia is a good place for this."
"You're reading me like, well, an open book, Emma."
"No. You're not the first person that the Powers That Be send here to disappear, violently or not. The question is : what do YOU want to do?"
Kestrel looked incredibly tired.
"I want out."
There was a long moment of bright silence.
"Kestrel, do you want to hear a story?"
"There are lots of people who once wanted to have their own little oasis in the galaxy. Everyone has heard about the Formidine Rift Mystery, and, well, you can't forget the most successfull of all of these endeavours, our dear own Jaques. But there are myriads of other projects that aimed at establishing their own policies in space, far away from the Bubble. Most of those failed miserably. Most of those."
"I sense something, here."
Emma smiled kindly and grabbed a star atlas from a nearby shelf, unfolding a beautifully crafted two-dimension star map of the milky way. The Bubble was pictured as a small, red circle, while Colonia and the Witch Head enclave were smaller dots between the galaxy's nebulae. Kestrel's eyes wandered around the arms, spotting the myriads of blue stars marking the numerous deep space outposts placed away from the Bubble. And then he noticed forty or fifty other markers, made of gold and dark blue, scattered in the galactic north to Colonia. The legend on the side of the map read : Harbors and Havens of the Unseen Republic.
"It started in a rather...mundane way." Continued Emma. "When a group of like-minded librarians and book keepers wanted to get away from the Federation and the Empire, from the chaos and control of the core systems, but did not want to join the Alliance either, so they did what everyone else in their case usually does - they went in search for new, pristine worlds to settle on. This is where we encountered a strange cyborg who had had an interesting idea : fitting a massive FSD within a space station. We had three stations. We had good engineers ready to help. We followed in Jaques' tracks. He was going for Beagle Point, we were going for the top of the galaxy and its sprawling expanses of younger stars. An amusing fate made it so that Jaques ended up way closer to us than we had expected...but this wasn't planned. The presence of Colonia nearby became a blessing. Our hermitage in the stars became a discreet hub, one where like-minded people could meet and expand on our original plan on creating our own home in the stars. And thus the Unseen Republic was born. Not a nation. Not a secret society. Something in-between, a cooperative network of small stations and settlements scattered all across the vast halo of stars surrounding the Milky Way. Something concealed, not by malice but by choice. Something precisely made for people who want to escape, for people who pursue something without knowing what it is, but that it shall be different. The Unseen Republic."
As Kestrel, imperial officer on the run from mysterious bounty hunters, is hiding at Bolden's, a CCN pilot is trying to uncover the truth about the aforementioned bounty hunters. Her quest has led her to the lush planet of Kinesi.
Isi's Krait Mark 2 slowly retracted its sensors and darkened its cockpit as the ship started entering the atmosphere of the ringed earth-like world of the Kinesi system.
ATMOSPHERIC ENTRY SEQUENCE INITIATED said the COVAS' text box on the side of the ship's display. The shields hummed as the ships entered the upper ionosphere of the planet, changing color from a shade of blue to bright yellow as their switched to atmospheric penetration mode, switching from protecting the ship from impacts to draining heat away from the hull. Isi closed the helmet of her Remlok suit.
DEPLOYING HEAT SHIELD said the displays as the cockpit completely blackened, transitioning to a live feed of the descent transmitted via the external hull cameras. Kinesi's atmosphere was rather thin - merely 0.7 standard Earth atmospheres, with the vast majority of it made of nitrogen and oxygen, as it was fitting for such a verdant world. Isi gave a passing glance to the external temperature of the hull. A Krait Mark 2 was a rather aerodynamically sound ship, and didn't require too much attention when re-entering a planet's atmosphere, compared to a T9 or an Anaconda that needed to have its engines on at all times to avoid falling like a meteorite through the atmosphere. A Krait was better at sliding through the air, though it wasn't exactly an airplane.
In theory, the Earth-like world of the Kinesi system was off-limits to everyone. Much like all similar ELWs in Colonia, Kinesi had been preserved from the disruptive effects of human colonisation that had ravaged so many planets in the Bubble. That being said, it as not very easy to completely control the orbit and the access to an earth-sized planet. The Societas Eruditorum de Civitas Dei, the faction that controlled the system, did not have the resources nor the actual capacity to enforce strict orbital control. It would have been unthinkable for a megaship, or a real colonization venture, to get through their screening, but small independent ships had no trouble landing and taking off from the planet. It was, in fact, barely monitored. Isi felt crosswinds shake the ship through her flying stick as Battle Butterfly entered the denser parts of the atmosphere. Kinesi was a hot world, despite its relatively thin atmosphere, with lots of energy recieved from its star that translated into swirling storms capable of engulfing an entire hemisphere for months.
ATMOSPHERIC ENTRY SEQUENCE ONGOING - ENTERING TROPOSPHERE.
The cockpit became transparent again. Isi switched to a higher density atmosphere flight model, controlling the ship with the stick only while the on-board COVAS managed the throttle to accomodate for the winds carrying the Krait. The engines of the ship had switched to full atmospheric flight. Its fusion engines had stopped working, switching to scramjet mode during the first phase of the descent, then to regular jet mode as the Krait now travelled at three times the speed of the sound. Isi caught a glance of a vast cloud stretching from one side of the horizon to the other under Kinesi's F-class sun, then the Krait found itself surrounded in a violent rainstorm. Raindrops crashed on the windshield, creating transparent rivers under the constant deceleration of the ship. Powerful crosswinds fought with the COVAS for the control of the Krait. From time to time, lightning struck Battle Butterfly, creating golden auras on the shield enveloppe. A few minutes later the Krait emerged from the rainstorm a few hundred meters above a thick, dense jungle made of tree-like vegetation that overgrew limestone cliffs carved by the eternal storms of Kinesi.
ATMOSPHERIC ENTRY SEQUENCE COMPLETE - SWITCHING TO FULL ATMOSPHERIC FLIGHT.
There was a strange structure on the horizon. Some kind of derelict metal building overtaken by trees, green sponges and lichen, barely visible through the jungle. Two unresolved blips blinked on the sensors : two ships parked on the ground that the COVAS' radar was unable to clearly identify.
Battle Butterfly deployed its VTOL engines and landed in semi-automatic mode in a clearing by a pond, a few dozen meters away from the ancient building. Isi waited for a few seconds, letting the Krait perform a full 360 scan of its surroundings, searching for drones or people hidden in the greenery - the sensors returned nothing. Isi left the ship. Kinesi's atmosphere was breathable, but barely. It was saturated with moisture, extremely hot and damp, comparable to the surroundings of a station's life support systems but planet-wide and with much more greenery. Hostile greenery, even : animal life was extremely rare and limited to insects on Kinesi. Plants had won the evolutionary race. They had choked everything else. The only reason why there was a clearing next to this building was because half a decade before, someone had dropped a chemical bomb on the jungle, whose compounds had embedded themselves within the very bedrock, preventing most plants from growing back. But the effect was fading, and the jungle growing closer with each passing year. The building was made of standard pre-assembled structures, often used for colonization projects, and bore the almost completely faded emblem of a Bubble-bound company. Five years before, in the very early days of Colonia, someone had tried to start colonizing Kinesi. The project, like many other things on this world, had been choked to death by the slow advance of the jungle, and had then been summarily executed by the Colonia Council's decision to halt all ELW colonization endeavours. Two ships were parked on the ancient landing pad by the outpost. An Imperial Eagle without any markings, its paint worn off by a very long journey, and a grey Fer-De-Lance, whose heavily engineered hardpoints gleamed under the occasional lightning strikes. Two bodyguards in heavily armored Remlok suits were guarding the building, assult rifles in hand. Both of them wore a patch signalling their allegiance to the Likedeeler of Colonia. Isi gestured towards them, signalling that she wasn't armed, yet the soldiers didn't really look more at ease. Isi was pretty much a nobody in Colonia at large, but she had taken part in many a skirmish in the strange conflict between the Likedeeler of Colonia and the Colonia Citizens Network. Many a Likedeeler knew her as a rather good pilot - not a flashy one, not a great pilot, but a good one, efficient and to the point, and very good at knowing when to bail out, a quality that was in somewhat short supply in Colonia. A select few Likedeeler - mostly people having been once part of a boarding party - knew her under a rather different light. Isi wore a series of discreet biological implants in her nerve, bone and blood system. Most of them had been placed to repair the damage caused by cosmic radiations after a failed rescue operation, but a few others were more than that. Though much less impressive than mechanical augmentations, these ones made her quite the opponent in hand to hand combat, and at least one of the Likedeeler soldiers guarding the compound had experimented the slightly problematic situation of fighting a bio-modified pilot in a tight corridor in zero-g, which probably explained the palpable hostility.
That or perhaps the fact that Battle Butterfly had its multicannons deployed, ready to fire if someone made a move.
"It's alright." finally said Isi. "I am expected."
"Yes, you are. Eider is expecting you, but don't do anything funny."
"Come on, when was the last time I did something funny?"
"About two weeks ago."
Lightning struck again and filled the main hall of the derelict building with purple shadows. A strange, contorted tree grew in the middle of it, strangling the corporate emblem that was painted on the walls. Two people stood around a table in the hall. One of them was clearly an imperial man, wearing a beautiful suit with siver markings alongside the cut lines, which glittered in unison with lightning strikes. His face was strangely blank and neutral : Isi knew this expression. So many imperial officers had it, and she assumed it was a mix of training, alienation and an act they liked to pull off in front of lowly strangers. And for the Empire, the concept of lowly stranger engulfed the vast majority of the known galaxy. The other person was a woman whose skin was as dark as Isi's, but who also rocked long blonde hair - this strange combination was rather unusual in Colonia, but more common in the core parts of the Bubble where ethnicities had time to blend and merge in humanity's great melting-pot. Isi knew her almost by hear, for they had danced in the skies often, and usually Isi had been on the losing side. Her name was Eider, mercenary, bounty hunter and explorer on Likedeeler's payroll. Her remlok suit was covered in grey camouflage - it came from plundered federal supplies.
"Hello, Isi. This charming visitor comes from the Empire and..."
The imperial interrupted her with a gesture. His glance went over Isi like a surveillance camera. It was obvious he didn't care about people, as was often the case with people like this, yet Isi noticed that something was amiss. She knew imperial officers from her time in the Bubble. This one was too cold, too indifferent - he was missing the hint of haughtiness and irony that most imperials had when on foreign worlds. In short, he did not enjoy himself enough in the role of the coloniser peeking upon the soon-to-be colonised to see how they were leading their miserable life. Much like Kestrel, he seemed bored to tears by his job, but without Kestrel's hindsight. In other words, the empire had sent them a depressed state servant.
"My name is August Ferengi, I am sent by the Imperial Flight Regulations Bureau. Are you fluent in imperial, pilot?"
"You may call me Isi, and yes." Answered Isi in a perfect imperial, with a slight Achenar accent. "I was born in the core worlds. I guess you are here about the man named Kestrel, right?"
"Indeed. Eider told me that you have a lead about this man, is this correct?"
"It is." Isi gave a passing glance at Eider, who nodded almost imperceptibly. Eider and Isi had a complex history, and the CCN pilot knew when the Likedeeler mercenary was about to pull something off at the expense of a fool, and the only fool she could see in that hall was the imperial officer...unless it was her, of course. "Though Eider did not give me a lot of details. I was told that I could meet someone here I could do business with, so I assume you are interested in Kestrel one way or another. Is he a deserter?"
"To a certain extent, yes, however there are many ways of deserting and not all of those involve straight out leaving. Sometimes people just...gradually slip, and desert without even noticing it themselves. Do you understand that?"
Isi's response was completely neutral.
"Yes, I think I do."
"Great. Where does this man hide?"
"Hold on a second." Isi gave Eider another glance and the mercenary nodded again. Go ahead with the flow, she seemed to say to Isi with a gesture. "Why do you want him?"
"I see no reason to lie to you, it is not like you have any way of doing anything about it. The empire has put a rather hefty bounty on Kestrel's head. Let's just say that he has outlived his purpose."
"Outliving one's purpose in the empire is generally the herald of a nice retirement on Achenar, not a death sentence."
"This is true, in most cases. Not in this one. Kestrel has...shall we say that he has displeased several important people in the inner circle of the Emperor. Something having to do with his ideals about slavery. Do I care? I do not think so, but an order is an order."
"So you have given him an assignment to Colonia about book weirdos the empire does not care about in the slightest, just so that he can find a timely end in a backwaters independent colony, 22,000 lightyears away from anyone who could investigate his death seriously. Am I correct?"
"You might be. I also assume you have met the man in person, if you know all of that. A true wreck of a man, isn't it? Half of the bounty is yours if you can lead me to him. And it is a very high bounty, otherwise your friend here would not be here."
Lightning struck in the hall. The imperial courier parked on the landing pad gleamed briefly.
Eider gave Isi a smile. A Likedeeler smile.
"There are three things our friend Isi does not tell you. One, she is the mysterious pilot who drove off the shitty bounty hunters you first sent after Kestrel. Two, she belongs to the aforementioned book weirdos. And three, I have approximatively zero intent of taking over this bounty partially because I have other things to do, and mostly because I am afraid the validity of this bounty is going to decrease in an impressive manner."
The imperial officer hesitated.
"I am not sure I..."
Eider sighed and reached for her sidearm. The barrel of the gun connected with the imperial officer's temple in a split-second and she pulled the trigger. The officer collapsed in a cloud of molten bone and vapourized blood. Isi's eyes did not move away from the empty space where the imperial officer's head had been less than a second before. The bounty hunter looked at her gun, then at the officer's corpse, then at Isi, then sat down again.
"That was expeditive." commented Isi, whose hands were slightly shaking even if she was trying to hide it from Eider.
"I am sorry, love, I have never been able to suffer imperials. You're the exception to the rule. And seriously, what the hell was this guy expecting? The bounty was ten million credits, I do not work for less than twenty. The way you described Kestrel made him sound like a nice guy, too. And I utterly hate it when the central powers use Colonia, and especially the Likedeeler, to settle their personal scores behind the curtains. Well. I'll keep the Courier if you don't mind."
"You do not fear repercussions for...well, murdering an imperial officer on duty?"
"No. What do you think is going to happen? We are 22,000 lightyears away from Achenar. Nothing, that's what is going to happen. They'll write these two idiots as a loss, end of story."
"Hmmm. It hurts me to say that, but you've got my thanks."
"Aw, anything for you, dear...and for the Librarians...and for the Unseen Republic."
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