"So you've been in Colonia for what, one year, and you've never visited Jaques' Bar? Come on Kestrel. That's ridiculous."
The ex-imperial investigator gave Emma a smile.
"Well, you're never available. Whenever we're in Jaques you're spending most of your time fixing Myth and Moth and taking contracts whose legality I'd better not examine too closely."
"Aw, you're afraid of going to Jaques' Bar without me?"
"Well I don't know the locals and I don't know their customs. Always good to have a guide, don't you think?"
Emma smiled back before gesturing towards the bar's door, letting Kestrel go first. Colonia had transformed him, thought Emma. The disgruntled imperial flights operations investigator had lost a few pounds and gained a few centimeters as a result of having spent twelve months working on Emma's Python in zero-g. He had traded his stupid coat and hat for a simple flight suit-jacket combo that gave him a "quiet space worker" ethos that was way less remarkable in Colonia than whatever he had been wearing before. He didn't stand out in the Colonial crowd anymore : much like Emma he was starting to become part of the scenery.
Waves of music surrounded them as they entered Colonia's oldest bar. Jaques' establishment was nested near the main spaceport of his Ocellus station and they could see ships come and go through a vast bay window. The walls were made of wood (a great luxury in Colonia), with abstract statues and light panels reminiscent of Jaques' former Bubble-bound bar. Both the architecture and the somewhat shady patrons would have created a perfect old Earth saloon ambience had not it been for Jaques' somewhat peculiar choice of neo-disco music. The bar was cramped, smokey, probably unsafe, which was precisely the kind of environment Jaques sought after. He had started his career in bars like this one, spending centuries gathering enough influence and money to buy the Ocellus starport he wanted to reach Beagle Point with. All in all, had always considered Emma, Colonia wasn't a bad resting place for the cyborg. It was closer to the Bubble than its intended target which enabled his bar to have more than token visitors.
"So, er, this is Jaques? The real Jaques?" whispered Kestrel as they approached a cyborg bartender whose multiple arms were alternating between an impressive array of bottles displayed on a seemingly endless shelf and a series of silver shakers he held like weapons. The lower half of his body was shaped like a bar stool while the upper half, arms notwihstanding, was mostly human-like.
"It's the real deal, yes. Two ground rules, by the way : one, never mention his age and two, whatever you do, never order tea. He hates it." Emma turned to the cyborg and waved. "Hey, Jaques! I'll take a cup of black tea, please. The one from Kinesi. Oh, and I'm going to replenish my stock of Quinentian Stills. I'm running a bit low."
Jaques nodded and extended one of his arms to reach for his automatic tea machine which sprung to life with measurable excitement and starting boiling water. Kestrel raised an eyebrow.
"I thought you said he hated tea."
"Yes but he owes me a favor so I have the right to be an annoyance."
"Right...I'll take a glass of whiskey, please."
"One Kinesia teacup for the lady, one glass of whiskey for the good sir...is it alright if I call you sir? I always take a point in getting pronouns right."
"It is alright." Jaques' voice was calm and soothing, probably the most human aspect of his current physical form. "Thank you, Jaques."
"You are welcome. It is a pleasure to see you in Colonia, Kestrel."
"How do you know my name?"
"Jaques always knows...remember, Kestrel : "I never forget a face!" That's his motto." She turned towards the bay window while taking a sip from her teacup. There was more traffic than usual at Jaques Station and a higher than average number of Belugas, Orcas and T10s were waiting in line for their landing clearance bouth outside and inside the station. Emma assumed that most of them were not carrying tourists but refugees from destroyed stations. Rich refugees judging from the prevalence of Saud Kruger cetaceans on Jaques' landing pads.
"Is everything alright, mistress Emma?" asked Jaques as he came back from an order. "I hope you did not lose close relatives or friends in Bubble bombings."
"No one that I cared about though there were a few close calls. Kestrel just told me that his aunt had barely escaped the Achenar bombing, flying through flames and exploding debris on her good old Adder..."
"My aunt is a professional racer." explained Kestrel when he felt Jaques' gaze rest on him, silently asking for more details. "The only member of my family who didn't become a cop or a slave trader. I respect her. We need more imperials like this." He chuckled but deep down he meant it.
"You mean we need more imperials who aren't imperials...I don't think the Empire can be salvaged, Kestrel, but let's not start this discussion again."
"I mean, the Empire still has a a one million bounty on my head though it's been a while since we had to deal with a bounty hunter. Emma is scaring them off."
"Nonsense, it's just that your bounty is shit." Emma raised her head as two heavy ships soared above the bay window while taking off from their respective pads. The white elegance of an Imperial Cutter followed by the military matter-of-factness of a massive Federal Corvette. They assembled in a two-ship formation before leaving Jaques at full speed, superheated contrails in their wake.
"Wow. That's a lot of firepower. Don't see that everyday." commented Kestrel. "Bounty hunters?"
"Aye." interjected a blonde woman wearing a full flight suit with the words EIDER embroided on the right sleeve, an automatic pistol strapped to her hip and a former Likedeeler ID plate on her chest. "The Bubble doesn't only bring refugees these days. Someone has put a massive bounty on one of our engineers. We've got professionals coming up to rack in the kill."
"I see. Who's the target?"
"The creep had it coming, really."
"Yeah...I never liked this bastard but I don't think those who put that bounty care about whatever he does with occupied escape pods." Eider shrugged. "The bounty is suspiciously high."
Emma almost choked on her tea.
From : Kestrel.
To : Jaques.
Hello, Jaques. When I arrived in Colonia you told me that I was free to relay to you any information I could find about strange, exotic or unique ships. The recent hostile takeover of Lakon by Core Dynamics put the company (and especially its administration) in such a state of disarray that my Bubble contacts have been able to dig up some very spicy information lately. Does the name Snake Eagle ring a bell?
Alright, let's go for a bit of a history lesson. In 3303 the Thargoids were hammering the Pleiades settlements so badly that the Alliance launched a public procurement process to build a new combat ship capable of countering Thargoid vessels. The result of that process is well-known, it's the Lakon Type 10. But few people know that the T10 once had a serious competitor.
In early 3303 a group of engineers from Lakon and Falcon Delacy tried to propose an alternative to the Type 10 : a ship with enough firepower and defenses to stand its own against thargoids, yet without the cumbersome design of the T10 (which, as you know, is basically just a militarized T9). This idea relied on unearthing an older Delacy design and coupling it to a Lakon frame. They gave it the codename Snake Eagle (The "Eagle" being Lakon and the "Snake" being Delacy).
Long story short, the Snake Eagle lost to the T10 so hard that everyone forgot about it. It basically fell victim to a crossfire of corporate lobbying (militarized T9s were very heavily pushed by Lakon executives), technical conservatism (the Snake Eagle was properly revolutionary - more on that later), cost concerns (the Snake Eagle was estimated to be almost twice the price of a T10) and Alliance politics (a Lakon-Delacy alliance would have paved the way for a politically unnaceptable merger of the two manufacturers). Officially the Snake Eagle doesn't exist beyond concept art.
Of course this isn't entirely accurate, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this letter. The first thing my contacts found in Lakon archives are the exact specs of the Snake Eagle and wow - that thing is a beast. It seems to be built around a custom chassis that is somewhat reminiscent of a Federal Assault Ship and is roughly the size of a Krait Mark 2 but twice the weight. It sports two Mamba-derived engines powered by a twin fusion core - as far as I know this configuration is completely unique. Both the armor and shields are extremely sturdy, much more than what you would expect for such a ship (it goes without saying that it basically doesn't have a cargo bay) but the most striking feature is the hardpoint placement. The Snake Eagle features a single, massive spinal mount underneath the ship that can draw power from the two fusion cores at once. With enough pips to weapons, you can pierce several meters of heavy armor.
Now you might notice that this ship build isn't exactly mundane. In fact I can't think of a single ship that is assembled like this. The Snake Eagle isn't a dogfighter nor even an interceptor. Everything from the powerful engines and heavy armor to the spinal mount hint at its true role : the Snake Eagle is a capital ship killer. It is not meant to combat other small ships, albeit it's certainly deadly as a fast interceptor. It's designed to go toe to toe with a battleship or a fleet carrier. This is properly revolutionary. There are no small ships in existence that are designed to fit such a niche in combat.
Now the truly interesting part : before the project was canned, the haphazard Lakon-Delacy alliance built four Snake Eagle prototypes nicknamed SE1 to SE4. SE1 was just a static demonstrator and is now rotting somewhere on Reorte. SE2 was space-capable but had no frameshift drive nor weapon mounts. It was destroyed in a crash shortly before the project was cancelled. SE3 was just like SE2 but with a frameshift drive, as far as as I know this one just disappeared, probably sold to a private individual. SE4 was the real deal. Fully combat-capable prototype with the spinal mount, basically the last step before mass production. When the deal collapsed, Snake Eagle Prototype 4 just...disappeared. Apparently it was stolen (yes, stolen) by pirates, then sold to an anarchist commune, which was then prosecuted by the Federation and fled to Colonia with all its assets.
Conclusion : there is a non-negligible chance that a fully operational prototype of the Snake Eagle is present in Colonia.
I think that is worth a free bottle of whiskey, isn't it?
"So Lakon was bought by Core Dynamics, eh? Well, that's a good thing I finally paid back the loan on my Type 9 the other day..." uttered Emma while watching the latest Galnet takes on what she liked to call "the distant howls of the Bubble". Kestrel, who was busy preparing lunch in the small kitchen section of Myth and Moth, answered with a surprised smile.
"Wait, you have a T9?"
"Aye. It's named Brüsel. If I have to be honest, it's not my wisest investment. You can't beat 750 tons of cargo space, but the handling is...well, it's a bit like flying a massive truck. On rails. With seven elephants in the backseat. Myth and Moth is positively agile compared to a T9."
"Oh, that I know. When I was in the Bureau, we referred to them as space cows. Well, we did until we realized that a lot of pirates - the most clever ones - used T9s for combat. You can pack a surprising amount of weaponry on such a cumbersome frame. Anyway, Emma, do you like your eggs boiled or fried ?"
"Wait, where the hell did you find eggs?"
"There were some at Bolden's the other day, I think a Fleet Carrier brought several tons of eggs from the Bubble, or maybe it was one of the ships from Gandharvi."
"Eh, I won't complain, but you taste them first." Emma put her Galnet display to sleep then unbuckled her seatbelt, floating away from the cockpit and towards the living area of her Python. Officially she was on a regular trading run between Tir and Colonia, officiously she was running a local courier service for the Unseen Republic - but in Colonia almost no trade ship was an actual, legit trade ship. Emma chuckled as she entered the Python's kitchen.
"You're very cute with that apron, Kestrel. You know that Remlock suits are self-cleaning right?"
"It's all a matter of style, Emma."
"Right, what's the menu?"
Kestrel pointed at the automated cooking system installed in the wall with its circular window.
"Beans, bacon, fried eggs for you, boiled eggs for me. Everything comes from Bolden."
"We've been eating beans for two days straight now..." complained Emma before reaching for her earring-shaped terminal. "Hey, COVAS, remind me of making a detour by Deriso one day. Words danced on the walls in response.
As Emma opened the cooker a low-pitched alarm went through the ship, signalling that another vessel had reintegrated realspace within close proximity of Myth and Moth. Kestrel and Emma floated their way towards the cockpit while the ship's automated subroutines had already set engine throttle to 25% and deployed hardpoints. The sensor screens showed the fast-closing signature of a large ship, roughly twice the size of Myth and Moth. The Python's built-in recognition system identified it as a Mamba, but the thermal signature did not check out. It was way too hot and bright to be a regular Mamba. Emma sighed in relief while Kestrel widened his eyes at the sight
"How fast is that ship?"
"About 3,500 meters per second in realspace...Kestrel, could you be a dear and set the brightness filters to maximum? We're going to need it when this thing will be passing by our ship in apprpximatively two seconds."
"I'm not sure I..."
Kestrel was interrupted by the sight of a blue-tinted fog of metal and light which on second thought sort of looked like a Mamba, followed by the blinding light of the most massive engines he had ever seen on an individual ship. Then the ship disappeared in the distance and instead of slowing down just performed a fast flip and burn manoeuver, submitting its pilot to ten gravities of acceleration. Its heatsinks gleamed in the dark like the Pleiades - and it wasn't a metaphor : they were so hot they gleamed in blue instead of the usual red-orange tint. It looked like a Mamba alright, but something was completely off in the way it moved.
"Let me tell you a story..." explained Emma while Kestrel kept staring at the decelerating Mamba. "One day, Jaques - yes, the cyborg bartender - came in possession of a Mamba. Being somewhat disappointed by the ship's performance, he asked some locals to fix the perceived issues with its engines. It should have been a regular engineering pass, but Jaques had a lot of money and nowhere else to spend it so we ended up with...this thing." The pilot pointed at the Mamba which was - very painfully - coming to a stop with the help of its front-facing RCS thrusters. "I introduce you to The Great Escape! A thoroughly gutted Mamba frame with custom heat sinks, no hardpoints, no armor to speak of and megaship thrusters mounted on it."
"I am dead-serious. The thrusters on this unit have been borrowed from Damask Rose in the Centralis system. They're just the side thrusters originally meant for orbrital control but they're already vastly oversized for a ship of this class. Now you may wonder : what's the point of this contraption?"
"Oh, I have decided to stop wondering about such things a long while ago. I just accepted the fact that Colonia has a relatively high amount of insanity floating around." He grinned as The Great Escape sent a hail to Myth and Moth before starting its engines again, emitting a massive stream of blue-violet light. "Now I am just enjoying the ambient madness."
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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