The Unseen Republic
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."
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