Operation Starfold 29

Ashley Washington stood in the lobby of the Rostin Beacon Building, the largest open area onsite and the only place big enough for all the employees to gather at once.

Everyone was here, including her boss Frank Santiago. Up on a makeshift platform, where everyone could see him, stood a very nervous Mason Mathews, the top executive at the Beacon.

Beside him stood a very non-descript man wearing what looked like a Republican Navy uniform, but it had no markings or indication of rank, not even a name holo.

The man smiled out at the crowd and made an adjustment to the neural implant under his ear. His voice picked up on speakers in the room and as he spoke the hubbub died down.

“May I have your attention? Thank you for coming down on such short notice. My name is Smithers and I’m with the Republican Navy.

“As you know, we are in the process of changing over the government in this quadrant. For most people this will mean little change in regards to their daily responsibilities, and that includes all of you working here at the Beacon.

“The biggest changes everyone will notice is a shift from StarCen to PLAIR. Also, our media streams are different. I’m afraid communication with people on planets aligned with the League will be somewhat problematic now. On the other hand, if you know anybody on a Republican planet, you can talk to them rather easily.

“Also, as I’m sure you’re all aware of by now, SSI HQ has been destroyed. You no longer have to worry about a secret police force breathing down your neck. That does not mean you won’t be monitored, and that lawbreakers will not get their due. But I think you’ll find living under PLAIR’s surveillance considerably more benign than what you’re used to.

“That brings us to your jobs running the primary news outlet for this planet. The Republic is not in the habit of telling its news organizations what to transmit. However, we do favor balanced coverage. Everyone knows that unbiased news simply does not exist. But, if you could give both sides on major stories, we’d appreciate it.

“Finally of course, classified information particularly dealing with the war effort will remain classified, and we will assert censorship powers wherever PLAIR deems it necessary. She will have full access to all your data, drafts, and story ideas. I have informed Director Mathews who to contact if he has any questions.

“But for the most part, we offer a much lighter touch than what you are used to. Honest!”

He made a few closing remarks then turned the amplification over to Mathews.

The Director of the Rostin Beacon thanked Mr. Smithers and assured his employees the transition would be a smooth one. He took the Republic at their word that their organization would remain independent, and he looked forward to this afternoon’s newscast.

After Mathews finished speaking, everyone was free to go.

Ashley headed back to the elevator, hoping to catch an early pod up to her cubicle when she noticed a signal coming in from Phil. She stepped off to one side and answered the call on her implant.

“Phil? Is that really you?”

“Hi Ashley. Man, it is so good to hear your voice again.”

“Where have you been? What’s happened? Are you coming back to Rostin?”

“Yeah, I’m headed that way. I’m on Corfu right now. SSI intercepted me off a work detail and sent me to a reeducation camp on Patmos.”

“Are you okay? We’ve been hearing stories about mass executions at all the SSI detention centers.”

“Yeah, they tried that on us. Fortunately, a bunch of Republican Marines crash landed on our island and put a stop to it.”

“Phil, that sounds like an awesome story! I’ve got to interview you for Good Morning Rostin or something.”

“We can do it. Listen I’m going to request a terrestrial teleport to Rostin. They allow that sort of thing, and since I’m a released political prisoner I’m getting a lot of preferential treatment. They’re thinking of me as one of the good guys.

“I’m in the queue to be teleported in about an hour. You want to meet me? I should be coming into a special wing of the spaceport they set up for ground use.”

“Yes! I’ll head to the spaceport now. I can’t wait to see you, Phil!”

“I can’t wait, too. See you in a bit.”

-+-

An hour and a half later, Phil and Ashley sat at a table in a small diner near the Rostin spaceport.

She hardly recognized her boyfriend. He lost 10 kilos and grew a beard.

Phil had also grown more reserved, and philosophical about life.

He said, “I spent a lot of time thinking. I mean, the purpose of a reeducation camp is to change the prisoner’s mindset. They challenged a lot of my core beliefs.”

“What did you come up with?” Ashley said. “Did you change? Do you think the League is better than the Republic, or is it the other way around?”

“It’s not so much the actual League or the Republic, it’s the systems of government they represent. I’ve come to realize there will always be conflict between those two types of worldview.”

“But . . . there hasn’t always been war.”

“No. But, the worldviews are incompatible with one another. You see . . . it’s a matter of control versus freedom.”

“There’s degrees of both, aren’t there? I mean, I just got out of a meeting where a Republican Navy guy told us we were free to publish any stories we wanted, within reason. He said to expect a lighter touch from them, but . . . they were still going to ‘touch’ us, you know?”

“Yes,” Phil nodded. “There is control within the Republic. And we had degrees of freedom within the League, too. But the underlying fundamental assumptions of both systems are diametrically opposed.

“Let me try to explain it this way . . . When you have a controlled society like the League, eventually everythinghas to be controlled in order to make it work. In order for it to last. And, that leads to totalitarianism. Total control by the government . . . and then it falls apart. This cycle gets repeated down through history.

“Don’t you see, Ashley? This is why communism always fails. It’s why socialism eventually fails, too, when it gets too powerful. More and more control is gathered up by the government and when it hits a tipping point, everything falls apart.

“The difference with past governments on Earth is, out here in the galaxy we have gradually ceded control to the AIs. They have learned, over time, and have adjusted things. But the two big ones operate from fundamentally different worldviews. Which is why they are at war.

“They learn, regardless of their worldview, adding or ceding control as needed. In our case, this has staved off collapse because StarCen has figured out some very complex issues. She allows some freedom, and keeps things going. Part of that has to do with lessons she learned during the Welfare Wars.

“After economic collapse and the failure of welfare programs, StarCen abandoned the concept of economic support systems and replaced them with indentured servanthood. She found out that just giving people money eventually leads to disaster. They have to work or society collapses. I’m not sure that’s a lesson humans can learn on their own, because free money is too strong a lure for politicians and people.

“So now, even in the League, there’s no more government welfare. If you can’t pay your bills, you take a collar. Adjustments like that have allowed the League to persist far beyond what it would have without an AI taking care of things. Pure human control wouldn’t have been so . . . rational.

“But the League still operates from a fundamental assumption regarding control of its citizenry. And according to that worldview, people are meant to be directed rather than fully allowed to pursue their own self-interests.

“The Republic, on the other hand, has a fundamental assumption regarding human liberty. People there are free to do what they want, within reason like you said. And this worldview is diametrically opposed to the League’s way of thinking. So, conflict between the two was inevitable at some point, whether over resources or ideology.

“Both views will always be with us. As long as men and women travel the stars. And, both views exist to one degree or another on both sides. It’s just that the League tilts more toward control, like the communist governments on Old Earth did, and the Republic tilts more toward freedom, following in the tradition of representative democracies of the past.”

He paused, and stopped to look deep in her eyes. He tried to see if she was following him. He still had her attention.

He said, “Ultimately, the system offering more freedom is the side to be on, Ashley. If history is any guide, that’s the side that ultimately wins this conflict. That’s the side that ultimately wins, even when it loses militarily. Because freedom always burns bright in the human heart, no matter what system of government it lives under at the moment.”

She looked at him while taking a sip of water. Her own heart stirred with a different feeling, one of deep-seated love and affection for this man.

She set the glass down and said, “Hm. It doesn’t sound they reformed you at all in that camp.”

Phil cracked a grin. He said, “No. It wasn’t a particularly enjoyable experience, and but for the grace of God I almost got killed. But the funny thing is, despite all that happened, I think I’m a better person for it. I certainly understand a lot more about politics, and I respect the notions of personal liberty more than I ever did before. I see now why people have been willing to die so their children can grow up in a more free society. It’s worth fighting for.”

Ashley leaned across their little table and kissed him on the cheek.

She said, “Ew. I’m not liking the beard. You’re going have to shave that off before you kiss me on the lips, you know.”

Phil pushed his plate back and stood up.

He said, “Let’s go buy a shaving kit.”

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