Set in space and on far away exotic worlds, adventure, intrigue, action and mystery abound in this tale of a feisty young heroine embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. As she joins a motley crew of bounty hunters seeking to avenge an injustice, she will learn of her illustrious heritage and go up against a powerful enemy that seeks to exploit this legacy.

Written as a series of episodes, The Zenkoti Fables is currently available below.

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Episode 1 : Call of the Stars
Episode 2 : Through the Looking Glass

 

Author’s Note


On a mining outpost in a distant corner of the Universe, a young woman looks to the stars, hankering to travel them. When fate thrusts her into an exhilarating adventure, she will learn about her past, the origins of her people, and a conspiracy by a powerful corporation to deny them their rightful legacy.


 

EPISODE 1 : Call of the Stars

 

Down the rabbit hole …

When Novi follows a stranger asking questions onto a mysterious ship, she’s swept up in the adventure of a lifetime.

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EPISODE 2 : THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

Cast adrift, a stowaway …

A trapped Novi looks for an escape but the mysterious ship and its crew continues to fascinate and mystify her as she observes them undetected.

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Note : More chapters follow below …


Table of Contents


Episode 1
Call of the stars

Chapter 1 : A stranger asks questions on Idriko
Chapter 2 : A mysterious ship
Chapter 3 : Curiosity leaves Novi stranded

Episode 2
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

Chapter 4 : The Badlands
Chapter 5 : Exotic cargo
Chapter 6 : The Synth

Episode 3
INTO THE FIRE

Chapter 7 : The Hold
Chapter 8 : The stowaway arouses suspicions
Chapter 9 : Blackout

 


EPISODE 1

 

Novi pretended to be engrossed in the oversized display screen that played eye-catching clips of travel destinations in a never-ending loop to entice the undecided well-heeled tourist looking for his next vacation. The nearly deserted Shuttle Vestibule left Novi with few options for subterfuge. She had to make do by stealing surreptitious glances at the plainly-dressed man chatting to the Guild Corps guards. Attired in the Corps’ colors of red and yellow, the two guards seemed more than happy to answer the stranger’s questions as he showed them something on his tablet.

The sleek masks on the guards’ faces distorted their voices slightly as they conversed with the stranger. Novi didn’t blame the guards for being careful. Though spacious and well-kept, the Shuttle Vestibule smelt of the Mine. The air in the Vestibule irritated her eyes as it deposited a fine layer of black dust all over – on the furniture, the floor and even the protective cover that sealed the display screen. The suspended pollutants in the air were known to play havoc with tech. While a masked cleaner diligently made the rounds of the Vestibule to wipe the blackish smudges off the display screen cover, he could not keep up with the grimy deposits.

Even Novi, Idrikon born and bred, had trouble breathing the unfiltered air. The Shuttle Vestibule was located outside the Dome that protected the settlement on the planet. The enormous opaque Dome purified the air for its denizens. And had done so since the Idrikon Mine had started operating almost a century ago. A decade ago, as the skies over Idriko turned brackish with pollution from the Mine, the Dome had also commenced projecting artificially clear skies, to lull its denizens into a sense of normalcy.

Idriko was a mining outpost. Or, a prison colony, depending on who you asked. Novi preferred to identify her world as a mining planet. Not because she objected to the moniker of a prison colony. To her, like all the Dome denizens, the prison was an entity that barely registered in their daily lives, while the miners provided an ever-present reminder of the mainstay of their outpost. The economy of the Dome ran on the mine. Essentially, it was an artificial settlement built to cater to every comfort of a miner – accommodation, food, his children’s education, recreation. If the mine ever closed down, the Dome would empty out in no time as its denizens fled to greener pastures.

The mine was split into two sections. The more dangerous work in hazardous conditions was left to the prisoners from the high security Kuzhampa Prison, while the well-compensated volunteer work force fulfilled the supervisory, administrative and less dangerous tasks. Like a majority of the Inner Worlds, Idriko fell under the jurisdiction of the Guild Coalition. Both Kuzhampa Prison and the Idriko Mine were owned and operated by the Guild while the planet’s Star Portico was administered and guarded by the Coalition’s forces – the Guild Corps.

The Guild Coalition was the pre-eminent conglomerate on the Inner Worlds, with a broad portfolio of business interests, a majority of worlds under its jurisdiction and a large army to enforce its writ. Once, it had also been the richest corporation. But that title had been usurped by Ventini Corporation, or Venn Corp, as it was popularly known. Unlike the Guild, Venn Corp had focused only on one business. It’s innovative and cutting-edge Star Portals had effectively rewritten star travel within the Inner Worlds.

Novi cast another surreptitious glance at the stranger. He had put away his tablet to chat with the two guards. She had been packing the last of her gear for her off-world camping trip when her Boss had informed her, in his unhurried way, of the stranger asking questions. Wy was more than her Boss. He was the closest thing Novi had to a paternal presence in her life. He had given her mother shelter and a job when she had come seeking sanctuary nearly two decades ago. After her mother’s death five years ago, Novi had taken over her mother’s duties at the tavern, as well as the accommodation at the back of The Watering Hole, Wy’s popular taproom and saloon in the Dome.

The double doors behind the guards slid open as passengers poured into the Vestibule. A shuttle had just landed from the Portico. No one came to Idriko for pleasure, only for work. Thus, most of the disembarking passengers seemed to know their way around, though a few paused to ask the guards for direction. The guards pointed to a archway marked ‘Dome’. Inside, a large self-driving capsule provided underground passage to a terminal in downtown Dome. This way, no one breathed the poisonous air on Idriko a moment longer than they had to. Novi noted that many had come prepared with masks already on faces of the disembarking young children, while others hurried them quickly to the sealed capsule that would take them into the Dome.

As the last of the disembarking passengers made their way through the gate, the sign over it flashed ‘Shuttle Ready’. The stranger pulled out his tablet to show the guards his ticket. Novi pulled out her own tablet and hurried to get into line behind him, along with a few other passengers in the Vestibule. In the cramped shuttle, she stowed away her case with her camping gear to grab a seat at the front of the shuttle. She intended to be the one of the first to disembark at the Star Portico, before the stranger disappeared into a StarShip.

The Portico bustled with activity. Thanks to the thriving mine, Idriko had one of the largest Star Porticos in the neighborhood. The station in space was laid out like a gigantic circular hall with corridors leading out like the spokes of a wheel. At the center of the hall were the food court and souvenir shops, while all around the circumference were seats and other leisure services like spas, massages and personal care salons. Novi hefted her gear more securely to follow the stranger. He seemed to know his way around the Portico for he headed straight for a gate to disappear through it. Novi glanced at the display above the gate. It indicated a gate number but nothing else, not even the name of a ship. That meant it was a private craft, and not intended to carry passengers or cargo. For a moment, Novi wondered whether it was a prison ship, ferrying prisoners to the Kuzhampa Prison. No, she realized immediately, Guild regulations forbade a craft carrying prisoners from docking at Star Porticos.

A hesitant Novi wondered whether she should just walk up to the StarShip personnel to ask them the name of the vessel. That would give her something to follow up on. What was the worst that could happen, a wavering Novi asked herself. They might refuse to give her any information. Then, she’d be no worse off than before. But sometimes being bold and taking chances paid off, she knew. It was a lesson Novi had learned on Idriko with its rustic pioneering attitude.

Novi hitched her tablet onto her belt and walked confidently through the gate. The dock port at the end of the narrow corridor connected to a ship. But to Novi’s surprise, no personnel guarded it. Perhaps, the ship had automatic sensors. If so, it was a sign. Or at least, Novi took it as a sign. She pressed the antique locket around her neck until a soft click assured her that sensor detection had been turned off. She was now a shadow, able to glide through tech sensors without detection. Girding herself, Novi stepped onto the craft. For just a moment, she waited for screaming alarms or any other sign that she had been detected, readying to race back to the Portico’s circular hall.

Neither alarms or any personnel stepped forward to stop her. Novi took a relieved breath to glance around the ship’s dock port. The sculpture of a large silver-colored dragonfly seemed to shimmer in the air, over the archway that led into the ship’s entryway. Novi almost gasped with relief.

Of all the different StarShips plying their trade in the Inner Worlds.

Here was another sign from YanTeo, Novi told herself. A few summers ago, at Wy’s suggestion, she had crewed on a DragonFly-class cargo hauler for three months. The stars always seemed to beckon Novi, making her restless if she spent too long land-locked on Idriko.

The DragonFly-class crafts had a maintenance duct that crisscrossed the perimeter of the ship, with access to every chamber and bay on it. She could use the duct to walk the length of the ship and no one would be wiser. Novi stepped cautiously into the ship’s entryway. The craft she had crewed on was smaller than this ship, she concluded. Three corridors faced her, leading into the ship. Above one was the universal sign for Space Bay. She made for it. Something, instinct perhaps, made Novi turn back to glance at the dock port leading to the Portico gate. High above the archway that connected the ship’s dock port to its entryway was an emblem embossed into the ship – a massive gray snarling beast with glowing eyes and exposed fangs. Under it was lettering in an unfamiliar script. But Novi didn’t need to read the script to appreciate the peril she stood in. Heart beating a little too fast for comfort, she fled into the corridor, moving swiftly to reach the Bay.

Shyte. Shyte. Shyte.

Pirates. Outlaws. Rebels. Corsairs. Mutineers. Heretics. Apostates. The list went on. And those were only the names the Guild called them. They called themselves the Renegades. On the Rim Worlds, they were heroes, patriots and freedom fighters who had taken on a financial and military behemoth to defend their way of life.

Believed to reign deep in the dense rainforests on the Rim Worlds, the rarely-sighted but fearsome Yedigrul beast had been the symbol of resistance for the Renegades, an apt mascot for a small and fierce outfit that had fought the larger and better-funded Guild Corps to a standstill. Five years ago, the ambitious Guild Coalition had tried to expand into the Rim Worlds, a set of sparsely-populated systems on the outer edges of the Asteroid Ring that defined the boundaries of the Inner Worlds. But the independent-minded RimWorlders had wanted no part of the Guild. A determined Guild had sent in the Corps to conquer the worlds militarily, expecting to enforce their writ with minimal resistance. Out of nowhere had come the Renegades, a ragtag collection of bounty hunters, space pirates, outlaws, spacers and local law enforcement, united together to defend the Rim Worlds from being taken over by the Guild. Rumor said that even prison ships, crewed by released prisoners, had joined the fight to expel the Guild Corps from the Rim Worlds.

Novi, like many Guild citizens, was canny enough to look past the Coalition’s slick publicity campaign to discern that the war had not gone well for the Corps. Six months ago, an uneasy truce had been declared and the Guild had retreated back to the Inner Worlds to further its ambitions. Some of Novi’s cynicism of the Guild came from Wy. An outspoken critic of many Guild policies, Wy had instilled in her a healthy skepticism of corporations – they tended to put profit above the welfare of their citizens. But some of Novi’s appreciation and awe for the legendary exploits of the Renegades had been because of her Idrikon identity. Like those on other rustic outposts, Idrikons could appreciate the courage, guts and sacrifice it had taken for a motley crew of denizens to take on the might and power of a professional, well-armed and massive military force sent in to conquer by a determined corporation. On many Inner World outposts, tales still abounded of Ryfkin Soren and his renegades who had checked the ambitions of the powerful Guild and delivered a humiliating defeat to the Corps. The first of its kind that the Guild Corps had faced, in its long and illustrious history. From what she had heard about them, the ferocious Renegades would not take kindly to a Guild citizen sneaking onto their ship, Novi knew.

The large Bay lay deserted, with the neatly stacked crates of supplies and cargo casting mysterious shadows. Renegade or not, they certainly ran a tight ship, Novi mused. Though not new, the ship was uncluttered and sparkling clean. An impressed Novi made for the corner of the Bay with the controls, across from the massive hatch that provided access to space. No stranger to the DragonFly-class crafts, Novi knew that an access to the maintenance duct was located by the controls.

Digging through her camping gear to retrieve the flashlight, she strapped it on her wristband to flash it over the panel cover that sealed the access. Unclipping the cover expertly in the dimly lit Bay, Novi swung the light into the access hatch. It was empty and silent. She took a deep breath, pausing for a final second to reconsider the enormous risk she ran. Yes, YanTeo had sent her a couple of signs. But this was a Renegade ship. And the stranger asking questions had a picture of Hirona. Why would anyone ask questions after this long? Then, there was this mysterious ship. What was a Renegade ship doing in the Inner Worlds, on a planet under Guild jurisdiction? The stranger was an InnerWorlder – what was he doing on a Renegade ship? No, Novi determined, she must attempt to discover what was going on here. And whether it posed a threat to her.

Decision made, Novi swung her case in first before scrambling in. Of medium height, her petite body fit into the hatch easily. Though a taller being might have a problem squeezing through. She pulled the panel cover shut behind her, clicking it back into place. As she squeezed around to face away from the opening, a faint light beckoned her ahead. Pushing her case before her on all fours, Novi made for the light.


The passage ended at a walkway with inset lights that provided faint but adequate illumination. This was the maintenance duct, with room to stand and move about easily. A jumble of wires lay coiled beside a toolbox and tech and vent systems lined the walkway. Stashing her case by the toolbox, Novi switched off her flashlight to go hunting for the ship’s Navigation Control. This was the nerve center of the ship – the Bridge, as it had once been called.

It proved surprisingly easy to find. The widest access passage from the walkway led Novi to the ship’s Navigation Control. In the rectangular-shaped Control chamber, a hatch on the roof allowed access to the maintenance duct. Novi lay flat to peer into the chamber below, careful to make no sound. With the ship docked, any noise would carry easily to the chamber below. Light flooded into the passage from the well-lit Navigation Control through the translucent panel cover. It was enough for Novi to see the small set of controls on the cover. Grateful to YanTeo for watching over her, she pressed the control. In moments, the cover turned transparent, allowing Novi to spy on the chamber below. Directly below her was the distinct Command Seat, fully equipped. It sat empty. She peered around carefully, her line of sight somewhat restricted, but could only see two people in the chamber. And seated as they were, she could only see the tops of their heads. They worked silently, without exchanging a word.

Moving away, Novi strode down the walkway again, until the murmur of voices drew her. This time, the access hatch ended at an air vent. The tiny gap between the vents had allowed the murmur of voices to carry easily to her. Novi adjusted the vents carefully until she could see into the chamber. Located high up by the ceiling, the vent provided a good vantage point. Though she could see only a portion of the chamber, luck seemed to favor her.  Facing Novi was the stranger she had been trailing.

Jackpot.
Praise YanTeo.

“There’s no hide nor hair of her, Boss. I checked the Mine employment records, all the major accommodations and asked around the local businesses. Not a flicker of recognition from anyone. Even did a round of the taverns.”

He seemed to be speaking to a man seated directly under the vent. Novi’s position made it difficult to see the seated man.

The stranger smiled. “For an outpost that size, it sure has a lot of taverns.”

The smile seemed to light up his dour face, making him appear younger. Novi had taken him to be in his mid-thirties, but now she realized that he was much younger. Probably just a few years older than her.

“That entire outpost owes its livelihood to the Mine, Jerik. If it’s anything like other Guild mines, the miners require plentiful and frequent alcohol.”

Novi tried to peer down the vent. The stranger’s employer spoke in a low, deep voice with a lilting exotic accent. She’d heard her fair share of different intonations on Idriko, on her travels and during her months on a cargo hauler. But nothing remotely like the seated man’s unusual cadences.

As Novi’s eyes wandered the chamber, the mystery only seemed to deepen. She had never come across a chamber this large and luxuriously furnished on any craft before. And she could only see a portion of it. Across her was a large display console mounted on the wall. Before it was a dining table with two chairs. Brightly-colored fruit lay piled atop a basket on the table. Fresh fruit was a luxury that few Guild citizens could dream of. She could see one corner of a large bed, with a rich silk coverlet draped over it. And below her were a couple of expensive-looking leather chairs behind the stranger she had followed onto the ship. He had referred to the hidden man as his employer. Novi concluded that the unusually large chamber belonged to the owner of the ship. That might explain the size as well as the signs of prosperity in the chamber.

“The Mine was ill-inclined to co-operate until I showed them the special authorization” the stranger explained. “Then, they stumbled over themselves to open their files to me, Boss.”

Who were these men, she wondered. The stranger talked of special privileges on a Guild facility. The ship seemed more prosperous than the barebones crafts the Renegades had been rumored to fight in. And Novi doubted that a Renegade ship would possess the authority to demand that a Guild business open up its records. Perhaps, the ship had changed hands to a prosperous owner who had kept the Yedigrul embossed on the ship’s entryway. Novi frowned at the thought. That made no sense. No one, ship or person, could survive on the Inner Worlds without dealing with the Coalition. The Guild controlled the Inner Worlds. And Novi couldn’t envisage a Guild official doing business with a ship that proudly displayed a Renegade emblem. The Renegades had humiliated the Coalition and the Guild would never forget it.

“It’s a dead end then?” inquired the stranger’s employer in his lilting accent.

“Yeah, Boss. There’s nothing here” the man said confidently.

Praise YanTeo.

Novi closed her eyes in relief. At least, she was in the clear. Her gamble to spy on the stranger had paid off. Whoever these men were, they seemed ready to strike Idriko off their list. Though why anyone had come looking for Hirona decades later was a mystery. One she’d have to shelf for now, Novi decided.

A buzzer echoed in the chamber, as a voice with the same lilting accent as the seated man filled it.

“Venn Corp for you, Cap’n.”

Novi’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. He was the Captain, not the owner. The designation seemed to suggest that this was not a private ship. It had to be trade ship of some kind, because it definitely didn’t look military, Novi mused. Also, no military ship in the Inner Worlds would display a Yedigrul that prominently.

Then, the rest of the disembodied message struck Novi forcibly.

Venn Corp. What the Zeuf!
Since when does a Venn Corp ship sail with a Yedigrul?

Venn Corp had been founded twenty years ago by popular archaeologist and explorer, Zufon Ventini. Before Venn Corp, Ventini had shot to fame on the Inner Worlds when a StarVision camera crew had followed the Guild-funded adventurer on his expeditions. The live broadcast of Ventini’s adventures had whetted the InnerWorlders’ collective imaginations, making the hard-charging, ambitious and dashing Zufon Ventini a household name before he formed Ventini Corporation.

“Patch it through to my console” directed the Captain in his lilting deep voice.

Novi had seen the Venn Corp personnel in their snazzy orange and gold livery with the embossed lightning bolt to represent the alphabet Zee, for the founder, Zufon Ventini. The man facing her wore plain clothes, not the Venn Corp livery. Novi pursed her lips. Why on Idriko would Venn Corp employees have special privileges on a Guild-owned mine? The Guild Coalition and Venn Corp were competitors. For now, since they seemed to occupy different market segments, the rivalry had not led to any clashes. Also, Venn Corp’s Labyrinth made it easier for the Guild to administer and control its far-flung business interests. Wy believed that sooner than later, the Guild would fight a war with Venn Corp. The Guild had never been a shrinking violet. And it would not give up its economic, military and political domination over the Inner Worlds.

The stranger facing her moved to exit the room as his seated employer stood up. The top of his head moved into view first. As he strode to the console on the wall, Novi’s eyes widened. Huge and well-built, with dark hair worn longer than an InnerWorlder, he was dressed in a simple gray shirt over dark trousers tucked into boots. The rolled-up shirt sleeves served to accentuate the powerful forearms and the swarthy skin covered with a fine dusting of hair.

RimWorlder.  

Before Novi could react, the console blinked on as a vaguely familiar face filled the console. In his mid-thirties and attired in a sharp gray suit, the neatly-pressed handkerchief on his left pocket displayed the lightning bolt-shaped emblem of Venn Corp.

“Captain” the sharply-dressed man addressed the RimWorlder respectfully.

“Mr. Ventini” the Captain greeted him. “What can I do for you?”

This was not Zufon Ventini, Novi knew. For one, he was too young. Plus, pictures of the great man were plastered on advertisements for the Labyrinth all over the Inner Worlds. Even outposts like Idriko had not escaped the barrage of publicity. This must be the son, Zedak Ventini, Novi concluded.

“Father says you’re on a mission for him, Captain?”

“We’ve concluded that mission, Mr. Ventini. It was a dead end. No one’s seen the woman on Idriko or any of the neighboring outposts.”

Shyte. It’s Venn Corp that’s asking questions about Hirona.

The Captain’s answer did not seem to surprise Zedak Ventini. Novi took that as a good sign. They hadn’t expected anyone to recognize Hirona on Idriko.

“In that case, I’ve a couple of jobs if you’re interested, Captain?”

So, the ship worked for Venn Corp. Was Captained by a RimWorlder. And flew the Renegade emblem. Hmm, Novi mused, perhaps the RimWorlder had fought as a Renegade or believed in the Renegades’ cause. That might explain the emblem.

“What kind of jobs?” the Captain inquired.

No, Novi corrected herself. The ship worked with Venn Corp, but not for Venn Corp. The deference in Zedak Ventini’s manner and his conversation with the RimWorlder Captain made it evident that this ship did not take orders from Venn Corp.

“Escort duty for some rare artifacts that Father has unearthed on his latest expedition” Ventini said. “Nothing time-sensitive. Just the usual safe transport to Headquarters.”

While Venn Corp made money hand over fist with its Star Portal Labyrinth, it was well known that Zufon Ventini continued his expeditions on the side. But Venn Corp, like other corporations, employed its own military force – Ventini Guards. So, why would Venn Corp need to hire others to escort their precious artifacts, Novi wondered. Plus, it sounded like they had used the Captain to guard their artifacts before.

“The second enterprise is more delicate and requires someone with your touch, Captain” Zedak Ventini continued.

The Captain said nothing. But whatever the Ventini heir glimpsed on the RimWorlder’s face must have satisfied him for Zedak looked pleased.

“It involves retrieving an escaped prisoner.”

“A bounty contract?” the RimWorlder inquired.

Though the man’s voice did not betray much, Novi had the feeling that the Captain was surprised.

“With a difference” Ventini answered. “We won’t pay if he’s dead. But if you bring him in alive, Venn Corp will pay bounty. Also, if you provide intel that helps us catch him, we’ll pay handsomely. Seven figures, Captain.”

Novi’s eyes widened. Seven figures for retrieving an escaped prisoner. Must be a hugely important one.

“What’s he done?” inquired the Captain.

“It’s not what he’s done but what he is. A Synth trying to raise an army” Zedak Ventini shrugged. “Dead, he becomes a martyr to the cause. But alive, he can provide us intel on other Synths.”

Synthetics had been cropping up on the Inner Worlds in the last decade. Novi wasn’t sure what made them dangerous to others, but she had never encountered one. Or perhaps, she had without knowing it. With the prevailing rampant prejudice against Synths, she doubted anyone would voluntarily identify as one.

Again, the Captain said nothing. His silence pushed the man in the console to rush into speech.

“This is nothing like the Rim Worlds, Captain” Ventini assured him persuasively. “They’re not fighting to save their homes from invaders. They’re demanding special privileges for Synths on the Inner Worlds.”

This time, the Captain was blunt.

“Why does Venn Corp care about Guild citizens demanding privileges, Mr. Ventini?” the RimWorlder asked evenly.

Zedak Ventini pursed his lips, looking grave. “This is highly classified, Captain. I would appreciate it if you kept it to yourself. Venn Corp has credible intel that the Synths plan to blow up the Star Portals to disrupt Guild Corps movement. That puts Venn Corp property at risk and we’d like to get ahead of the threat.”

The Star Portals were Venn Corps’ most valuable assets. The technology had made them the richest corporation in a dizzyingly short time. Connected in a mesh called the Star Portal Labyrinth, these portals used wormhole technology to tunnel ships through space at incredible speeds. What had taken the fastest ships a matter of weeks, and sometimes months, could now be travelled in the blink of an eye. Venn Corp had six of these Star Portals covering the Inner Worlds. They were expensive to use but the Guild certainly had the money to pay for portal travel. Novi could understand how bringing down a portal would disrupt the Guild from responding to trouble in the farthest reaches of their territory. In the last twenty years, Venn Corp’s Labyrinth had enabled the Guild to open facilities and invest in businesses on the furthest corners of Inner Worlds space.

“I’ll think about it, Mr. Ventini” the Captain was non-committal.

“Good” the man on the console seemed content. “We’ll pay the usual fee for transporting the artifacts, Captain. Venn Corp will transfer half the payment now and the rest after delivery. Shall I tell Father to expect you soon?”

“Yes” the Captain confirmed.

“You have unlimited privileges on SPL, Captain. Use the portals as you see fit.”

The RimWorlder was tight with Venn Corp, Novi mused. Venn Corp wasn’t even charging his ship for traveling the Labyrinth. Corporations were rarely that generous with even their closest allies.

“This Synth you’re looking for” the Captain inquired abruptly. “What prison did he break out of?”

“Kuzhampa, five days ago. Since then, he’s been sighted in the Badlands, near the Azunti System.”

So, the Synth had escaped the prison on Idriko to hide out in the Asteroid Ring. Novi knew the Ring was referred to as the Badlands, due to the dangerous conditions and enormous difficulty of navigating manually through the hurtling asteroids.

“I hope you agree to take on the Synth, Captain. You’re the best man for the job. And Venn Corp likes doing business with you.”

The console went dark as Zedak Ventini signed off. For a moment, the Captain stood motionless, seemingly lost in thought, before he activated the chamber’s communicator.

“Jeryn” a woman’s soft voice with the same lilting cadences as the Captain answered the communicator.

Another RimWorlder, like the Captain.

“Need a word, Zin” the Captain said briefly, with an easy familiarity.

“I’ll be right over, Ryf” she signed off.

As the last of her words echoed through the chamber, the Captain turned to face Novi. Novi’s jaw swung open in shock, as she took in the strong hard-planed face with silver eyes that seemed to shine like a beacon amidst the jet-black hair and tan skin.

He’s not a Renegade. He’s the Renegade. Ryfkin Soren himself.
The man who brought the Guild to its knees.

Ryfkin Soren was rumored to have unusual light eyes, an anomaly for the usually large-framed, dark-haired, dark-skinned and dark-eyed RimWorlders, a physical contrast to the shorter, light-skinned, bright-haired and light-eyed InnerWorlders.


A woman entered the room to greet the Captain. Tall and slim, she was attired similarly to the Renegade – in a plain shirt over trousers tucked into boots. Her dark hair was coiled neatly at her nape. The RimWorlders were built on generous lines, Novi mused. Tall as the RimWorlder male was, the woman came nearly to his chin.

Mihado?” the Captain offered.

“Don’t mind if I do” she answered.

The Captain disappeared from Novi’s view. Mihado came from the Rim Worlds, liquor from a palm fruit found in their rainforests. Novi had never tasted it, but she knew that it was strong stuff. Mihado was rumored to be an acquired taste.

The Captain reappeared with two rustic-looking goblets made of palm husk, to hold one out to his guest. She turned slightly to face him. Both in profile to Novi now, they raised their glasses in unison.

RenWelders unite” she said.

There was a note in her voice that puzzled the watching girl. But the quiet words served to send a chill down Novi’s spine. This had once been the rallying cry for the Renegades fighting to expel the Guild from the Rim Worlds. It was akin to history unfolding before her eyes.

So, the woman had been a Renegade too, Novi mused. Someone close to the Renegade leader, who continued to work with him. There was an easy familiarity between them and their body language around each other spoke of ease. The Captain had not been as informal with the InnerWorlder he’d dispatched to Idriko to ask questions.

He gestured to the seats by the vent and the woman’s face came into view. Novi’s eyes widened. The RimWorlder was the most beautiful woman Novi had ever seen. Large dark eyes set in a smooth oval face with perfectly symmetric features, the woman was almost impossibly gorgeous. The pulled back hair threw the lovely bones of her face into prominence.

The Captain took his previous seat directly below the vent and the woman seated herself across from him. Novi scrutinized the woman’s face carefully. Something, a strong emotion, seemed to hold the woman’s face frozen. The beautiful dark eyes were blank, her smooth skin stretched tight over the cheekbones, as if she were under tremendous stress. At first glance, the woman’s spectacular beauty had hidden it, but now Novi could see the subtle signs of a strong emotion held in check almost by an act of sheer will.

“Zedak Ventini offered us a bounty contract” the Captain explained in his deep voice, with the lilting cadences.

The woman’s eyebrow arched slightly. Novi couldn’t tell whether it was surprise, or pleasure or something else altogether that cause the reaction.

“A bounty with a difference” he continued. “Venn Corp only pays if we bring him in alive or give them intel that leads to his capture.”

“What bounty are they offering?” she inquired.

“Seven figures for intel. More for bringing him in.”

Feckin’ Hadis” she muttered under her breath, clearly taken aback.

Novi smiled. The RimWorlder had a mouth on her. One that belied the icy immaculate beauty of her face.

“The terms are unusual, Ryf” she acknowledged. “But we’ve taken on stranger bounty contracts before.”

Her eyes scanned his face, as he remained silent. “What is it about the bounty that makes you leery?” she asked shrewdly.

“It’s fishy as Hadis, Zin.”

Her face softened subtly, as the frozen mask relaxed, just a tad. These two were fond of each other, Novi surmised. Perhaps, even lovers.

“Then, it probably is gnarly, Ryf. I’d trust your instincts any day.”
Her eyes showed emotion. “Many times, it’s what separated us from defeat and death.”

She’s talking about the war.

“When you put it like that, Zin” the Captain drawled. “I admit the Soren instincts are feckin’ screaming about this.”

“Tell me” she leaned back to settle herself.

“The bounty is for an escaped prisoner from Kuzhampa.”

“The prison on Idriko?” she looked puzzled.

“Yes.”

“But that’s a high security Guild prison.”

“That it is” he agreed. “Ventini says the man is a Synth they want caught alive to get intel on an army he’s raising.”

The woman did not hesitate. “I know you, Ryf. You asked Zedak Ventini to his face why he cares about a Guild prisoner raising an army against the Coalition.”

“You know me too well, Zin. It gets weirder. Ventini claims they have intel about Synth plans to blow up their Star Portals.”

“How might that benefit the Synths …” she paused thoughtfully. “It’d hamper the Guild Corps chasing Synth ships. Level the playing field a little.”

No Synth ship could afford portal travel, Novi knew, giving the Guild ships a clear edge. The Labyrinth was expensive.

“I won’t cavil with that. It’s the intel that’s gnarly, Zin.”

The woman gave an elegant snort that indicated her derision. “Venn Corp has no intel, Ryf. The Guards prance around like peacocks in their fancy uniforms but cannot protect a shipment of Zufon Ventini’s artifacts. Where would they get any intel on Synths!”

Behind the vent, Novi arched an eyebrow. The woman made no bones of her skepticism and poor opinion of Venn Corp’s private military force. These RimWorlders were canny, Novi mused. Not easily seduced by Venn Corp dangling a pile of money before them. Perhaps, their experience with the Guild had colored their perception of corporations in general. Novi had heard that no corporations held sway on the Rim Worlds. With a few exceptions, the Rim Worlds were ruled by a local tribal system. A brutal five-year war to fight off a corporate invasion of your homeland would make anyone leery and cynical, she guessed.

The Captain did not disagree with his guest. Instead, he surprised Novi with his words.

“I’ve had suspicions for a while, Zin. That Venn Corp and the Guild are getting into bed together. Jerik said the authorization Ventini gave us had the Idrikon Mine employees jumping to co-operate.”

“What do you suspect, Ryf?” she asked, her eyes searching his face.

“That the Guild fed this intel about the Synth to Venn Corp, knowing full well that any threat to the Star Portals would have Ventini put their best assets on the Synth.”

The woman frowned. “We are Venn Corp’s best assets, Ryf.”

“We are, Zin” the Captain conceded, without a hint of hesitation. “And I wager the Guild knows it. For some reason, the Guild wants this Synth caught alive. They know we can bring him in. They’re using Venn Corp to hire us to do their dirty work.”

“You’re right, Ryf” she said promptly. “The bounty is gnarly. I want no truck with the Gorath.”

Yes, Novi mused, to the RimWorlders, the Guild was the personification of he who was believed to occupy Hadis. Probably worse, in fact. The devil, at least, needed an invitation to meddle. The Guild had needed none to invade the Rim Worlds. Hadis was the Rim Worlds’ equivalent of Hell, what the InnerWorlders called Zeuf.

“The thing is” the Captain paused.

“What?”

“Aren’t you curious why the Guild wants this Synth so badly, Zin?”

“The Guild was just handed its first defeat in a century, Ryf. By the RenWelders. They’re leery of disaffected InvunWelders threatening their dominance here.”

“Perhaps” the Captain said, his tone indicating his skepticism.

Even Novi knew that the Synths, persecuted, on the run, and with little resources to call upon were no threat to the financial or military might of the Guild. Not unless the Synths’ circumstances changed drastically.

“The Guild is taking a risk by manipulating Venn Corp, Zin. If Ventini gets suspicious, the Guild’s courtship of Venn Corp comes crashing down.”

“It’s not much of a gamble, Ryf” she countered. “The Guild is still the most powerful entity on either side of the Asteroid Ring”

The RimWorlders might have defeated the Guild, but they didn’t underestimate the might and influence of the corporation. Good, Novi mused approvingly, it would keep them vigilant and on their toes.

“It is” the Captain admitted. “But losing access to the Star Portals would be catastrophic for them. The Guild needs the Labyrinth to oversee its empire, Zin. They have planted their flag on far-flung reaches of space where they might never have travelled were it not for the portals.”

The woman looked arrested by the Captain’s argument. “If they’re willing to risk portal access, especially after their last defeat, they must be desperate, Ryf” she said slowly.

“Without the ability to jump, they risk a rebellion in the far-flung reaches of their empire.”

The woman straightened. “What are you thinking, Ryf?”

“That if there’s a rebellion to be started, I want to light the spark.”

Her lips twisted. “You’ll get no arguments from me, Ryf. I’m all in to fan any flames against the Guild.”
“But how do we untangle this thread?” she asked.

“Go to the Badlands and ask this Synth why the Guild wants him” the Captain said promptly.

“He’s in the Badlands?”

“Near the Azunti System, per Ventini’s information.”

“Hmm, there have been rumors of Synth ships in the Badlands” the RimWorlder woman said.

“Well, if Ventini’s intel on Azunti came from the Guild too, then they’ve just shown us a way to contact the Synths.”

For a few minutes, there was silence. Novi couldn’t tell what was going on, except that the woman was gazing steadily at her male companion.

“You think it’s time, Ryf?” she inquired softly.

“About time to start poking for vulnerabilities, Zin” his voice hardened. “The Guild wants this Synth. He knows something – there’s no bounty for his death.”

“It’s been six months” she said, the blank dark eyes glowing in her face.

“The Edhoran Accord says nothing about exposing the Guild’s dirty secrets.”

She nodded, her eyes on him.

He raised his goblet. “Justice for Ilar.

She raised her goblet without a word, the grief on her face causing Novi to silence her gasp.

For a moment, they sipped in silence.

“Now what, Ryf?” she asked.

“I tell Ventini that we’ll case the Badlands for the Synth. But no guarantees. He’s eager enough to buy it.”

It was clear to Novi that the Captain had put a lot of thought into his decision.

“We’ll cruise around Azunti, see if anyone’s willing to carry a message to the Synth” the Captain continued.

“What message?”

“That Ryfkin Soren is interested in a meeting” he said.

“The name alone might pique his interest, Ryf.”

“I hope so, Zin. The Labyrinth will cut our journey to Azunti by weeks and we have privileges on it. If Ventini checks the portal logs for Azunti, he’ll assume I went hunting for the Synth.”

“They’re giving us free access again?” she asked.

“Like you said, we’re their best assets, Zin. Venn Corp needs us.”

“I’m grateful to them, Ryf. If they hadn’t come looking for us, we wouldn’t be here” the woman said.

Novi wondered at the woman’s cryptic statement. She sounded eager to venture into Guild territory. After the long and hard-fought battle to keep the corporation off their planets, she’d assumed that the RimWorlders would want to enjoy their Guild-free existence.

“After, we sail to yet another of Zufon Ventini’s digs” he said. “To ferry artifacts.”

“It’s the easiest money we make, Ryf. And I’m not complaining. Feels good to sleep on something soft, with a ready meal when I want it and plenty of hot water for washing.”
“With no bad news to dread” she sighed.

Novi could sense the woman’s palpable emotions. The ceasefire had come into effect only six months ago. These RimWorlders were still mourning their losses from the long and brutal war, she realized.

The Captain changed the subject. “You miss bounty hunting, Zin?”

“Yes” she nodded. “It’s what we grew up with. And are feckin’ good at, Ryf.”

“I’ve been thinking” the Captain said. “There are other corporations in the Invun Welds, much smaller than the Guild, with ill-equipped private forces, that could benefit from our services. Perhaps, it’s time we offered to work for others, not just Venn Corp.”

“I’m game, Ryf” the woman agreed, almost eagerly.

“I’ll put the word out that we’re open to other offers.”

“Just not the Guild” she said emotionlessly

“Never the Guild” the Captain’s voice hardened again.

For a few breaths, the woman sipped her mihado silently.

“Still trouble sleeping, Zin?” he inquired quietly.

The woman shot him a look before glancing away. “It’s better, Ryf. Don’t worry about me so.”

“Who will I worry about, Zin, if not you?” the Captain countered, with a touch of lightness in his voice.

Her expression softened again, the tight skin of her face seemingly relaxing in a subtle sign of her affection and comfort with the RimWorlder Captain.

“I’m eager to go hunting again, Zin. Like the old times. But it won’t be the same without him” the Captain’s voice was poignant.

The dark eyes showed emotion. “No it won’t, Ryf.”

There was a quiet despair in her voice that struck Novi, though the woman continued to look blank and emotionless.

“Give it time, Zin.”

The familiar sound of a buzzer echoed around the chamber.

“Cap’n?” inquired a lilting male RimWorlder voice.

“Everyone aboard, Kali?”

“Yes, Cap’n.”

“Steer to the Star Portal.”

“Immediately, Cap’n.”

Shyte. Shyte. They’re leaving Idriko.

Novi scrambled, scurrying down the passage to the walkway. Then, almost sprinting down the walkway to the Space Bay hatch. Stopping only to collect her case from beside the toolbox, Novi hurried through the passage she had originally climbed through. As she reached the access panel cover, the ship seemed to give a slight lurch. In the confined space, its effect on Novi felt exaggerated.

No, no, no. Please YanTeo. Buy me just a few seconds to get off this ship.

Novi abandoned her camping gear in the hatch to leap down into the Bay. But something, a subtle vibration under her feet told her that she was already too late. She had been on enough crafts to recognize the vibrations of a slow-moving ship. Novi hurried across the Bay to the controls. There would be sensors attached to the Space Bay doors.

Novi’s heart, already beating uncomfortably fast, sank as she enabled the console. The ship had undocked from the Star Portico and was moving away. The receding lights of the Portico’s docks twinkled faintly through the inky blackness of space. Her heart gave a lurch.

There goes Idriko. Watch over me, YanTeo.
Should have left when I got what I came for. My damnable curiosity.

Now, she was a stowaway on a Renegade ship heading for the Badlands, in search of a Synth with a Guild bounty on his head. On a good day, even one of these circumstances would be enough to doom her, Novi mused gloomily. But put together, it put her in a colossally catastrophic position. As Novi crossed the Bay to scramble back through the access hatch, she felt a pang. It would have been nice to tell Wy that she’d seen the legendary Ryfkin Soren, in person. Well, more or less, in person, she amended silently. But Wy would not worry about her. She was slated to be off Idriko for ten days. He would not expect to hear from her. Only after, would Wy make inquiries about a missing employee.

EPISODE 2

 

Ryfkin Soren strode into view as Novi peered down into Navigation Control from the access hatch above it. By her estimate, it had been an hour since they’d left the Star Portico on Idriko. Novi had hauled her case back to the walkway to tuck it behind some tech systems, before making her way to the Control chamber.

“You wanted to see me, Cap’n?”

A young InnerWorlder strolled into view. Her fair hair was cropped short to frame her face, the edges hued a brilliant flame color. Novi couldn’t see her face from her vantage point. But the girl looked young, probably Novi’s age. And moved with an assurance of someone much older.

The Captain turned to her, the lovely RimWorlder cadences in his speech pronounced. “I require your network of contacts, Kidani.”

The girl did not hesitate. “Whatever you need, Cap’n.”

“Spread the word that Ilar’s Justice is open for business on the Inner Worlds.”

Hmm, the ship is named after the man he was toasting.
The young girl must have connections on the Inner Worlds. This might explain why this ship sailed with a mixed crew, Novi mused. The RimWorlders came from the other side of the Asteroid Ring. And a Renegade ship, especially one led by the leader of the resistance, would find many doors shut in a slice of space dominated by the Guild. Perhaps, this is why the ship took care to not advertise its presence on Guild worlds, she surmised. The ship details had been deliberately left blank at the Star Portico on Idriko.

Soren’s announcement seemed to catch his crew by surprise for the pilot turned to look at the Captain.

“Bounty contracts, Cap’n?” the flame-haired girl inquired cautiously.

Novi couldn’t tell for sure but she thought the girl too was taken aback by the Captain’s words. Like the pilot. The only other crew Novi could see from her vantage point was the RimWorlder woman who continued working silently at her station. The Captain had given her a heads-up about his intentions, Novi remembered. And she had been all for it.

“Security and bounty contracts, Kidani” the Captain said.

“Corporations or private, Cap’n?”

“We’ll work with anyone, except the Guild.”

 “I’ll put the word out, Cap’n” she said agreeably.

“Appreciate it, Kidani.”

“You’ll get your pick of jobs once word gets out, Cap’n” the girl said. “Both this ship and its Captain have a reputation on the Inner Worlds.”

The Captain shot the girl a glance. Novi wished she could see his face.

“Let’s hope the reputation keeps the opportune away, Kidani. Ilar’s Justice will have no truck with anything unscrupulous or unjust.”

The girl gave him a sharp nod of her head to walk away.

The RimWorlder woman, who the Captain had called Zin, ignored her console to meet his eyes. She seemed to search his face silently, before turning her attention back to her task.

The Captain said nothing, turning to address the pilot. “How far, Kali?” he inquired.

“Ten minutes to the Star Portal, Cap’n” said the pilot.

Novi could see only the top of the pilot’s head but from his accent, it was clear that he was a RimWorlder.  She could now recognize the lilting cadences in their speech.

Soren took the Command Seat directly below Novi to sprawl elegantly. For a big man, he moved with an elegance, his movements characterized by grace. Yet, he was a restful man. Where the woman seemed tightly wound, holding her emotions in with grim determination, he was harder to read.

Another lilting male RimWorlder voice rang out, from somewhere outside Novi’s view.
Ilar’s Justice to SPL Authority. Request portal jump. Transmitting credentials to you now.”

They were about to go through the Labyrinth, Novi realized with rising excitement. As she tried to peer in, to look for the man who had spoken, pat came the response from SPL Authority.

“You have priority on SPL, Ilar’s Justice. What is your destination?”

“Azunti System.”

There was a short silence. Novi realized to her surprise that she felt almost heavy-headed with excitement and anticipation.

“You’re cleared for transport, Ilar’s Justice. Proceed to portal. You’ll be the next to jump.”

Novi felt a sharp pain pierce her head. Confused and caught unawares, she flipped on to her back, squeezing her eyes shut. But the piercing ache only seemed to worsen. It was almost like seeing stars, Novi realized dazedly, as she fought to stop from screaming out in agony. Despite the pain, it was the fear of discovery that drove Novi to mute her pain-filled gasps. Then abruptly, the agony in her head exploded with a blinding flash of light. Novi slipped into unconsciousness, as her world went dark.

When she came to, it took Novi a few seconds to orient herself. A fine sheen of sweat covered her forehead, but the agonizing pain in her head was gone. Thank YanTeo, she muttered silently, as she flipped on to her stomach carefully to peer into the chamber below. Nothing seemed amiss in Navigation Control. The Captain still sprawled in the Command Seat, his gaze on the screen ahead, the others she had noted before still in their original positions. Novi glanced at her wristband. To the best of her knowledge, she’d been out for almost half an hour.

Novi shook her head, equal parts confused and astonished by the black out. To add to her consternation, whatever it was had not affected the crew.

“How long to Azunti, Kali?” the Captain inquired.

“An hour, Cap’n. Another half hour to the Badlands.”

They had jumped while she was out, Novi realized. She felt a pang at the thought. She had never traveled through the Star Portal. And given how expensive it was, Novi doubted she’d get to transit the Labyrinth any time soon. It would be nice to experience a jump, even hidden as a stowaway on a ship, as she was.

Novi moved carefully away from the access hatch towards the walkway. Given that she had an hour and a half before the ship reached the Badlands, she should get the lay of the land before trouble came looking for her. Unpacking her water bottle from her case, Novi crawled through access passages until she found a chamber that appeared unoccupied. Unlike the others, there were no private mementos scattered around the room, but the bed was made, with a neat pile of blankets folded on it. Slipping into the chamber through the air vent access, Novi stripped the bed of linens, to pack them, the pillow and a blanket into a neat bundle that she shoved into the access hatch. Her camping gear included a sleeping bag, but since she’d intended to sleep under the stars on a warm planet in the middle of summer, she had packed light. The maintenance duct was kept warm by the heat radiating from the tech systems that lined it, but the access passages leading off from the walkway were starting to get chilly. Like most spacecraft, ship-wide heating was enabled only when docked at a star station with facilities. When in space, only common areas and occupied quarters were kept warm. Fuel was precious. And star stations and fuel depots were scarce, when one ventured to the less-travelled perimeters of space.

Novi filled her water bottle from the sink before climbing back into the access hatch to drag her bundle of bedclothes back to where she had hidden her case with camping gear. A half hour of searching helped her locate a few nooks to hide herself in, if someone came into the maintenance duct to service any of the systems. And a further ten minutes helped her locate the large Recreation Chamber aboard the ship – part dining hall, part kitchen, part common room, and part recreation space, this was usually where crew tended to socialize on a ship. The flame-haired InnerWorlder girl moved around the kitchen like a whirlwind, much to Novi’s admiration. Wy, handy in the kitchen, had made multiple attempts to teach her a few tricks, but Novi would admit that she was no cook. She watched from high above the wall as the girl chopped, mixed and stirred multiple pots, without missing a beat, all the while humming to herself in a slightly off-key but pleasant voice.

The Rec Chamber buzzed as a voice that Novi recognized as the RimWorlder pilot announced.

“Approaching the Badlands, Kidani. Come for the fantastic views. And admire amazing feats of gliding through asteroid space.”

The girl laughed. “I’ll be there, Kali, you no-good braggart.”

The pilot’s amused chuckle filled the chamber as the girl seemed to whirl around even faster.

Novi hurried to get back on the walkway and make her way back to Navigation Control. She had never been to the Badlands either. This was certainly turning out to be a day of firsts – Renegade ship, Ryfkin Soren, portal jump and now the Asteroid Ring. Though the portal travel had been while blacked out, she reminded herself.

In the Control chamber, the Captain was still in the Command Seat. But now, he sprawled no longer, his posture more alert.

“Coming to a stop, Cap’n” the pilot called out in his lilting voice.

Everyone in the chamber turned as one to stare at the Vista Screen.

The InnerWorlder male Novi had followed onto this ship strode into view, his eyes on the screen.

“It’s beautiful” he breathed.

The awe in his voice had Novi wishing she could see the Ring too.

“But treacherous like the Gorath” the RimWorlder woman warned. “One false step and you’re done for.”

The Captain chuckled. “Don’t scare our InvunWelder friends, Zin.”

He turned to the man. “Don’t worry, Jerik. You’re in safe hands with Kali. RenWelder pilots train in the Ring.”

“We’re going into the Badlands, Cap’n?”

Novi could hear the astonishment in Jerik’s voice. She surmised that the ship had not sailed the Asteroid Ring before. Or at least, not while the InnerWorlder had been a member of its crew. During the war, one of the favorite tactics deployed by the Renegades had been to swoop down on unwary Guild ships, to inflict heavy damage before fleeing into the Badlands. Accustomed to patrolling the Inner Worlds where their heavily-armed fleet and the Guild’s far-reaching influence made them the unchallenged top dogs, the Guild Corps had been no match for the Renegades’ guerilla-style tactics. The Corps had also been reluctant to play hide and seek in the treacherous Asteroid Ring where tech was known to malfunction and give false readings. The skilled RimWorlder pilots had helped the Renegades compensate for the Guild’s higher numbers and better-armed ships.

“The only way to make contact, Jerik” the Captain reminded him, his tone casual.

The RimWorlders, including their Captain, seemed unconcerned by the prospect of dodging asteroids in the Ring. Novi couldn’t tell whether it was due to their exploits in the Five Year War, or their experiences of the Ring before that.

The Captain turned to the pilot, intent on his console. “How’s it look, Kali?”

“I see an oasis, Cap’n. But with a few obstacles in the way.”

“What’s an oasis?” the flame-haired girl’s voice inquired.

It was Kali, the pilot who had invited her to watch him sail the Ring, who answered the girl.

“It’s a swath of space, clear of larger asteroids, Kidani. In the Ring, ships navigate from oasis to oasis. It gives the crew a respite, since we sail mostly blind.”

“Sensors are off this close to the Badlands, Ryf” the RimWorlder woman interjected. “But if I believe what they’re saying, there are ships in the Ring.”

“Many, Zin?” inquired the Captain.

“Can’t be sure. But more than two, at least.”

“How far to the oasis, Kali?” asked the Captain.

“Forty-five minutes on the slow approach, give or take, Cap’n.”

“Alright” Soren said decisively. “We follow RenWelder Ring protocol. Kali watches our front. Zin takes the aft and Yukon the port. I’ll watch our back. Vizir on weapons.”

“Burok” he glanced at someone to the side. “Throw all available power at the weapons array. And Vizir, make them sing like only you can.”

“You got it, Cap’n.”

There was a flurry of activity and Jerik took the seat beside the pilot. The Captain pulled out a console tucked into the Command Seat to set it an angle that allowed him access to the console as well as unrestricted view of the Vista Screen facing him. The screen provided a visual of the front of the craft.

“I have visual of port” announced a RimWorlder male voice.

“I have aft” confirmed the RimWorlder woman.

“I have visual of the back” said the Captain. “Vizir?”

“Weapons hot, Cap’n.”

“Stay sharp. Remember, the Ring is both enemy and friend” the Captain directed. “Take us in, Kali. And beron, let’s show the InvunWelders how a RenWelder space sails, hmm.”

Kali shot his Captain a glance, a smile in his voice. “Yes, Cap’n. Kidani here’s already expecting a show.”

“Promises, promises” the flame-haired girl shot at him.

Novi smiled. The more she saw of the flame-haired girl, the more she liked her.

The InnerWorlder beside the pilot intoned solemnly. “May YanTeo watch over us.”

Though he’d spoken with an effort at lightness, Novi could sense the palpable strain in his voice.

“Shower the Ren Welds with your bounty, TziGaros” echoed the RimWorlder pilot.

The RimWorlders believed in TziGaros, a deity who embodied nature and the rainforests on their worlds. The health of the forests was crucial to the RimWorlders since its plentiful bounty nourished and sustained all creatures on the Rim Worlds. The RimWorlders worshipped her as the divine entity that had given them life and continued to sustain them with her gifts and bounty.

The next fifty minutes were intense as the crew dodged asteroids in the Ring, sailing on nerves of steel. With their sensors blind, all they had were their eyes, reflexes, and wits. The pilot navigated the ship expertly through the asteroids, swerving to avoid the larger chunks. Novi, sensitive to ship vibrations, could appreciate how smoothly he maneuvered the big StarShip. But every now and then, a voice would cut through the silence to warn of an asteroid too close for comfort. When that happened, the RimWorlder on the weapon systems would blast and occasionally nudge the asteroid away from the ship with a few skillful shots across its bow. The RimWorlder crew worked seamlessly together, requiring no cues to perform their respective tasks; efficient, confident and experienced at this difficult endeavor. Perhaps, Novi mused as she watched them, the war had taught them how to steer the ship through treacherous waters. She had a strong feeling that the RimWorlders on the crew had fought the Guild together, under Soren.

Once through to the oasis, the crew visibly relaxed. The Captain tucked his console back to address Jerik.

“Broadcast a message, Jerik” he said. “And keep it on a loop. Like sensors, COMs go on the fritz too, in the Ring.”

“Sure, Boss.”

“Say that Ilar’s Justice solicits all ships in the Ring to locate a missing friend.”

Kali relaxed in his seat, his gaze on his console, while the InnerWorlder in the Co-Pilot Seat tapped out the Captain’s message.

“What next, Cap’n?” inquired the flame-haired girl.

“We wait, Kidani” he said. “For someone to answer our hail.”

It took almost an hour for their hail to be answered. Meanwhile, most of the crew retired to the Rec Chamber to partake of the evening meal that the flame-haired girl had prepared with such gusto. Only the pilot remained in Navigation Control.

Novi, her own stomach rumbling, made do with some bedraggled snacks leftover from a previous camping trip, discovered after a frantic search of her case. The plan had been to buy supplies at her destination before heading out to camp in the wilderness.

“A ship’s pinging us, Boss” piped up Jerik from the Pilot Seat.

Kali, the pilot, had disappeared. Novi guessed that he had decamped to the Rec Chamber for his meal, now that the rest of the crew was back to keep watch.

The RimWorlder woman shot a quick glance at the Captain.

“Audio only, Jerik?” the Captain inquired.

“No, Boss. Video.”

Soren stood up to face the Vista Screen. “Put it on the screen, Jerik.”

“Captain Ryfkin Soren” boomed an InnerWorlder accented voice. “I thought I recognized the name of your ship. It is an honor.”

The Captain inclined his head. “Thank you. Mister?”

“Heronis Kintano, Captain.”

“Thank you for answering our hail, Mr. Kintano.”

“What can I do for you, Captain?”

“I’m looking to get a message to someone in the Badlands.”

“His name, Captain Soren?”

“Serak Vedino.”

There was an instant of silence.

“I have heard the name, Captain” the InnerWorlder acknowledged cautiously. “May I ask what message you’d like to send?”

“I’m interested in a meeting with him, Mr. Kintano. His choice of time and venue.”

There was another silence. Everyone within her view in Navigation Control had their rapt attention on the Vista Screen. Novi wished she could catch a glimpse of the InnerWorlder who had answered the ship’s hail.

“If I may inquire, Captain Soren” the man on the screen said. “Why are you interested in meeting Vedino?”

“We share a mutual acquaintance that wishes us both harm” the Captain chose his words with care.

But the InnerWorlder seemed to understand Soren just fine.

“I’ll make sure the message reaches Vedino, Captain. But I cannot guarantee that he’ll agree to a meeting.”

“I understand, Mr.Kintano. Thank you for your assistance.”

“My pleasure, Captain. Ryfkin Soren is a name that inspires many in the Inner Worlds, and especially in the Badlands.”

The Captain inclined his head again, to acknowledge the compliment.

Jerik turned around to look at the Captain and Novi concluded that the InnerWorlder had signed off.

“That went well, Boss” he said.

“Better than I expected” the Captain admitted, exchanging a glance with the RimWorlder woman. “Stop the broadcast, Jerik. We have what we came for.”

“Sure, Boss.”

A half hour later, as the pilot and the others engaged in their careful endeavor to navigate the ship away from the Badlands, Novi slipped into the Rec Chamber to sneak a fruit and some snacks back into the walkway. Exhausted, weary and cold, she wrapped herself in her sleeping bag and the borrowed bedclothes to rest, in the access passage that led to the unoccupied chamber whose facilities she made use of. In the unlikely event any crew ventured into the maintenance duct while she slept, Novi hoped to remain undetected by steering clear of the main walkway and the larger, better lit, access passages.

Warmed by the thick blankets and lulled by the subtle vibrations of the sailing ship, Novi slept.


Novi awoke during the night, alerted by a subtle change in the vibration of the ship’s otherwise even keel. Something squeezed her head, as a blinding pain seized her. Stars seemed to dance before her eyes, a madcap of a reel with flashes of piercing white light. Half asleep, and in unbearable agony, she screamed, her cry echoing in the passage. Fortunately, before she could cry out again, the blessed darkness enveloped her once more.

When Novi woke up again, everything lay silent. A glance at her wristband indicated that she had slept for ten hours straight. If this ship kept to the standard Inner World space schedule, like most crafts plying within the Asteroid Ring, then it was day again. As Novi sat up, flashes of waking in the darkness with a piercing agony that made her cry out without restraint stabbed at her. Had it been a dream, she wondered. She had experienced such pain once before on the ship, she remembered. Was something on this ship responsible for inflicting the agony on her? It would be strange and ironic if that were so. Wy called her a star child and that’s what Novi was – always looking to the stars and hankering to travel them. Novi was never happier than in space. On Idriko, they called those like her star struck. And it had always been so. But, in all her travels, she had never experienced this strange blinding pain, strong enough to cause blackouts. As a sober Novi puzzled about the extraordinary episode, she reminded herself that she had never ventured as far as the Ring before. A reaction to something in the outer edges of the Inner Worlds perhaps? It was very strange.

That was when the absence of ship vibrations struck Novi. She had always been sensitive to space craft. Even more so than the few Spacers Novi had met on her sojourns.

The ship is docked.

The realization had Novi wide awake. She scrambled for the walkway, racing to the hatch that allowed access to Navigation Control. For once, the Control chamber was empty. How could she confirm whether the ship was docked, Novi wondered urgently. There had been a console in the chamber she had borrowed the bedclothes from, she remembered. While access to the ship’s systems would require authorization, Novi hoped that the feed from the craft’s Vista Screen would not be deemed sensitive data. Racing back to where she’d left her sleeping bag and the pile of blankets, Novi slipped into the chamber. It took her but a few seconds to pull up the feed from the Vista Screen in Navigation Control.

Novi’s eyes widened as the image of a barren landscape winked into view. They were certainly docked and not on a Star Portico, by the looks of it. Like many DragonFly-class ships, this craft must be equipped to sail through a planet’s atmosphere, Novi realized. They were on land, probably at the Shuttle Vestibule of a world. Albeit a rustic world. She had transited through a fair number of Vestibules and none had looked like this. There were no structures, facilities or personnel on the Vista Screen. Only arid, rugged and sparse landscape, with clumps of yellowed grass. It looked like they were docked in the middle of nowhere.

But this was an opportunity, Novi realized. To escape the ship and make her way back to Idriko. Any world with a Vestibule would offer shuttles to the neighboring Star Porticos. Abandoning her sleeping bag entangled with the blankets, Novi hurried to her case to unpack her tablet. Her sixth sense urged her to disembark the ship quickly, before the opportunity was lost. Her tablet, with her Guild accreditation and credit data, was all she required for star travel. Everything else in her case could be left behind. There was nothing in it to identify her. Eventually, the crew would discover the signs that pointed at a stowaway, but Novi would be long gone by then.

Novi hurried to the hatch that accessed the Space Bay. Light flooded in through the translucent cover panel of the hatch. Not artificial light. This was natural light, with a warmth she could feel through the cover. The Space Bay doors were open, Novi surmised. Peering through the cover, she opened the panel carefully, her heart pounding. No one met her eyes but a murmur of voices from the other end of the vast Bay had Novi scrambling out of the hatch. She closed the cover panel to sneak her way towards the corridor that led to the ship’s dock port, making sure to stay behind the neatly stacked cargo crates.

As the voices neared, Novi peeped out from behind the crates. Across the width of the Bay, a man and a woman stood in conversation by the Bay Controls. It was the beautiful RimWorlder woman and Jerik, the InnerWorlder she had followed onto this ship. Sunlight flooded into the wide-open Bay, lighting up the vast chamber. Through the open Bay doors, she caught a glimpse of an arid and barren world. Similar to the view from the Vista Screen. Novi glanced around her cautiously. Before her lay a stretch of Bay, with no crates to provide cover. She’d have to cross it to gain access to the corridor that led to the ship’s entryway. There was nothing to do but wait out the duo, she realized. Cursing her misfortune, Novi waited in trepidation.

Novi watched the two with seething impatience. Then, finally it seemed that her patience was to be rewarded. As if responding to a silent signal, the man strode to the Bay Controls. As a whirring sound echoed in the vast Bay, the woman moved to face the Bay doors. Novi sighed. She’d have to be patient some more. The woman would easily see her if she made a move towards the interior of the ship. But curiosity drove Novi to creep behind the line of crates, until she found a vantage point that allowed her to observe the woman. The RimWorlder’s eyes were directed at the open Bay doors where a runway was sliding out from the floor.

A curious Novi peeked at the Bay doors. There was a rumble of a vehicle before a large half-open four-wheeler drove into the Bay to come to a stop by the woman. Four men rode the all-terrain vehicle. Ryfkin Soren in the driver’s seat, with two RimWorlders behind him. Beside the Captain, sat an older InnerWorlder male.

“Commander Jeryn, what a pleasure” the InnerWorlder passenger called out as the woman moved to greet him.

She was a Commander in the Five Year War – not just an ordinary Renegade.
Novi’s eyes widened as the man stepped out of the vehicle. It was a familiar profile, one she’d seen on advertisements on Idriko and all over the Inner Worlds.

“Mr. Ventini” greeted the Commander.

Zufon Ventini was of medium height with a shock of gray hair and an air of vitality that gave him the appearance of a much younger man. The flashing eyes and charisma that had made him a StarVision celebrity all over the Inner Worlds was still in evidence years later.

As the Captain strode into view, Novi noted the flasher strapped to his thigh. She frowned. He had not been armed either in his chamber or in Navigation Control. The two RimWorlders with him busied themselves with unpacking cargo from the four-wheeler. One carried a beautifully carved box to place it by Zufon Ventini. Something about the way the large RimWorlder moved made Novi suspect that he was Kali, the skilled pilot who had navigated the ship so expertly into the Badlands. He too had a flasher strapped to his thigh.

The low whine of a cargo crane permeated the air as it deposited a pair of enormous crates into the Bay through the open doors. Kali and his fellow RimWorlder strode to the cargo to hook it to the Bay’s robot arms.

“Jerik” Kali called out to the InnerWorlder at the Bay Controls. “Go, beron.

The robot arms hefted the crates up to stack them neatly in a corner of the Bay, by the hatch to the maintenance duct. For the next half hour, more crates were deposited into the Bay by a crane outside the ship. These were neatly stacked with the others, coordinated by the two RimWorlders, with Jerik manning the robot arms from Bay Controls. Novi counted twenty crates.

Meanwhile, Zufon Ventini exchanged polite pleasantries with the Captain and Commander Jeryn. He seemed to know the two Renegades well.

“I hope the Captain and you will join me for dinner this evening, Commander Jeryn. We celebrate the success of the expedition.”

The woman glanced at the Captain. “Ryf?” she inquired.

“We have nowhere to be, Zin.”

“Thank you, Mr. Ventini” she accepted graciously. “We will be happy to celebrate with you.”

“Shall I send a driver, Captain?” Zufon Ventini inquired.

The Captain shook his head. “We’ll make our own way, Mr. Ventini. I know the way to camp.”

Ventini glanced down at the box by his feet. “I hand this into your care, Captain. Zedak will take possession at Headquarters.”

“All done here, Captain” Kali called out, as a third RimWorlder strode into the Bay to join the other two.

Two men in Ventini livery appeared behind him. “We’re ready when you are, Mr. Ventini” said one of the men.

Novi noted that the bright livery was dusty and marred with streaks of dirt and grease. The ship’s crew, with their serviceable clothing, were more suitably attired for this planet than the Ventini personnel. Though, Zufon Ventini, as snazzily dressed as his son had been, looked pristine.

“Until tonight, Commander” Ventini said to the woman.

“Please extend the invitation to your crew, Captain” he addressed Ryfkin Soren. “They are all welcome.”

The Captain waited for Zufon Ventini to exit with his liveried personnel, before he addressed Kali.

“The usual nook, Kali” he pointed to the carved box at his feet.

To Novi’s consternation, Kali hefted the box to stride towards the access hatch. Novi scooted herself back hastily behind the crates. It seemed the box was to be stored in the maintenance duct. Getting out of the duct had been a good call, she realized, as she tried to frantically remember if she had left behind any incriminating signs of her stay in the duct. In her hurry to abandon ship, she had not taken care to hide the evidence, assuming herself to be long gone before anyone ventured into the maintenance duct.

The flame-haired InnerWorlder strode into the Bay to hail the Captain.

“You have two messages, Cap’n. One marked for your ears only. The other’s a job.”

The Captain arched his eyebrow. “Someone bit. Already?”

“It’s your illustrious name, Cap’n” she pointed out cheerfully.

“Is it a bounty contract?” Zin asked the flame-haired girl.

“No, Commander” she shook her head. “By the sound of it, it’s a security contract.”

The Captain turned to the others. “Ventini has extended an invitation to a feast for the ship crew. Zin and I leave at seven.”

“You keen to feast, Kidani?” Kali, the RimWorlder pilot, strode into view.

Novi breathed a silent sigh of relief. She was safe. The pilot had not detected any signs of her presence in the maintenance duct.

“Naah” she shrugged. “I can make my own feast on the ship.”

“Are we invited?” he inquired with a grin.

“Only if you’re on your best behavior, Kali” she retorted cheekily.

“In that case, how about a game of benkitok? I might even let you win.”

The flame-haired girl scoffed. “As if. I’ll kick your butt under my own steam, Kali.”

“You can try, Fire Hair” he grinned.

“I’ll join you at the feast, Boss” Jerik joined the foursome. “I’m keen to see how the other half lives.”

“Anyone else?” the Captain inquired.

Novi couldn’t see the others, but by their silence, she guessed that no one else was interested. There were eight crew in total, including the Captain, she now knew after a day aboard the ship. Six RimWorlders and two InnerWorlders. Only Jerik addressed Ryfkin Soren as boss. The others all called him Captain, with the uniquely shortened syllables version of the moniker. From what she had observed, Novi strongly suspected that the RimWorlders were all leftover crew from the Captain’s Renegade days. Like the beautiful Commander Jeryn.

“We take off at first light in the morning” the Captain announced. “Till then, feel free to stretch your legs, feel the sun on your face or explore this world.”

“What’s it like, Boss?” inquired Jerik.

The Captain smiled, silver eyes flashing. “Never ask a RenWelder about an Invun Weld, Jerik. To us, all the worlds here seem barren and parched, unlike the lush rainforests of our worlds.”

“There’s decent game, Jerik” Kali chimed in. “If you’re a mind to hunt. I spied deer and rabbits and plump game birds.”

Jerik looked mighty interested by the prospect.

“A walk, Zin?” called out one of the RimWorlders from outside Novi’s vision. “It’s not a Ren Weld, but the sun is warm on the skin.”

Novi’s eyebrow arched silently. The man was certainly more familiar with the Commander than the other crew on the ship.

The Commander shrugged non-committally.

“Go on, Zin” the Captain urged. “You’ve been cooped in here long enough. Kidani will help me with the job.”

“Zin” the RimWorlder male, Novi couldn’t see, appealed. “Do us both good to get off the ship for a few hours.”

The Commander acquiesced silently. As she turned to go, the Captain called to her. Unstrapping the flasher from his thigh, he threw it to her. Without missing a beat, she plucked the flasher from the air to strap it to her thigh.

“If you bring back game, Commander, you’ll have fresh stew” the flame-haired girl pledged.

“Kidani’s stew is to die for, Commander” Kali interjected. “Catch us something please. If you leave it to Yukon, I see no stew in my future.”

“Hey” protested the young RimWorlder laughingly. “You steer the ship, Kali. And leave the hunting to me.”

“I would, beron. If you hit something for a change.”

The RimWorlder countered with something rude that had the pilot laughing.

The Commander flashed a singularly attractive smile that lit up her face before striding away towards the Bay doors.

The Captain and Kidani exited into the corridor while the others busied themselves in the Bay. Novi waited patiently. After about ten minutes, the enormous Bay doors slid shut, plunging the Bay into darkness. Jerik glanced at the controls one last time, as the floor lights winked on, before he exited the Bay. Novi crept behind the crates to the access hatch. The Bay lay silent and dark, her eyes having a hard time adjusting to it after the abundance of sunshine. Of the other crew, there was no sign. Novi concluded that the others had used the opportunity to stretch their legs too. One thing was for sure. There didn’t seem to be any settlement on this world. And hence, the prospect of a Shuttle Vestibule unlikely. This was merely a planet one of Zufon Ventini’s expeditions had set up temporary camp on.

She climbed hastily back into the access hatch to make her way cautiously to the walkway. Though the carved box had been hidden under the walkway in a specially designed nook, Novi could tell exactly where it was. Something, a kind of energy, emanated from the box. It seemed to draw Novi irresistibly. The pull was strong and unmistakable. Since she hadn’t felt anything like it from any of the expedition’s larger crates stacked in the Bay, Novi concluded that the box and its contents had been hidden in the secret nook in the maintenance duct, precisely because of its magnetic pull. Hidden deep in the duct, the crew would not feel its energy. But Novi had to fight against every instinct to steer clear of the box. If the box had not been padlocked, Novi might have thrown caution to the winds.  But she was reluctant to draw attention to her presence by breaking open the old-fashioned lock on the box. Especially since it looked like she was to be a stowaway on the ship for longer. If anyone checked on the box, a broken lock would be a sure give away. Then, she’d be in a world of trouble.

Tearing herself away from the box with some difficulty, Novi made her way to Navigation Control.  The Captain and the flame-haired girl stood directly under the access hatch, in conversation with someone on the communicator. By the sound of him, it was a man. An InnerWorlder. And he was on the Vista Screen console.

“The last two times, our cargo came under attack from brigands, Captain” the man’s voice continued. “Our guards are not trained to handle heavily-armed brigands.”

“What kind of cargo will we be guarding?” the Captain inquired.

There was a short silence and then the Captain spoke again, his voice soft.

“You contacted us for a reason, Mr. Benito” he reminded the InnerWorlder.

“You have a certain reputation, Captain Soren. We’re confident you will keep our cargo safe.”

“If you’re aware of my reputation, then you know my word is gold, Mr. Benito” the Captain countered. “I cannot do my job unless I know what I’m to guard.”

“It’s cash” Benito admitted, somewhat reluctantly. “Transported from the bank to our craft to be taken off world.”

“A lot of cash, I’m guessing, Mr. Benito?”

“It’s payroll for Deziti’s employees, Captain. We do the run once a month.”

“The same day every month?”

“Like clockwork. But after the last brigand attack, we decided to change it up. This month, our withdrawal will be a day early.”

“Where’s the withdrawal to take place – what world?”

“Zubiko Ethera. It’s in the Panthera Sector.”

The flame-haired girl made for the Co-Pilot Seat to enable the console.

“It’s close, Captain. A couple of hours away” she confirmed.

“That is very good news, Captain” the man on the console sounded pleased. “We would like to transfer the payroll tomorrow.”

The girl shot the Captain a glance.

“I’m afraid we cannot make it tomorrow, Mr. Benito” the Captain said. “The earliest we can is the day after.”

A frown puckered Novi’s brow, as she listened in intently.

“I don’t understand, Captain” Benito seemed as confused by the Captain’s recalcitrance as Novi.

“We have a prior commitment, Mr. Benito” the Captain explained.

Novi wondered what had changed since the Bay. He had assured the Commander that they had nowhere to be.

“You may name your price, Captain Soren” the man insisted. “We are desperate for assistance.”

“And I’m happy to take the job, Mr. Benito. Just not tomorrow.”

In the silence, Novi peered down, angling her head to catch a glimpse of the stranger on the large Vista Screen console.

“I keep my word, Mr. Benito. A commitment is a commitment. As a potential employer, you should appreciate that” the Captain reiterated softly.

There was something about the man, Novi mused. A presence, almost a magnetism that drew others. She had felt it, even at a distance as she watched him from behind the vent in his chamber. After observing him, Novi had an inkling of why the RimWorlders had followed him into what must have seemed a hopeless battle against the Guild Coalition.

“I do, Captain” the man sighed. “When we heard that you were available for security contracts, we couldn’t believe our fortune. It was too good to be true.”

The flame-haired girl spoke up, addressing the man on the screen for the first time. “Can you not push back the payroll by a day, Sir?”

“We could, Miss. But that would put it on the same day that we usually do the transfer. The brigands will anticipate it.”

The Captain said nothing, for an infinitesimal second, before he assured the man on the console. “If you push it back by a day, Mr. Benito, we’ll get your cash past the brigands.”

An insignificant pause but Novi caught it. She had been observing him for over a day now. The flame-haired girl seemed to come to the same conclusion for she cast a sidelong glance at the Captain.

There was another short silence. “Alright, Captain” Benito agreed. “We transfer the payroll the day after tomorrow.”

Ilar’s Justice will be on Zubiko Ethera at sun up the day after tomorrow. Please send over the details of the route, Mr. Benito.”

“I’ll transmit the details, Captain Soren. We will see you at sun up.”

The flame-haired girl turned away from the Vista Screen to face the Captain. Novi guessed that Benito had signed off from the communicator.

“He offered a lot of money, Cap’n.”

The Captain shrugged. “He’s taking a huge risk by agreeing to meet us. There’s no money in the world that would tempt me to give up the chance. We might not get another one.”

Novi’s eyes widened. Something had changed since the Bay, she mused. It must be the message marked for his ears only.

The girl said nothing.

“Unfinished business, Kidani” the Captain admitted, his voice soft.

She nodded, changing the subject. “Can we make it to Zubiko Ethera by sun up, Cap’n?”

“Without access to the Labyrinth, it would be impossible. But if we sail through the night, we’ll make it” he was confident.

“We’ve a new gig lined up, Cap’n?” Kali inquired, striding up to join the two, with another RimWorlder in tow.

“And a meeting in the Badlands at noon tomorrow” Soren said.

The Badlands?

Kali whistled. “Be cutting it fine, Cap’n” he said, his tone casual.

The pilot was laidback, with an outgoing personality. The rest of the RimWorlder crew were more reserved, from what Novi had observed. The most extroverted on the ship were Jerik and Kali, who seemed to reserve his wittiest comebacks for Kidani. The RimWorlder pilot and the flame-haired girl had an interesting relationship. Kidani was less reticent than the RimWorlders, but not as extroverted as Jerik.

“It’s Vedino” the Captain explained. “He’ll be in the Badlands tomorrow, right where Kintano answered our hail.”

To her astonishment, Novi realized that the Synth with the bounty on his head had agreed to meet the Captain. This is why he had pushed back the security gig.
We’re headed to the Badlands again.

“He agreed to a meet, Cap’n?” Kali seemed intrigued by the possibility.

“He’ll wait for a half hour, Kali. Can we make it?” the Captain inquired, his confidence in the pilot clear.

“I can do a stint in the Pilot Seat” he offered, surprising Novi who hadn’t known that Ryfkin Soren could pilot a DragonFly-class ship.

“You’ll make the meet, Cap’n” Kali assured him confidently. “Jerik and I will cover it.”

“We sail once we’re back from the feast” Soren directed. “I’ll make it an early night.”

“Have we received the details for Zubiko Ethera?” he asked the girl.

“Yes, Cap’n.”

The Captain turned to the second RimWorlder, silent so far. “Go over the details with the others, Vizir. Flag anything that requires attention. Tonight, we make a plan.”

Novi wished she could catch a glimpse of the crew once before she disembarked this ship. After her time aboard the ship, she was starting to feel like she knew them. She’d seen Kali in profile in the Space Bay. He was a big man and moved with the same loose-limbed grace as Ryfkin Soren. But the other RimWorlders were amorphous faces to her. Except the beautiful Commander who she had glimpsed in Soren’s chamber.

“What kind of job is it, Cap’n?” Vizir inquired.

“Security detail for a payroll transfer from the bank to their ship. Goes through some rough country, from what I hear.”

“Hostiles?”

“Land brigands, well-armed.”

“We’ll go through the details with a fine comb” he assured the Captain.

“What do we know about Deziti, Kidani?” the Captain directed at the flame-haired girl.

It was clear that the girl was the one with contacts on the Inner Worlds. Novi surmised that Kidani was also the one with the most knowledge of the corporations that controlled the Inner Worlds.

“Not much, Cap’n. It’s not a major player. According to StarWeb, it controls a few rustic, mostly agrarian, worlds. Zubiko Ethera is one of them.”

“They control the planet” the Captain seemed nonplussed. “Then, why the trouble with brigands in their own backyard?”

“Perhaps, their private forces are not trained to handle brigands, Cap’n” Kali interjected. “Not all militaries are the Guild Corps.”

“Perhaps” Soren murmured.

“Or perhaps, they want to hire us for something bigger, Cap’n” Vizir chimed in unexpectedly. “And this job is merely a test to see how we do.”

The Captain and Kali directed their attention to Vizir. Novi couldn’t tell whether they were surprised by the RimWorlder’s reading of the situation. Novi could see how a minor corporation would be willing to hire Ryfkin Soren’s crew to clear their worlds of heavily-armed outlaws. Financially, it would be a fantastic deal for the corporation. And, it would be easier than finding the right forces or training them.

“I thought he was going to back out when you said you couldn’t do the transfer tomorrow, Cap’n” Kidani chimed in.

“So did I, Kidani” the Captain murmured. “But something changed his mind. I wonder what.”

He turned to the pilot. “Kali, work with Kidani this evening and scour the StarWeb for Deziti Corporation. If anything seems gnarly, let me know.”

Kali gave the Captain a sharp nod. “You got it.”

“Shall I reach out to my sources, Cap’n?” the girl offered.

He nodded affirmatively.

“It’s too short a notice but if someone’s heard anything about Deziti, I’ll know” she assured him.

“I want to build up a business in the Invun Welds that is not dependent solely on Venn Corp” the Captain acknowledged. “And on paper, entities like Deziti are our ideal customer. Deep pockets and untrained private forces make for recurring business for us.”

He paused. “But short notice or not, we do due diligence, as always. Ilar’s Justice must always honor its name.”


 

Novi bit ravenously into the loaf. It was slathered with a thick pâté of vegetables and lentils. Her eyes closed blissfully, as she savored the taste of the fresh bread and the thick stew. The flame-haired girl was an amazing cook, Novi sighed. Her sigh held an equal measure of relief, as well as satisfaction. It had taken her eight hours to successfully sneak any food today. Eight long hours that Novi had spent waiting for her chance. With the Captain away, the five remaining crew had been off duty. They had crawled all over the ship, making it impossible for Novi to risk venturing into the Rec Chamber. With no nourishment all day, except sips of water from the unoccupied chamber she’d adopted as her own, her stomach had growled demandingly.

Novi had waited impatiently for the coast to be clear. All to no avail. First, Kidani and Kali had taken over the Rec Chamber. The flame-haired girl had busied herself in the tiny kitchen, while the big RimWorlder had lounged nearby to exchange quips with her. Once Kidani was done, they had pored over their tablets. From what Novi could tell, it was research – checking out Deziti Corp on StarWeb. Per the Captain’s orders. Finally, much to Novi’s relief, the two had eventually retired to the Space Bay to play some of kind of game that involved an oblong-shaped ball ricocheting around the vast space. Before Novi could slip into the Rec Chamber though, the rest of the crew had tromped in for their evening meal. Novi had hissed with impatience as they lingered over their meal, discussing the upcoming gig and studying the details transmitted to the Captain by Deziti Corp. Then, as if to add insult to injury, Kidani and Kali had returned to the chamber to share a boisterous evening meal with the others, all while Novi’s stomach had grumbled so loudly that she’d had to make herself scarce from the access hatch by the Rec Chamber, lest she be overheard by the crew. In the end, the Rec Chamber had emptied only after the Captain’s return. He had given the order to sail and the crew had scattered to their duties. Novi had waited with seething impatience, as Kidani cleaned up in the Rec Chamber before finally retiring for the night.

Novi, her hunger finally satisfied, made her way to Navigation Control for a last look, before settling down for the night herself. Despite her singularly frustrating day cooped up in the maintenance duct, she was feeling optimistic. Her shot at freedom loomed ahead. The Captain had given his word to be on Zubiko Ethera by sun up in one day. That would be her chance to slip away. While Novi had never heard of the world, it didn’t worry her much – there was no reason to be familiar with Zubiko Ethera. Panthera Sector was far away, on the other side of the Ring, from Idriko.

But she would miss this ship, Novi admitted to herself. And, in a strange way, the crew. The ship and its crew led an interesting life. They travelled the stars to take on interesting gigs all over the Inner Worlds. In the two days she’d spent aboard as a stowaway, they had jumped the Space Portal Labyrinth, dodged asteroids in the Badlands, rendezvoused with Zufon Ventini to pick up cargo from an uninhabited world, accepted an interesting convoy job and were readying to dash through the night to meet with a Synth. The life seemed to embody all of Novi’s dreams. And the camaraderie between the motley crew stoked her admiration and envy. Above all, they were led by Ryfkin Soren, the hero of the Five Year War – the man who had bloodied the Guild’s nose, to strike a blow for oppressed InnerWorlders and RimWorlders alike. It had been fun to sail with them, even hidden away as a stowaway, she mused with a pang.

In Navigation Control, Jerik sat in the Pilot Seat. The Captain was absent. In his place, in the Command Seat, sat Commander Jeryn, engrossed in the console attached to the seat. Angled up as the console was, Novi could make out some kind of map on it. Every now and then, the Commander would respond to a comment from a discombobulated voice with the exotic RimWorlder cadences. The night crew was studying the details of the upcoming payroll convoy job on Zubiko Ethera, Novi guessed.

It was time to rest, while the ship slumbered. Novi made her way back to the jumble of bedclothes and sleeping bag she had left in the passage by the unoccupied chamber. She wished fervently that the crew had stashed Zufon Ventini’s carved box somewhere other than the maintenance duct. Whatever strong energy emanated from the box was starting to give Novi a powerful headache. Eight hours of proximity to the box had given her a pounding ache between her ears. Between fighting her instincts to feel the contents of the box and the persistent migraine the proximity seemed to cause her, Novi was exhausted. Drained, she slipped into weary slumber.

She was awakened once during the night, with the piercing pain that seemed to squeeze at her head, causing her unbearable agony. Like before, the agony was fleeting. Novi fancied that she saw stars, swirling around her head and flashing by her with dizzying speed before she lost consciousness. When she awoke again, her watch told her that it was late morning. Slipping into the chamber, Novi washed up and completed her ablutions, before climbing back into the duct to crawl to Navigation Control.

The Control chamber was busy this morning, with a full crew complement, from what Novi could tell. Kali was back in the Pilot Seat, with a RimWorlder in the Co-Pilot Seat beside him. They were on approach to the Badlands. Soon, if the last time was an indication, they would commence what the Captain referred to as RimWorlder Ring protocol, with hot weapons, a skilled crew and eyes peeled in all directions to watch for hurtling asteroids, while Kali maneuvered the big DragonFly-class ship through the treacherous Asteroid Ring. When that difficult endeavor commenced, Novi was determined to sneak into the Rec Chamber in search of nourishment. Like most ships, the Rec Chamber was one of the busiest rooms on Ilar’s Justice. And she was determined to not be forced to fight off hunger pangs all day, like yesterday. Novi already had a migraine to deal with. She fancied that it had abated a little after a night’s rest. Yet, it still persisted, a nagging throbbing in her head that made her vaguely nauseous and singularly irritable. While the thought of leaving the ship caused her a pang or two, Novi would be glad to see the last of the maintenance duct. Between the constant pull of the energy waves from the carved box, her nagging headache, the persistent lack of warmth in the access passages and the nightly agony that made her see stars and black out, she would be glad to see the back of it.

An hour later, as the ship began its treacherous sail into the Badlands, Novi made for the Rec Chamber, hoping the flame-haired girl’s fascination with the Badlands and her interest in watching her pilot friend navigate the ship would draw Kidani to Navigation Control. Novi was confident that everyone else would be in the Control chamber. Each of the RimWorlder crew had a part to play during the ship’s careful journey into the Badlands. As for Jerik, Novi guessed that he was dead to the world, asleep in his chamber, after sailing the ship through the night.

To Novi’s relief, Kidani was absent from the Rec Chamber. She was able to slip into the room to sneak a bit from the freshly cooked afternoon meal and a few snacks to last her the day. As always, Novi was careful to take only small quantities of food, to avoid arousing the suspicions of the girl in charge of the kitchen and the ship’s meals.

After a hearty and satisfying meal, Novi dragged her blanket over to Navigation Control. She swathed herself in the blanket to lie on her stomach and peer down into the chamber below. Her senses told Novi that the ship was stationed. The unique and subtle vibrations in the ship when it sailed were noticeably absent. She guessed that they were in an oasis in the Ring, like before, waiting for the Synth to make contact.

Down below, the Captain, his attention on the console mounted on his Seat, was speaking. Everyone Novi could see below – Kali, the RimWorlder in the Co-Pilot Seat, and Commander Jeryn, was bent over their respective consoles.

The Captain stabbed his finger onto his console. “Here’s the bank.” He traced a path on the map with the tip of his finger. “And here’s where we drop the payroll.”

“Not the Shuttle Vestibule, Ryf?” the Commander sounded startled. “The map shows a Vestibule on Zubiko Ethera.”

“Deziti maintains a stable of private docks for their ships, Zin. The payroll is to be dropped off at the docks.”

“What about us, Cap’n?” inquired one of the crew. “Will we dock at the Vestibule?”

“Yes” the Captain confirmed. “Deziti has reserved a slot for Ilar’s Justice at the Vestibule.”

“The white dashes on the map show the route the payroll convoy takes” he continued. “The cash travels in an official Deziti Corp vehicle with six liveried and armed escorts.”

“The route seems to skirt all settlements on Zubiko Ethera” the RimWorlder in the Co-Pilot Seat remarked. “The bank is the only settlement the convoy hits. Once the cash is loaded, the route is mainly farm land and some steep mountainous country until the docks.”

“The two red crosses on the map represent the brigand attacks on the convoy” the Captain remarked.

“Both in remote mountainous country, away from farm land” Kali murmured.

“Yes” the Captain confirmed.

“What if we skirted the mountains?” inquired a RimWorlder voice.

“No” the Captain shook his head. “It would take us too long to avoid the mountains.”

Commander Jeryn threw him a glance. “Avoid the brigands or confront them, Ryf?”

“If Vizir is correct that this is a test, then let’s show Deziti what we can do” the Captain’s response came pat, without any hesitation.

“We confront the brigands” the Commander murmured, clearly pleased by the prospect.

Her voice held a note of eagerness. The Commander was excited about the job, Novi surmised.

“Can’t wait, Boss.”

To Novi’s astonishment, it was Jerik’s voice that rang out. He’d joined his crewmates in the Control chamber. Clearly, the eagerness was not limited to just the Commander, Novi mused.

“So, Ryf” the Commander inquired, with a smile in her voice. “What’s the plan? I know you have one.”

“We make a minor change to the route” he said promptly. “And use a decoy.”

“A decoy?” Kali asked the question.

“Deziti’s official vehicle follows the route we mark for them” the Captain explained. “With two of our guys replacing two escorts in their six-person convoy.”

“But they don’t carry the payroll, Cap’n?” the RimWorlder in the Co-Pilot Seat inquired perceptively.

“No, Vizir. We follow a half hour behind the official convoy. With the payroll.”

“We use the decoy to flush out the brigands” murmured the RimWorlder the Captain had referred to as Vizir.

Novi recalled that the Captain had put this RimWorlder in charge of manning the weapons during their first treacherous sail into the Badlands.

“If they show, the decoy engages them” Kali murmured.

“And the convoy, following behind with the payroll, provides backup” Commander Jeryn interjected confidently.

“Zin knows me too well” the Captain agreed, his voice colored by amusement.

He glanced at the man in the Co-Pilot Seat. “You had the most time to look through the details, Vizir. What do you think?”

“You talked of changes to the route, Cap’n?” Vizir inquired.

“A precaution. Make it pass through a few settlements, without adding too much time to the route. If the brigands hear of Deziti hiring outsiders to protect the payroll, I want them to believe that we made some changes.”

“Replacing two guards in the decoy and making changes to the route will allay any suspicions” Vizir agreed.

The Captain nodded. “I want them to go for the decoy. If they’re suspicious, they might not.”

“It’s good plan, Cap’n” Vizir said thoughtfully. “Simple and effective.”

“Kali?” the Captain turned to the pilot.

“It’ll work, Cap’n.”

The pilot and the RimWorlder called Vizir, along with Commander Jeryn and Ryfkin Soren, must be the senior crew, Novi concluded, as she avidly followed the conversation in the chamber below.

“A couple of sharp-shooters should even the numbers against any marauding brigands” the Captain declared. “Zin and Vizir are our best sharp-shooters. So, we split them up. Jerik will join Vizir in the official convoy, while Zin, Yukon, Burok and I follow with the payroll. Let’s keep our private COMs hot, not just Deziti’s channel.”

“You’re leaving me behind?” Kali seemed astonished.

From the reactions in the chamber below, Novi surmised that something about this was unusual.

“To watch over Ilar’s Justice, beron” the Captain turned to meet the pilot’s eyes.

The pilot seemed to still at whatever he saw on Soren’s face.

“I’m a paranoid pitzuke at the best of times, Kali” Soren admitted softly to the pilot.

“Any particular reason, Cap’n?” the pilot inquired.

The Captain shrugged. “Just being careful with an unfamiliar client.”

Kali gave the Captain nod. “I’ll watch her.”

The Captain’s voice lost its intensity. “With Kidani and you, I know she’s in good hands. And, the job doesn’t require a full contingent. You’ll both ride along on the next one.”

“I’m content to watch the ship, Cap’n” Kidani piped up. “Hot and dusty worlds, with armed brigands around the corner, are not my thing.”

The Captain chuckled, along with some of the crew, as Kali flashed her a smile. “You don’t know what you’re missing, Fire Hair.”

“What about the bank employees, Ryf?” inquired the Commander, trying to tie up the loose ends. “They’ll know the official convoy is a decoy.”

“The bank is owned by Deziti, Commander” Kidani responded. “Most of the planet is.”

“I’d trust them, if they’re Deziti employees” the Captain remarked. “Anything gnarly crop up about Deziti Corp?”

Kali shook his head. “It’s small fry, even in this sector. We didn’t find anything suspicious on StarWeb. However, there were no reports of brigand attacks on the planet. In fact, there’ve been no reports of any kind of lawlessness on Zubiko Ethera for the past few months. Kidani and I checked.”

Zin frowned. “Perhaps, Deziti hushed up the reports?” she suggested.

Kali shrugged. “It’s not exactly a lawless world, Commander. It’s agrarian. And farmers are not known to be a boisterous lot.”

“Hmm” the Captain murmured. “Any word from your sources, Kidani?”

“No one’s heard anything bad, Cap’n” she said. “Frankly, most of my sources have never heard of Deziti Corp.”

The Captain straightened in his seat. “Then, how in Hadis did Deziti hear of us? Only your contacts knew that we were soliciting jobs.”

“Should I dig deeper?” inquired Kidani.

For a moment, the Captain said nothing.

“Ryf?” the Commander glanced at him. “Is it the Soren instinct? Should we pass.” The simple query denoted her utter confidence in him.

“No” he shook his head. “We shouldn’t. But something’s off.”

Novi, listening intently, realized that she hadn’t read him incorrectly before. He was suspicious about the gig on Zubiko Ethera.

“It’s a payroll convoy” he shrugged, as the Commander continued to hold his gaze. “Not a feckin’ fire fight.”

A discreet beep had Kali and the co-pilot turning back to their consoles.

“Someone’s hailing us, Cap’n” Vizir announced.

“Video enabled” Kali added laconically.

“Put it through to my console” the Captain directed.

Novi could almost sense the palpable anticipation in Navigation Control. It didn’t surprise her – she had been eagerly awaiting this meeting herself. No wonder the crew was so pumped up. Only the Captain seemed unaffected. He wasn’t a man to wear his heart on his sleeve, Novi had noticed. Even less than the other RimWorlders who were all fairly poker-faced. Compared to the more emotional InnerWorlders, the RimWorlders lack of expression stood out starkly. Novi could always tell what Jerik thought of a particular situation, but rarely guess at the Captain’s, or the other RimWorlders’ take on it.

Down below, the map on the Captain’s console was being replaced by the face and shoulders of a fair-haired man. Novi peered down, attempting to see him clearly. But to no avail. The angle of the console did not allow her to discern more details. However, his voice came through loud and clear over the COM.

“You’ve been looking for me, Captain Soren?” An InnerWorlder male voice filled Navigation Control. “I’m Serak Vedino.”

“Thank you for agreeing to meet me.”

“You have information about the Guild, Captain?” Serak Vedino got straight to the point.

“The Guild has a bounty on you, Mr. Vedino” the Captain was equally direct.

For a moment, the man on the console was silent. “I wasn’t aware of a bounty” the Synth acknowledged. “But I’m not surprised that the Guild wants my head.”

“Not exactly” the Captain interjected. “The Guild wants you captured alive. It has been made clear that no bounty will be paid if you’re dead.”

This time, Novi sensed that the Synth was surprised. There was absolute silence in Navigation Control, with everyone’s attention on the Captain. While no one else could see Vedino, they could all hear the conversation.

“That is news to me” the Synth admitted. Then, something about the Captain’s words seemed to strike him.

“Are you saying they offered you the contract, Captain?” Vedino was incredulous. “The Guild?”

Right, like the Guild would ever have anything to do with Ryfkin Soren.

The Captain shook his head. “No, not the Guild. Someone else, an independent entity, offered us the contract. But the details provided suggest to us that it is the Guild that’s interested in you.”

“What details?” the man on the console inquired baldly.

“It was alleged that you are a Synth raising an army and that you escaped from Kuzhampa Prison.” The Captain was confident that Vedino would understand why the details had aroused his suspicions about Guild interference. It was common knowledge that the persecution of Synths was an effort led by the powerful Guild Coalition. And the prison was Guild operated.

“That does seem to infer Guild interest, Captain” Vedino said thoughtfully. “But your information is not all correct.”

“You’re not Synth?” Soren suggested.

Vedino paused. “I cavil at the term Synthetic because nothing about me is artificial, Captain Soren. I’m as much an InnerWorlder as those pompous greedy bastards that run Guild Coalition. But per their definition, I am a Synth. No, Captain, that’s not it. However, I have never been to Kuzhampa Prison.”

At the Captain’s silence, Novi guessed that it was his turn to be surprised.

“I’ve never been captured by the Guild, Captain” the Synth reiterated. “Few escape Guild custody. Not alive anyway.”

Zin shot a look at the Captain, before striding over to the Command Seat to stand beside him. The Captain angled the console to allow the Synth to see her. The new angle also allowed Novi to see the man on the console better.

“This is Commander Zinera Jeryn, my deputy, Mr. Vedino” the Captain introduced her.

“Why lie to us about the prison, Mr. Vedino?” the RimWorlder woman inquired, without any attempt at small talk.

The Synth’s eyes flickered as he took in the magnificent beauty of Zinera Jeryn. His voice gentled subtly. “Perhaps, they hoped it might tempt you to accept the bounty, Commander.”

“No” she shook her head. “The contradictions only made Ryf more suspicious.”

The Synth’s eyes wandered over the Captain’s face. “It’s time to lay our cards on the table, Captain” he suggested.

“I’m willing, Mr. Vedino” the Captain agreed readily.

“Why did you want to meet me, Captain Soren?”

“To warn you of the threat. The Guild makes a powerful enemy.”

“I thank you for your concern, Captain” the Synth inclined his head.

“I’m also curious to know why the Guild wants you alive, Mr. Vedino” the Captain continued. “They’re offering seven figures for information leading to your capture. That tells me they believe you know something that threatens them.”

The Synth’s eyes widened at the sum. “I don’t have the answer to that question, Captain. Synths are persecuted on Guild worlds and many of us have been driven into the dangerous Ring to hide from the Corps. But we’re hardly a threat to the Guild. We’re barely surviving, as it is.”

The Captain cocked his head. “Why did you agree to meet us, Mr. Vedino?”

“I hoped you could help us” the Synth answered promptly.

“How can I help you?”

“The Ring is treacherous, even for experienced pilots. And most of ours are very inexperienced. Many have died. And many continue to lose their lives merely trying to survive amidst the asteroids. The Renegade pilots were known to dodge the Corps in the Ring. Could some of them be willing to train Synth pilots, Captain Soren?”

As Vedino’s words died away, Zin Jeryn glanced at the Captain. Novi surmised that the others in Navigation Control were as taken aback by the unusual request as the RimWorlder woman.

“Yes, I believe they would, Mr. Vedino” the Captain said thoughtfully.

On the console, the Synth looked mighty relieved by the Captain’s response.

“I’ll spread the word to my Renegade comrades” the Captain assured the other man. “But it might take some time to reach them in the Rim Worlds.”

“Thank you, Captain Soren. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated. The Renegades are much admired amongst Synths. Your success in expelling the Guild from your worlds gives us hope.”

“It was not without considerable sacrifice, Mr. Vedino” the Captain’s voice held a gentle warning.

“We’re prepared to sacrifice, Captain” the Synth said simply. “But currently, we lack the skills to make even our sacrifices count.”

The Captain inclined his head. For a few seconds, there was silence. Neither man broke it.

The Synth shot another glance at the silent Commander, before addressing Soren again. “You seek a weakness to use against the Guild?”

“Yes” the Captain responded candidly, without any prevarication.

Vedino looked thoughtful. “Only one Synth has ever escaped Guild custody. He was being transported, presumably to a Guild prison, when the ship crashed on an uninhabited world. Through sheer damn luck, he was able to escape. But the other Synth prisoners from the ship were too weak to make the attempt. These Synth talked of facilities where the Guild ran experiments on us.”

“Experiments” Zinera Jeryn exclaimed, astonished by the claim.

“They talked of their minds being forcibly invaded” the Synth said soberly. “Of unbearable agony and of hearing others cry out around them. Until I heard his account, I believed that the Guild hunted us to use as unpaid labor in their mines. But now, I wonder if the Guild is interested in studying us.”

He turned to the Captain. “This might even explain why they want me alive, Captain Soren. Dead, they cannot experiment on me.”

The Captain said nothing, seemingly gobsmacked by the Synth’s words.

Novi, astonished herself, heard a muted gasp from someone in the chamber. She suspected it was Kidani who had swallowed an unwary exclamation.

“It is beyond our ken to take advantage of this information, Captain Soren” the Synth admitted. “But you might be able to.”

The Captain stirred. “You want us to track the ship’s destination – the location of the Guild prison where they experiment on Synths?”

The man on the console shook his head. “We know the ship’s destination, Captain. The planet it crashed on. But we cannot follow up. It is a world Synths are not allowed on.”

The Captain frowned. “I don’t understand, Mr. Vedino?”

“Kintano says that you sail with InnerWorlders, Captain Soren. Ask them. They know which worlds are off-limits to Synths.”

Sufito Nekthero” breathed the flame-haired girl’s voice from outside Novi’s vision.

Sacred Realm.

It was Novi’s turn to swallow her gasp, shocked as she was. Was the Synth implying that the Guild tortured Synths on a planet designated as a Sacred Realm, she wondered. Anything associated with the Benevolent Ones was sacred to the denizens of the Inner Worlds. And worlds where evidence of the Benevolent Ones had been unearthed were set aside as sites for pilgrimages. If word got out that the Guild was running a prison on a Sacred Realm, even die-hard Guild loyalists would not forgive the Coalition. Even if the prison was meant for Synths. The Guild had been talking up the threat of Synths to the Inner Worlds for a while now. And while many had bought into it, they would not look the other way if the Guild involved a Sacred Realm in their campaign against the Synths. The irony of it did not escape Novi.

Serak Vedino was correct, Novi mused. This information, if true, was radioactive for the Guild. In the hands of someone canny enough to exploit it, it could light the spark of the revolution against the Coalition that Ryfkin Soren desired.

“She’s correct, Captain Soren” Vedino acknowledged, having heard Kidani through the console. “The world the ship crash landed on is designated as Realm 12.”

On the console, a muted voice interrupted the Synth.

“I must leave now” Vedino said urgently. “I’ve been here too long, Captain Soren. If you desire to contact me, come to this section of the Ring and hail any of the Synth ships that hide out here. They can all get a message to me.”

“May TziGaros shower you with her bounty, Mr. Vedino” Soren gave him the traditional RimWorlder blessing.

“And YanTeo watch over you, Captain Soren” the Synth signed off with the InnerWorlder solicitation.

It made Novi muse again on the irony of the situation. The Guild’s accusations against Synths seemed especially incongruous after Vedino’s familiar solicitation – a belief shared by all InnerWorlders.

For a moment, no one in Navigation Control said anything. Too astonished by the Synth’s revelation, Novi guessed. She knew she was.

The Captain was the first to break the silence. He glanced to his side. “Why are Synths not allowed on your Sacred Realms, Kidani?”

“The Guild does not deem them InnerWorlders, Cap’n” she said woodenly. “Since the Realms are considered sacred to the Inner Worlds, Synths have been barred from planets where the Benevolent Ones once stepped foot.”

“Not InnerWorlders?” the Captain shook his head, clearly confused.

“The Guild says Synths have alien heritage, Boss.” This time it was Jerik’s voice that answered the Captain. “And not just any alien. They possess the blood of those that once tried to harm the Benevolent Ones. For the InnerWorlders, the Benevolent Ones are akin to Gods.”

The Captain seemed to reflect on Jerik’s words.

“This Realm 12 Vedino talked about. Which world is that?” he inquired, his eyes on his console.

The Commander moved back to her station to glance at her own console.

As the others turned their gazes to their respective stations, Jerik’s voice rang out again. “It’s the world previously known as Fumiko Terra, Boss. It should show up on your map with the old name.”

Once a world was designated as a Sacred Realm, it became a shrine for InnerWorlders. The Realm was then referenced only by a number. Many InnerWorlders dreamt of a pilgrimage in their lifetime to traverse the Sacred Realms and pay homage to the Benevolent Ones who had once saved their race from extinction.

Novi, curious to see the world the Synth claimed was the site of a Guild prison, peered down, trying to see the Captain’s console. The folds of the blanket around her slid along the smooth surface. Her balance impaired, Novi pitched nose first onto the panel cover. Attempting to right herself, her palm smashed against the controls to the side of the panel. She must have hit the wrong button, for the panel cover swung open abruptly. Momentum pushed Novi forward, even as she fought frantically to hold on to something. But to no avail.

With a wild yell, Novi pitched forward, tumbling head first into the chamber below.

 

EPISODE 3

 

 

As Novi pitched forward, the blanket swaddled around her snagged at the edge of the panel, to halt her headlong fall. Hands scrabbling wildly for purchase, she grasped desperately at the handle of the open panel cover. For a moment, she hung, suspended in air and precariously upside down, held in check only by a piece of snagged cloth and her frantic fingers. Below her, the crew, stunned into silence, turned as one to gape at her. Her cry had drawn their attention. And now, they watched in slack-jawed consternation as she dangled above them, half in and half out of the access hatch. Novi, her precipitous descent temporarily halted, chanced a quick glance into the chamber. Below her, in the Command Seat, the Captain’s face appeared close as he stared up at her, the silver eyes glowing.

There was silence in Navigation Control. No one said anything – they simply stared in stunned amazement at the swathed figure dangling precariously from the ceiling. With a ripping sound, the blanket tore loose of its mooring. Gravity pitched Novi forward again. But this time, her convulsive clasp of the panel cover stopped her descent again, allowing her to dangle feet first in the air for a few precious seconds. She gasped audibly, struggling to hold on. To Novi, the floor below seemed awfully far.

Her stupefied audience watched mutely as her fingers loosened their desperate grip, one by one. Her frantic struggle to hold on seemed to rouse Ryfkin Soren. He sprang up, to move into position under her dangling form, readying to break her fall. The silver eyes swung upwards, and he opened his mouth to ask her to let go. But before he could, Novi lost her grip with a scream. As she came hurtling down, he raised his arms instinctively to catch her. She slammed into him like a rocket, the sheer force of her descent shoving him back heavily into the Command Seat.

Her eyes closed, a frightened Novi landed on something hard with a jarring thud. The pounding of her heart and the rush of adrenaline in her drowned out everything and it took Novi a few moments to comprehend that she was not smashed up and spread-eagled on the floor of Navigation Control. Novi opened her eyes to find herself sprawled over a masculine body, held snugly by a pair of powerful arms. Somewhat relieved that she had not broken her neck in the misadventure, Novi glanced up cautiously into silver eyes that stared at her in bemusement.

Ryfkin Soren. Zeuf and damnation!

This close to him, she could see the darker pupils amidst the silver flecks. His unusual eyes were clear, she mused absently, like the waters of a beautiful volcanic lake she had once been lucky to visit during her time crewing on the cargo hauler. Novi could still remember her visit – she’d had an epiphany as she gazed into the crystal-clear depths of a lake given birth by the violent spewing of ash and lava from the neighboring volcano. Now, as her eyes tangled with the uncanny silver eyes of the RimWorlder, Novi’s heart sank even further. She’d landed from the frying pan into the fire. The Captain’s reaction to her presence aboard his ship was likely to resemble the volcano rather than the placid lake.

Shyte. Shyte. How do I explain this?
You’ve really stepped into it, Novi!

Despite her trepidation, a shaken Novi found herself unable to tear her gaze away from his. The unusual light-colored eyes matched his striking face. A broad forehead, a sharp blade of a nose, a firm chin and swarthy skin stretched tight over prominent cheekbones gave him an air of the corsair that the Guild called him. But it was the incongruously sensuous lips and the laugh lines around his mouth that worked to soften the effect of the harshly hewn features. This was a man passionate about his causes and his friends, Novi sensed. This would explain why he’d thrown himself into an unwinnable cause to drive the Guild Corps from the Rim Worlds.

Be very careful, lest you draw Ryfkin Soren’s ire.
If he comes after you with single-minded focus, unlike the Guild, you won’t have anywhere to run!

The clear silver eyes seemed to hold her in a hypnotic hold, exerting a kind of magnetic pull that made everything recede into the background. The effect was eerily similar to that of the carved box in the maintenance duct, Novi mused dazedly. She tried to take a deep breath, even as everything in her screamed of the threat that loomed ahead and the danger she had unwittingly invited. It was her indrawn breath that served to galvanize the Captain. As she watched the dawning realization seep into the silver eyes, to transform them from the stillness of a placid lake into the storminess of an angry duststorm on Idriko, Novi struggled to frantically conjure up a story she could spin.

Zinera Jeryn was the first to break the stunned silence in Navigation Control.

“Ryf” she said clearly – shock, astonishment and warning mingled together in that one word.

But the Captain was over his initial surprise. He let go off her to grasp the arms of the Command Seat and spring agilely to his feet. A hapless Novi, her legs still entangled in the trailing blanket, slid off him abruptly to land at his feet in an ungainly heap.

“Oof” she gasped, mostly in shock, as she came down hard onto the floor.

Fortunately for Novi, the thick blanket helped to soften her fall. But the hard landing was like a douse of cold water, clearing her mind of all distractions except the predicament she now found herself in.

As eight pairs of astounded eyes turned to watch the girl on the floor, Novi glanced a long way up at the big man looming over her. The silver eyes watched her with an expression that boded ill for her.

Shyte. Shyte. Shyte.

“Water” she gasped feebly, allowing her eyes to close dramatically, even as her hand reached for the locket around her neck.

There was no escaping that she had leapt from the frying pan into the fire. So, Novi did the only thing she could. She played for time before explanations were demanded of her. But first, she made sure that she was a shadow no more, now that her presence aboard had been detected. Uncomfortable questions would be raised, if the ship’s tech systems did not flag her presence on it.

Ryfkin Soren stared down at the petite bundle of femininity at his feet – a shapeless bundle in a blanket that looked vaguely familiar. Her hurtling descent into NavControl from the access hatch above had stupefied him, shocking him speechless in one of the rare instances of his life. Now, she lay sprawled on her stomach on the rough floor with an arm flung upwards. Bright curls cascaded to just below her shoulder. Her eyes, closed in seeming exhaustion, were hidden under the tangle of curls. But he knew their color – an unusual rich mix of green, blue and brown. Once, a long time ago, he had come across a baby burumha deep in the rainforests of his home world. The slumbering feline had blinked up at him with the same eyes, as he had stared at it in stunned astonishment, until its mother had charged him with a roar. Beautiful creatures like the bundle at his feet always came with prickly and dangerous thorns, even if not obvious at first glance. If his life had taught him one thing, it was this.

Feckin’ Hadis” he swore, giving vent to his extraordinary astonishment. “Who are you?”

Novi, her heart beating wildly, opened her eyes to shoot him another glance. “Water, please” she gasped, pretending to lie weakly on the floor.

Beneath her slumped body, Novi’s fingers felt for the locket around her neck to press the tiny control on it, only letting go until she felt the soft click. If Novi had looked up, she’d have noted Ryfkin Soren’s astonishment give way to something more complicated.

The RimWorlder turned to Kidani, watching the tableau in stunned silence, like the rest of her crewmates.

“A tumbler of water for our guest” he directed.

The undertone in the lilting voice as he referred to her as a guest had Novi cursing silently. She had not failed to hear the subtle threat in the even tones.

YanTeo, watch over me please.

Kidani roused herself at the Captain’s request. “Right away, Cap’n.”

As the girl hurried out of the chamber, a ship-wide alarm flickered on. A loud clanging sound permeated the ship, echoing off the walls of Navigation Control.

The shrill clamor served to abruptly bring all the frozen bodies to life and they turned as one to peer into their respective consoles. All, except Ryfkin Soren, who continued to watch Novi with a watchful expression on his face.

“It’s the intruder alarm, Cap’n” announced a lilting male RimWorlder voice.

Thank YanTeo.

A relieved Novi allowed herself to slump into the floor. The locket had come through again. Without it, she could never travel without raising uncomfortable questions that Novi had no answers to.

“How many?” the Captain inquired.

“Just the one.”

“Do a full sweep of the ship, Yukon. If she has any friends, I want to know” Soren directed, as Kidani hurried in with a tumbler and a small bottle of water.

“Thank you” he said, taking the tumbler from her, to lean down towards the girl at his feet.

As Novi, somewhat theatrically, raised herself to extend her hand for the tumbler, with a practiced flick of his wrist, he threw the contents squarely on her.

Water splashed onto her face, making her gasp. But it was the soft chuckle from someone in the room that had Novi turn to the Captain furiously.

Zeuf curse you” sputtered an outraged Novi. Water dripped down her hair and face, clumping her lashes.

He clicked his tongue. “Language” he admonished dispassionately, earning another watery glare from her.

“More water?” he inquired solicitously, as an indignant Novi swiped at her face ineffectually.

Beside him, Kidani turned away to hide her smile.

That does it.

Novi attempted to sit up and untangle herself from the layers of blanket around her.

“Not so fast” said the lilting RimWorlder voice from high above her. “What the feck are you doing on my ship?”

“Language” Novi imitated him with a semblance of calmness, seething inside at the gall of the man.

Unexpected humor danced in the silver eyes, but Novi, too busy trying to extricate herself, failed to note it.

“My ship, my rules, little burumha” he countered. “If you object to them, next time don’t accept an invitation I did not extend.”

Novi shot him a mutinous look, as she struggled with the stubborn blanket.

“Let’s try this again” he drawled. “This time, we keep it simple. I ask questions and you provide answers.”

“But keep in mind” there was an undertone of warning in the calm tones she could not fail to catch. “If your answers don’t satisfy me, you’ll get the RenWelder stowaway treatment.”

Novi’s struggles ceased abruptly.
What’s the RenWelder stowaway treatment?

Novi let go of the blanket to sit up with some difficulty. She glanced up into the silver eyes. They were calm and assessing, all trace of astonishment gone. Her sense of outrage gave way to trepidation and Novi reminded herself to tread warily.

“What the feck are you doing on my ship?” he asked again.

“I … I boarded it by mistake” she admitted.

“A mistake” he frowned. “Why didn’t you leave when you realized you were on the wrong ship?”

Novi took a silent breath. “The ship took off before I could.”

He cocked his head, not bothering to hide his skepticism. “Quite a coincidence. You board my ship in error at the exact moment it takes off. You must come up with a better story, little burumha.”

Novi, unsure what a burumha was, had the suspicion that it was an insult.

“Novi” she lifted her chin to face him head on, a difficult feat considering their respective positions. “My name is Novi.”

A dark eyebrow arched up in response, giving the strong face a sardonic look. “Novi” he drawled out the name lazily, the lilting cadences of his home world pronounced. “Now I might be a mere RenWelder, but that’s not a name I’ve ever heard in the Invun Welds.”

He turned to the girl beside him. “Have you, Kidani?”

“No, Cap’n” she shook her head solemnly, seconding him.

Novi grit her teeth. How had she missed this character flaw while observing the leader of the Five Year War for two days aboard his ship, she wondered.

“It’s Novia Dozanti, if you must know.”

“I must, little burumha” he reiterated amicably. “This might seem foreign to you, but I’m a man who insists on knowing all his guests, even the unwanted ones.”

Novi fought to keep both her seething emotions and her growing alarm from the silver eyes that wandered lazily over her face.

“So” he stretched one shoulder insouciantly, drawing Novi’s eyes to the broad shoulders that strained against the simple shirt he wore. “Where did you make the mistake of boarding my ship, Novia Dozanti?”

Safe enough question.

“Idriko.”

This time, he looked startled. “The mining outpost” he muttered, shooting a glance at Jerik.

Novi’s words seemed to jostle the memory of the InnerWorlder who had been staring at her with a puzzled air.

“I remember you” Jerik exclaimed. “You were on the Shuttle to the Star Portico.”

Novi ignored him to keep her wary gaze on the Captain. This was the man she had to convince, she knew. “I was to board a ship to Merinyiko from the Star Portico. Instead, I boarded this one.” “There were no personnel at the entryway, when I made my way into the ship” she added defensively.

“Ryf” the Commander interjected, cutting Novi short. “The Detector confirms only one intruder.”

He turned to her. “Did you scan the maintenance duct, Zin?”

“Every accessible inch” she assured him.

“I’m telling the truth” Novi insisted. “And I can prove it. I have tickets to Merinyiko from Idriko, dated two days ago, on my tablet.”

Soren turned his attention back to her. “Why didn’t you disembark?”

Novi took a deep breath. This is where things got tricky. Sticking as close to the truth as she could, she attempted to provide him an explanation he might accept.

“At first, I didn’t realize I was on the wrong ship” she said slowly. “There was no one around to stop me. Then, I saw the Yedigrul.”

She shot him a look. The silver eyes watched her unblinkingly.

“I panicked and hid” Novi confessed sheepishly. “When I finally gathered up my courage to disembark, it was too late.”

The silver eyes narrowed. “You recognize the Yedigrul?” he inquired softly.

Novi nodded. “I know what it signifies.”

For a moment, he stared down at her. Novi guessed that her explanation had nonplussed him in some way. But before she could draw a sigh of relief, his eyes swung to the gaping access hatch over his head.

“Have you been hiding in the duct all this while?” he demanded.

Novi nodded, mutely this time.

Something akin to suspicion flashed across his face and Novi hurried to explain. “This is a DragonFly-class StarShip, Captain. I crewed on a smaller DragonFly cargo hauler a few years ago. When I panicked, I ran towards the Space Bay – I knew the Bay had an access hatch into the maintenance duct.”

Soren turned to a silent Kidani watching the enfolding scene. “Have your sources verify she’s who she claims to be.”

Kidani met his eyes. “I’ll get on it, Cap’n” she promised him. Kidani understood what had the Captain concerned.

Novi, fighting to stave off full-blown panic, volunteered a little more. “I was planning to disembark at the next Portico or Vestibule” she explained in a small voice.

The RimWorlder Captain turned to her. “You were spying on us, Novia Dozanti” he stated. Though the even tones of his voice remained unchanged, there was a subtle hardening of the silver eyes that had Novi swallowing.

“I was terrified” she confessed, her eyes meeting his for a split second before looking away. “I found myself on a ship full of Renegades. I thought if I listened in, I’d know when you planned to dock again, so I could escape.”

For a moment, Soren said nothing.

“You heard me with Vedino?” he asked.

Reluctant to admit this but also loath to prevaricate and be caught out in the lie, Novi had little choice but to confirm it. She had been right above the Command Seat, as her precipitous entrance into the chamber had demonstrated. He must know that his console had been in her direct line of sight.

“Cap’n” Kali chimed in unexpectedly. “If we’re to make Zubiko Ethera by sun up, we need to get moving.”

The Captain nodded.

“Put her in The Hold, Jerik” he directed. “Kidani, make sure her needs are met. I’ll deal with her after Zubiko Ethera.”

“I’ll have the background info by then, Cap’n” the flame-haired girl assured him.

Soren shot another assessing glance at the girl on the floor, before turning to his crew. “Let’s get a move on. RenWelder Ring protocol, as before” he directed.

It was Kidani who stepped forward to help Novi untangle herself from the blanket. Novi stumbled to her feet and Jerik came forward to escort her. As the two turned to exit the room, the Captain sniffed the air delicately.

“For TziGaros’ sake, get her acquainted with a shower.”

His words served to reignite a somewhat cowed and subdued Novi.

“You try hiding in the maintenance duct for two days” she shot at him, bright eyes spitting fire.

Silver eyes flashed in amusement as the generous lips quirked to hide a smile. He exchanged a look with the Commander, who arched an eyebrow at him.

Burumha” he murmured after the receding figure, as the three InnerWorlders exited Navigation Control.

To Novi’s relief, The Hold turned out to be a makeshift cell, converted from a personal chamber. Bars and an electronically sealed gate isolated half the room, including the bathroom, into a cell. Inside, Novi was glad to discover a shower, in addition to the toilet. The usually garrulous Jerik proved an unusually taciturn jailor. He ushered an unprotesting Novi into the cell, showed Kidani how to enable and disable the electronic gate, and made himself scarce. It was Kidani who hustled to hand over a set of fresh toiletries, clean towels, a blanket and sheets to Novi through the bars, as well as the bottle of water in her hand.

“I’ll bring you the evening meal in a couple of hours” the flame-haired girl assured the prisoner, before leaving Novi alone.

Novi glanced around her cell. Her heart still pounded with blind terror. It could be much worse, she reminded herself. Jerik had enabled heating for the chamber before he disappeared. The cell was clean, with a functioning bathroom. She’d have a bed to sleep on tonight and a hot meal, by the sound of it. As well as a shower to feel clean again. During her time in the duct, she’d been reluctant to run the risk of showering in the unoccupied chamber she’d used for her needs.

After a hot shower that felt like sheer bliss, Novi slipped under the blanket. She knew the exact moment they were clear of the Badlands, by the change in vibrations as the ship picked up speed to race to Zubiko Ethera. They would sail through the night, she knew. While a part of Novi missed observing the ship and its crew, disquiet about her situation crowded her mind, shoving all other thoughts aside. Curled up on the bed, she waited patiently, wondering at the quirk of fate that had brought her to this ship.


 

A few hours later, Kidani delivered the evening meal and a famished Novi fell on the food ravenously. She hadn’t eaten a hot meal in days, and the flame-haired InnerWorlder was a fantastic cook. The few hours of introspection had allowed Novi to calm the worst of her fears. She reminded herself that she had a day until the Captain decided her fate. Her anxiety a little alleviated, clean and well-fed, an exhausted Novi succumbed to the lure of a warm bed to sleep like a baby.

It was a good thing that Novi no longer had access to private conversations aboard the ship. For if she had listened in to the Captain and his deputy, she might not have slumbered as peacefully as she did.

“Zin” the Captain said on the communicator. “Need a word with you.”

The Commander glanced around Navigation Control. They were sailing on a skeletal crew, with Jerik in the Pilot Seat. They would rotate shifts during the night, to arrive at Zubiko Ethera ready for the payroll convoy gig.

“I’m on my way, Ryf” she responded.

They were well on their way to the nearest Star Portal. The crew were experienced and NavControl was in good hands, she knew.

“Any explanation for how she got on Ilar’s Justice undetected?” the Captain inquired without any small talk the moment she was in his room.

“I’ve been looking over the ship’s logs for the Star Portico by Idriko.”

He knew she had. Security for the ship fell under Zin’s purview. And Zin took security matters very seriously. If their stowaway’s presence amidst them had exposed any flaws, it had been the ship’s security procedures. That an unarmed slip of a girl had managed to stow away on the ship for two days and spy on them, without anyone being the wiser was a wake-up call for them.

“And?” he arched an eyebrow, gesturing her to a chair.

“There’s no log of her entry, Ryf” the Commander explained. “After logging Jerik, there’s nothing until we dock at the Ventini dig.”

He frowned. “How’s that possible, Zin?”

“I’ve been thinking about it” she said slowly. “And the only way I can explain it is that she happened to board during the small window while the ship was undocking from the Star Portico.”

“How so?”

“When we dock at a Portico, or the more sophisticated Vestibules that simulate dock ports, the ship’s operating system switches modes.”

He nodded. “The ship starts drawing power from the station, not our power reserves.”

“Yes” she acknowledged. “Since most stations limit how much power a docked ship can draw, the Ship System switches from operation mode to dock mode. In dock mode, the ship provides scaled down operations and minimal functions.”

“The ship’s not in space and doesn’t require all systems to be up and running” he chipped in. Though no engineer, Soren had spent most of his life on ships and knew his ship tech.

“Right. Now normally, when a ship docks at a station, it allows the station to handle boarding and disembarkation of passengers and cargo” the Commander continued. “In our case, we always ask the station to disable all security checks for our port and insist that we handle our crew’s goings and comings from the ship.”

This had been something they had agreed to do in the early days, as a way to make it harder for the Coalition to track them on Guild-run docks. Given that the Guild ran a major chunk of star stations on the Inner Worlds, it had been a good decision.

“I remember, Zin” he confirmed. “You’re saying that when we dock, we enable the ship’s AutomatedEntry System.”

“Yes, this feature allows only those with authorized IDs to board the ship. There’s no check on disembarkation, of course. But we do timestamp and log every entry and exit from the ship.”

Soren looked thoughtful. “She isn’t on our authorized list of personnel, Zin. She should have been denied entry and an alarm raised at her attempt to board.”

“Yes, Ryf” she agreed with him. “Unless, she boarded in the small window when the Ship System was transitioning from dock mode back to operation mode. That transition is part of the undocking procedures. That might explain why she was not only not denied entry, she was also never logged in the system.”

He looked taken aback by her explanation.

“When does the Ship System switch from dock mode to operation mode?” he inquired.

“Once we receive the go ahead to undock from a station, the ship’s computer switches to full operations” she answered.

“While still physically connected to the station and its facilities?” he persisted.

“Yes. The computer needs to be in operation mode before it can sever the ship’s connections to a station, since that requires the Navigation System to be online.”

“How long does such a transition take, Zin?”

“It depends on the station’s software – its ability to release our dock port. But a few seconds at most. No longer than that.”

“Hmm, you think she slipped in during this brief window while we transitioned to full operations?”

“It’s possible, Ryf” she admitted. “And it’s the only plausible explanation I have, given that the ship’s AutomatedEntry System was enabled while at Idriko’s Portico. I checked – there was no malfunction, and the system never went offline while we were docked.”

Hadis of a coincidence, Zin” he warned bluntly.

“I agree, Ryf. But there’s an even bigger mystery to the stowaway.”

He arched an eyebrow.

“Intrusion alert is enabled in operation mode” Zin countered. “Once we left the station, the Detector should have warned us of her presence on the ship. She’s not on the ship’s crew manifest.”

This was a holdover from their days battling the Guild on the other side of the Asteroid Ring. As a private ship in the Inner Worlds, they had no need for such security precautions. But Zin had left most of the security procedures from the war in place, only tweaking those that required modifications to work with the star stations in the Inner Worlds.

The Captain straightened. Ilar’s Justices’ built-in Entity Detector was typical of the tech commonly used to scan for life by automated systems on both stations and StarShips.

“She hid in the maintenance duct” he said thoughtfully. “Can the Detector scan the duct?”

“Not all of it, Ryf. Much of the tech in the duct, sensitive to temperature and other factors, is shielded. That might throw the Detector off.”

He met her eyes, an arrested expression on his face. “Zin, are you saying that somehow, the girl knew how to stay in the shielded portions of the duct, to escape being scanned by the Detector and flagged as an intruder?”

“Or she got very lucky.”

“No” he shook his head. “That’s too much of a coincidence for me, Zin.”

“Me too, Ryf. You won’t get an argument from me.”

He slipped into the seat across from her, thinking back to the girl with the burumha eyes who had dropped into his arms so unexpectedly. “She was eavesdropping on NavControl when she fell. That hatch is right above the chamber. Surely the access passage is not shielded?”

The Commander shook her head. “I don’t believe it is.”

“Then why did it take so long for the ship to alert us?” he demanded.

“I don’t know, Ryf. But I plan to run some tests on the system, and after Zubiko Ethera, I’ll do a full review of all our security measures. Clearly, there are gaps we must address.”

They contemplated each other.

“If you go after the Guild, Ryf, they’ll hit back hard” she warned softly. “Sooner than later, if I know them. This is their backyard. Here, they consider themselves unstoppable.”

“Let them come” he said, not noticeably perturbed. “Regardless of what they believe, the Guild possesses the same weaknesses in their backyard that they had on the Ren Welds. It’ll take me great pleasure to remind them of it.”

At his words, Zin relaxed into her seat. This is what she had been waiting for. Once Ryf took on a cause, he would peck at the problem relentlessly, until he got what he desired. The Guild didn’t know what was about to hit it.

“While we get ready to take them on, Ryf, let’s make sure they can’t exploit any of our weaknesses.” Her practical side asserted itself to remind him of the details.

“I’m counting on you, Zin” he said confidently. “I’ll make sure we have the money to finance our venture – I’ll build us a profitable business on the Invun Welds, without the Guild. Before I’m done, I promise you they will feel the thorn in their side.”

She nodded, pleased by the prospect. She had known Ryf since before his turn as fearless and inspirational leader of the Renegades. An easygoing and laidback man, he was a quintessential RenWelder. But the Guild’s ambitions and campaign had awakened something deep in him. Like it had the other Renegades who had followed him. The very idea of a corporation upending their way of life and exploiting the natural resources of their worlds for financial gain had roused the usually easygoing but independent-minded denizens of the Ren Welds.

“Do you buy her story, Ryf?” she inquired, her eyes wandering over his familiar face.

He shrugged. “It should be easy enough to check out.”

“But?” she prompted. Zinera Jeryn knew Ryfkin Soren, like few other people in the world.

“She saw the Yedigrul and claims she recognized it. Anyone else boarding the ship in error would make for the exits post haste, after sighting it. Instead, she ran for the Bay and hid in the duct.” He shook his head. To him, this seemed inconceivable. “There’s something more going on here.”

“A Guild spy?” Zin suggested with a smile.

He chuckled, losing the serious mien. “I doubt it. The Guild could do better. But she didn’t tell us the whole story. A few days in The Hold might change her mind.”

As they stared at each other, he reiterated again. “The coincidences are adding up for me, Zin. In a way I don’t like.”

Zin knew what he meant. What the Guild could not take by force, they used guile and subterfuge to wrest, she knew. They had seen all the tactics up close on the Ren Welds. While the girl seemed harmless, it would not do to put their guard down.

“What about the Synth?” she inquired. “You believe him?”

“He has no reason to lie. And clearly the Synths could use some help. I’ll reach out to old friends, Zin.”

“The Ring is treacherous” she agreed. RenWelder pilots would certainly teach the Synths how to survive the Asteroid Ring, but she sensed that the Synths had bigger concerns to deal with. “I’ll reach out to a few of mine too, Ryf.”

The Commander paused to reflect on the Synth’s words.

“Can we use Vedino’s information against the Guild?” she asked. Like the other RimWorlders, Zin’s knowledge of history and religious practices in the Inner Worlds was limited to what she had learned in the six months they had spent on this side of the Ring.

“We must learn everything we can about these Sacred Realms, Zin” he said thoughtfully. “But yeah, I believe we could.” Both Jerik and Kidani’s stunned reactions had convinced him that if true, the Synth’s accusation would play havoc with the Guild’s reputation on the Inner Worlds.

From what Ryf had observed, the InvunWelders were a religious people. Perhaps, the Guild playing fast and loose with their religious beliefs might be the spark that led to a mass repudiation of what the Coalition stood for. This time, he didn’t intend to fight a costly and frontal war. Unlike before, this would be a war of attrition – death by a thousand cuts. This time, he vowed silently, it would be the Guild that made sacrifices and was forced into tough decisions that risked the lives of allies and friends with risky gambits. After the Edhoran Accords, Ryf had promised himself that neither he nor his friends would any longer pay the price for the Guild’s greed or ambitions.


 

Novi slept well that first night in The Hold – warm, on an actual bed, with access to facilities she didn’t have to sneak into. And, she counted the absence of debilitating waves from the carved box a marked improvement. The mysterious energy emanating from it had made her temporary abode in the duct almost untenable. But one mysterious aspect of the ship continued unabated. She was still interrupted in the night, with agonizing pain that stabbed at her head and made her see stars in a dizzying accompaniment to the torment. This time, she fancied the agony lasted just a tad longer before she blacked out into blessed oblivion.

In the morning, she was awakened rather unceremoniously. A jangling noise had her springing up, her heart thudding in its cage. It was Kidani unlocking the cell gate, a large basket in her hand, its contents covered by a starched napkin.

The flame-haired girl placed the basket on a small table by the gate, to shoot a curious glance at the inmate. Her eyes stark with alarm, Novi perched on the bed tangled up in the folds of a blanket.

“There’s a fresh bottle of water and hot seidoki leaf tea for your breakfast.” Kidani pointed into the basket. “The RimWorlders prefer unsweetened coria juice in the morning. Let me know if you’d prefer that instead.”

“Tea is fine” Novi answered, her heart still thudding too fast for comfort. “Thank you.”

Her eyes wandered to the basket – a distraction to calm her racing heart. The generous-sized basket looked full and Novi wondered at it.

Kidani caught the glance. “Your breakfast as well as lunch. I’m headed to the local markets.”

The ship was stationary. They must be at Zubiko Ethera, Novi surmised. She recalled that it was an agrarian planet – a perfect opportunity for Ilar’s Justice to stock up on fresh produce at the local markets.

Novi watched the InnerWorlder exit the cell and enable the electronic lock on the gate.

Kidani made to exit the room that housed The Hold. But as the door slid open for her, she cast a last glance back. Tangled in the blanket, Novi looked a little lost and somewhat fearful.

“If you’re who you say you are, you have nothing to fear, Novia Dozanti” Kidani said deliberately. Her voice softened. “Cap’n is a fair man. He’ll not punish you for a mistake.”

Novi straightened, inordinately grateful for the simple words of reassurance. She acknowledged the other InnerWorlder with a nod as Kidani exited the room. Somehow, she felt better. But as Novi glanced around her, she couldn’t help but sigh. Emptiness and boredom, a day of it, stretched before her. At least, in the duct, she had busied herself by observing the crew.

After a quick shower, Novi reminded herself to ask Kidani for her case to be brought in from its hiding place amidst the tech systems by the walkway. While she awaited her fate and the Captain’s decision, she might as well have fresh attire.

In the basket were two steaming pancakes, a small pat of butter, a generous helping of a citrusy fruit compote and two loaves of freshly baked bread. In addition to this, her lunch was packed neatly at the bottom. The crew on Ilar’s Justice certainly ate well! The tea, sweetened with xura nectar, was hot and syrupy, just the way the InnerWorlders liked their morning cuppa. Digging further into the basket, Novi uncovered cutlery, cups and plates. She poured herself more tea and carried her haul back to the bed to sit cross-legged on it and feast upon the food. Wy, a fairly decent cook, had nothing on Kidani, she mused.

Once replete, she carried the debris back to the basket to stuff back in. As she straightened, The Hold plunged abruptly into darkness. It was so sudden that for a moment, Novi simply stood still, somewhat nonplussed by it. Inky darkness pervaded the cell and the room it was housed in. But within moments, tiny flickers blinked on in the chamber beyond, though The Hold continued its uncompromising darkness. Novi recognized the blue-toned glow as emergency lighting. As the faint glow of eery blue light drifted in, she pushed at the gate of the cell, driven by instinct to test her wild theory. It swung open smoothly – the gate’s lock was disabled.

Her suspicions had been proven right – the ship had suffered a loss of power. Novi stepped out to glance around the bare room. Something was off, she mused. Ships didn’t lose power like this – not without exigent circumstances. Without power, a StarShip would be dead in space. Every system on a ship, even the minor ones, required power to operate, including those responsible for sustaining all life aboard it. Yet, something had caused a catastrophic power loss on this one.

As she glanced around at the blue-hued room, questions crowded her mind. They were docked on Zubiko Ethera – the Captain had informed the crew that Deziti Corp would reserve a slot for Ilar’s Justice at the Shuttle Vestibule on the planet. It meant the ship was hooked up to the Vestibule’s facilities and drawing power from the station. While smaller shuttles on Vestibules sometimes did not avail of this facility, a DragonFly-class ship could not choose to simply park itself on a planet, especially not for a day-long gig like the payroll convoy. Even docked, a StarShip required substantial power. Novi frowned, as the implications hit her. The chances of a ship losing power were slim, but that of a Vestibule being blacked out was highly improbable.

Galvanized by a sense of urgency, Novi attempted to exit the room. But, as she had suspected, the door remained stubbornly shut. The door controls were electronic, and useless without power to operate it. She was locked in here. Novi cast another assessing glance around the room. If her time as a stowaway had told her anything, it was that most chambers on the ship had an access or a vent that led into the duct. For personal quarters, the vents were small, not meant for access to the maintenance duct, but she could crawl through them, as she had to sleep in and use the facilities in the empty chamber she had adopted while hiding out as a stowaway. High up on the wall, outside the confines of The Hold, her keen eyes located the vent that fronted the access passage to the duct.

Novi bit her lips, indecisive for once. If the blackout proved to have an innocuous explanation, the crew would be rightly suspicious of her attempts to escape The Hold. On the other hand, it had now been minutes since the first plunge into darkness and the blue glow of the emergency lights made it clear that power had not yet been restored to the ship. Striding forward, she placed her ears to the door, hoping for a clue. Or even a cue. To no avail – the doors on the personal chambers were thick and meant to provide a measure of privacy for the crew. Yet, her sense of impending doom did not abate. If anything, it seemed to ratchet up with every minute of silence. Even with Kidani off the ship on a mission to replenish supplies, the RimWorlder pilot, Kali, should still be aboard. As her mind pondered the matter, the crew’s palpable astonishment at the Captain’s stated intention of leaving behind a senior member to watch over the ship flashed through Novi. Ryfkin Soren had been uncharacteristically cagey about the convoy job, not denying his unease when the Commander had called him on it. The timely reminder had her scrambling, her decision made.

The vent was too high for her to reach. She looked around the bare chamber before zeroing in on the cell. The table under the basket would do, she decided. Novi hurried into the cell to dump the basket of food onto the floor and steer the table into position under the vent. As she clambered onto it, something, an instinct for self-preservation perhaps, had her pause, the Captain’s suspicions and the inexplicable blackout very much on her mind. Novi glanced at The Hold, her eyes wandering over the gaping gate, bedclothes piled on the bed and the basket of fresh food on the floor. It was clear that the cell had been inhabited recently. Her instincts screamed at Novi to not leave behind any signs of her presence in The Hold. Just in case!

Novi bolted back into the cell. Stripping the linen from the bed, she piled it over the basket to hide it, before dragging the bundle to a corner. Now anyone glancing in would only see a pile of used linen in a corner, hopefully enough to allay any suspicions. Carefully closing the gate behind her to look undisturbed, Novi clambered onto the table to open the vent and swing herself into the hatch.

Inky darkness enveloped her in the passage, but up ahead, the glow of light from the walkway beckoned her. She closed the vent behind her to crawl towards the brightly lit walkway. The emergency reserves powered the maintenance duct more brightly than the faint illumination in the room. Novi supposed that repairing the crucial tech systems that lined the walkway took precedence to personal chambers. After all, any technician attempting repairs would need to see his way well. Once in the familiar walkway, she made for her case to unearth her flashlight and clip it onto her wristband. Next, she made for Navigation Control. For once though, the big chamber was empty and try as she might, she could hear no voices from below. Novi crawled back to the walkway to ponder her next course of action when the murmur of voices drifted in from the Recreation Chamber. She breathed a sigh of relief. Like most spaces aboard the ship, with the exception of a few like Navigation Control and Space Bay, the access hatch was located high up on the wall of the room. It allowed Novi to see most of the Rec Chamber, even illuminated only by the faint bluish glow of the emergency lights.

Novi peered into the chamber through the panel cover to catch her breath in a silent gasp. In a chair facing her, sat a grim-faced Kali, his hands stretched out carefully on the table before him. Behind him stood a thick-set man with a flasher pointed at the RimWorlder. At an angle to both men and leaning against the kitchen platform, with her hands gripping it, a white-faced Kidani stared at the two. A basket, larger than the one she had delivered to The Hold this morning, sat abandoned on the floor beside Kidani. Novi surmised that the InnerWorlder had been on her way out, when surprised. Another man, with his back to Novi, had his flasher pointed at the flame-haired girl, though it was clear from his stance and their focus on Kali that the men were far more attentive to the RimWorlder male. They did not consider Kidani much of a threat, unlike the pilot.

YanTeo, watch over them.
The Captain had it right – something’s seriously wrong here.

Despite the alarm spiking through her, relief had Novi slumping onto her knees where she crouched behind the panel. She had made the right call by erasing all trace of her presence in The Hold. These men with flashers, whoever they were, would not suspect her presence aboard Ilar’s Justice. It was time to be a shadow again. Novi reached for the locket around her neck to press the control button. Now, they’d have to physically search the ship to find her.

In the Rec Chamber, another man strode in, his flasher strapped to his thigh. Unlike the others, he was very much at ease. They were InnerWorlders – that was all Novi could tell. Dressed in plain black garb, they were heavily-armed with the latest military-grade flashers she recognized from her favorite StarVision show. Novi was no stranger to flashers – her childhood on a mining outpost and her adulthood working in a tavern had taken care of that. She knew her way around the weapons – how to fire one and when to run to avoid one. But the weapons on these men were no ordinary flashers to be used to hunt game or protect property or family on a rural outpost. These were military-style weapons, capable of wrecking the StarShip and wreaking havoc on its crew.

The new man in the Rec Chamber addressed Kali. “Where is Ventini’s cargo?”

“Ventini?” The pilot looked puzzled, as if he didn’t recognize the name.

The man chuckled in response, while the one with the flasher pointed at Kali clubbed him on the temple with a blow that had the RimWorlder male cursing.

Novi’s eyes widened as blood seeped out from the gash on the RimWorlder’s head.
They bleed white!

“All cargo is stored in Space Bay” Kidani’s clear voice rang out, though Novi could hear the underlying fear in the even tones.

Novi sympathized with her – these men clearly meant business with their casual violence and the powerful flashers they carried, capable of terrible destruction.

The man asking the questions turned to the henchman with the flasher pointed at Kidani. “Check it out with Seto.”

As the man lowered his flasher to exit the room, the leader turned to face the flame-haired girl. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”

Kidani’s lips tightened but she answered readily. “I’m Kidani.” Her eyes flickered to Kali and the thick whitish-colored blood flowing sluggishly from the gash on his brow. “There’s no need for violence.”

“No, there isn’t” the man agreed readily. “If we get what we want, no one will be harmed.”

Behind the panel, a shaken Novi tried to make sense of the tableau. These men were professionals, and might even be military, though they wore no giveaway insignia on their uniforms. And, they were interested in Zufon Ventini’s cargo. Clearly, they were confident that the cargo they sought was aboard the ship. Had they known that Ilar’s Justice would be on Zubiko Ethera, she wondered?

In the room, the leader turned to the last of the black-clad henchmen. “Go give the others a hand.”

The man shot Kali a threatening glare, before stepping away carefully, his eyes on the big RimWorlder.

“Don’t give me any trouble” the leader warned Kali equably, ignoring the InnerWorlder girl. “And we’ll be out of your hair soon.”

The men strode towards the exit. A faint whirring sound, like that of a door being forcibly scraped close, reached her ears but Novi couldn’t tell for sure since she couldn’t see the exit from her vantage point.

For a few moments, tense silence prevailed in the room. Then, Kidani turned to the pilot. “You’re bleeding, Kali.” There was concern liberally mixed with fright in her voice.

He swiped at the blood on his temple with an impatient gesture, without taking his eyes off the door. “Surface scratch. I’m fine.”

Kidani studied him, her face reflecting her alarm, but she said nothing more.

After a few seconds, Kali seemed to become aware of her silent regard. He shot her a glance.

“We’ll get through this, Kidani” he reassured her, his voice hardening. “I will make sure of it.”

Some of her tension seemed to wash away, at his words.

He cursed, under his breath, something colorful in a RimWorlder dialect that had Kidani flash him a quick grin, despite the strain.

“I should’ve been more vigilant” he admitted bluntly to her.

“You couldn’t have anticipated this” she protested.

“Cap’n left me behind for a reason” Kali reminded her quietly.

She glanced at the door. “Can we …?”

Kali shook his head. “We’d need a portable generator to operate the door controls. Without one, it would make a racket and they’d hear it.”

Kidani met his eyes again, relaxing her convulsive grip on the platform behind her. “Perhaps, they’ll leave after they have the cargo” she said hopefully.

Kali’s voice gentled subtly. “Perhaps.”

But even Novi could tell that the RimWorlder didn’t believe it.

She decided it was time to announce her presence – the coast seemed clear. Novi pushed open the panel cover. Engrossed in each other, the two in the room didn’t hear her.

“Kidani” Novi called out softly, trying to pitch her voice low.

Kidani jumped, her eyes flashing to the access hatch up in the wall, to stare at Novi in slack-jawed astonishment. Kali hid his emotions better, but he too looked a tad stunned.

“The blackout released the cell gate, but I couldn’t exit the chamber” Novi explained, somewhat apologetically.

Kidani goggled at her some more. In the excitement, they had both forgotten about the stowaway in The Hold.

“I … um … know my way around the maintenance duct, after …” Novi’s voice trailed off awkwardly.

Kali straightened in the chair. “They might search the ship and if they …”

“I took care of it” Novi jumped in to assure him. “No one will know I spent the night in The Hold.

His eyebrow arched up at her words, but he said nothing.

“I had this feeling” Novi muttered. “A ship losing power is catastrophic but doing so, while docked, is near impossible.” She didn’t say anything about the Captain’s uneasiness with the convoy job. It was not the time to remind these two that she was a stowaway stranger who had spent her time aboard the ship spying on them.

The pilot’s dark eyes took in her set expression. “You were right to be careful.” There was approval in his tone.

“But Kali …” Kidani glanced at him.

“She’ll be safe in the duct” he reassured her. “They don’t know about her.”

“How can I help?” Novi asked.

As the crew turned to stare at her again, Novi rushed into speech. “I can move around freely in the duct” she reminded them.

“The Vestibule” Kidani exclaimed eagerly. “If we let them know, they’ll send in their guards.”

“They have to know this ship’s lost power” Novi said slowly.

Kali shot Novi a sharp glance. The little stowaway was no fool, he realized. She had drawn the same conclusion as him.

“These men didn’t board through the Space Bay, Kidani” he said. “The only other way in is through the Vestibule.”

Like the rest of the ship’s hull, the Bay had a strong blast door. When it was operated, the vibrations could be felt all over the ship.

Kidani stared at him, an arrested expression on her face. “They cut power to disable our AutomatedEntry System” she murmured, as his words sank in. “Without it, the ship would not raise an alarm.”

Kali cursed silently – he had messed up. He’d known Ryfkin Soren a long time – the man’s instincts about some things were always spot on. “The Vestibule’s in on it. Up to their feckin’ necks.”

“Kali” Kidani whispered, as the implications struck her. “The Vestibule, this planet … everything here’s owned by Deziti.”

Kali nodded grimly. The full picture hadn’t escaped him. “They set us up. The convoy gig was the lure.”

“No wonder Cap’n was suspicious” Kidani muttered, half to herself. All the incongruous details that had drawn the Captain’s suspicions had been part of the set up – the lack of any StarWeb reports of lawlessness on this world, the mystery of an unknown small corporation’s knowledge of Ilar’s Justice’s desire to broaden its base of clients, and so on.

“Why go to the trouble?” Kali said thoughtfully, his mind whirring through the puzzle. More importantly, why make an enemy of Ryfkin Soren. Deziti was not a powerful corporation or one with much influence. What would make them take such an enormous gamble, Kali wondered? Though not an influential man in the Inner Worlds, the RimWorlder Captain had friends willing to back him up, as he had amply demonstrated to the powerful Guild on the other side of the Ring.

“The Ventini cargo.” Kidani looked skeptical, even as she offered the suggestion.

“That might be an excuse” the pilot agreed with her.

Novi had not questioned the men’s goal, simply assuming Zufon Ventini’s cargo to be valuable. But from the crews’ skepticism, it seemed they did not believe that the men’s intentions were as clear cut.

“We have to warn Cap’n” Kali said grimly. He didn’t know how far this conspiracy extended and what designs Deziti had on Ilar’s Justice or its crew. But if they could warn Soren that his ship had been boarded, the Captain would never allow himself to be out-maneuvered on the ground.

“Tell me what to do” a hitherto silent Novi offered, her voice colored by determination. She felt a weird kinship with this ship and its crew – had done so almost from her first foray onto Ilar’s Justice.

Kali sprang up from the chair to contemplate her, his mind pondering furiously. The stowaway waif was offering her assistance and he was inclined to accept it. Even if her offer was insincere, he could see no downside to accepting it. On the small chance that she was in cahoots with the men holding them captive, their predicament could certainly not get any direr. He decided to give her the benefit of doubt.

“Can you squeeze through the vent passages that lead to personal chambers?” he asked bluntly. The passages that connected crew quarters to the walkway were tight and nearly impossible for most adults. But Kali was fairly sure the stowaway could – she had escaped The Hold through the chamber’s vent.

“I believe so.” Novi chose her words with care.

“Find the vent that leads into the Captain’s Chamber” he directed. “It’s the one with a large console built into the wall.”

Novi, who knew exactly which passage led to Ryfkin Soren’s room, nodded.

“That console should allow access to the ship’s systems. There are consoles in the walkway too, but I don’t know where they are.” Kali was a pilot, not an engineer, and while he had helped patch up the ship during the war, it had never involved him tinkering with the crucial tech systems inside the duct.

 “I’ll find it” Novi assured him. “What do I do on the console?”

“Send out a distress call” he said.

Novi knew how COM systems worked, especially secure ones aboard a ship like this. “Won’t I need a code to access the Captain’s private console?”

“Under normal circumstances, yes. But with the ship on emergency power, I’m hoping it won’t ask you for a code.”

He met her eyes. “Cap’n is the only one with a console in his chamber. If you can’t get in, we’ll try my code, but then, we’d have to attempt a console on the Bay or NavControl.”

Novi took a deep breath, as she understood the stakes. The location of the access hatch on the roof of Navigation Control made it nearly impossible to access it through the duct and entering it through the corridor would be fraught with danger. Space Bay, of course, was crawling with men with flashers searching for Ventini’s cargo.

She girded herself. “What’s the Captain’s COM ID?”

“You won’t need his COM ID” Kali explained. “In the COM system, look for an ID marked home. It’s programmed to cycle through an ordered list of individual IDs until it succeeds. It will try the Cap’n first, followed by Commander Jeryn, then me and so on.”

He shot a quick glance at Kidani, who looked taken aback. “It’s a relic from our Renegade days.”

Kidani nodded. She could see why such a group-linked COM ID might prove useful in a war.

He turned back to addressed Novi again. “There’s a chance the external interface is disabled, to prevent all outgoing COM messages.”

“Yes, all external communication is usually disabled when we dock” Kidani exclaimed. She had often wondered at the policy.

Ilar’s Justice is the most vulnerable when connected to a station’s facilities” the pilot explained. “The station could snoop on all external COM activity from the ship. It was Zinera Jeryn’s idea to only allow internal communication in the ship when docked. Technically, a station could also snoop on incoming COM too, but we didn’t want the ship to be unreachable, so it was felt that the risk was worth it.”

Not with the Guild watching them. Though Kali didn’t say the words aloud, Novi understood him. That first day, she remembered the Captain taking an external COM call from Zedak Ventini, so obviously exceptions were made in certain cases.

Kidani’s eyes widened. “Can’t be too careful, I guess” she murmured, with a pointed glance at the pilot. Commander Jeryn had been right to be suspicious! After all, it was a station that had enabled this breach of their docked ship.

“But we’re not in dock mode anymore” Kali continued. “And I’m hoping emergency power has restored full COM access and will allow us to send an SOS out.”

“Won’t they be scanning for outgoing COMs?” Kidani countered.

“I could make sure there’s no one in Navigation Control before I send out the message” Novi offered.

“Don’t bother” Kali shook his head. “They could monitor the COM from anywhere on the ship if they know what to do. We have to assume that they will. Which means they might be able to pinpoint which console the message went out on.”

He directed a pointed glance at Novi, brimful of warning. “Once you transmit the message, get the Hadis out of there, Novia.”

Novi took a deep breath. “I will.”

“But if they detect an outgoing transmission, they’ll know there’s someone else on the ship, Kali” Kidani asserted soberly. “They’ll tear it up looking for her.”

“I can hide in the duct” Novi said bravely, trying not to let the thought panic her. “There are places in there they wouldn’t think to look for me.”

“It’s too risky, Novia” Kidani looked grim.

Kali pursed his lips thoughtfully. “There might be a way around it.”

Ten minutes later, Novi peered carefully into the Captain’s Chamber to confirm that the coast was clear before she opened the vent to clamber down. In the bluish lights, the room looked very different from when she had listened in on the Captain’s conversation with Jerik the first day she had boarded the ship.

The console loomed large in the wall. She made for it, trying to ignore the dark shadows at the corners of the spacious chamber. The console switched on to display a handful of ship systems. Novi touched the COM symbol to access the system, quickly searching for the ID she sought. With great care, she typed in the one sentence message from Kali to ready it for transmission. When no warning about transmission being disabled popped up from the system, she relaxed a little. Giving the message a quick once over, Novi touched the transmit button and waited a few seconds, her eyes on the blue-tinted console screen. When the light flashed to indicate a successful transmission, she switched off the console to bolt towards the open vent cover, conscious of Kali’s warning. For a minute, she waited behind the vent. But when no one made a beeline for the room, Novi crawled towards the walkway to make her way back to the Rec Chamber. In the chamber, Kali and Kidani conversed in a low voice by the table, with no sign of their guards.

Novi opened the panel cover with a soft click. This time, they both turned to her, anticipation on their faces. She gave them a thumbs-up in the universal sign for success, accompanied by a broad grin.

A corresponding smile bloomed across a clearly delighted Kidani’s face, and even the undemonstrative pilot looked pleased.

“Good work, Novia” he said.

“Now, I’ll go get you the other thing you asked for” Novi said confidently, on a high from her success.

He opened his mouth to give her more directions, but before he could say anything, Kidani jerked her head.

“Someone’s at the door” she said urgently.

Novi needed no second warning. She had heard the mechanical whirring of the door, faint as it was. Closing the cover with a soft click, she waited behind the panel.

In the chamber, Kidani scrambled back to her old position by the kitchen platform but Kali remained standing, his attention on the door.

Two men strode in. Novi recognized the man she had designated the leader – the one who had asked questions about the cargo. Accompanying him, was a man with a raised flasher. As before, he ignored Kidani to point his weapon at the pilot, who made sure to keep his hands where the men could see it.

To Novi’s astonishment, the leader addressed Kidani. “Who else is aboard this ship?” he asked her.

But Kidani, initial flush of fright vanquished, was up to the challenge. Kali had come up with a plan and she had a part to play in it. While the stowaway took all the risks, Kidani knew that Kali and her ability to bamboozle these men would decide Novia’s fate.

“Just the two of us.” She displayed commendable acting skills to look convincingly confused.

For a moment, the leader contemplated her.

“There was a message transmitted a few minutes ago. From the Captain’s private console” he said.

Kidani looked bemused. “I don’t understand. Cap’n is not aboard.”

The leader flashed a sidelong glance at Kali but kept his attention on the flame-haired girl. “The message was in a RimWorlder dialect.”

Kali said nothing. Neither did Kidani, though she did allow genteel surprise to flood her expression.

“I had it translated” the leader continued. “It said ‘salutations to RimWorlder patriots’ followed by the name of a Rim World.”

Kidani looked confused, and even a little apologetic. “We sail with a mixed crew – all communication on the ship is in Zeraati.” She met the leader’s gaze head on, confident that he knew about Ilar’s Justice’s mixed crew. Kali was convinced that these men were professionals and would not embark on this venture without doing their homework.

“You don’t know what it means?” the leader persisted.

She shrugged. “Who was it sent to?”

“An ID marked home.”

“Home” she muttered, shaking her head. “I don’t recognize the COM ID.”

“We have both been locked in here for over an hour” Kali chimed in unexpectedly, for the first time.  “You should search the ship for others.”

A watching Novi marveled as the two comrades in the Rec Chamber played the men like a perfectly-tuned violin. Kali had already proven himself to be stubborn and recalcitrant. Always, it had been Kidani who gave the leader the answers he desired. So of course, any hint of cooperation from the pilot would only serve to make the leader suspicious and question Kali’s suggestion.

The leader turned to study the RimWorlder. Novi wished she could see his expression. She sensed that the leader was more dangerous than the combined threat of all his henchmen with the waving flashers.

“Remember what I said, no violence if I get what I want” he chided Kidani softly, ignoring Kali once more to focus on her. “I’m a reasonable man, Kidani. I won’t order my men to shoot unless I have to.”

Kidani took a deep breath, to shoot Kali a sidelong glance. The pilot shook his head at her discreetly, a gesture Novi was sure the leader caught.

The man waited patiently, his eyes on Kidani and eventually, she responded with seeming reluctance. “I can’t be sure, but I did hear some gossip from the RimWorlders on the crew.”

“What gossip?”

“During their war, there was a greeting used by Renegade ships to others in the vicinity.”

“Sort of a hello, you mean?”

Kidani shot another furtive glance at the pilot who merely stared back at her. “More like, I’m here to back you up if you need it.”

This time, the leader turned to Kali. “Is that true, RimWorlder?”

The pilot shrugged disinterestedly.

There was a short silence.

The man with the flasher directed a look at the leader. “Why send out a salutation to the Renegades now?” he asked.

“Ships are not meant to operate on reserve power for long. It might mess with their systems” he said thoughtfully.

“Check the console in the Captain’s Chamber” he directed. “See if anyone’s code was used to access it.”

“And if it checks out?” the man with the flasher inquired, clearly skeptical of messages being transmitted to long ago Renegade comrades.

The leader pondered for a moment. “It’s hardly an SOS. And even if it is, their Renegade friends will have a long way to travel to save their hides.”

As the two moved to exit the room, Novi, hiding behind the panel, caught Kidani’s triumphant glance up at her. If the men were planning to search the Captain’s Chamber, she would have the run of the rest of the ship. She had one more task to complete for Kali.

TO BE CONTINUED …

 

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