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.
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