Set in space and on far away exotic worlds, adventure, intrigue, romance and action abound in this tale of a feisty young heroine embarking on the quest 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.
The Zenkoti Fables is an episodic adventure in the style of space westerns.
For a limited time
On a mining outpost in a distant corner of the galaxy, 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 enemy to deny them their rightful legacy.
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Novi stood transfixed before the oversized display screen. A stray observer might conclude that the eye-catching clips of travel destinations held her attention. The reel played in a never-ending loop to entice the well-heeled tourist looking for his next vacation. But Novi was neither well-heeled nor a tourist. Rather, her raptness was a smokescreen — the deserted Vestibule left her limited options for subterfuge. Having followed her quarry to the Shuttle Vestibule, she waited for him to make the next move. So far, the man seemed content to pass the time with the Guild Corps. The guards, attired in the Corps colors of red and yellow, were happy to answer the stranger’s questions.
The sleek masks on the guards’ faces distorted their voices but Novi didn’t fault them for being careful. Though spacious and well-kept, the Shuttle Vestibule smelled of the mine. On Idriko, it was hard to escape this. The air in the Vestibule irritated her eyes and deposited a fine layer of black dust on everything, including the sealed display screen. The suspended pollutants in Idriko’s air were known to play havoc with tech. While a masked cleaner diligently made the rounds of the Vestibule to wipe away the blackish smudges, he could not keep up with the grimy deposits.
Even Novi, Idriko 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 mine began operations almost a century before. A decade ago, as the skies over Idriko turned brackish with pollution from the mine, the Dome had 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 prison colony. To her, like all the Dome denizens, the prison 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. An artificial settlement built to cater to the miners’ wants, the Dome would empty in no time if the mine ever closed down. Rumors hinted that a few decades ago, the mine had been in danger due to a shortage of laborers willing to work in the hazardous conditions. Soon, Kuzhampa had been built — a high-security prison located on Idriko. Suddenly, the mine was no longer short of workers. 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 Shuttle Vestibule and the Star Portico up in space were administered and guarded by the Coalition’s military — the Guild Corps.
The Guild Coalition was the pre-eminent conglomerate on the Inner Worlds with a broad portfolio of business interests, jurisdiction over a majority of planets and a large army to enforce its writ. Once, it had also been the richest corporation. But that position had been usurped by Ventini Corporation, or Venn Corp as it was popularly known. Unlike the Guild, Venn Corp focused on one lucrative enterprise. Its innovative and cutting-edge Star Portal Labyrinth had effectively rewritten space travel within the Inner Worlds.
Novi cast another surreptitious glance at her quarry. The stranger continued to chat with the two guards. She’d been packing the last of her gear for her off-world camping trip when her employer had informed her, in his unhurried way, about the stranger asking questions. Mandolyn Wyrento was more than her employer. He was the closest thing Novi had to a paternal presence in her life. Wy had given her mother shelter and a job when she’d come seeking sanctuary nearly two decades ago. After her mother’s passing, Novi had taken over her 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 and passengers poured into the Vestibule. A shuttle had just landed. No one came to Idriko for pleasure. Thus, most of the disembarking passengers seemed to know their way around, though a few paused to ask the guards for directions. The Corps soldiers pointed everyone to an archway marked ‘Dome’. Inside, a 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 must.
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 unhitched her own tablet and hurried to get into line behind him. In the cramped shuttle, she stowed her case of camping gear to claim a seat at the front, intending to be first to disembark at the Star Portico before the stranger disappeared into the crowds.
The Portico bustled with activity. Thanks to the thriving mine, Idriko boasted one of the busiest Star Porticos in the neighborhood. The space station was laid out as a gigantic circle with gates leading out from it like the spokes of a wheel. Travelers milled about, crowding the food court, shops and leisure services. Novi hefted her gear to follow her quarry discreetly. He seemed to know his way around the Portico, heading straight for a gate to disappear through it. Novi glanced at the display above the gate. It flashed a gate number but nothing else, not even a name. That meant the docked vessel was private, not intended to carry passengers or cargo. For a brief moment, Novi speculated that it might be a prison ship ferrying prisoners to Kuzhampa. No, she realized immediately, Guild regulations forbade crafts carrying prisoners from docking at Star Porticos.
Novi pondered walking up to the craft and asking its personnel the name of the vessel. She could follow up if she had a name. Yet, she hesitated. What was the worst that might happen, a wavering Novi reminded herself. They might refuse to give her any information. Then, she’d be no worse off than before. Sometimes, being bold and taking chances paid off. It was a lesson Novi had learned from the rough and tumble pioneers who called Idriko home.
Hitching her tablet onto her belt, Novi strode confidently through the gate. The port at the end of the narrow corridor was connected to a craft. But to Novi’s surprise, no personnel guarded it. Perhaps, the craft had automatic sensors. If so, it was a sign. Or at least, Novi took it as a sign. Reaching for the antique locket around her neck, she pressed until a soft click assured her that it was disabled. She was now a shadow, able to glide through tech sensors without detection. Girding herself, Novi stepped onto the docked vessel. Just for a moment, she tensed, readying to flee back to the anonymity of the circular Portico hall.
But there were no alarms. Nor did any personnel step forward to interrogate her. Taking a deep breath, Novi glanced around the vessel’s cramped airlock. The illustration of a delicate, brightly-colored dragonfly shimmered in the air over the open archway that led into the starship. Novi almost gasped with relief.
Of all the different starcraft 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’d crewed on a DragonFly-design cargo-hauler for three months. The stars always seemed to beckon, making Novi restless if she spent too long on Idriko.
DragonFly starships were designed with a maintenance duct that crisscrossed the perimeter of the vessel, with access to every chamber and bay on it. She could use the duct to walk the length of the craft with no one the wiser. Novi stepped cautiously into the ship — a small entryway led into the vessel from the airlock that connected it to the Portico’s docking port. The first thing to strike her was the sheer size of the starship. The cargo-hauler she’d crewed on was smaller than this vessel. Three corridors faced her, leading into the ship. Above one was the universal symbol for Space Bay. She made for it. But something, instinct perhaps, had Novi turn back to glance at the Portico gate. High above the archway that connected the airlock to the ship’s entryway was an embossed emblem — a massive gray snarling beast with glowing eyes and exposed fangs. Under it was lettering in an unfamiliar alphabet. But Novi didn’t need to decipher the script to appreciate the peril she stood in. Heart beating much too fast for comfort, she fled into the corridor towards the Space 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’d 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 attempted 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 Coalition had sent in the Guild Corps to conquer the worlds militarily, expecting to enforce their writ with minimal resistance. But from the tropical forests had emerged the Renegades — a ragtag collection of bounty hunters, space pirates, outlaws, spacers and local law enforcement, united together to defend the Rim Worlds. Rumor had it 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 about 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 exploits of the legendary Renegades was a result of her Idriko upbringing. Like other provincial citizens, Idrikons could appreciate the courage, guts and sacrifice required from a motley crew of RimWorlders to take on the might and power of a professional, well-armed and massive military force, sent in to conquer them by a determined corporation. On many Inner Worlds outposts, tales still abounded of Ryfkin Soren and his Renegades — the RimWorlders who’d checked the ambitions of the powerful Guild and delivered a humiliating defeat to the Corps. The first of its kind the Guild Corps had faced in its long and illustrious history. From what she’d heard about them, Novi suspected that the ferocious Renegades would not take kindly to a Guild citizen sneaking onto their vessel.
The vast Space Bay lay deserted, with the neatly stacked and secured crates of supplies and cargo casting mysterious shadows. Renegade or not, they certainly ran a tight ship, Novi reflected approvingly. Though not new, the craft was uncluttered and sparkling clean. This was no ordinary starship. She’d never set foot on a Star Cruiser before, but the size of the Space Bay confirmed it for her. Facing the massive space door, which gave the Bay its name, was a large console built into the wall, up on a small platform accessed by a set of stairs. She made for the space door. Adjacent to it would be an access to the maintenance duct. Thanks to its DragonFly design, Novi knew her way around the ship.
Retrieving her flashlight from her camping gear, she strapped it on her wristband, to locate the hatch cover that sealed the access. Unclipping the cover expertly in the dimly lit Bay, Novi swung her light into the access hatch. The passage lay empty and silent. Novi paused for a final second to reconsider the enormous risk of her venture. YanTeo had sent her a couple of signs but this was a Renegade vessel. Yet, the questions kept piling up for Novi. The stranger asking questions had a picture with him. Why would anyone look for Hirona after this long, she wondered? What did it have to do with a Star Cruiser that sailed with a Renegade mascot displayed proudly above the entryway? What was a craft with a Yedigrul doing on a planet under Guild jurisdiction? The man she’d followed aboard was an InnerWorlder — what was his connection to a Renegade Cruiser and Hirona? No, Novi determined, she must attempt to discover what was afoot. And whether it posed a threat to her.
Decision made, Novi swung her case in first before scrambling in. Of medium height, her petite frame fit into the passage easily. Though a taller person might have trouble squeezing through. As the hatch cover clicked shut behind her, faint light beckoned her up ahead. Pushing her case before her on all fours, Novi made for the light.
The passage ended at a walkway where inset lights provided adequate illumination. This was the maintenance duct with room to stand and move about easily. Novi unfurled from her crouch to glance around her. A jumble of wires lay coiled beside a toolbox, while tech and vent systems lined the walkway. Stashing her case by the toolbox, Novi switched off her flashlight to go hunting for the Cruiser’s control room. This would be the nerve center of the starship — the bridge, in a traditional ship used to travel over water.
It proved surprisingly easy to locate. The widest access passage from the walkway led Novi to Cruiser Control. A hatch on the roof of the rectangular-shaped room allowed access to the maintenance duct. Novi lay flat to peer down into the chamber, careful to make no sound. With the Cruiser docked, any noise would carry easily to the room below. Light flooded into the passage from the well-lit Cruiser Control through the translucent panel cover. It was enough for Novi to see the small patch of controls on the cover. Grateful to YanTeo for watching over her, she set to work on the controls. Within moments, the cover turned transparent, enabling Novi to spy on the room below. Directly under her was the distinctly-shaped Command Seat, fully equipped as befitted a Star Cruiser. It sat empty. She strained to peer around the Seat, her line of sight somewhat restricted, and could see two people in the chamber. Seated as they were, she could only eye 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 gap between the vents allowed the voices to carry easily to her. Novi adjusted the vents carefully until she could peer into the chamber. Located high up on a wall, the vent provided a good vantage point. Though she could view only some of the chamber, luck seemed to favor her. Facing Novi was the stranger she’d trailed onto the Cruiser.
“There’s no hide nor hair of her, Boss. I checked the mine employment records, the Dome accommodations and asked around the local businesses. Nary a flicker of recognition. Even did a round of the taverns.”
He seemed to be speaking to someone seated directly under the vent. Novi’s position made it difficult to see the seated person.
The stranger grinned. “For an outpost this size, it sure has a lot of taprooms” he remarked.
The smile seemed to light up his dour face. 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.
“This outpost owes its livelihood to the mine, Jerik. If it’s anything like other Guild operations, the miners need plentiful and frequent alcohol.”
Novi tried to peer down the vent. The stranger’s employer spoke in a low, deep, masculine voice with a lilting exotic accent. She’d heard her fair share of different intonations on Idriko, on her travels in the Inner Worlds and during her months on the cargo-hauler. But nothing remotely like the seated man’s unusual cadences.
As Novi’s eyes wandered the chamber, the mystery seemed to deepen. Though she could only view a portion of it, the room was large and luxuriously furnished. Across her was an oversized console, inset into the wall. Facing it was a dining table with two chairs. Fruit, ripe and perfectly formed, lay piled atop a basket on the table. Fresh fruit was a luxury few Guild citizens could dream of. She could also see one corner of a huge bed, with a rich silk coverlet draped over it. And directly below the vent were a pair of expensive-looking leather chairs, eschewed by the stranger who stood talking to the hidden man with the deep voice and exotic accent. The stranger, with the picture of Hirona, had referred to the seated man as his employer. Novi concluded that the unusually large quarters belonged to the owner of the vessel. That might explain the signs of prosperity in the chamber.
“The mine was uncooperative 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, Novi wondered? The stranger talked of special privileges on a Guild facility. The Cruiser seemed more prosperous than the bare-bones crafts the Renegades had been rumored to fight in. And Novi knew no Renegade ship could possess the authority to demand that a Guild business open up its records. Perhaps, the vessel had changed hands to a prosperous owner who’d kept the Yedigrul embossed into the Cruiser’s entryway. Novi frowned at the thought. No one, vessel 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 craft that proudly displayed the Renegade emblem. The Renegades had humiliated the Coalition and the Guild would never forget it.
“A dead end?” inquired the stranger’s employer in his lilting accent.
“Aye, Boss. There’s nothing here” the man said confidently.
Relief flooded Novi. 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 must shelve 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 craft. It must be a trade vessel of some kind, because it definitely did not look military. But a Star Cruiser was overkill for a trade vessel. Also, no military craft in the Inner Worlds would dare display the Renegade mascot so 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 establishing the corporation, Ventini had shot to fame on the Inner Worlds when a StarVision camera crew had followed the Guild-funded adventurer on an expedition. 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 founded Ventini Corporation.
“Patch it to my console” directed the Captain in his lilting deep voice.
Novi had seen Venn Corp personnel in their snazzy orange and gold uniforms with the embossed lightning bolt to represent the alphabet Z for the founder, Zufon Ventini. The man in the chamber was attired in plain clothes, not 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 focused on different ventures, the rivalry had not led to any clashes. But Wy believed that sooner than later, the Guild would fight a war with Venn Corp. The Guild Coalition had never been a shrinking violet. And it would not give up its economic, military and political domination over the Inner Worlds without a fight.
The stranger facing her moved to exit the room as his seated employer stood up. The back 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.
Before Novi could react, the console blinked on and a vaguely familiar face filled it. In his mid-thirties, the man was attired in a sharp suit with a neatly-pressed handkerchief in his left pocket that displayed the lightning-bolt shaped insignia of Venn Corp.
“Captain” the sharply-dressed man on the console 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, she concluded.
“Father says you’re on a mission for him, Captain?”
“We’ve concluded the task, 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 to discover Hirona on Idriko.
“In that case, I’ve a couple of jobs if you’re interested, Captain?”
So, the Cruiser 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 their cause. That might explain the mascot on the entryway.
“What jobs?” the Captain inquired.
No, Novi corrected herself. The Cruiser worked with Venn Corp, not for them. The deference in Zedak Ventini’s manner towards the RimWorlder Captain made it evident that this vessel did not take orders from Venn Corp.
“Escort duty for some rare artifacts from father’s latest expedition” Ventini explained. “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 common knowledge that Zufon Ventini continued his expeditions on the side. But Venn Corp, like other corporations, employed its own private military — Ventini Guards. So, why would Venn Corp hire others to escort their precious cargo, Novi wondered. Plus, Zedak Ventini’s remarks made it clear that Venn Corp had used the Captain to transport their artifacts before.
“The second enterprise is 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. “Retrieving an escaped prisoner.”
“A bounty contract?” the RimWorlder asked.
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.”
Behind the vent, Novi went bug-eyed at the sum.
Seven figures for retrieving an escaped prisoner. Must be a hugely important one.
“What’s he done?” asked the Captain, echoing Novi’s thoughts.
“It’s not what he’s done, but what he is. A Synth working to raise an army.” Zedak Ventini shrugged. “Dead, he becomes a martyr to the cause. But alive, he’ll 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, but she’d never encountered one. Or perhaps, she had without knowing it. With the prevailing rampant prejudice against Synths, she doubted anyone would voluntarily advertise it.
Again, the Captain said nothing. His silence pushed the man on the console into further 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 Star Portals and 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’ prized assets. The technology had made them the richest corporation on the Inner Worlds in a dizzyingly short time. Connected in a mesh called the Star Portal Labyrinth, the portals used wormhole technology to tunnel ships through space at incredible speeds. What had taken the fastest vessel a matter of weeks, and sometimes months, could now be travelled in the blink of an eye. Venn Corp had four of these Star Portals in operation on the Inner Worlds. They were expensive but the Guild had the money to pay for portal travel. Novi understood that bringing down a Star Portal would disrupt the Coalition by delaying the Corps from responding to trouble in the farthest reaches of their territory.
“I’ll think about it, Mr. Ventini.” The Captain was noncommittal.
“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?”
“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 realized to her bemusement. Venn Corp wasn’t even charging his Cruiser for traveling the Labyrinth. Corporations were rarely that generous, even to their closest allies.
“This Synth” the Captain interjected abruptly. “What prison did he break out of?”
“Serak Vedino broke 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 the enormous difficulty of navigating through the hurtling asteroids.
“I hope you agree to take on the bounty, 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 his Hailer. It routed through the speakers in his quarters, rather than his earpiece.
“Jeryn” a woman’s 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.
“Be right over” she signed off.
As the last of her words echoed through the chamber, the Captain turned to face the vent. Novi’s jaw slackened in shock, as she took in the strong hard-planed face with silver eyes that seemed to glow like a beacon amidst the jet-black hair and tan skin.
He’s not any 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 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 scuffed boots. Her abundant dark hair lay coiled neatly at her nape. The RimWorlders were built on generous lines, Novi reflected. Tall as the RimWorlder male was, the woman came nearly to his chin.
“Mihado?” he 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 was aware that it was strong stuff. Mihado was rumored to be very much an acquired taste.
The Captain reappeared with two rustic 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 goblets in unison.
“RenWelders unite” she said.
There was a note in her voice that puzzled the watching girl. Nevertheless, the words sent 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.
The woman had been a Renegade too, Novi realized. A Renegade close to the legendary leader. 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 chairs 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 hair, pulled back into a severe chignon at her nape, threw the lovely bones of her face into prominence.
The Captain retook his previous seat directly below the vent and his guest seated herself across from him. Novi scrutinized the woman’s face carefully. Something, a strong emotion, seemed to hold the woman in its grip — her face appeared like a beautiful frozen mask. The dark eyes were blank with smooth skin stretched tight over the cheekbones, as if she were under tremendous stress. At first glance, the woman’s spectacular beauty had cloaked it, but now Novi could discern 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 said 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.
“A bounty with a difference” he explained. “Venn Corp only pays if we bring him in alive or provide intel that leads to his capture.”
“What bounty are they offering?” she asked.
“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 you and I have gone after stranger bounty before.”
Her eyes scanned his face as he remained silent.
“What is it that has you leery?” she asked shrewdly.
“It’s fishy as Hadis, Zin.”
Her face softened, 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 death and defeat.”
She’s talking about the war.
“When you put it like that, Zin” the Captain drawled. “I admit the Soren instincts are feckin’ screaming.”
“Tell me.” She leaned back to settle into the chair.
“The bounty is for an escaped prisoner from Kuzhampa.”
She looked puzzled. “The prison on Idriko?”
“But that’s a high security Guild prison.”
He agreed with her. “Ventini says the man is a Synth they want alive for the details 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 stranger. Ventini claims they have intel about Synth plans to blow up their Star Portals.”
“How might that benefit the Synt …” She paused as it struck her. “It would hamper the Guild Corps chasing Synth ships. Level the playing field a bit.”
Novi grasped what she meant. No Synth vessel could afford portal travel. This gave the Guild 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. The Guards prance around like peacocks in their fancy livery 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 forces. These RimWorlders were canny, she mused. Not easily seduced by Venn Corp dangling a pile of money before them. Perhaps, the brutal five year war to fight off a corporate invasion of their homelands had left its mark on the RimWorlders. Novi had heard that no corporations held sway on the Rim Worlds. With a few exceptions, the worlds on the outer edges of the Asteroid Ring were ruled by a local tribal system.
The Captain did not disagree with his guest. Instead, he surprised Novi with his words.
“I’ve had suspicions for a while that Venn Corp and the Guild are getting into bed together. Jerik said the authorization Ventini gave us had the Idriko Mine jumping to co-operate.”
“What do you suspect, Ryf?” she asked, her eyes searching his face.
“That the Guild fed this information about the Synth to Venn Corp, knowing fully well that any threat to the Star Portals would have Ventini put their best assets on it.”
The woman frowned. “We’re Venn Corp’s best assets.”
“We are, Zin” the Captain affirmed, without hesitation. “And I’d wager the Guild knows it. For some reason, the Coalition 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 required 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.
“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 hinting at 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 Coalition risks much by manipulating them” he reminded her. “If Ventini gets suspicious, the Guild’s courtship of Venn Corp comes crashing down.”
“It’s not much of a gamble” she countered. “The Guild remains the most powerful entity, by far, 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 Coalition. Good, Novi mused approvingly, it would keep them vigilant and on their toes.
“Yes” the Captain admitted. “But don’t underestimate what losing access to the SPL means for the Coalition. The Guild needs the Labyrinth to oversee its empire, Zin. They’ve planted their flag on far-flung reaches of the Invun Welds they could never covet were it not for the portals.”
The woman looked arrested by his argument. “Hmm, if they’re willing to risk portal travel, they must be desperate” she murmured.
“Without the ability to jump, the Guild risks a rebellion in the distant corners of their territory” he reiterated pensively.
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. I’m all in to fan any flames against the Gorath.”
“But how do we untangle this thread?” she asked him.
“Go to the Badlands and ask this Synth why the Guild wants him” the Captain said promptly.
“He’s in the Badlands?”
“By the Azunti system, per Ventini’s information.”
“There have been rumors of Synth ships in the Badlands” the RimWorlder woman acceded.
“Well, if Ventini’s information about Azunti came from the Guild too, then they’ve just shown us a way to contact the Synth.”
For a few minutes, there was silence. Novi couldn’t tell what was going on, except that the woman studied her male companion.
“You think it’s time, Ryf?” she asked softly.
“About time to start prodding for vulnerabilities, Zin.” His voice hardened. “The Guild wants this Synth because 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” he remarked.
She nodded mutely, her eyes on him.
He raised his goblet. “Justice.”
She raised her goblet without a word and the grief on her face had Novi swallowing her gasp.
For a moment, they sipped their mihado 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 the Ring by Azunti, see if anyone’s willing to carry a message to the Synth” he continued.
“That Ryfkin Soren is interested in a meeting” he said.
“The name alone might pique his interest.”
“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, 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 RimWorlder woman’s cryptic statement. Zin sounded eager to venture into Guild territory. After the long and hard-fought battle to keep the Coalition off their planets, she’d assumed that the RimWorlders would want to enjoy their Guild-free existence.
“After, we sail to Zufon Ventini’s dig” the Captain said. “To ferry artifacts.”
“It’s the easiest money we make, Ryf. 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.”
She sighed. “And no bad news to dread.”
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 brutal war, she realized.
The Captain changed the subject. “You miss bounty hunting, Zin?”
“It’s what we grew up with” she confessed. “And are feckin’ good at.”
“I’ve been thinking” Soren mused aloud. “Not every corporation in the Invun Welds is like the Guild. Many are smaller, with ill-equipped private forces. They 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 lilting voice hardened again.
For a few breaths, the woman sipped her mihado silently.
“Still trouble sleeping?” he asked 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 lightly.
Her expression softened again, the tightly-stretched skin of her face relaxing in a subtle indication of her affection and ease with the RimWorlder Captain.
“I’m eager to go hunting again, like the old times. But it won’t be the same without him.” The Captain’s voice was poignant.
Her dark eyes showed emotion. “No, it won’t.”
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 through the chamber.
“Cap’n” greeted a lilting male RimWorlder voice.
“All aboard, Kali?” Soren asked.
“To the Star Portal.”
“Right away, 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 hatch into Space Bay. Stopping only to collect her case from beside the toolbox, Novi hurried through the passage she’d originally climbed through. As she reached the access panel in the Bay, the Cruiser seemed to lurch slightly. In the confined space, its effect on Novi was 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 it was already too late. She’d been on enough crafts to recognize the vibrations of a slow-moving vessel. Novi hurried across the Bay to the console platform. There were sensors embedded in the hangar’s space door.
Novi’s heart, already thumping hard, sank as the feed from the Bay door flashed on the console. The Cruiser had undocked from the Star Portico and was moving away. The receding lights of the Portico docks twinkled faintly through the swirling blackness of space. Dread unfurled at the pit of her stomach.
There goes Idriko. Watch over me, YanTeo.
Should have left when I got what I came for. Always too curious for my own good!
Now, she was a stowaway on a Renegade Cruiser heading for the Badlands, in search of a Synth with a Guild bounty on his head. Novi reflected gloomily that on a good day, even a single prospect of the litany that confronted her would be enough to doom her. Of course, combined together, it put her in a colossally catastrophic position. Yet, she had no recourse except to bide her time and wait for an opportunity to present itself. Hopefully, the Cruiser would dock again at a Portico where she might make her escape.
As Novi crossed the Bay to scramble back through the access hatch, she felt a pang. It would be 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 wouldn’t expect to hear from her. Only after, would Wy make inquiries about a missing employee.