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.
Penned as a series of episodes, The Zenkoti Fables is an adventure in the style of space westerns.
Episode 1 : Call of the Stars
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 corporation to deny them their rightful legacy.
Down the rabbit hole …
When Novi follows a stranger asking questions onto a mysterious starship, she’s swept up in the adventure of a lifetime.
Table of Contents
Call of the stars
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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?”
“Steer to the Star Portal.”
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.
The first volume of The Zenkoti Fables is being readied for release. Please add yourself to the List if you’d like to be notified when the story is continued in a few months.