“Where?” said Finn skeptically, scanning over the horizon of the vast desert landscape. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but as far as he could tell, there was nothing on this planet. Except —
“That’s it!” Cai exclaimed.
“What is it?”
There, at the base of a dune, were the ruins of a great old warship, the likes of which hadn’t been seen flying for well over a century. Half of the ship seemed to have disintegrated into the sand while the other half sat proudly atop it, nested in its own twisted metal debris. It was a huge, great mass of grey, singed in black from a fire long gone out. Upon its side, in faded white letters, was a word: CONDUIT.
“That’s the Conduit?” Corra gasped. “An old wreckage in the middle of the desert?”
“That’s it,” confirmed Cai, smiling at it with admiration.
“Is anyone even in there?” Finn mumbled.
“Uh, yes,” said Alyx, sounding suddenly panicked as she hurried back to her console which had started beeping in her absence. “Definitely yes. It’s locking weapons onto us.”
“Shit, what?” said Finn, quickly dropping back into the pilot’s seat and seizing the controls. Overhead, the warning alarms began to blare.
“I’m sending a peace COMM, but they’re not responding,” Alyx said hurriedly over the noise. “They’re still locked and loading.”
“Damnit, we’ve got to — ” Finn groaned, but suddenly Cai had stepped up to the console and took the COMM into his hand.
“Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem,” he said into it, to Finn’s confusion.
Tense silence filled the bridge. Then, the alarm abruptly stopped.
“They disarmed,” she said with a sigh of relief as she looked about the cabin at the others. And then a cool, calm voice rang out over the bridge.
“Confirmed, BKN-500. You are cleared to dock. Welcome to the Conduit.”
– – –
With Cai and Finn in tow, Corra strode down the Beacon’s ramp into the Conduit’s vast, decrepit hangar. Nerves and excitement ran up her spine.
After spending the last day in the company of Cai, the familiarity of other allies had all flooded back to her. She’d spent so long away from her people, she’d forgotten the unspoken bonds of kinship between anyone with a notch taken out of their ear and it was strangely wonderful to have that again. People who understood without need of explanation. People who didn’t wonder quietly or internally speculate or secretly pity. People who got it.
But as at home as she felt around one freed ally, she didn’t quite believe that feeling would extend to a whole group of them. Especially a whole group of them she was convinced she had betrayed for the last four years, having never made any effort to help them herself. She couldn’t help but think they were going to reject her and her offer of help.
The Conduit’s hangar didn’t do much inviting of its own. Much like the exterior of the ship, it was falling apart. Catwalks barely hung from their chains, supports looked as though they might crumble at any moment and the blast doors they’d flown through didn’t quite close all the way, letting in a constant breeze of desert wind and sand. There were a few large cargo ships docked alongside the Beacon, coated in the white dust, but it was quiet. Empty save for the small welcoming party waiting at the base of the ramp.
Two men and three women, allies (or Frees, Corra corrected), and all of them, save for one, had their guns raised. Apparently the Conduit took its security seriously.
“Hi,” greeted Cai casually, as though someone wasn’t pointing a weapon at his head. “I was told I could come here by–”
“Ally IDs?” interrupted one of the women.
“Oh,” said Cai in surprise. Then he quickly recited, “2105447,” and the Frees turned to Corra, who blinked.
God, she hadn’t had to use her Ally ID in ages. “4305256,” she said after a moment, and she could sense Finn glancing at her in surprise.
The only weaponless woman pulled out a tablet. She tapped the screen for a moment and then smiled at them kindly. “Thank you. You are welcome here. From now on, those numbers are meaningless. You are documented as a Free and you may choose any name you wish for the record. I hope your journeys here haven’t been too taxing. Please, follow me.” She turned towards the door behind her. Corra glanced at Cai, Cai shrugged cheerfully and they fell into step behind her. Finn fell into step behind them. But only for a moment.
“Hold it,” said one of the men with the guns, stopping Finn in his tracks. Corra glanced back.
“Oh it’s okay, he’s with me,” she said at once, but the woman shook her head.
“I’m afraid without a thorough background check, your friend can’t be admitted into the main holding. We have no other way to verify intentions, you understand.”
An awkward pause hung between them. It didn’t seem right leaving him behind on something like this, but …
“Sorry, Riley,” said Corra. “We’ll be back soon, alright?”
“Sure.” Finn’s tone was neutral, though he sent Cai an uneasy glance. “I’ll wait here.”
Finally, Corra followed their leader through the main rusty hangar doors. Once the doors shut behind them, Corra gasped.
The deck was practically a mile long,adorned with colored tarps and flags. Murals and signs were hastily painted on nearly every hard surface. Stalls of fruit and flowers and produce filled the place from wall to wall and a mass of people filtered around them. It was as though someone had stolen a piece of Tarin and crammed it into this ship.
“This is the main market,” their guide explained, nearly shouting to be heard over the noise. “Approved vendors are permitted to land in the hangar and sell goods alongside resident merchants. We have a few dozen that come in once or twice a month to import foreign items.”
Corra couldn’t help herself from looking around in wide-eyed wonder as they moved through the space. She hadn’t seen so many allies in one place since Kadolyne. And she’d never seen them smile as much as these people were smiling…
They passed through the bustling market and down a hallway. Their guide explained, “This path will take you to many of the ship’s amenities. We currently have just over seven hundred residents, filling barely a sixth of the ship. It’s an entirely self-sufficient civilization. All residents work to upkeep and improve the livelihood of the community and the ship and are paid for their time. If you peer through the door to the right, you’ll see the garden where we grow most of the ship’s food.”
‘Garden’ was an understatement. They seemed to have converted an entire hangar bay into a fully functional indoor farm. Corra watched as people moved through the fields, tending to the crops leisurely. It was only when she heard the guide’s voice again, a little ways off, that she remembered to follow.
“All new residents are given a job and private quarters of their own. Three meals a day are provided free of charge in one of ten community dining halls, each with different specialties. We have a fitness facility, a spa, an indoor park, we’ve even just opened an art gallery or so I’m told.”
“God,” Corra breathed wonderously. “It sounds like a paradise.”
The guide, who up until now had been quite formal, turned back to her and smiled. “It really is.” She stopped in front of a large door. Beyond it, Corra could see a large hallway with doors on either side, most of them open and inviting. Children ran about between them. Laundry lines spanned the passage. Every wall, originally sterile and steel, had been painted bright and colorful.