Refuge. Bain hadn't been back to this planet since he was twelve. He was fifteen now.
At the beginning, when Lin hadn't been allowed to tell him they were relatives, Bain had feared the authorities would separate them the next time they landed on Refuge.
Now, he watched the screen as they approached the planet and he grinned. He was a Spacer, born and bred, trained and proven. The only thing that could get him to leave Sunsinger was if someone offered him a ship of his own. Nothing else that Bain could imagine could ever get him to leave Lin or Ganfer or the ship. Sunsinger was home, and Lin and Ganfer were his family. To Spacers, home and family were as sacred as the Order and obeying Fi'in's laws.
Refuge grew bigger on the computer screens, filling them with the blue‑white clouds of the upper atmosphere, then changing to blue and brown and green as the ship penetrated that layer and headed down through thickening air for the landing field.
Sunsinger's hold was filled with medical supplies for the scientists stationed on Refuge. Bain only knew the Mashrami had hit more planets with plague bombs in the last five months than they had attacked in the last six years. Lin speculated it was a desperation move; a spoilsport mentality that drove the dying race to destroy worlds they would never own. It was only speculation, because the military wasn't telling anyone anything.
Lin reasoned that either the military didn't know or they didn't want to panic anyone. She understood their reasoning for what they did. That didn't mean she or Bain had to like the silence, though.
Like everyone involved in aiding the military, the crew of Sunsinger had to get by on guesswork. They guessed what was happening in the war based on the cargo in their holds, snippets of conversations overheard in military offices or activity glimpsed on Fleet‑occupied planets.
"Refuge spaceport, this is Sunsinger," Lin said. On the viewscreens, the scorched expanse of the landing field had just become visible. "Requesting landing coordinates and decontamination protocol. We have priority level three medical supplies to unload."
"Acknowledged, Sunsinger," a metallic‑toned voice responded. Bain couldn't tell if the speaker was male or female. "Sending now."
"Receiving," Lin said a moment later, as numbers scrolled down the screen by her left elbow. She pressed the buttons that cut off voice communication. "Their communication system needs an overhaul. I doubt they'll get it until the whole wretched mechanism breaks down." She sighed and stretched her arms to the ceiling. Her long, black, silver‑streaked braid slid over her shoulder and swung across the back of the chair. "Exigencies of the war."
"I thought it would be over by now," Bain said. He winced when his voice cracked.
Lin grinned at his embarrassment. Bain's voice had been cracking, rising to unnatural squeaks or dropping to subterranean levels, for nearly three months now. Lin kept telling him it wouldn't last much longer, that it was part of his body's maturing process. Somehow, Bain doubted something so painful and embarrassing could be explained away that easily.
"It takes a long time for an entire race to die away," Ganfer said, joining the conversation for the first time since coming out of the last Knaught Point five hours ago. The ship‑brain had been running diagnostics to make sure Sunsinger hadn't been damaged by the too‑close succession of Knaught Point transitions. "Although the planet we surveyed was poisoned by radiation and other life‑threatening environmental changes, there is no guarantee that wasn't the only planet where Mashrami lived. Perhaps they have finally found a world friendly to their physical needs. That could be an explanation for the increase in plague bombs."
"Maybe they're trying to wipe us out to protect their new home, instead of trying to take over our worlds?" Lin asked. She frowned; her thinking frown, not the angry or frustrated one.
"It could be."
"I think I prefer the bombs as a desperation move," Bain muttered.
"Me, too." Lin reached over and squeezed his shoulder and gave him a grin. "If it's desperation, then there's hope it'll end before the Human race does."
"Landing," the ship‑brain announced. Lights across the board flickered as the computer took over the landing procedure. Landing braces flexed in preparation for touching down.
Refuge was one of the few planets where Lin let the automatic system handle the landing. Everything else on the hub planet might be allowed to fall into disrepair for lack of supplies and replacements, but the landing field was always kept in top condition, second only to the sensor and defense systems. With a perfectly smooth, maintained landing field, Lin and Bain didn't have to monitor sudden changes in the surface and jump in to compensate. The computer running the automatic systems could handle that, but Lin believed in the hands‑on, fly‑by‑instinct method of handling Sunsinger in most other situations. Bain had seen her avoid too many tiny mistakes that computers let pass because they weren't dangerous. He wasn't about to question her beliefs and practices even when he didn't understand them. He hoped someday his own flying instincts would be as sharp.
"Will you look at this?" Lin muttered a few minutes later, as Sunsinger's engines started to shut down. She tapped the screen at the top of the control panel between her and Bain. That particular screen held a list of all the other ships currently grounded on Refuge; their loading and unloading status; and their schedule for launching again.
"That's a lot of Ranger ships," Bain said. He ran his finger down the long list of identification numbers and names.
All Ranger ships had the same three‑digit prefix. It made for easier identification and priority handling when there was the uncommon backlog of ships waiting to launch. Bain calculated that three‑quarters of the ships were Rangers. They varied from nearly a dozen short‑range scouting craft to two long‑range search‑and‑rescue 'flying fortresses' that could evacuate a colony. All their codes indicated no set departure time.
"That's odd," he said, and pointed out the code to Lin. She frowned a little more, deepening that crease between her eyes.
"Odd indeed." She stopped and ran her finger along one line of information. A lopsided grin brightened her face. "That's Gil's ship. Do you think it's just a coincidence they're here at the same time we arrive with medical supplies--"
"Or they arranged for us to be here?" Bain finished for her.
He leaned back in his seat and ran his fingers through his dark curls. It was time for a haircut, with his hair trailing over his collar and covering his ears. Long hair was a nuisance in free‑fall, unless it was braided like Lin's. Bain didn't want to let it grow that long.
"We can ask for immediate launch," she said softly. "We need a break."
"Captain Gil wouldn't ask us to do anything unless he thought we were the only ones who could handle the job."
"True." Lin shook her head. Her smile brightened. "Fi'in bless me-- I've taught you too well. Someone would think you'd been raised on nothing but heroic stories and altruistic philosophy."
"I wasn't?" He managed to keep his expression neutral for five long seconds. Then it hurt to fight the teasing grin and the laughter and he let it out.
"We're being hailed by Captain Gilmore of Ranger ship Cutlass," Ganfer announced.
That just earned more laughter from Bain. Lin joined in, slapping him lightly on the shoulder.
* * * *
"Just tell me one thing," Lin said as she and Bain entered Captain Gilmore's quarters on board the Cutlass. "Are the Mashrami desperate, or do they have a new homeworld to defend?"
"I told you we'd regret it if we didn't include them in this," Dr. Anyon said. He sat in a chair in the corner of the dimly lit office, a brown man-- hair, eyes and tanned skin-- dressed in the olive and black Ranger uniform with medical insignia. He tipped a salute to Lin and Bain, a touch of two fingers to the edge of his eyebrow.
"That'll be all, Corporal," Captain Gilmore said. He nodded to the young woman who waited at the door of his quarters.
"Recruiting them awful young, aren't you?" Lin said when the door slid closed. She slid down into the nearest chair facing Gil's desk.
"The Mashrami have made more orphans than half the wars Vidan endured during the Downfall," Gil said. "They have nowhere to go other than the school farms on their colonies, or military service."
"You're a fine one to talk about recruiting too young," Dr. Anyon added, nodding at Bain.
Bain felt his face heat up, despite the man's grin. He hoped the light was dim enough in the office no one noticed his face getting red. He knew Dr. Anyon was only teasing, and he had approved Lin's application to become Bain's guardian and teacher from the beginning. That still didn't help.
"Spacers don't waste talent." Lin shook her head. "You need us for something, Gil. Just how reluctant were you to ask us this time?"
"We're recruiting all the Spacers we can this time. We have a drug that should cure most of the plagues the Mashrami are throwing at us, not just a vaccine to hopefully prevent it from catching. We need everyone who is willing to take the risk, to ferry the ill to centrally placed hospital ships. You'll have a doctor and two medics assigned to your ship-- if you agree-- and your hold will be a dormitory again." Captain Gilmore sat back in his chair, as if saying those words had released a load of tension from his body. The movement revealed new strands of silver in his hair. Bain thought he saw new tension lines around his mouth and eyes, dark streaks in the cinnamon‑colored skin.
"Full of the sick and dying, instead of the frightened or arrogant." Lin nodded. "Just the sick?"
"We can't spare the time or resources to evacuate planets that aren't in the line of invasion. We just don't have the facilities. You'll leave medicine, and equipment to contain and destroy the plague bombs that remain, and we'll send troops to take care of future problems, but that's all we can do. Getting the infected away from the healthy is half the battle."
Bain realized in that moment, listening to the heavy ache in Gil's voice, the Ranger didn't like the orders he was giving. He didn't want to leave those people on a planet where more plague bombs could appear. Leaving equipment, medicine, instructions and the promise of future help wasn't enough.
We need more people and faster ships and more scientists to help everyone, he decided. Bain thought of his cracking voice and other 'growing pains' and wished he could finish growing up so he could do something to help.
"What's the other half of the battle?" Lin asked.
"Finding a way to keep those plague bombs from hitting the planets at all," Dr. Anyon said. "Right now, our medicine cures the Mashrami plagues. What very few know is that the plagues are starting to mutate. The vaccines we developed two years ago don't have half the effectiveness."
"Anyone who goes in to help, who gets even a minimal exposure, could be completely unprotected," Gil said.
"But that's only if the plague has mutated, right?" Bain said. He waited, feeling a cold spot of fear deep inside, until the captain nodded. "Even half effective is better than no vaccine at all, right?"
"He's too much like you, Lin," Dr. Anyon said.
Bain grinned. He wanted to laugh, but he couldn't. He stayed quiet and he listened as Lin and Captain Gilmore made arrangements. Sunsinger's hold would once again be transformed into a dormitory. There would be twice as many bunk racks with net beds because this time, there would be no exercise wheel or tables and chairs. Dr. Anyon had requested assignment to Sunsinger, and he and his two medics would stay on the bridge. A decontamination airlock would be installed in the access tube between the bridge and the cargo hold, and another just inside the airlock leading from the cargo hold out of the ship. The vaccines, decontamination protocols and airlocks would cut the chance of spreading the infection as much as possible.
Bain suspected he should be afraid, worried by all the caution. Right now, he could only feel that tightening inside his body, the excitement of a new challenge and certain danger facing them.
* * * *
By late afternoon, Sunsinger's hold had become a dormitory again. Not the dormitory Bain had known when he first stepped aboard the ship. That had felt comforting, almost homey, with places for study and exercise, filled with other children. This dormitory had a cramped, silent feeling. The bunk frames put less space between the net beds. Everything was silver‑coated alloy, to prevent retention of bacteria and fight transmission of the new, mutating plagues. The nets weren't made of the slightly stretchy rope Bain had slept in, but hard, unyielding plastic that prevented disease settling into fibers to grow. The entire hold smelled hot with disinfectant and antiseptic.
A tall refrigeration unit filled the space where the food-processing center had sat. It wouldn't hold meal packs, but the massive quantities of medicine Sunsinger would carry. Next to it, where the sanitary had been, the Ranger technicians installed a huge, black and silver box twice the size. It had more dials and flashing lights than Bain's half of the control panel on the bridge. This mechanism would process soiled clothes and bedding, disinfecting it and analyzing the secretions from the sick people.
He was almost relieved when a second, smaller refrigeration unit was brought in and the head technician asked him to help them load it. This unit would hold the liquid food packs for the ill. When the plagues had progressed enough to be visible, the victim had already reached the point of being unable to eat. Still, they needed nutrition and liquids to replenish what the fevers burned off. Until the sick fell unconscious, they could suck nutrition from the bubble packs. It was designed to absorb quickly into their systems and give them the strength and moisture needed to heal before their stomachs decided to reject it.Bain was curious about the contents of the silver, slightly sloshing packets, but not curious enough to taste it when a friendly technician offered to open one for him. He hoped the plague victims would be too sick to notice what they were eating.