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Commonwealth Universe, Age 3: Volume 3: Spacer's Creed
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Commonwealth Universe, Age 3: Volume 3: Spacer's Creed

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Vidan was again reaching out to the stars: sadder and wiser... and cautious, unwilling to repeat the mistakes of the ancestors. The Commonwealth was born, reaching out to lost colonies and establishing new ones, rediscovering lost technology and how to navigate the star-ways. Many of the lost colonies not only survived but thrived--and they remembered their abandonment and the harsh centuries of the Downfall...

Bain's prayers are answered. Captain Lin Fieran wants him to stay on Sunsinger and join her crew for another evacuation trip to Lenga. When they get there, everyone has already been evacuated, so they move to the next world in the path of the Mashrami invasion. There, their task is made more difficult by pirates and people who don't want to leave their homes. To make matters worse, Bain knows Lin wants him to stay on Sunsinger with her and Ganfer, just as much as he wants to stay, but someone in authority is getting in the way. Lin has to keep a secret from him, and if she tells him what it is, he might never be allowed back on board. 

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Chapter One

"Welcome back, Bain," Ganfer said, and chuckled.  The ship-brain's voice echoed through the entire ship, following the boy as he ran up the slope from Sunsinger's modified cargo hold to the bridge.

Bain was out of breath when he reached the round bridge of the Free Trader ship.  He grinned at the sensor dome in the ceiling and leaned back against the hatch frame until his legs lost their wobbles.

"You see?  I told you I would see you again," the ship-brain continued.  "You'll need that link collar quite a bit from now on."

"How soon until we launch again?" Bain asked, once he had caught his breath. He raked dark, sweaty hair out of his eyes.  He pushed off the wall and walked over to his cubicle--his again!--and slung his bag onto the mattress.

"Not for two more days, at least.  We have new sensors to install--replacements and upgrades.  The authorities are giving Lin anything she wants, to keep her cooperative."

"She growls a lot, doesn't she?" Bain asked, laughing.

"It works, and she enjoys it."

"Did I hear my name taken in vain?" Captain Lin Fieran asked as she appeared in the open hatch.  She pretended to scowl at the boy.  The expression didn't last very long, and it made her grin seem brighter when it appeared a moment later.  She mimed wiping sweat off her forehead and onto her green-on-blue striped sleeveless tunic. "That was a close call, Bain.  Sourpuss Malloy doesn't exactly like me, and if he knew how much I really wanted you to ship out with me... "  Lin shook her head.

"You really do want me on Sunsinger?" Bain asked. His voice cracked.

"Enough to eat dinner with that nasty old credit-pincher, if that was part of the bargain."  She slid into her seat at the control panel in the middle of the bridge and pressed a few buttons to check the status of the ship's repairs.

"Is that a lot?" the boy nearly whispered.

"Bain," Ganfer said, "Commander Malloy dislikes Lin very much because she refuses to eat with him.  He asks her every time he sees her."

"He smells awful," Lin muttered.  She winked at Bain, and in minutes they were red-faced with laughter.

Chapter Two

Lin took Bain to the marketplace outside Refuge's spaceport that evening for dinner. She claimed she had to get away from Sunsinger while repairs were being made, because strangers working on her ship made her nervous. She would worry less if she didn't watch.  Bain suspected that this was just part of Lin's growling. He decided the technicians did a better job because of Lin's growling.  It might be handy to learn her trick--especially if they were going to have another hold full of children on the trip back.

The marketplace was everything Bain had dreamed a market on another world could be. All the color and noise and smells as described in the story cubes--and better. Lenga was too new, too far from the regular space lanes, for its port to have a proper marketplace.  Bain suspected that even if Lenga did have one, the orphans would not have been allowed within two hundred meters of it.

From across the port, through the clatter and fuss of the repairs, he heard the sounds of the marketplace. Voices rose in laughter, song and shouts advertising whatever was for sale.  Music rang out, with so many different tunes and instruments that it all blended into a clash like a harsh version of space music.

Maybe that was what the people there tried to recreate.

The smells confused him.  He caught whiffs of mouth-watering aromas--spicy stew and fruit pies, sweets and cakes and chocolate, blended into an aroma that made him feel like he was starving.  Then a breath later Bain caught the bitter, burned stink of dirty lamp oil and filthy animals, the salty, metallic smell of people who had not washed in months, the rotten, overwhelming, gagging aroma of waste and garbage.  Then the next moment, spices and perfumes washed the bad smells out of his nose and memory: cinnamon and roses, musk and lemons.  Somewhere, someone had captured the fresh, clean scent of dew on a spring morning.

Lin and Bain walked from the spaceport, and reached the marketplace as dusk fell.Lights burned in a few open-air stalls, and more joined them every few minutes. The light came from electric lights and lamps, torches, candles, glow rods and tall tubes of something that looked like glowing green fish in yellowish water.  He almost stopped a few times as he and Lin approached the outskirts of the bustling, bee hive-busy market, just so he could stare, his mouth hanging open.  Each time his feet slowed, he saw Lin get a step ahead of him, and he hurried to keep up.Bain imagined how much trouble he could get in if he lost sight of Lin.

Not trouble from Lin, but the trouble he would face trying to find her again. He didn't want to make her regret taking him on as her return flight crew.  Not for one minute.

Despite the sounds and smells of chaos and the press of people all around him, Bain felt no danger.  Once or twice someone stepped between him and Lin, but he always caught sight of her again before he could panic.  The people all around him smiled and laughed and talked with excitement sparkling in their eyes.  No one hurried or looked worried or angry.  They were at the market to have a good time.

Bain stopped in front of a stall that sold harps and mini-lutes and other stringed instruments.  His mother had owned a harp, which his father had inherited from his grandmother and gave to her when they married.  She had started teaching Bain to play it before the shuttle crashed, because his fingers were finally long enough to span the strings.  The harp had been made of wood and had burned in the shuttle crash.

"Bain?"  Lin stopped five steps away from the stall and looked back for him.  She came back and stood next to him for a few seconds, waiting.

The harp that caught his attention was small, no more than two octaves.  The strings were metal, fine as hair, each a different color like a rainbow, moving up with the pitch. Carved roses decorated the sound box, with pale green vines painted along the column.

"It's pretty, isn't it?" the woman tending the stall asked.  She stepped out of the shadows, smiling, and nodded to Lin.  Her hair was nearly all silver, cut into a short cap of curls, and her wide, sparkling eyes were a silvery-gray as well. She was swathed in silver and blue--robe, scarves, beads.

"Branda, it's good to see you." Lin made a slight bow, touching her heart in a salute.

"And you. A new student?" Branda asked, gesturing at Bain. 

"Better. My apprentice."  She rested her hand on Bain's shoulder and shook him a little.  "He's learning too fast for my taste.  Soon, he'll be ready for a ship of his own."

"Fi'in bless you, boy," the woman said, giving him a nod in greeting.

Bain nodded back, trying not to grin like an idiot. Was Lin only being polite, making him look good in front of her friend?  Or did she really mean he was that good, that quick a learner?  It was more than enough for him that Lin called him her apprentice in public.

 "He was looking at that harp in particular."  Lin pointed at the rose harp.  "Your grandsire made it?"

"The original design, yes."  Branda reached the harp down from its hook on the support pole of the stall.  She sat on a bench and rested the harp on her knee and lightly ran her fingers across the strings.  Even through the loud, happy, pulsing chaos of the market, the pure, sweet notes of the harp sang clear.

"Like my mother's harp," Bain said. His fingers itched to hold the harp. He wanted to pluck the strings and listen to them sing.  He wanted to close his eyes and remember his mother teaching him to play.

"Your mother has a harp like this?" Branda asked. Something in her voice, a note of surprise, brought Bain's attention back to her.  "No one makes harps like this, exactly like this.It's part of our family crest."She stepped closer to Bain and turned it so he could see the undercut petals of the rose.  "Are you sure, boy?"

"Exactly alike," Bain said, his words slow.  "There was a dewdrop on the bottom petal, I remember, on the sound box." He gestured, like he would turn the harp around if Branda would let him touch it.  "It was my father's harp, but he gave it to her for a wedding present," Bain added. He had a feeling that detail was important.

Branda turned the harp, showing the rose with the dewdrop on the bottom petal. The woman met Lin's eyes, a slight smile growing on her face.

"My grandsire made three harps on this pattern and gave them to his sons and daughter as presents when each married."  Branda put the harp back into its place.  "I'd like to meet your father and mother."

"They're dead," Bain said.

"His parents had a shuttle, ferrying supplies on Lenga.  It crashed," Lin supplied.

"Lenga?" Branda nodded, both eyebrows rising. "What were their names?"

"His grandparents were Eliza and Dan Kern," Lin said, before Bain could open his mouth.

"Ah hah!"  The woman clapped her hands three times.  "We could be kin.  My grandsire's name was Kern.  Yes, I do believe we are kin," she said, voice softer, as she looked Lin in the eyes.Branda nodded, and a moment later Lin nodded, too.  Some special message passed between the two women, but Bain couldn't catch it.

"I'd like to buy a harp for Bain," Lin said.  "For the voyage back to Lenga."

"Is that the only reason you brought him here?" Branda asked with a grin. Lin shook her head, chuckling.

"But-- " Bain couldn't speak for a second.  Lin and Branda only looked at him and waited.  "It's awfully expensive.  I don't even know if I could play it right."

"If you're kin of mine, you'll be able to play." Branda nodded decisively, as if her word settled the matter.  "The talent runs true in our bloodline, like the gifts that make you a Spacer. He is a born Spacer, isn't he?" she demanded of Lin.

"Of course."  Lin brushed at her mouth.  For a second, Bain thought she pressed her index finger against her lips in a hushing gesture.  That didn't make sense, though.  "How much for a good beginner's harp?"

"Everything--and nothing."  The woman stood and bowed to Bain, then plucked up a harp from behind the counter. "This one is seasoned just right--tuned it this morning, just waiting for someone to buy."  Branda handed it to Bain and laughed when he just stood there, staring.  "Take it, boy!  Don't make me drop it."

He snatched at it, horrified at the thought of the harp falling to the dirty stones of the pavement between the stalls.  It was smaller than the rose harp, made of golden white wood, with stars etched into the wood.  He clutched it against his chest, feeling the almost silent humming of its higher strings.Bain's face began to burn as both women chuckled.

"Seriously, Branda--" Lin began, and dug into her pocket to pull out her credit chips.

"I am serious.  It's a gift for a kinsman.  On condition that next time you come here, you tell me the whole story of how you two are together.  All of it," Branda added, giving Lin a fierce, challenging look."And you make sure he plays a decent, recognizable tune for me, too."

"I'll try.  I promise. My mother was teaching me before she died--I think I can remember something," Bain hurried to say.

"Promises made are always kept by our bloodline," Branda said.  She held out her hand to Bain.

He hesitated a moment, then gave his hand to her.  They shook, sealing the promise.  He liked the feeling of her hand--thin, lined with muscle, the tendons like wires--yet delicate, sensitive.  He knew she could pluck beautiful music out of the instruments she made with her own hands.

Branda gave him a padded carrying case with a long strap, so Bain could carry the harp over his shoulder. Then two men dressed in dark blue robes with the infinity sign of the Order of Kilvordi stepped up to the stall.  Lin rested a hand on Bain's shoulder and guided him away, nodding farewell to Branda.  The woman smiled and nodded, and winked at Bain before turning to her new customers.

"You think she was right?" Bain said.  He half-shouted to be heard as a noisy group of laughing, yelling, bearded men in long robes and turbans wove their way through the crowd right next to them.Bain wrinkled up his nose, smelling spilled beer and unwashed clothes that floated in a cloud around the men.

"Right about what?"  Lin turned to look at the flow of traffic and nudged his shoulder to get him to cross to the other side of the row of stalls while the crowd was thin.

"That we could be relatives."

"I know she is. That harp was a telling point." She tugged on the hem of her tunic and adjusted the metal bands on her arms. They showed to everyone who looked that she was a Spacer captain.  It gave Lin protection in the crowded marketplace, because no one wanted to make Spacers angry and lose their services to navigate the Knaught Points.Without Spacers, traveling between planets would take generations, not months.

"Did you bring me here to meet Branda?" Bain asked before he really thought about the question.

"Why, Bain... what makes you think that?"  Lin grinned at him and pointed at a stall just a few meters ahead of them.  "Hungry?"

He nodded and grinned back. 

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