"You want to fill my ship with children?" The woman's voice cracked with strain and penetrated the thick door of the planetary governor's office. "I run a cargo ship, not a passenger liner."
Bain Kern paused in the lobby door and tried to hear better. The orphanage director had sent him here to deliver a message. Even though nobody would tell the children anything, everybody in the orphanage knew that the colony on Lenga was being evacuated. Their planet was too close to the path of destruction that the enemy Mashrami ships were cutting through civilized space. Bain guessed that woman with the governor didn't want to be part of the evacuation; maybe she wanted to stay and fight. He would have stayed to fight the invaders if he could. He knew it was useless to ask. He was just a boy, an orphan, and he was never allowed to do anything exciting.
Governor Cowrun's secretary had left three weeks before to join the space fleet. Who could Bain give the message to? Should he just leave the paper on the desk here in the lobby, or wait to put it in the governor's hand? He stood in front of the secretary's abandoned, dusty desk while he thought. The people inside the office kept talking, but in softer voices.Bain couldn't hear anything. He stepped a little closer to the door.
It was cool here compared to outside. In the middle of the planet's ten-month summer, any place with a roof and shadows felt cool. Bain sat on the hard wooden bench across from the office, so he could see inside when the door opened.
Dust coated everything, not just the secretary's desk. Bain saw empty drawers hanging open and doors standing ajar in echoing empty supply cabinets. He wondered how the governor got any work done without papers, supplies or his secretary.
Bain closed his eyes and tried to get comfortable on the bench. He didn't mind waiting. Anything was better than staying in the hot orphanage dormitory as a target for the bullies. No one was in a good mood because of the alien Mashrami attacks. The little children were allowed to cry. The bullies picked on everyone else. The ones in between--like Bain--had to put up with it.
Bain wondered if he could work for the governor. That would get him out of the dormitory when his lessons were done. The office was cool, and it was too hot to play outside. The bullies picked on him because he was smarter than most of the boys his age. Bain thought he could handle the work of a secretary.
Maybe someday he could earn money to go to school and learn to work on a spaceship. That was what Bain wanted more than anything in the world--even more than getting away from bullies like Toly Gaber. He wanted to be a Spacer and travel between the stars.
"It's worth trying," Bain whispered. "I don't care how dusty and boring it is in here, it's better than outside."
Bain was tired of hot sunshine, scorching air, dust, brown plants and everyone telling him to conserve water. The war with the Mashrami didn't make life much more interesting. No one told the orphans anything, but they could guess. The Mashrami invaders had found a Knaught Point to make the jump from their galaxy and were trying to take over the galaxies where the Humans of the Commonwealth had lived for nearly three centuries.
The Mashrami were the only interesting part of the war. No one knew what they looked like; the alien invaders never left their ships. They used stun bombs or electronic scramblers that killed computers when they attacked ships in the cold silence of space. They never used voice communication to demand surrender from the worlds they attacked. Some people said the Mashrami didn't have voices, or even mouths.
"Someday, Cowrun," the woman growled, loud and clear as the door swung open.
Bain stiffened and kept his eyes straight ahead. He hoped he wouldn't get in trouble for staying, but this was exciting!
"Lin, I know you better than you think. You don't hate children. Neither does Ganfer," Cowrun said.
"That's Captain Fieran, to you." She stepped through the door.
Bain tried not to stare, but he had never seen a captain before. Captain Lin Fieran was a small woman, maybe a hand taller than Bain, and he was only in his early teens. She had glossy black hair pulled back in a thick braid that fell past her waist. It had streaks of silver in it. Bain had never seen anyone old enough to get silver in their hair.
Her face and bare arms were the light cocoa brown of Spacers who used thin radiation shield plates to get better speed. Her loose, black trousers were tucked into silver mesh boots with soft soles, so she didn't make a sound when she walked. Her sleeveless shirt was a patchwork of glossy colors: royal blue, crimson, emerald green and gold, belted at the waist with a silver mesh sash.
She wore a copper band on each arm, between elbow and shoulder. Their flashing lights showed different ship functions. A Spacer was always in contact with her ship.
Bain wanted more than ever to be a Spacer. In space, he could listen to all the information bands. He could find the truth about the war, if the Humans were winning or losing. He could travel among the planets and explore. He could help the Commonwealth in the war.
"Lin," Governor Cowrun said, his voice gentling, "the children won't hurt your precious ship." He leaned his skeletal frame against the wall and gave her a pitying smile. The dim light from his office created a halo behind his balding head, catching in the fringe of his curly black hair.
"You think I'm scared of that?" She snorted and turned away and saw Bain. She paused, her hazel eyes widening a little.
Bain knew she saw just another dusty, sweaty, colony boy, his face tanned from the long summer; black hair shaggy because no one had tied him down for a haircut recently; his dust-colored clothes tight and patched because clothes as well as books and medicine were in short supply. He wondered if she could tell that two generations back, his family had roamed space, too.
"No." Cowrun shook his head. His blue eyes sparkled. "I think you've been alone too long."
"I have Ganfer. Who could be alone with that busybody hailing every ship within ten light-years?" Lin grinned at Bain, then turned back to Cowrun. "Is that one of your defenseless orphans? He doesn't look defenseless to me."
"Boy, what are you doing here?" the governor asked.
"Message from Director Chandly, sir," Bain said. He slid off the bench and hurried across the room to give the paper to Governor Cowrun.
The problem with living in a war, Bain decided, was that adults always stopped talking when children were in the room. Just because they were children didn't mean they couldn't understand. He knew it was useless staying--the conversation wouldn't be interesting again until he was gone.
"Thank you. When you go back, tell the director to come see me immediately. It's very important," Cowrun said. He nodded for Bain to go.
"Wait," Lin said. She rested her hand on Bain's shoulder. Her eyes narrowed a little as she studied him. Bain felt like she could see through him, all his hopes and dreams. "Are you afraid of the Mashrami?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Bain was proud he remembered his manners. The dormitory parents had to scold him sometimes, because he forgot to say ma'am and sir and please and thank you.
"Because they're trying to kill us, and we don't know why. And because we can't fight back real well."
"Well, the Fleet is learning to fight back better every quarter." She frowned at Cowrun, and Bain was positive now Lin wanted to be part of the fighting and learning. "They try to destroy Human colonies because they want our worlds."
"But there are lots of planets nobody lives on. Why do they have to have our planets?" he blurted.
"Good question." Her hand gripped his shoulder a little tighter before she released him. "What's your name?"
"Bain Kern--I mean, Chobainian Kern, Ma'am."
"What do your parents do?"
"Ma'am, they're dead." Bain tried to keep his voice soft, so it wouldn't sound like he was correcting her. He didn't want to make a Spacer captain angry.
"Well." She softened her voice. "Sorry, I forgot. What did they do before they died?"
"We had a shuttle, and my father transported supplies and passengers between the farms and the factories."
"Were you training to be a pilot?" Lin smiled, but it wasn't a teasing smile. Bain decided he liked her.
"I want to be a Spacer, Ma'am. My grandparents were Spacers, until they settled here."
"Oh?" She frowned a little, but Bain didn't think she was angry. "What were their names?"
"Lissa and Dan Kern."
"What was your grandmother's maiden name?"
"I don't know."
"All the family records were destroyed when their shuttle crashed," Governor Cowrun offered. "They never registered with the authorities, and they lived on their ship. You know how Spacers are."
"I do indeed," Lin said with a grin. She winked at Bain, surprising him. "Well, Cowrun, I have to talk over your request with Ganfer, but I think he'll have no trouble with this job."
"Ganfer wasn't my worry," the man muttered. He earned a chuckle from Lin. Their teasing surprised Bain--lately, all adults were grumpy, arguing about the smallest problems.
"I do have a few conditions," Lin added.
"Of course." A broad smile crossed his face.
"First, you make as few modifications to Sunsinger as possible. No fancy little rooms, no teaching computers, no robot nurses on my ship." Lin ticked off items on her fingers as she spoke. "The flight is going to be fast, and some children get space-sick when they hit free-fall. Just new insulation and seals in the cargo holds, net bunks and stasis seats--that's all they need.
"Next, I don't want all babies. I want a wide range of ages. The older children can take care of the littles, so we'll get more orphans off planet. Fewer interfering adults on my ship." Lin studied Bain as she spoke. Her look made him feel cold inside. He couldn't breathe for a few seconds.
"Last," Lin said, putting her hand on his shoulder, "this boy goes in the first load I take."
"I think that can be arranged." Cowrun nodded at Bain, and his smile grew wider.
"You'd better. I want someone with Spacer blood around, if we run into any troubles."
"Do you understand?" the man asked, bending closer to Bain. "If there's any trouble, the captain is going to have to depend on you."
"Yes, Sir! Yes, Ma'am!" Bain tried to bow, but his body wouldn't work right. Inside, he thought he could start to fly without jet pack or wings or even a ship. He was going into space!
For the first time in the six months since his parents died in the shuttle crash, Bain didn't hate the sight of the orphanage. He stood on the ridge above the valley where the compound lay and studied the five buildings below him. Soon, he would leave it behind forever. That thought made him happier than he had felt in a long time.
The compound was a square, with four long buildings on the sides, and a small, square building in the middle. Two buildings, on the north and south, were dormitories. The east and west buildings were classrooms, offices, the dining hall and storage rooms. The little center building was for prayers, worship and meetings. Sister Koril, a member of the Order of Kilvordi, led the services and counseled anyone in the whole colony who needed help. Bain liked her because she wasn't afraid of the Mashrami landing and killing her. He wondered if that was because she spent all her time studying about Fi'in and praying, or if there was some other reason. Adults never told children anything.
In the spring, there was grass and flowers, and the children played games like kickball and tag. Now, everything was dust in the hot sunshine. No one played outside.
Bain wondered what kind of games he could play on the ship. That reminded him--he hadn't even asked Captain Lin Fieran the name of her ship. Who was Ganfer? Crew? He had a hundred questions to ask. He had been too surprised, too glad to ask before he left the governor's office.
He was going into space!
Bain wondered who to tell first. Because he was new, the other boys hadn't made friends with him until a little while ago.They studied with him and picked him for chore groups because Bain was smart and a hard worker. He didn't get picked first for game teams yet. Well, maybe he wouldn't tell anyone. If they wouldn't be his friends, why should he care?
Bain kicked a clod of dirt and started down the path to the orphanage. The clod shattered into a cloud of dust, almost making him choke. Bain ran a few steps to escape the dust.
He slowed to a walk again. Even a few running steps made him sweaty and a little dizzy. Bain wouldn't miss the heat. In his parents' shuttle, they had kept the air dry and cool. They had hundreds of books and songs on disk, and his mother was teaching him to play her harp and --
"Hey, space-brain!" Toly Gaber came around a corner as Bain reached the end of the north building. He spread his arms to block the path. Bain tried to go around him, and Toly grabbed him by his collar. "Not so fast."
Bain kept his mouth closed and tried not to look Toly in the eye. He wanted to hit the fat, sweaty, blond bully. He wanted to hit him so much that his stomach hurt--but Bain had tried that the first time Toly picked on him. Bain got a bloody nose and a black eye that lasted for nearly a week. Toly had extra dishwashing duty for punishment. He blamed Bain and beat him up again when no adults could see. Bain got a lecture on how hitting people never solved any problems.
It didn't do any good to fight back.
"What do you want?" Bain asked, keeping his voice soft and flat. He knew it was stupid to get Toly angry, but he refused to sound afraid--even if he was.
"The director sent you to the governor, didn't she?" Toly shook Bain until he nodded. "What about?"
"I didn't read the message."
"You're stupid, you know that?"
"It was sealed. I would have got in trouble."
"Coward." Toly shook Bain again, then let him go.
Bain turned and ran. He could run faster than anyone. In seconds, he heard Toly gasping for breath, his fat feet slapping hard on the ground, raising dust high enough to choke on. Bain hated the heat, but he hated bruises and bloody noses even more.
Toly gave up before Bain reached the steps at the end of the east building, where Director Chandly had her office. Bain grinned and leaned against the wall to catch his breath. The wall was hot and dry, soaking the sweat out of his clothes and arms. It felt cool compared to the air. He was still panting when he went inside, but he had a message to deliver, and the governor had said it was important.
"Running in this heat?" Director Chandly said when Bain stepped into her shadowed office. She narrowed her eyes a little and studied the boy. "Let me guess--Toly Gaber picking on you again?"
"Yes, Ma'am," Bain mumbled.
"I wish I could tell you it's better to get beat up than risk heat stroke, running in this weather." She shook her head and sighed. "I don't know why I agreed to run an orphanage at my age. Well, what did Governor Cowrun say?"
"He said he wants you to come see him right away. It's very important." Bain resisted the temptation to blurt the good news, that Captain Lin Fieran wanted him to ride out in her ship.
"I hope 'very important' translates into good news." The woman stood, managing a smile. She brushed a few strands of white hair out of her thin face and nodded. Something sparkled in her dark brown eyes. "I always ask you to run errands because you're trustworthy, Bain--and fast. You do what's right and just ignore those bullies, understand?"
"Yes, Ma'am." He looked at his dusty boot toes and tried not to fidget. Bain hated getting lectures, even when an adult mixed it with praise. They just didn't understand what it was like, having Toly always picking on him.
"You're smart. One of these days, you'll do things Toly and his friends can't even dream about. They'll wish you were their friend."
"Yes, Ma'am." Bain looked up from his boots. "Ma'am, could I go to the cemetery?"
"Finished with your lessons?"
Bain nodded, and she waved for him to leave. He almost ran when he left her office, because he felt good even in the heat and dust.