Bain stared at the message in his hand, printed out on an opaque green plastic sheet. He had simply gone to the port master's office to post a few messages for Branda and Chryssa and his friend Gorgi, who had been a cadet with the Rangers for a year now. He never expected to actually receive a message to take back to Lin.
The busy port master's headquarters was almost deafening with the sounds of people talking, laughing and shouting across the long, echoing building to each other. Feet thumped and pounded and scraped on the rough tile floor. People in every imaginable color of robes or capes, trousers and dresses-- or very little at all-- moved up and down the length of the building. The planet of Cooristeen was a busy hub for space travel. There were sixteen Knaught Points within two days' flight of the planet and many ships, Spacers and Rangers, private and Fleet regularly stopped on Cooristeen to replenish supplies, make repairs, trade, or simply catch up on the news in the Commonwealth.
Now, Bain had a message for Lin, sealed with dried green sticking putty, with a smudged mark pressed into it. He looked at the mark, trying to decipher what it could be.
Well, Lin would know what the mark was. Even after four years with Lin, as her apprentice and crew, Bain knew he had only scratched the surface of what she knew. Lin, he was positive, knew everything worth knowing-- and quite a few things not vital to know, but which were fun to know anyway.
Lin would also know if he tried to read the message before she opened it. Bain felt a little tempted, but not enough to risk her disappointment in him. The only answer to the growing itch of his curiosity was to run back to Sunsinger and make sure Lin read the message right away.
His soft shipboard boots barely made a sound on the green and black speckled tiles of the floor. Bain wove his way around a group of Hafrackian traders, all dressed alike in long gray robes with huge, floppy hoods that covered their faces and long, flowing sleeves that covered their hands. The only way to tell one apart from the other was by the color and design of the braid on their cuffs and hems.
A chattering group of tourists, all dressed in billowy gray trousers, snowy white blouses and rainbow-striped vests blocked his way. Bain tried not to stare as he went around them. Why would anyone decide to go on a space-traveling tour when the war with the Mashrami was still in force? True, the plague bomb problem had died out enough that Sunsinger and other Free Trader ships weren't needed to help with the ill and carrying vaccine to the infected planets. True, Mashrami ships hadn't invaded any new territory in nearly two Standard years. But the war was still on. Bain couldn't understand why people couldn't use common sense.
He got around the tourists, finally. Then one saw him and called for him to stop. Bain knew the fat, white-haired man had to be calling him. He kept saying, "You, boy-- in the red vest." Everyone else Bain could see were adults, and he was wearing a red vest. He hesitated, wondering if he should pretend he didn't hear. Then Bain knew he had hesitated too long. He stopped and turned around to face the man who had called him.
"Boy, where are you from?" the man said, as he pushed his way through the crowd of tourists.
"Everywhere." Bain knew that wasn't exactly a lie. Lenga was where he had been born-- in orbit, during a cargo run, on board his parents' shuttle. He could honestly say he had been born in space, so space was his home. Somehow, Bain knew he shouldn't give that explanation to this red-faced, somewhat breathless man who peered at him through weepy gray eyes. Did he have an allergy?
"What do you mean, 'everywhere'?"
"I'm a Spacer. Sir," he hurried to add. Just because he didn't like someone, Lin had lectured many times, was no reason not to be polite.
"A genuine Spacer? You have your own ship? No," the fat tourist hurried to say. "You're much too young."
Bain bit his lip to keep from saying twenty different things in answer to that. Some of them were rather nasty, starting with the man being too fat to be traveling anywhere in good health, and ending with a boast that he had flown Sunsinger by himself plenty of times. He had flown the ship, but the system computers did most of the work. He was only sixteen, after all. He still had two or three years of training ahead of him before he could feel comfortable piloting Sunsinger without Lin or Ganfer watching over his shoulder.
"What was it you wanted, sir? I have to hurry back to my captain." Bain waved the green sealed message nearly in the man's face and felt some relief that he actually had an excuse.
"I want to sketch you. Such an odd outfit, so colorful." He tugged a pad of off-white paper and a few colored carbon sticks from the heavy gray shoulder bag slung around his neck, which bounced on his hip as he walked.
I'm wearing an odd outfit? Bain nearly shrieked. There was nothing wrong with his pale blue pants and black boots, green and gold striped shirt and crimson vest. His clothes were comfortable and clean and nearly brand new and he didn't stand out in a crowd half as strangely as this man and his friends with their 'uniform' traveling clothes.
"No. I can't. I have to take this message to my captain." He again waved the folded plastic sheet in front of the man's face, but closer this time in case he had trouble seeing.
"This will only take an hour at the most." The man reached out and took a grip on Bain's vest. "Come this way."
"No. Don't you understand what the word means?" Bain dug his heels in and threw his weight backwards. His heels caught in the cracks between the tiles and his movement yanked the cloth free of the man's pudgy, sweaty fingers.
Bain ducked and went to his knees, somersaulted and nearly ran into a blue-uniformed spaceport messenger as he regained his feet. A few onlookers cheered and laughed. A few yelled at the tourist to leave Bain alone. Some of the other tourists in his group laughed at the man. Others wore disgusted expressions.
"Come back here, boy!" the fat man shouted. "I want to sketch you and you will sit here and let me sketch you."
"Ganfer, tell Lin we might have to launch quick!" Bain gasped. He broke into a run, dodging and weaving around groups and single travelers and three-wheeled carts full of crates.
"What happened?" the ship-brain asked, speaking through the collar link around the boy's neck.
Bain told him in bits and pieces, interrupted every time he had to stop short and jump sideways around someone, or dodge or backstep-- and catch his breath. It seemed to take forever to get to the triple sets of doors at the end of the building, leading out onto the landing field. One set of doors was for Spacers only and led down a long walkway to the part of the landing field for privately owned ships. Bain's collar link was coded to let him through without stopping for identification or questions. He had never been so grateful for that little convenience before. The other doors led into security areas where passengers had to show identification cards and go through security scanners before they could board their ships.
As he stepped up to the doors, Bain glanced back over his shoulder. He saw a flood of white shirts and rainbow vests moving through the crowd. A moment of panic stole his breath and made him feel sick to his stomach.
The green clearance light over the door blinked and the door slid open and Bain hurried through. He thought he heard someone shouting, "Boy, stop!" but he couldn't be sure.
Outside, the warm, bitter air wrapped around him. Bain took a deep breath of the scent of shuttle exhaust and the hot, melted smell of the thermal-crete of the landing field. He broke into a run, despite the heaving of his lungs. The green plastic of the folded message sheet was crinkled in his hand, wet with the sweat on his palm. Bain hoped Lin wouldn't mind. It wasn't like the message was ruined, after all.
Sunsinger had landed at the far side of the landing field. It took Bain nearly ten minutes to reach the ship, alternating between a slow jog and walking. He could have hailed one of the many automated carts to carry him to the ship, but he needed to run and work off his nervous energy.
What was wrong with that fat old man? Didn't he have any manners? Didn't he know it was wrong to touch someone, especially a stranger, without permission? Didn't he know that when someone said no, they meant it?
Why, Bain wondered, did he feel like he had done something wrong? He hadn't-- he had tried to be polite and he hadn't punched the arrogant old tourist like he deserved.
"Bain, are you all right?" Ganfer asked, when he was only a few minutes from the ship. Bain could see Sunsinger's landing vanes from around the back of another, taller ship.
"Fine, I guess. Why?"
"Your respiration and pulse are higher than can be accounted for by merely running."
"That stupid old man made me mad, I guess." Bain slowed to a walk again and deliberately took long, deep breaths. It didn't help as much as he had hoped.
"Lin is considering pressing charges."
"Oh no! She can't."
"Why not? Your privacy was invaded and according to the security guard who witnessed it, that tourist made a public scene."
"Let me guess," Bain said with a groan. "That guard is a friend of Lin's, right?"
"She does seem to have friends on every world," the ship-brain said with a chuckle. The collar link seemed to vibrate a little with the sound. "You have nothing to be ashamed of, Bain. That man deserves to be taught a lesson on manners, if nothing else."
"Okay." He sighed and crossed the last ten meters to get to the hatch at the back of the ship. It opened as he approached.
Lin didn't meet Bain in the cargo hold as he came through the door. That was a relief. Maybe things weren't as bad as he imagined, if she didn't run down to meet him and check him over. Bain wiped his face dry and tried to finger-comb his thick, black hair back into place as he walked up the access tube to the bridge.
"If it's any comfort," Lin said as he stepped through the hatch onto the bridge, "that bouthra has had complaints lodged against him in nearly every store and public attraction on Cooristeen." She turned around now from her seat at the control panel. "Those self-defense lessons paid off, didn't they?"
She leaned back in her chair and stretched her arms up to the ceiling, causing the gauzy, wide sleeves of her emerald caftan to slide down her arms. They revealed the silver bands on each arm that matched the silver clips holding her long hair back from her face. Lin had started wearing dresses whenever they were in port in the last few months. Bain didn't know why, and that bothered him. He didn't like Lin changing her habits and patterns.
"Huh?" Bain leaned back against the wall. He wondered why he felt so lost.
"That was a neat little tumble and evade maneuver you pulled. My friend Jaek called to tell me about it while Ganfer was getting the story from you."
"Lin … honest, I didn't mean to make trouble!"
"You didn't. Bain, that man was in the wrong in the way he talked to you, the way he touched you without permission, and the way he demanded you do what he wanted. You had every right to refuse and he had no right to even try to detain you."
"But it wasn't anything really bad..." He shuffled around to the galley booth and sat down.
"This time, no. Bain, people like that have no respect for other people. What if you were a girl, and he wanted sexual contact?"
"Yuck!" Bain felt sorry for any woman that man tried to touch.
"See? If enough people complain, he'll have a record built against him and maybe he won't try something worse. You were very well able to defend yourself. What if the next person isn't able to defend herself?"
"Oh." He nodded. The hot feeling in his face, the jittery feeling in his stomach started to fade. "So, I have a responsibility to stop him now, before he does worse things?"
"Exactly." Lin waited a moment, then a smile caught one corner of her mouth. "So, where's this all-important message you had to deliver to your captain?"
"Oh." His face flamed again, but Bain grinned now. He stood and hurried across the deck to the control panel. He tried to smooth the crumpled plastic sheet on the edge of the panel before he gave it to Lin.
"Thank goodness we use flimsies instead of paper for printed messages," she said. The other corner of her mouth curved up now. Then Lin turned the folded message over and her mouth dropped open.
"You know what this is?" She traced the edge of the sealing putty with her fingernail. Bain shook his head. "It's the seal of the judiciary board of the Commonwealth Council."
"We didn't do anything! Did we?"
"Probably, but they wouldn't send messages to accused criminals, Bain. They'd send the Fleet, or even the Rangers after us. They certainly wouldn't warn us if we were in trouble." Lin chuckled and reached up to tousle his hair. "That last letter from Gil finally makes sense now. He said the Council was making some rumbling noises about what we found on the Mashrami homeworld. He was probably warning us this would be coming."
"But what is it?"
Lin made a production of prying the seal off the folded edge of the message. She unfolded it and read through it-- twice-- moving her lips as she read silently. Then she nodded and smiled, that particular flat-lipped smile of grim satisfaction.
"We've been called to Centralis to testify before the Commonwealth Council's science tribunal, to investigate the decline in the Mashrami threat." She snorted. "Threat. As if the Mashrami have just been hanging there in space calling us names and throwing rotten fruit at us."
"We're going to Centralis?"
"As soon as we can. You don't say no to the Commonwealth Council, even if they do consider themselves in your debt."
"They said that?" Bain's voice squeaked. He barely noticed.
Lin turned the message sheet around so he could read it. Sure enough, the words, in consideration of the great debt the Commonwealth owes the captain and crew of Free Trader ship Sunsinger for their help in uncovering the Mashrami's homeworld and their oncoming demise, were there printed clear and bright for anyone to see.
"Ganfer, how soon can we launch?"
"According to the port traffic control computers, we have a three-hour wait, including our pre-launch check. If we notify them of the Commonwealth Council's summons, that can likely be trimmed to an hour," the ship-brain replied in his most bland voice.
"Oh, by all means, notify them," she said with a chuckle. She met Bain's gaze and grinned, eyes sparkling. He grinned back. In a few moments, they were both laughing hard enough to get red in the face.