Bain winced as his voice echoed off the clear face of the partition protecting the museum display. He hadn't meant to speak his thoughts aloud. In all his travels through the Commonwealth and into the Conclave, he had seen so many odd creatures and heard such strange rumors and legends, he shouldn't have been surprised to learn that the planet Gemar had a long-standing legend of shapeshifters in their history.
If the legend of the Hoveni had been just that, story and nothing more, he wouldn't have reacted as he had.
Yet there in front of him was a casting of a stone carving taken from the Nubom Mountains range, showing pictographs of Human-shaped figures changing into animals and back again. There was historical evidence, records of documented figures in Gemar's past who were reputed to have been shapeshifters. Bain stood in the middle of an exhibit on the Hoveni that took up an entire floor in the museum here in the capital city on Gemar.
Hoveni, according to the people of Gemar, looked like ordinary Humans and could even interbreed with ordinary Humans and nobody would know the difference.
For all Bain knew, some of the people he had passed in the last two hours had Hoveni blood and could change their shape at will.
"Well," he muttered, keeping his voice soft now, "when you stop learning, you start dying. I'm not too old to keep learning, I hope."
Bain grinned and refocused his eyes to look at his reflection in the display front. He wore his hair short again, black curls clipped close to his scalp, and a narrow line of beard trimming his jaw. His shoulders were wide, his arms hard with muscle. He always made an effort to get as much exercise as possible whenever he was planetside, and it paid off in his healthy, strong, tall frame.
He was tall, certainly. In the last year he had another, totally unexpected growth spurt, and now stood a head taller than Lin. While Lin found it amusing to look up at him even when they were sitting at the control panel on Sunsinger's bridge, Bain felt awkward. It felt wrong to be taller than Lin, because she was the leader, the adult, his captain.
Today was his nineteenth birthday. Lin had told him to leave Sunsinger and spend the entire day wasting time, and not to come back to the ship until that evening, so she and Branda had time to prepare his special birthday dinner. Bain grinned, thinking of that order. Branda, their relative, hadn't landed by the time Lin shooed him out of the ship. How was Lin going to get into Branda's usual rental house at the edge of the spaceport to make his special birthday dinner if Branda hadn't arrived yet? Lin could cook very well, but she wasn't the artist with food that Branda was.
Whatever the outcome, Bain knew it would be a pleasant evening. He told himself to ignore thoughts of Lin and Branda and devote himself to enjoying his day of freedom and 'wasted time'.
"Going to a museum and learning something is not wasting time," he quietly scolded his reflection.
The question, therefore, was did he disobey Lin by doing something that benefited his mind? Or was he allowed to do anything he felt like because it was his birthday?
"Shapeshifters," Bain muttered. He gave one more glance to the copy of the stone carving, and moved on to the next display.
"Their proper name is Hoveni when talking about many -- Hoven is the name of the race," a young woman said from behind him. "The adjective form is Hovenu," she continued as he turned around to see who she spoke to. "As in 'Hovenu style of architecture'. Does that make sense? Bain, you really shouldn't stare. It isn't polite."
Bain couldn't help staring. What was Rhiann K'veer of the Leap-ship Estal'es'cai doing here in the Gemar capital museum? More important, when had she gained nearly twenty-five centimeters in height and changed from a sturdy adolescent into a slim, lovely young woman? That gray uniform she wore, traditional for Leap-captain daughters when they were away from their ships, only accented her new height and figure.
"Aren't you going to even say hello?" Rhiann asked after a few seconds. She laughed, a rippling sound light-years of difference from her adolescent chuckles, and held out her hand to him. The movement broke the paralysis holding Bain's mind and voice.
"Rhiann -- what are you doing -- I'm glad to see you, but how did you get here?" Bain hated it when his tongue and his mind couldn't seem to coordinate. He was nineteen years old today? He felt like he was ten again.
"We came in the Estal'es'cai, of course." She gestured down the long display hallway and when he nodded, she led the way to the next exhibit. "Mother has the responsibility of matching all our old star charts with the new configuration of planets. After nearly a thousand years, comets change their courses and stars shift position. We're going to make sure everybody knows where they're going and what planets to avoid before the other Leapers start visiting the Commonwealth."
"That's a lot of work."
"Maybe, but it also means we get to spend weeks on every planet, studying the cultures. I like museums. Do you, or are you just wasting time?"
"Learning." Bain grinned and stepped a little closer. He found it very pleasant to look down into Rhiann's eyes. She had grown too, but was nearly a head shorter than him. Bain found he liked that.
Rhiann was only two Standard years younger than him, so she was seventeen now. He liked that even more.
"So, you sound like you've spent more time in here than I have," he said, gesturing at the next display.
It was a diorama of a Hoveni village, homes arranged in concentric circles around a central building that was both temple and the home of the seeress who ruled the village.
"This is my second day." She smiled and leaned against the clear barrier, supporting herself with just her fingertips. "There are a lot of similarities between the Hoveni and Leapers, back at the beginning."
"Oh, there was this group of idiots who called themselves the Set'ri, and they decided they had a duty to purify the Human gene pool. They decided Hoveni weren't Human, since they could take on animal shapes. Therefore, Hoveni who intermarried with Humans were attacking the race. They came to Gemar and started a slaughter campaign."
"Nobody tried to kill Leapers or their ancestors," Bain pointed out.
"No, but trying to classify us as less than Human, sterilizing us and making us a slave class is just as bad as trying to kill us all."
"True." The last thing he wanted to do was argue with Rhiann. "So they all got killed?"
"The ones who couldn't hide, died. The rest ... they could still be alive today, walking among us. They could be scattered throughout the Commonwealth, waiting, gathering their forces, preparing for the day they're strong enough to revolt and take back their world from the evil Human interlopers."
Bain stayed silent for several seconds, considering her words. Then he saw the tiny spark of humor in her eyes, caught the slight twitching of the corner of her mouth.
"You had me really believing you for a second." He almost thumped her shoulder, like he would one of his Spacer friends. Bain stopped with his hand in the air. Rhiann was different; she wasn't just one of the guys.
Or was he the one who had changed?
"It could be true. None of the stories say what happened. The Set'ri vanished too. For all anyone knows, they could be waiting for the Hoveni to re-appear, so they can finish the job."
"That really stinks."
"I know." Rhiann tilted her head to one side and regarded him for a moment. "I'm meeting Mother and Herin downstairs and we're going to have lunch before we go back to the ship. Would you like to come with us?"
"I'd love to." Grinning, Bain swept her a bow and offered her his bent arm. He swallowed hard to keep from laughing when Rhiann blushed, then delicately rested her hand on the inside of his arm.
Captain Lorian and her daughters were in a good mood all during lunch. Bain couldn't remember the last time he had laughed so much about little, ordinary things. Lin's humor was more attuned to wry observations and grins and a few chuckles -- not bursting laughter that sometimes didn't want to stop. All three Leapers had a finely tuned talent for making observations about ordinary things and revealing the ridiculous nature of what Bain had already taken for granted. He supposed it had to do with their constant awareness that they were travelers through all the different universes where the Leap-ships roamed, not natives. Though they were finally coming 'home' to the Commonwealth, it would probably be generations before they were 'at home' here, too. It gave them a different perspective on ordinary things and prompted them to ask questions that made others look at the same things differently.
The restaurant where they ate encompassed the fifth floor, the top story of the spaceport administration building, with a spreading view of the entire landing field. Several times as ships landed, the five-centimeter-thick plas-glass panes vibrated audibly. It made Bain's teeth itch and his back muscles tense, thinking they were about to be hit. He managed to hide his reactions, or else the three K'veer women very politely refrained from mentioning it.
"I'll have to contact Sunsinger and invite Lin on a grand tour," Captain Lorian said. "We've been here several days now, and there's so much to see. This is quite a well-established world, compared to others we've visited."
"Well, being a lost colony, the people here had a good base to work from," Bain said. He scraped the last bit of bright green syrup off his plate and sat back with a sigh. Whatever was in his dessert, he liked it.
"More?" Herin offered. She smiled at him in a totally innocent manner, but Bain heard the teasing in her voice.
"No thanks. Lin and Branda would kill me ... Come for dinner? All of you, and Dr. Haral, too?" Bain hurried on. "Lin and our kinswoman, Branda are making this huge dinner for my birthday tonight and we always have three times as much as we need. It'd be no problem, really. Lin would invite you anyway, as soon as she found out you were here, and Branda is just dying to meet you. First Civ history is her hobby and she'd love to talk to all of you about the Downfall." He finally wound down as he felt his face start to burn. When would he learn to control his flood of words?
"Are you sure?" Captain Lorian asked. She smiled when he nodded, and glanced at either of her daughters. "What do you think, girls?"
"Why didn't you tell me it was your birthday?" Rhiann asked. She kicked him under the table.
"None of your business." Bain fought a temptation to stick his tongue out at her.
"We'd all be honored, Bain," Herin said. "Even the brat." She wrinkled her nose up at her younger sister. Then her mask of mature sisterly disgust faded and she grinned.
"Maybe you should check with Lin, just in case," Lorian prompted.
"Sure. No problem." Bain touched his collar link. "Ganfer, would you connect me with Lin?"
"I'm here, Bain," Lin said a moment later through his collar link. "I hope you didn't get in trouble and get yourself thrown into prison. Branda and I are up to our elbows cooking and we can't leave anything alone for the next two hours."
"Nothing like that, Lin," Captain Lorian said, leaning closer to speak into the tiny speaker chip in the collar link.
"Lorian?" She laughed. "When did you arrive on Gemar? I didn't see the Estal'es'cai listed for -- Oh, of course. You're in orbit and they only list the ships actually on the field."
"We've been here for several days. Rhiann met up with Bain at the museum improving his mind, and she forced him to join us for nooning."
"At least he's not filling himself up with garbage food. My thanks."
Bain groaned and slouched a little in his chair. Herin muffled a giggle behind her hand and Rhiann echoed his groan and rolled her eyes in commiseration.
"Bain has invited our family to join you for his birthday dinner and insists it will be all right. I just wanted to double-check," Lorian continued.
"More than all right. The moment I heard you were here I would have insisted."
"And I," another female voice said, muffled by distance, with the distinct sound of metal containers banging against each other.
"That's Branda," Bain explained.
"I look forward to meeting you, Branda," Lorian said. "Bain says you're a historian."
"As a sideline," Branda said, her voice sounding closer and clearer. "We should have this catastrophe under control by dusk. Bain knows where the house is, so don't let him slide away from you before then, all right?"
The plas-glass behind Lorian began to vibrate. Bain gritted his teeth and waited for the sub-sonic rumbling to stop.
It grew stronger, deeper, louder, setting up an echo effect in his sinus bones, traveling down his skull into his breastbone and fingers.
"Don't worry. I know there are at least a dozen interesting spots my daughters have discovered that they want to show me. We'll just drag Bain along with us."
A black blot on the horizon grew closer, rising above the blast wall of the landing field. Bain sat up straight and watched it resolve into a long, sleek black arrow-shaped ship.
Some echo of an old nightmare emerged from his half-conscious memories. Bain took a deep breath and stood. Captain Lorian stopped short and just looked at him.
"What?" Rhiann whispered loudly. She turned toward the window when he pointed. She frowned, a line appearing between her eyes, and turned more to get a better view.
"Captain." Bain gestured for her to turn and look. "I think we should --"
Red blossomed from the pointed tip of the ship, streaking across the open space between it and the restaurant's windows.
The building shook, down to its foundations. Then a hard, deafening snap-crack snapped through the building. Bain acted on instinct, throwing both arms around Rhiann and dragging her to the ground. He rolled under the table, putting himself on top of her.
The ceiling shrieked and shattered. Masonry and antique glass tiles rained down in a chiming, sharp rain. Light tubes exploded, their liquid centers popping and spurting across the tables and diners.
Another explosion rocked the building, making the floor buckle and writhe under Bain. The table leaped and toppled over. The plas-glass exploded inward.
"Mother!" Herin shrieked.