"Alan, you're a good friend. I'll always love you that way, but it's the only way I can love you. Please try to understand."
Words that he couldn't accept, Nadia McLean's words during her last day as his captain aboard the Interstellar Guard patrol ship Micmac, echoed in Alan Robie's skull as he stood at a public info-terminal in the merchant officers' lounge at Chaitanya Control. He'd already occupied that terminal for more than the quarter-hour a patron could normally use it. Things were slow tonight, so no one was waiting behind him and wanting him gone.
Things were always slow on Chaitanya just after a Trade Fair. This planet, at a roughly central point among the four major Guard bases defining the human-inhabited portion of the Milky Way Galaxy, wasn't good for much except commerce. All it had to recommend it, other than a breathable atmosphere and gravity reasonably close to that of long-lost Earth, was its location; but that location made Chaitanya the galaxy's nerve center, as far as humans were concerned.
The banks had their headquarters here. So did the great trading Houses, whose freighters traveling from world to world tied humanity together. Here merchant officers without ships sought berths, and so (in a less regulated manner) did ordinary star sailors.
Even with recent and bitter disappointment gnawing at him, Alan Robie knew he was lucky to be in the former group instead of the latter. If his father hadn't paid his cadet application fee, the younger of the two Robie sons couldn't have left his native world without signing onto a starship as an ordinary. And if he'd stayed on Franconia, he would be rotting away as some professional man's apprentice right now.
The Guard must fund its operations somehow, and in this far-flung society it did that by whatever means it could. Confiscating illicit cargoes and taxing credit accounts supplied steady revenue-but training starship officers, and charging a handsome fee to enter that training, brought in substantial sums, too. In some years more, in other years less, depending on how many trader offspring reached the minimum plebe age of 18; and how many planet-bred kids like Alan Robie joined along with them.
Trader-kids went through the process because without formal training they couldn't be licensed, and without being licensed they couldn't command their families' ships. So the Guard more or less automatically took in daughters and sons of registered trade Houses, and charged the appropriate accounts. Their own brand new 18-year-olds went immediately into the next "boot camp" (another ancient term for the so-called plebe year, spent in learning the basics before a cadet was sent out on patrol ship duty). Guard brats, of course, paid no fees for their training-so youngsters entering from other channels had to pay that much more per head.
Or so Alan's father had lamented three years earlier, as he pressed his thumb against the biometric verifier and transferred the required sum from his account to the Interstellar Guard's. Even on Franconia the Guard had a financial presence, as on any world that could claim its protection-no matter how backward a place the Guard, the traders, and most other humans considered it.
Alan didn't know his home world was "backward" when he left it, backward even in this galaxy where isolation and loss or outright abandonment of knowledge had caused many cultures to regress. Yet even then he realized his father wasn't coming up with the Guard's fee so his dreams could be fulfilled, or to give him a less restricted life than he might hope for on Franconia. Tarleton Robie merely wanted to get his younger son, who promised to be far more aggressive than his firstborn, off world before Alan grew old enough to challenge his brother.
The young man hadn't heard from his family even once, after the day he boarded a freighter that brought him here to Chaitanya. The Guard vessel he was meeting didn't arrive to claim him until after he'd been forced to hang around this lounge for two long and hungry days, because he didn't yet have a credit code identifying him as a cadet. The memory wasn't a pleasant one ... except, he supposed, by contrast.
Food money wasn't a problem today. Unless he failed to secure a berth before his credit ran out (since cadets started drawing pay as soon as patrol ship service made them useful, and he'd saved it all), it wouldn't become one. But he didn't want just any berth, dammit all!
He had to find a ship big enough to need two new officers, not just one. Because although she didn't know it yet, nor did he know how he was going to make it happen, Nadia McLean was coming with him.