Bain hoped he would never have to stand before the Commonwealth Council as a defendant. He had thought it had been bad enough when he accompanied Lin, just sitting silent before the science arm of the Council to testify about the Mashrami world they had found. Now, answering questions in front of the entire Commonwealth Council -- all eighty members -- he looked back on those boring, frustrating weeks with fondness.
The future of the Leapers and the Commonwealth's relationship with them depended partially on his words. Bain hoped he said the right things, telling the truth clearly and fully and persuading the Council members.
He sat on the right side of the short table, Lin on the left, both of them dressed somberly in black pants and high boots, white shirts with open collars so their collar links showed clearly. Bain wore his usual scarlet vest and Lin wore royal blue. They almost didn't look like Spacers, with so few colors; they looked like they wore a type of uniform. Compared to the glossy, severe black with silver and royal blue piping of Captain Lorian's uniform, he thought their clothes looked almost casual.
Captain Lorian sat between Lin and Bain, facing the ranks of the Commonwealth Council in full session. Bain was used to lecture halls at the Commonwealth Upper University where the students sat in a bleacher-like situation; long, curved, narrow tables set on wide steps, descending like an amphitheater, with the lecturer down on the ground in a little pit. This time, the Council sat in the amphitheater seats and the people they questioned sat in the lecturer's place. Bain didn't like it. Now he knew how germs felt under intense scrutiny in a high-powered microscope.
Bain and Lin and Captain Lorian answered questions, sometimes the same questions phrased twenty different ways. Two days, and now an hour into the third day, it had become a pattern he recognized. First, Lorian was asked to explain in brief the history of the Leapers, where they had come from and why they wanted to 'return' to the Commonwealth. Then Lin and Bain were asked if they believed or supported her claims, and why. Then, they were asked to explain yet again what had happened on N'horba.
That desert world, Bain suspected, was the problem. Haddan Caderi and his pirate friends in the Conclave had managed to contact the Commonwealth Council about his encounter with Sunsinger and the Estal'es'cai. Caderi had made a complaint about the Leapers, told some fantastic story that warped the truth of the events. He even had the gall to deny he had threatened Herin's life to try to get control of the Leapers' ability to go from one star system to another in days instead of months. Despite the fact that Caderi already had a negative reputation, so his words couldn't be trusted, the Commonwealth Council was obliged to investigate it. Caderi was someone of power in the Conclave. The Council investigated his story for the sake of peace. Unfortunately, it seemed to Bain that whatever Lorian, Lin and he said, part of it confirmed the man's half-truths.
Someday, when my Scouts are up and running, things like this won't happen again, Bain vowed. I'll make them so nobody will ever question what they say. They'll be impartial and trustworthy, the best friends anybody could want -- and the worst enemies. We'll be able to stand before the entire Council and not be afraid or nervous. We'll make sure the truth is told, not a bunch of stupid diplomatic lies.
The wide, double doors at the far right of the Council's hall slammed open and a tall, sweating man in the long green and blue coat of a Council page hurried into the room. He held out a message disk and reader to the Moderator, saluted, then respectfully stood back and waited.
Total silence filled the vaulted hall while the Moderator frowned and bowed his silver-haired head over the reader screen.
Bain held onto the seat of his chair tightly enough to whiten his knuckles. No one, except for extreme emergencies, ever interrupted the Commonwealth Council when it was in full session. Whatever had just happened, it had to be important enough to override this investigation of Leapers and their implications for the Commonwealth.
He sat so stiff and tight with tension, Bain's neck hurt when he turned to look at Lin and see if she had any clues. On the other side of Captain Lorian, Lin sat forward slightly, elbows resting on the edge of the table, face carefully blank and unreadable. Her eyes focused on the Moderator. The man still read the screen, frowning.
Captain Lorian turned to look at Bain. She raised one eyebrow and tilted her head slightly toward Moderator. Bain shook his head just a little and shrugged, barely enough motion to shift his vest on his shoulders.
"Captain Fieran." The Moderator stood, shifting his long dark green robe so it glimmered like a wet tree in the rain. "This session is being dismissed for consideration of a pressing matter. Will you stay when your companions leave? The Commonwealth Council has need of your assistance."
"Anything, sir," Lin said, standing. "You know that."
"Yes, we do." He smiled for the first time since the session started. "Captain Lorian K'veer, we beg your indulgence for an unknown time while we put this investigation aside. Your ship is requested to stay in orbit around Centralis. All your needs will be supplied and your crew will be permitted visitor access to the facilities of the University as long as you are accompanied by authorized personnel." The Moderator had the decency to shrug and look a bit embarrassed by the provision.
Two days ago, Bain would have been furious that the Leapers were being treated like a danger. Now he understood a little more about the security of the Commonwealth and Centralis. He and Lin knew the Leapers were friends and allies, honorable people, but the Council didn't know that. They were in charge of the safety of the entire Commonwealth. They had to protect the Leapers from people who might want to hurt them, to either drive them out of the Commonwealth's universe or steal their technology.
Bain sometimes wondered what the Council would think if they knew Leapers possessed technology several steps above that of the Commonwealth, and they knew enough about the star systems of the Commonwealth and Conclave to go anywhere they wanted without guides or permission. Yet the Leapers wanted permission to come and go freely.
That reminded him of a few promises he had made.
"Sir?" Bain nearly choked when he realized he had spoken without being asked a question. He hoped he didn't look as shaken as he felt, when the Moderator turned to look at him.
"Yes, Apprentice Kern?" Did the man smile a little?
"Sir, I promised the captain's daughters a tour of Centralis when the Leapers were granted permission to come down. If you don't need me, may I send for them? They're getting ... bored," he finally said.
"Bored," the Moderator echoed. He definitely did smile this time. "Permission granted. Make sure they have a good time."
"Yes, sir." Bain saluted.
Nobody laughed, though he did catch a few smiles in the lower rows of the Council. When he and Lorian were led outside by another Council page, Bain felt like running and turning a few cartwheels for pure delight. Free of the Council questions for the day, he could show Herin and Rhiann around Centralis.
"Oh." His face felt warm when he turned back to Captain Lorian. "Would you like to come with us?"
"Thank you, Bain." The woman shook her head. "I have quite a lot of work to catch up on, back on my ship. I think I'll hibernate for a few days, until this current emergency is over. You and the girls have a good time."
This was going to be a wonderful day. He knew exactly who to contact and what to do. First he would call Gorgi Cole and ask his friend to help him take care of Captain Lorian's daughters, then he would call his cousin, Dr. Ian Frurin and his wife, Heleen. He knew the esteemed scientists would love to meet Leapers. Security would be no problem because Gorgi was a Ranger and both scientists were adjutants to the Council. Whatever Rhiann and Herin said that might not be permitted for everyone to know, it would be all right for those three to hear.
Bain said good-bye to Captain Lorian outside the gate to the shuttle that would take her back to the Estal'es'cai, and hurried away to make his arrangements. He congratulated himself on being so smart.
An hour later, Bain wondered if perhaps he wasn't the stupidest young man in the Commonwealth, maybe in the whole universe.
Gorgi Cole was supposed to be Bain's best friend, but right at that moment, Bain was thoroughly disgusted with him.
"It's because he's old," Rhiann K'veer confided in a loud whisper.
She looked at her older sister Herin, walking hand-in-hand with Gorgi four paces ahead of her and Bain down the aisles of disk shelves in the University library. She shook her dark head and glanced sideways up at him, then crossed her eyes and pretended to stick her finger down her throat to induce gagging.
Bain and Rhiann slapped their hands over their mouths at the same moment to muffle laughter. Gorgi and Herin never heard a thing. The pale-haired older boy was too busy pointing out the library's features and glories to the Leap captain's daughter.
Somewhere on the other side of the domed asteroid world of Centralis, the seat of government for the Commonwealth, Lin still met with the Commonwealth Council. Bain didn't know whether to be impressed or worried whenever he thought about it. The eighty members of the Commonwealth Council were rarely ever all in session or even all present on Centralis at the same time. It had taken nearly three months of sending out messages and the fastest Spacer pilots and ships to gather everyone back to Centralis. The appearance of Leap-ships in the Commonwealth universe, with the Estal'es'cai as the flagship for the fleet and Captain Lorian K'veer as ambassador, had implications both technological and social that Bain sometimes didn't want to consider.
He had to consider it, though. If he wanted to establish his Scouts as a fast, ever-ready, technologically advanced force of protection, aid and exploration to serve the Commonwealth, he had to keep himself current and conversant with all the social changes in the Commonwealth. He suspected he would have to keep tabs on what was going on in the Conclave, too, just to avoid trouble.
What exactly had been so important to dismiss the Council's session with Captain Lorian and ask Lin to stay? Whatever it was, Bain knew Sunsinger was headed for an important mission. He felt a flicker of disgust that he hadn't been asked to stay. He was crew for Sunsinger, wasn't he?
Right now, what mattered more to him was getting Rhiann and Herin away for some fun today. Since the day the Leapers came into orbit around Centralis, throngs of people kept trying to get private interviews with the crew of the Estal'es'cai to talk to them, ask about the Leap-ships, gain access to the ship and ask favors. The captain's daughters were the oldest children on the ship; the others were all eight years and under. They could stay on board the ship in the nursery and no one would bother them. They wouldn't be upset at being confined. Herin and Rhiann, though, were on the point of going stir-crazy being confined to the ship. Bain thought that between him and Gorgi, they could protect the Leaper girls and keep them entertained.
Bain just wished Gorgi and Herin hadn't taken one look into each other's eyes and decided to ignore him and Rhiann for the rest of the day.
Well, maybe it wasn't quite a conscious decision, Bain conceded. They had both gotten goofy-looking grins on their faces and blushed a little and stammered a few things. Neither one made sense.
"Can we see the garden where you found Joobi?" Rhiann asked.
"Joobi?" Gorgi tore his gaze from Herin's and stared at Bain. "You told them about Joobi?"
"There isn't much to do around here if you're confined to your ship all the time," Bain said. "I told them lots of stories, about us finding the plague bomb and blowing it up and my cousin, Dr. Frurin and the anti-virus and all that. It's all right -- I asked permission, first," he hurried to add.
"We do need to know about the Mashrami threat, even if it is dying away," Herin said. She smiled and beckoned out through the door into the bright sunlight. At this time of day, the lights in the domes weren't needed to augment what came from that system's central star/sun. "Please, Gorgi? We haven't been down on solid ground since Norbra. I really need to stretch my legs."
"N'horba," Gorgi corrected absently. He looked at both girls, then back at Bain. "You told them all about what we did?"
"You didn't say to keep it a secret!" Bain didn't know if he should punch Gorgi or just stalk away and leave him behind. "Come on." He beckoned to Rhiann and headed for the door leading outside.
"Where did you bury him?" Rhiann asked.
Gorgi and Herin hurried to catch up with them. It took twenty minutes to get from the library to the dome where Dr. Frurin had his quarters, combined living area and laboratory. A park-like area ringed the tall buildings in this dome and both Bain and Gorgi knew exactly where to go when they stepped through the airlock. When they explored the drainage pipe, Herin started to slip. Gorgi caught her hand again to help her retain her balance, and then neither one let go.
Bain was thoroughly disgusted.
"It happens when you get old," Rhiann said once she had her giggles under control again. "Mumma explained all that hormone and reproductive mush to us a long time ago." Her eyes narrowed a little. "You aren't going to get all sappy about Herin, are you?"
"I've got better things to do," Bain whispered. Then a stray thought occurred to him and it made his face burn. He was more than old enough to start showing some interest in girls, according to Lin. She didn't seem worried that he didn't have time for all that idiocy, so Bain didn't worry. But, if he was going to get interested in a girl, he would prefer it be Rhiann. What would she say if he told her that? Bain knew he wouldn't act like a space-crazy idiot like Gorgi, but would that make any difference?
His answer satisfied Rhiann and she didn't say anything about his reddening face.
After a few more minutes poking around the park, explaining what they had done and seen there, Bain led everyone to Dr. Frurin's quarters. When he had contacted his distant relative to ask his help in showing the Leaper girls around Centralis, Dr. Frurin and Heleen had insisted on treating them all to lunch at Cooria's.
"It's a distinct honor to meet you, Mistress Herin, Mistress Rhiann," Dr. Frurin said when Bain led Gorgi, Rhiann and Herin up to the couple's living quarters. He crossed his wrists over his chest and bowed from the hips to both girls. A moment later, his solemn expression cracked into a grin. "I knew that archaic form would be needed someday. Besides wedding ceremonies," he added, with a wink for his wife.
"You didn't tell anyone they were coming, did you?" Bain asked.
"Ian told Cooria that he would appreciate a private room in the back," Heleen hurried to say. "She had a right to know why we needed a private room for only the six of us, but she said she would tell no one, and serve us herself. You can trust Cooria to be discreet." She pressed the button to open the door and they all stepped into the hall again.
"Bain is worried we'll get mobbed," Rhiann said. "How can anybody tell we're Leapers, anyway? We're not in uniform, and as far as I can tell, we look like everybody else. Do we speak with a bad accent, maybe?"
"No, your Commonwealth Standard is perfectly clear," Dr. Frurin said. "We might attract a little attention if anybody recognizes me ... however, in all the fuss no one will pay any attention to you or your sister."
"Good." She nodded toward Herin and Gorgi, who had taken hold of each other's hand again as they stepped into the lift car. "Will that cause any trouble?"
"Trouble?" Herin echoed. She glanced around at their small group, then down at Gorgi's hand holding hers. She blushed and tugged her hand free. "Is that wrong, here?"
"Not exactly wrong, but people might think you two were engaged," Heleen said. She winked at Herin.
Gorgi groaned and stepped back, almost retreating behind Bain. That brought giggles from Rhiann.
"Not ready yet?" Dr. Frurin said. "I know the feeling exactly. It took me nearly ten years to get up the courage to ask Heleen."
"That was after a crisis shoved our feelings up front where we had to deal with them," his wife added. She stepped close to him and smiled when he slid an arm around her waist.
Bain wondered why the light embrace looked perfectly fine on them, but it made him feel almost ill to see Gorgi and Herin holding hands.
"You'll understand when you're older," Dr. Frurin said, leaning toward Bain and whispering. He nodded toward Rhiann. "Someday, the two of you ..." He flinched as Heleen gave him a light slap on the shoulder.
"Ian, don't tease them so."
"About what?" Rhiann wanted to know.
The car door slid open, saving Dr. Frurin from answering and Bain from more embarrassment. The guards at the door nodded to them as they left the building. Bain looked back and saw one of the guards gesturing at their group. He hoped it was because of Dr. Frurin, and not because they recognized Herin and Rhiann from the news broadcasts.
Cooria's little restaurant had only two customers, old men sitting at a huge table with a five-level Strategems game set up in the middle and pots of the ubiquitous tea and creams scattered all around it. Neither one glanced up as their group of six came in the door. Cooria hurried out to meet them, her veils swaying, soft hints of pale blue and green and purple in the shadows. She escorted them to a back room, to a long table already set with pots of cream and honey, cups and little cookies and crackers. She bowed when Dr. Frurin thanked her delightedly, and left.
"She knows exactly what I like," he explained as he gestured for them all to take their seats.
"Considering you've been coming here at least twice a month for years, that's not hard," Heleen said with a sigh and a smile. She and her husband matched glances and both chuckled.
The next ten minutes were spent explaining and sampling the wide variety of flavored creams and honeys, and setting up their cups with the hot, bitter black tea Cooria brought to them in three pots. The woman stayed to get their order. Dr. Frurin chose what they would all eat, as he usually did. Bain was satisfied to let his relative choose because the man certainly knew better than he did what newcomers to the spicy food would be able to handle best.
"Now," Dr. Frurin said when Cooria had gone to take their order to the cook, "tell me, how do you like Centralis?"
Herin looked at Rhiann, and she looked back at her sister, then both girls burst out laughing. They tried to stop themselves, hands over their mouths, turning red with tears in their eyes.
"This is their first time down since we got here," Bain explained when both doctors looked slightly confused. "We haven't seen much besides the library and the park on the way here."
"Bain told them all about the anti-virus and Joobi," Gorgi grumbled. "They wanted to see the drainage tunnel and the park."
"Ah, that explains a great deal," Dr. Frurin said.
"No, not that exactly," Herin said, controlling her giggles a little better than Rhiann. "We just thought you'd be bursting with all sorts of technical questions about Leapers. Not a question like we're just tourists."
"Well, he's still learning to be a good host," Heleen said. Her voice rippled, as if she fought some giggles of her own.
"Doctor?" Cooria stood in the curtained doorway of the little room. "You have a visitor. Is it all right to let her in?"
"Who would even know we're here?" Dr. Frurin said, rising from the table. He nodded.
Cooria stepped back and Lin came through the curtain. She frowned, but relaxed a little when she saw the six of them together.
"I thought you'd all be here," she said, managing a tight smile. "Good, I'm not breaking up your lunch. Yet."
"Something wrong?" Bain stood as she stepped up to the table.
"We've been asked to go to Aramar." Lin rested a hand on his shoulder. "The sooner we launch and head for the Knaught Point, the better for everyone."
"Who asked you?" Heleen asked.
"Ambassador Lirander, through the Council."
"How do you know Jay'san?" Dr. Frurin wanted to know.
"More old friends," Bain said with a sigh. He felt like laughing.
"Well ... I've known Jay'san and Corrine since their first assignment. I did a lot of diplomatic ferrying for a while, before the Mashrami trouble broke out." Lin shrugged.
"Wait a minute," Gorgi said. "You know Ambassador Lirander well enough to be on a first-name basis with him?" He shook his head and whistled softly in appreciation.
"Oh, dear, I think we've lost the girls," Heleen said, gesturing at Herin and Rhiann who just listened with little frowns on their faces.
"I'm half lost myself," Bain admitted.
"All right, here's the long and short of it," Lin said. She settled down at the table in one of the empty chairs and poured herself a cup of tea. "Aramar is another one of the First Civ colony worlds that was lost during the Downfall."
She paused in dumping chocolate cream into her tea, and waited for the girls to nod that they understood. During the voyage from N'horba to Centralis, Bain had spent hours explaining his history lesson disks to Captain Lorian and her daughters and the other members of the crew who would have to deal with the Commonwealth immediately.
"They're also in the middle of a section of space that doesn't quite belong to either the Conclave or the Commonwealth," Lin went on. Rhiann and Herin nodded that they understood. The tenuous diplomatic situation had been explained to them thoroughly as well. "If they would join either government, then that area would officially belong to one or the other and it would be safer for ships to travel. Either way, the Commonwealth would send the Fleet to patrol it, or the pirates who roam it now would know better than to threaten the Conclave's profits."
"The problem with Aramar is that its own government isn't settled enough to decide which system to join," Heleen said, taking up the thread of the explanation. "During the Downfall, its government split into nearly a hundred little city-states, monarchies. They've spent the intervening centuries trying to reunite the planet into one government by political marriages."
"Lady Kethreen and Lord Ayduar," Bain interrupted. "Sister Marnya explained that to me. They've been betrothed since she was born. Right?"
"Exactly." Dr. Frurin nodded.
"Betrothed since she was born?" Rhiann whispered loudly. "Yuck."
"Jay'san asked for Sunsinger because we have a past history on Aramar. They know we're a Free Trader ship and no threat to their security," Lin went on. "The situation is very delicate on Aramar right now. Commonwealth and Conclave ships are both in orbit, with different private interest groups pressuring both governments to join their particular government. As if that weren't bad enough, a guerilla force that calls themselves the Separatists has appeared in the last ten years. They have enough power, enough connections, to make things very dangerous for off-worlders."
"The Separatists want Aramar to cut off all contact with other planets," Heleen said. "Aramar is for Aramar and no other world."
"Until Aramar unites into one government -- with the marriage of Kethreen and Ayduar and the birth of their heir -- it won't be able to join either the Commonwealth or the Conclave," Lin said. "The Separatists are trying to stir up civil war, to keep the governments splintered and powerless. If they could set up a repulsion field around the entire planet to keep off-worlders away, they would."
"What does that have to do with Sunsinger?" Bain asked. "We're known as a Free Trader ship. What does that mean?"
"We're not part of the Fleet. We're not a government force." Lin shrugged. "I brought Jay'san and Corrine to Aramar fifteen years ago. I stayed with them for nearly three months. I'm known as a friend. What would be more natural than for me to bring my apprentice and heir to meet them, now that I'm getting older and near to retirement?"
"You're not anywhere near retirement age," Bain retorted.
"Maybe." She shrugged and smiled with a touch of mischief. "We don't have to tell the Separatists that."
"You're going to go in and assess the situation and provide assistance to the ambassador if things get dangerous, aren't you?" Herin asked.
"Exactly." Lin nodded approval of her easy summation of the situation.
"You could ask Mother to help --"
"No. Unfortunately that's not possible. But thank you for suggesting it." She took a long sip of her cooled tea. "Until the investigation is settled and those idiots from the Conclave have cooled down, the Estal'es'cai can't roam freely in either the Conclave or the Commonwealth, and it certainly can't get involved in another planet's problems."
"But --" Rhiann began.
"Your mother can explain it to you." Lin stood. "I'm sorry about breaking up what could have been a lovely party, but Bain and I have a lot of work to do before we launch."
"Gorgi, you'll get them back to the shuttle?" Bain asked as he stood. His friend nodded and gave him an abbreviated Ranger salute. In moments, he and Lin were hurrying for the door.