See note below about trigger warnings if this is your first visit to this page.
The shuttle, recently arrived from the jump gate, docked just long enough to disembark its passengers, do a quick clean, restock the pantry and board the passengers leaving the battle base. Every second that passed meant 66,000 kilometers more they would have to travel to get back to their gate.
Nicholas worked his way up the aisle, keeping his head down, studying the display on his wrist comm while looking for the best seat for his purpose. He found it and crawled across three sets of knees to reach one next to the bulkhead. He hunched down, turned his back on the aisle and acted as if he was asleep.
A voice came over the open comm. "Welcome passengers. I'm Commander Alicia Cordant and will be overseeing your trip to the jump gate. Please have your ID and datasync ready for the flight techs coming down the aisle. If we can get underway in the next five minutes our trip will be less than four days, eight hours, seventy-three minutes and sixty-five seconds. We'll pass out nutrition packs once we are free of the base's magnetic field and you will have two hours to consume them before we go into induced sleep. Of course, we'll wake you..."
Nicholas ignored the briefing and listened for the techs as they moved forward, checking ID's and syncs.
"Would you wake him, please?" Nicholas heard before the person next to him nudged him in the ribs. He rolled over, sat up, blinked his eyes, yawned and gave his best surly-teenager-scowl.
"I need your ID and your sync," the steward said to him.
"Why?" Nicholas asked, rubbing his nose.
"So I can be sure you belong on this ship," the steward said.
He held up his ID and said, "My mom’s got the sync. She's on the back row. You should have it already."
He turned back to the bulkhead.
"Which is your mother?" The man asked with an air of impatience.
"Oh. Sorry. She's on the back row, in the black and silver jump suit," he said doing his best to sound accommodating, and turned his back on the steward again.
"Let's go, Mick. We've got half the shuttle still to check," another man said.
"Sorry. This kid here says his mother's in the back, wearing a black and silver jump suit. Did you see anyone like that?"
"Yeah. Half the women on the shuttle."
"Get out here kid, now. I think you're trying to do a circuit on me," the steward growled at Nicholas. "You need to come show me your mother, or..."
"Save your threats. I'm coming. When my dad hears about this, you're the one who's going to be in deep space," Nicholas grumbled. When he got to the aisle, the steward grabbed him by the collar of his jump suit and dragged him to the doorway.
The man pressed a plate next to his name badge and said, "Security. I think I've got our stowaway."
Three security officers met Nicholas and the tech at the aft hatchway. As he was handed off to the three, Nicholas waved vaguely at the shuttle bay and said, "Wait. What about my mother?"
"If she shows up before we undock, I'll send her your way," the steward said and gave Nicholas a solid push toward the officers.
Seventy-five minutes later, Nicholas sat in a small, stuffy room at a dingy plastisteel table, blocked from escape by a juvenile representative of the base's civilian judicial system, sitting between him and the door. It hissed open and a man stepped in, filling the little remaining space which wasn't table or bench. The door closed and the man sat opposite Nicholas and the representative.
"Merch. What are you doing here?" Nicholas asked. "I told them to get Mom."
"Now, Nick," the representative started, but the other man interrupted him.
"Don't be stupid," Merch said. "You know your mother's on duty. Is that why you chose to act up now? To waste my time?"
"Mr. Morris, that's not," the representative began.
Merch's face turned deep red. "I'm Frailer. He's not mine. His real father didn't want him either. Can we get this over with? I've got things to do."
"Like sit on your fat butt," Nicholas said. "You don't work for two more days."
Merch made to stand up. As he did, the representative did as well and held out his hand to Nicholas's stepfather. "Mr. Frailer. I'm Lieutenant Posker."
"Sub-Lieutenant," Frailer said with a sneer at the man's collar insignia, and sat without taking the other's hand.
"Right then," the lieutenant said and sat back down. "Mr. Frailer, Nicholas stole flight documentation and boarded a gate bound shuttle. Theft and fraud; those are serious crimes on the base. The case is being forwarded to the juvenile division of Judicial because Nick's still fifteen. Another couple months and he’d be treated as an adult."
"Don't call me Nick," Nicholas grumbled, slouching as much as the confined space would let him and scowling at his stepfather.
"Alright, Nicholas. Mr. Frailer. I've been assigned as your stepson's council."
"Is he going to jail, or do I have to take him home with me?" Merch asked.
"This is his first offense, so he will be released into your custody. It will be your responsibility to make sure he stays out of trouble until Judicial can review his case. My office will be keeping a close eye on where he goes and what he does until then."
Merch squeezed into the open space between the table and the door and stood. "That's more responsibility that I want. You can keep him."
"Mr. Frailer. I'm sure you don't mean that," Posker said, standing as well.
Frailer's sneer widened into a grimace as he leaned over Posker. "You don't think so?"
Nicholas thought the lieutenant looked small next to his stepfather. Posker was a few centimeters shorter and at least ten kilos lighter, though it was obviously because the officer was fit and healthy. Nick was used to seeing his stepfather bully others around and waited to see how the lieutenant would react. His heart raced with hope as he imagined Posker slugging the old man in his gut.
Posker waved the door open, indicated for Merch to exit first, and said, "Come, Nicholas. It's time for you to go home. My contact is on your data sync at the front desk. You can pick it up on your way out."
Nicholas sighed and slid off the bench. As he passed the lieutenant outside the door, Posker said to him under his voice, "Buzz me if you need to. Any time."
His stepfather had already synced for his items and stood in the exit to the outer passage. Nicholas glanced toward Posker and said, "Sure."
He caught up to Merch in the passage. The man handed him his ID card and data sheet without a word.
"What about my data sync?" Nicholas asked.
"I'll hold onto that until I believe you're going to behave. This way, you can't go anywhere you shouldn't."
"How am I supposed to buy my lunch?"
"I don't know. You're the criminal. Why don't you just steal it?" He must have thought that was funny and his stomach shook as he laughed to himself.
"I can't get back into the cube without it. You know you hate it when I wake you up."
"You'll just have to sit in the passage until I wake up and look for you."
"I hate you," Nicholas said and charged ahead, but before he'd gotten out of reach, Merch grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around, his other arm cocked back, his fist alongside his ear.
"Go ahead and hit me, Merch. Right here in the passage for the whole base to see."
Merch looked up at the scanner above the closest link and lowered his fist.
"You're not as smart as you think you are. You're an irritating rash. One I can get relieved and not have to worry about anymore. You've rubbed me the wrong way for the last time."
Merch shoved him backwards. Spinning, Nicholas stumbled down the passage toward the link and, eventually regaining his balance, he jogged on through, trying to ignore his stepfather's laughter.