The mall on Cratif Station was a typical shopping mall … as shopping malls on space stations went. Compared to what you might find in a mall in a capital city, the halls were a little narrower, the shops were smaller, and the selection was limited. But if you searched carefully and with perseverance, you could usually find what you were looking for. If you were a spacer shopping for spacer things, chances were that you’d find it. If you couldn’t find it, chances were that you didn’t need it.
Two fur-covered adults and an adolescent with mostly matching uniforms walked along the big mall corridor looking for a suitable shop in which to find clothes for the youngster. Their ears poked up above the crowds; their tails waved casually. They tried not to show their teeth too much. Although ancient instincts identified them as predators in a population of prey, it was not polite to act on those impulses.
“Quartermaster,” asked Bren, indicating Omega. “Why do we have to have him around?”
“Because I’m expert at alterations,” answered Omega with a hint of annoyance. “I can help you make good choices on what to get and what to avoid because it’s crap.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” said Bren.
“Yes, you were, Bren, and I answered.”
Bren looked at the Quartermaster.
“Why is he still talking?”
The Quartermaster stopped and looked at the Omega.
“Omega, do you think he needs a lesson in civility?”
“Yes, Quartermaster, I think he does. He’s being rude.”
Bren looked up at the two officers and furrowed his brow.
“Do you think we should end the trip?” asked Quartermaster.
“No,” said Omega. “Captain’s orders. We do need to get him some clothes and schoolbooks. We could call for a Marine to come and take him back to the ship. I’ve got his measurements; I can pick out undies and a really cute overall suit for him without his help.”
Bren had been looking back and forth between the Quartermaster and the Omega, trying to get a word in.
“Hey! I’m right here!”
They both looked at him.
“Yes,” said the Quartermaster. “We know. And?”
“Well, you’re talking about me as though I was not here.”
“Well, it’s rude,” said Bren.
“It was okay when you did it.”
Bren tried to figure out what Quartermaster meant.
“He’s just an Omega!”
The Quartermaster looked directly at Bren. He bared his teeth a little and pointed his ears at him.
“Look. I don’t know what your pack’s tradition is on the treatment of Omegas, but that ends now. Omega is an officer on the Jackal’s Trove and you will afford him the same courtesy you owe me or the Captain. You are a member of the Officer Pack … but you’re just a pup and Omega here out-ranks you by a lot. You haven’t had time to learn what the Omegas do aboard the ship or how we interact, so you’re going to start now.”
Bren’s eyes went wide. He looked down and folded back his ears. He dipped his tail between his legs and stood silently.
“You can start by facing your Omega,” said the Quartermaster. “Salute him and apologize.”
Bren bit his lips and frowned, quivering a little. He turned to face the Omega, who stood and waited for him to speak. Bren stood at attention and saluted.
“I’m sorry … Sir. I was rude to you.”
“Yes, you were,” said the Omega, and returned the salute.
Bren put his paw down but still stood there. Omega extended his arms, paws open. Bren quivered in indecision, then accepted the embrace.
“I’m sorry,” said Bren. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s all right, pup. It’s done. We need to go shopping.”
“It’s done and over. Let’s go.” He nodded to the Quartermaster.
“Well,” said the Quartermaster. “You two are getting along well. I spotted a tool shop that wants my business. Call me when you need me.”
He disappeared into the crowds.
Bren looked after him and looked like he wanted to say something, but thought better of it. He looked at the Omega.
“I think I see a shop over there that might have what we need,” Bren said.
“Sharp eyes, Bren,” said Omega.
It was a military surplus shop … the one where he had got lost. It stocked uniforms and accessories for a variety of lifeforms. The clothing area was divided into sections, with icons for each species. They found the icon that represented them … in the eyes of the store owner.
“What’s with that sign, Omega?”
“That’s what the owner thinks we looks like.”
“I guess we have big ears and tails.”
“And teeth. Let’s see what they have. Overall suits, good. Gray, black, orange.”
He picked some out. “You can never tell what sizing system they used. Stand so I can measure you. Okay, try this on. … Looks good. Well, that’s a reasonable sizing system. XS.”
“What’s that mean?”
Bren sneered. “Extra Small?!”
“Heh. Don’t worry: We’ll feed you well and you’ll outgrow these. Oh, what is this?”
The Omega spotted a jacket and pants on a hanger: fine material, careful tailoring, white with trim in blue and gray with Academy emblems on the shoulders. It was the uniform Bren had been looking at when he got separated from his pack.
“Ooh, fancy,” said Bren, trying not to let on that he knew what it was or that he wanted it—or his distress at what this shop meant.
“You’re telling me. That’s a Space Academy dress uniform. I wonder what it’s doing out here. Size Small. It will be a bit big on you, but I’m taking it anyway.”
“But I’m not in the Academy. I can’t wear that! Can I?”
“Out here, nobody will mind. And at formal dinners, it will be perfect.”
“Cool. Hey… I need some of these, too.”
He pointed at a box of underwear.
“Yep. Get whatever you like. Oh, and get two of these.”
Omega was pointing to some smaller packages, with pictures of wolves playing sports.
“What is that?”
“Athletic supporter. You’ll want it for PT.”
“Physical Training. You’re on board a ship headed for parts unknown. You’ll be training with us. Can you handle a sword?”
“Yeah. Right. We’ll teach you.”
“I learned in school. On Guard!”
Bren stood in his stance, holding a pretend epee. Omega laughed.
“That’s pretty good. We’ll put you in the advanced class and we’ll see how you do. Now go over there and pick out socks and underwear.”
“You want me to choose?” Bren asked, astonished.
Omega blinked. “Why? Does your mother usually choose for you?”
“Okay. Six tighty whities and, ooh! These are cute.”
He grabbed a red brief, quite skimpy.
The insides of Bren’s ears turned pink.
“What? Would you rather pick for yourself?”
“Okay. I’ll give you just one piece of advice: Wear what you like, even if no one ever sees it.”
That was really weird, Bren thought. But he sorted through the underwear and picked out six blue ones … and one fancy pair that looked really technical and masculine, with what looked like a comfy pouch for his bone.
“Can I get these?”
“Yup. You’ll need socks, too. Get a bag of white ones and pick out something fancy. Same rule: get what you like.”
“Ooh! These match the brief. Okay. What else do I need?”
“Let’s see. You got work suits, dress uniform, undies, jocks, socks. You need boots for your feet. Find something black, shiny, with steel toes.”
“Ah, they got those over here.”
“Do they have any for a pup your size?”
Bren and Omega rummaged around the work boots. Bren found a box with a Wolfheim sizing label for his size.
Bren sat down and took off his boots, then laced up the new ones.
“Okay. They fit.”
Bren clomped around the wolf clothes area, new boots on his feet and a smile on his face.
“Well, said Omega. “Put your own boots back on; we gotta take this stuff and pay for it.”
Omega got out his datapad and poked at it.
“Quartermaster will be here soon. He found what he’s looking for.”
Bren and Omega waited at the front of the store for the Quartermaster. Bren reviewed the pile with him.
“Look what we got! Three pairs of overall suit in plain gray, that’s for work. Two each in gray and orange. Omega says he’s gonna cut ‘em up and sew ‘em back together to look like Cadet uniforms. But look what he found!”
Bren held up the Space Academy uniform.
“I’m going to have to take it in a bit,” said Omega, “But I’ll make him look good.”
“What’s this?” asked the Quartermaster, pawing at various colorful smaller items: socks and underwear, regulation and otherwise
“Personal, Sir,” said Omega, pinning them to the table.
Quartermaster furrowed his brow at Omega, but Omega stood his ground and would not relinquish Bren’s underwear.
Bren looked at this interaction between them. He wasn’t sure whether to be happy at how Omega kept his private stuff private or be upset that Omega had gotten in trouble with the Quartermaster.
The Quartermaster tilted his head, smiled, and said, “Good action, Omega.”
Omega and Bren traded winks.
“Let’s get this stuff paid for; we still need to find a bookstore.”
Quartermaster paid up and they found a cart to load the day’s haul into.
They found a bookstore: a shop so small that Brian had to wait outside with Omega while Quartermaster perused the library terminal and downloaded what they’d need. Through the window, Brian saw shelves of books, real paper ones with leather bindings, behind the proprietor’s desk.
Bren pushed the cart back to the space port where the Jackal’s Trove was docked. As they passed the travel ticket counter, Bren poked Quartermaster.
“That’s the agent,” Bren said.
“Who?” asked Quartermaster.
“That’s the agent who wouldn’t help.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure I’m sure,” Bren said, violating protocol by answering the inevitable “Are you sure you’re sure?” before it was asked. He was sure his new wolf friends would not mind.
“Okay. We got this, Bren.”
The Quartermaster approached the ticket agent.
“Can I help you?” the agent asked.
“Yes. I’d like to inquire about a ship that docked here a few weeks ago. It’s my understanding it left without a passenger.”
“Please look it up. Omega, place a call to the Consulate, will you?”
The agent’s eyes went wide.
“Sirs, that won’t be necessary, I assure you. I’ll look it up now. Name of the ship?”
“Tarkel’s Glory,” said Bren.
The agent typed some things into the terminal.
“Here it is, Sirs. The Tarkel’s Glory left on time three weeks ago. A Bren Feltwig was an expected passenger but never showed up. The ship left without him.”
“What is your standard procedure for dealing with minors separated from their family?” asked the Quartermaster.
“I call station security.”
“What happens when you establish that the family has left the station?”
“I call the consulate for assistance.”
“Uh huh,” said the Quartermaster.
The ticketing agent looked at Bren with suspicion.
“Sirs, who is this young wolf?”
“Show him your travel papers, Bren.”
“I’m Bren Feltwig,” Bren said, handing over his new passport.
“You’re the lost family member!” said the agent, wide-eyed.
“That’s what I tried to tell you.”
“I must call station security and the Consulate at once.”
“You can do that if you want to,” said the Quartermaster. “You’ll have some explaining to do. We had a meeting with the Consulate about this yesterday. Bren is traveling with us now.”
The agent looked over the passport and nodded. He looked at the two adult wolves; his expression betrayed worry that they would press the issue.
“Ah. I see. Here you go. Safe journeys.”
Bren got his passport back. He, Omega, and the Quartermaster went with their shopping haul back to the Jackal’s Trove. Bren couldn’t contain his glee.
“You sure showed him!”
“But why didn’t you call security or Gormarkin?”
“He already threatened to. It’s up to him. Besides, you have a ship and all the ticket you need. He’s not our problem now. Might even be a friend when he figures out what a favor we did for him.”
“You did him a favor?”
“Yes. We didn’t call station security down on his tail. Here’s the gate. Let’s get aboard and stow this stuff.”