Sera had worked with tighter timetables. Fifteen minutes to takeoff should have been easy. It didn’t matter that her hands were shaking as she worked her way down the usual preflight checklist, making sure every engine was functional and checking that none of her special modifications had worn out some crucial part of the ship. It didn’t matter that there were other ships preparing to fire up their rockets all around her, or that she’d have no control crew inside the station to clear the Benevolence for departure. Sometimes her job wasn’t easy. Sometimes she just had to power through.
And then Mirelle sat down at the navigator’s station, began fiddling with the chair’s distance from the console so she could pull it forward where Jianyu had pushed it back. Sera felt something faltering inside her chest, an impossible band of tension her heart beat against frantically. She had to stop what she was doing, losing precious minutes, to clench her fists over her knees and breathe until that pressure eased up.
Captain Dysart paused beside her chair, leaning over to check her progress and also to look up out the crystalline window at the stars. Sera forced her fingers to uncurl, continued to run through her tasks, felt the captain’s hand squeeze her shoulder for a moment before she carried on with her circuit of the bridge.
It felt strangely empty and overfull at the same time. Weyland was still tending to Jianyu, doing whatever doctors were supposed to do when their patients were suffering from complete neural overload. Sera called down to the lab to remind him that they both needed to be strapped down. She had a feeling this takeoff was going to be rough.
There were strangers on the bridge, taking up every available station. Some were in security uniforms, others in suits. Sera wasn’t sure who exactly they were, or why Nyx had wasted her time bringing them along. Flowers was there too, slouching in his seat, his tattooed arms crossed over his chest.
Mirella adjusted her safety harness and began changing settings on the navigator’s console, keying the screen to respond to smaller fingertips and lighter pressure. Sera couldn’t help glancing over at her, struck by the sudden memory of a future she’d imagined for herself once, a shared dream of two girls leaving home to see the galaxy.
Mirelle looked over at her, a wire in her hand and a smile on her face. “When should I plug in?”
Sera never had to remind Jianyu when to start. Pilots and navigators were supposed to work as a seamless team, intuiting each other’s decisions without having to guess. She’d once assumed she would work that way with Mirelle, the original Mirelle, the human she’d been before the accident. Sera said, “Don’t plug in yet, we’re too close to the planet’s gravity well. And wait for my go-ahead to start calculating.”
“You got it,” said Mirelle, sounding almost cheerful, like this was some grand adventure. Like one mistaken calculation wouldn’t kill everyone aboard.
Maybe Jianyu was rubbing off on her after all. Sera looked down at her vest, streaked with dried brown stains in the front. A lot of Jianyu had rubbed off on her.
Her fifteen minutes was up. The Benevolence hummed softly, the vibration of the distant engine travelling up through Sera’s feet. “Ready to go, captain?” she asked.
From behind her, high on the raised chair at the heart of the bridge, Captain Dysart said, “Permission to depart.”
It was the old way of saying things, the Coalition sendoff instead of the far less formal routine they’d fallen into. Sera disengaged from the dock, maneuvering carefully into open space.
They weren’t the only ones who were trying to leave as fast as possible. A ship was drifting toward them, on a trajectory that would cross their path in less than a minute. It was a careless mistake, dangerous enough that Sera wasn’t even sure the person flying it was a trained pilot. She had to pull the Benevolence’s nose up sharply, straining the ship at the seams as it adjusted course too fast, praying to any god that might exist in the void that the structure would hold. The proximity alarm was going off as the ships hurtled closer, far too close. The floor under Sera’s feet shuddered.
Then they were in the clear, and the ship was intact, with only a couple of minor antennae scraped off her belly. The yoke was slick in Sera’s sweaty palms. She checked her console, looked for other departing ships, decided to swing in a wide arc around the planet that would take them out of the path of the worst of the traffic. Most of the other people getting the hell off the station looked like they were headed away from the Coalition’s former center, as far as they could get from the conflict. The Benevolence alone was heading straight into the heart of it.
Captain Dysart rattled off their flight plan: a stopover on an occupied planet in the next system over, then Mars, then finally on to assist in the relief effort for Earth. Sera looked up from her work long enough to catch Mirelle reaching for the neural port. “Not yet,” she said, and Mirelle dropped her hands back into her lap as Sera guided the ship away from the disruptive pull of the red planet’s gravity.