Sera looked up from the screen. Her eyes met Mirelle’s, and for a long moment they just stared at each other, frozen by the realization that there was nothing they could do that would make any difference now. Sera imagined the news spreading out through space, leaping from node to node in the great galactic relay, a gathering wave.
“Did that really happen?” Mirelle asked, her voice tremulous, all the sulkiness gone out of her. She sounded very young again, and she was looking at Sera as if she held all the answers, and it was too much to be depended on like that, it was more than Sera could take, the whole damn universe was going to shit and it wasn’t fair.
“Yeah, it was,” Sera told her.
“That’s bad, right?”
“Yeah.” Sera was already mentally flipping through her personal coping mechanisms, discarding one bad choice after another. Run away? Maybe, but she didn’t know how far was far enough. Find the most likely victor and try to turn a profit helping them? That was fine for little conflicts, but this was a real war, and she wasn’t confident that humanity was going to win. Fake her own death, change her name, and start a new life? Well, it had worked before, although it wasn’t likely to solve any of her immediate problems.
“Why did that woman say this was a declaration of war?” Mirelle asked. “I thought humans and Eridani were already at war.”
“That was just fighting over territory.” She grabbed one of Mirelle’s shopping bags and started rummaging around in it, looking for an outfit she’d bought a few hours earlier. “This is different. This is bad.”
“I don’t understand,” Mirelle whined, as Sera found a hooded shirt and shoved it into her hands.
“No one does, not yet,” Sera told her. “Put that on, and we’ll go find out what’s really happening.”
Mirelle did as she was told. Sera slipped her com screen into one of her vest pockets. She looked up and down the corridor, hoping that she’d find someone else on the Benevolence’s crew, but there were strangers all around her. They were starting to move and speak again, still too stunned to act, but a familiar tension was already humming through the station. Sera could feel it in the air, a crackle almost as physical and dangerous as ungrounded electricity. She pulled the hood over Mirelle’s head and steered her away from the table.
“You forgot the bags,” Mirelle told her, twisting to look bad at them.
Sera put her hand on the small of Mirelle’s narrow back and kept pushing her forward. “Don’t worry about the bags. I’ll buy you something better.”
Sera spotted a small unmarked door in the wall, barely worth noticing. It looked like the perfect place to go to ground. Better yet, there was no palm reader or ID scanner, just a recessed handle she could curl her fingers into and open with no trouble at all. She shoved Mirelle inside and shut the door behind them. This was a service corridor, built for utility, with pipes running along the walls and unmarked branches. Sera hadn’t been inside the bowels of this particular station, but she could guess the layout.
Mirelle tugged her hood down. Sera pulled it up again. “You need to look human. Fully human.”
“Why?” A flash of Mirelle’s sulkiness was back, just enough to put an edge in her voice.
Sera put her hands on Mirelle’s shoulders, turning her so they were face to face. The lights in the corridor were low, and a screen set in the wall cast a red glow from the same ominous error message. “Baby, look at me. There’s something you need to understand. This is about your father.”
Mirelle’s gaze snapped up to meet hers. Her attention was almost painful, and Sera wanted to look away, to think of some way to soften a painful life lesson. Instead, she said, “Whenever something goes wrong, someone’s going to try to pin it on a Minervan. Don’t be the one who gets stuck with the blame.”
Mirelle’s expression cracked. Sera didn’t have time for tears. She turned away, grabbing Mirelle by the hand and towing her down the hallway. The Benevolence was three floors down and on the other side of the station. Getting her bearings was easy enough, finding a ladder down was only a little harder, but the real trouble began when she stepped out of the service corridor and found an inaccessible door where the docking bay ought to be.
“No fucking way,” she snarled, and kicked the unyielding steel. It made her toes ache, but at least she felt like she was doing something.
She turned to find Mirelle staring at her. Her arms were wrapped tight around herself, her hands hidden in her sleeves. She was looked at Sera with a desperation that was too raw to bare. It’s not fair, Sera found herself thinking again, and she wasn’t sure if she meant it on her own behalf or Mirelle’s. Nothing in this galaxy had ever been fair, no matter what the Coalition had said.
She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, tried to pretend she knew what she was doing. “I can fix this,” she said. “Go to the end of the hallway and shout if you see anyone coming, okay?”
Mirelle nodded and moved off. Sera took her com screen out of her pocket. Rebooting it didn’t fix the lockdown, so she popped the cover off and disconnected the transmitter manually. That was a little better: no more ominous security message, but no signal either.
She’d have to plug it into the system manually. It took some searching to turn up an access panel, but less than a minute with a screwdriver to get in once she’d found it. Security engineers were always tearing their hair out over hackers, but they almost never considered what one mechanic could do. A few minutes and a small electric shock later, she’d hooked her com screen directly into the station, bypassing the lockdown because the system now thought her com screen was a part of its own inner workings.
Opening the door was easy. Finding the rest of the crew was the problem. Sera scrolled through an array of security cameras, trying to figure out how to search through the feeds more efficiently, when she noticed a phrase she recognized at the top of the screen.
It was a shell company she’d dealt with before, back when she was smuggling for Buddy. The name was designed to be as generic as possible: Interstellar Systems Inc. It was the perfect cover for moving all sorts of products around the galaxy, just legitimate-seeming enough to fly under the radar of customs inspectors, not so profitable that it would fall under the scrutiny of tax officials. Buddy had liked working under its auspices, she recalled, because it had contracts with some of the more restrictive galactic governments. That made it practically untouchable.
The name was written here in both English characters and a flowing script that was unmistakably Eridani. No wonder the security team had locked everything down. The station ownership was the closest representation for a hundred light-years of the government that had just attacked Earth.
It was time to run far, far away from this space station. But to do that, she’d need access to the Benevolence, and she’d need to round up the crew. She kept scrolling through camera feeds, faster now, trying to figure out where they’d gone. A thumbnail image caught her eye, the interior of some shop, already half-wrecked. She expanded it, swore softly to herself, and called Mirelle over.
“I’ve bypassed security to get you into the docking bay,” she told Mirelle. “Get to the Benevolence. Look for the box under my bed. Take one of the laser guns in it back to me, and keep the other for yourself. Laser, not plasma, okay? Then go back to the ship, lock yourself in, and don’t open the doors to anyone who’s not a crew member. Got it?”
Mirelle nodded. It only took a few minutes to get the door open, perhaps ten to wait for Mirelle to get back. Sera kept checking the camera feed she’d found, anxiety roiling in her gut. The angle was awkward, the body on the floor only partially in the frame, but how many half-Eridani people could there be on one small station?
She hadn’t thought to ask for a holster. When Mirelle returned she tucked the gun awkwardly into one of her inner vest pockets, then waved her back to the ship. Time to do something really stupid.