News took a long time to travel through space. They were still in the relatively central region of the known galaxy, where signals could bounce from relay to relay at speeds faster than light, but it could be weeks or even months for a piece of information to cross the grid. To make things even more confusing, each species kept its own calendar based on the rotation of its own home planet, and so it wasn’t always clear whether the breaking story on the news now had really broken half a year ago.
Jianyu did what he could to keep up with the course of the conflict. The fight over Heimstätte was no longer a pitched battle but an occupation, with Eridani ships controlling the airspace around the planet and human forces launching periodic attacks from their base on the largest moon. It wasn’t fully clear whether the original settlers still owned the land beneath the contested sky, or whether the former owners who’d left would be compensated for what they’d lost. Without the Coalition, it wasn’t even clear if there was a court that could hear their claims.
A dozen similar fights were in progress throughout the galaxy, and that wasn’t counting the territory disputes between other species. Centaurian hives were taking advantage of the chaos to expand into new territory. The Falacerian government was in crisis following the suspicious death of a high-ranking princess, or perhaps it was operating according to its own inscrutable plan; it was hard to tell with Falacerians what was chaos and what was just good fun. The loose collection of predominantly Mineran colonies was talking about forming their own system of government, but no one could agree what that government might look like or where it ought to be located. And then there were all the other sentient species, the ones that had never been a part of the Coalition to begin with, profiting from the confusion or running from the fight.
When he wasn’t watching the news, he was swimming. The sound of the morning broadcast would echo in his brain all the way down to the beach, and then the water would close over his head and his thoughts slowed down.
Three weeks into the break, he got a message that his parents were moving to a Minervan colony in a far-flung system. It was on a moon orbiting a gas giant. There was no atmosphere, and the only farms were hydroponic. The message was a recorded video, and his parents tried to put a positive spin on it, but he could hear the real message in their pauses. He watched the video three times in a row, then transferred the majority of the money in his personal bank account into theirs. They were already on a ship bound for the edge of known space, travelling fast enough to outrun the news. The information that they were now marginally richer wouldn’t reach them for months.
After that he went for another swim, even though it was night and he was the only person out on the beach. Something huge was moving through the ocean, a mass of black cutting through the water, but it never came close enough for him to get a good look at it.
When he surfaced, someone was standing on the sand where he’d left his shirt. He didn’t even have to swim back to shore to know that it was Sera. When you spent so long living in cramped quarters with someone else, you started to recognize the way they moved. Sera was bouncing up and down on the sand, nervous or just trying to keep warm as the cold air blew in off the water. Jianyu went under again, where he didn’t have to think.
She was still there when he came up again, sitting on the sand with a towel wrapped around her shoulders. His gills were burning from the salt. He swam toward her, coming up out of the surf and feeling the cold air hit his skin. It never felt so cold under the water.
Sera was sitting on his shirt. She didn’t move off it when he walked up to her, just crossed her legs and looked up at him. It was hard to read her expression in the darkness, especially with the wind blowing her hair all over her face. She said, “I don’t like this thing where we’re not talking.”
“We’re talking right now,” Jianyu said.
“You know what I mean.” Sera pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them.
“Fine.” Sera still wasn’t budging from his shirt, so Jianyu sat down on the sand. “So let’s talk.”