“First off, I never expected to spend this long on the Benevolence,” Sera said. “If I’d known I was in it for the long haul, I would have come up with a better cover story.”
Beside her, Jianyu was stonily silent. That was the most frustrating thing about being his friend. He wasn’t the type to yell, or threaten, or even admit that he was angry. He just got quieter and quieter, and she just kept coming up with dumb things to say to keep making enough noise for both of them.
“I wasn’t lying about training with the Coalition, though. That part was real. I just never got to fly a Coalition ship. I only made it to the training shuttles.”
She paused, and was excruciatingly aware of the sound of the waves, so different than the familiar rumble of a ship’s engine or the hum of a life support system pushing air through vents. Somewhere out in the dark water, something roughly analogous to a bird was calling, its cry high and piercing.
“It’s not like I’ve never flown before. I’ve been flying for years. I just never flew a Coalition starship besides the Benevolence, and of course, you have to admit she’s not even a Coalition ship at this point. She’s got thirty percent Coalition parts, at the maximum. Maybe twenty percent of her original pieces.” This planet didn’t have a moon, and so the only illumination came from distant lights up on the land and the spread of stars overhead. She could only see the faintest outline of Jianyu’s profile, not nearly enough to guess at how he was reacting.
She kept on talking, not even thinking about what she was going to say, surprising herself as she said it. “And I know you think you’d never have made the choices I did, but you had it easy. You weren’t here when the Coalition fell, you weren’t even in communication range, so you don’t know how it really was. I did what I had to do, even if it meant breaking the law, and I’m being totally honest here so I can say that most of weren’t even sure what the law was supposed to be when we were breaking it. And for the record, I never killed anyone who wasn’t trying to kill me first, and I never stole anything from anyone who couldn’t afford to lose it, and I wasn’t just looking out for myself. I know that’s who you think I am, but I had people I was responsible for too.”
“You think I had it easy,” Jianyu said. He spoke slowly, like he was turning the words over carefully, examining them from every angle.
“Yeah,” Sera said, trying for brash confidence and not quite succeeding. She had regretted it the moment she said it, but there was no way to take it back now. And it was true, of course, a truth that had been scratching at her insides from the moment she’d first set foot on the Benevolence and heard Captain Dysart’s strange story. The crew had gotten lucky. They’d had it easy, as easy as anyone in the Coalition anyway. They’d missed out on the nastiest parts of the collapse. They’d never had to worry about whether they could trust their own crew members.
“My superior officer died in my arms,” said Jianyu. “Most of my friends were on the other half of the Benevolence, the one that didn’t make it out of the fight. You know this already. I’ve told you this story before, because I don’t lie about who I am.”
Now it was Sera’s turn to stay silent. She picked at a frayed thread on her pants, pulling until she had turned a frayed patch into a hole. If she’d been smarter, she would have come up with a way to expand on her original lie, some reason why she’d really been a Coalition pilot who’d only temporarily had to leave her ship right before its tragic end. If she’d been smarter, they wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.
Jianyu continued, “And when I finally got in contact with my family, after months of wondering if they were dead, I found out that they’d been forced to leave the planet where I grew up. And now they’ve been forced to leave the planet they moved to, so that’s a new thing I have to worry about. Oh yeah, and I’m have citizenship in two different governments that are currently at war with each other, and the place where I was born got bombed for reasons I still haven’t figured out, so yeah, go ahead and tell me how easy I’ve got it.”
He stopped and took a shuddering breath. Sera, assuming he was done, started to say, “I have–”
Jianyu cut in over her. “I’m sure the Coalition meant something to you too, but to me, it was everything. It brought my parents together. It kept my family safe. And now it’s gone, and I’m still not lying and cheating to get ahead. It’s not because I had it easy. It’s because every time, I make the hard choice to do the right thing. Every single day of my life, I wake up and I choose to stay with Captain Dysart, because she needs me. Pilots are replaceable. But without a navigator, the Benevolence can’t fly, and no one else is going to sign up to do what I do. So if you don’t respect what I’ve been through, what we’ve been through together, you can find a crew that meets your standards for suffering.”
Sera had picked half the knee off her pants while Jianyu talked. Her chest hurt, a fierce ache that made it impossible to get any words out. She thought of all the stupid things she’d said just a few moments earlier, and how she couldn’t find it in herself to say I’m sorry. She hadn’t even started to tell her story. She should have stuck with lying.
“Let me have my shirt back,” Jianyu said. She didn’t need to see his face to hear the cold fury in him. “I’m going inside.”
She rolled off the cloth, now damp with sea spray and covered in sand. Jianyu turned away from her, dressed hurriedly, and walked up along the beach in the direction of his room. Sera had been planning to go in the same direction, but she sat on the sand until he was out of sight, wondering where she was supposed to go from here.