While it was only a short hop to the next planet over, that too was contested ground. After some deliberation, the crew decided to head to a Falacerian colony in the 58 Persei system.
Having so many extra people on board the Benevolence was causing some unexpected problems. Although the original ship had once been designed to keep a crew of over a hundred comfortable, it had been operating for a long time with a lean crew. Nyx had kept a couple of spare mattresses around just in case, but she hadn’t planned for so many passengers. They bunked wherever they could find space to spare: in every room of the nose cone that wasn’t occupied, in the corridors, and on the cold floor of the cargo bay.
A few vats of algae had caught on a structural beam when the rest of the cargo blew out the hatch. Nyx had handed these over to Weyland, who was doing the best he could to feed forty people on a larder meant for five. What he produced three times a day was edible, at least technically.
Nyx was in the ship’s dining room, pushing a glob of wet and stringy greens around her plate with her fork, when Xinyi stepped in. In the days since their narrow escape they hadn’t had much time to talk, except for a few words in passing about logistics. Now, perhaps, they would finally have some time to catch up.
Xinyi was carrying a plate of her own. She set it down on the table across from Nyx and began a similarly fruitless exercise of pushing the food around as if something good might be hidden under it. It was still strange to see her like this, with her hair coming loose from its braid and an oily stain on the shoulder of her shirt. In Nyx mind, it was almost like seeing double: the unshakeable captain she had been, and the woman she was now, one laid on top of the other like a glitch in a com screen. Nyx had been flying with her son for long enough to see something familiar in the way she held herself carefully, pretending she wasn’t tired.
“I got a holiday message from Lorelei,” Nyx said. The Falacerian had been another of Captain Du’s junior officers aboard the Eloquence. A few years ago she had married a human, and like many Falacerians, she’d developed a powerful fascination with human rituals. Nyx had been surprised to see a Christmas greeting sitting in her inbox. Somewhere along the line, she’d forgotten to keep track of which season it was all the way back on earth.
“Oh. How is she?”
“She’s doing well. I think she wants to get another dog.” Nyx paused, wondering if now was the time to go for it, and decided to go ahead. “Actually, she’s working on a diplomatic project right now, and she was wondering if there was any interest in a Coalition–”
Xinyi put her fork down. It was a small gesture, but deliberate, and there was a tension in the set of her shoulders that made her look more like the captain Nyx remembered.
“Nyx,” she said, in that calm and measured voice that could keep a room full of young officers hanging off her every word, “what the fuck are you doing?”
Nyx considered her options. She knew this wasn’t about a holiday message. Besides, playing dumb had never worked with Captain Du. “I’m doing the best I can,” she said. It seemed like a safe answer.
“No, you’re not.” Xinyi leaned in and laced her fingers together above her plate of grey-green muck. “Look at this ship. Look at yourself. Still wearing your old uniform around, still acting like the rescue squad. It’s pathetic.”
Nyx, stung, said the first thing that came to mind. “I just saved your life.”
“I had other contacts. I could have called someone else. I would have, if I’d known how much of a mess this ship is.” Xinyi paused, sighed, and conceded, “My son thinks very highly of you.” She didn’t even try to make it sound like a good thing.
Nyx said, “We’re making money.”
“Please,” Xinyi said flatly.
“I mean, we’re not losing money. We’re breaking even.”
“Only by putting off necessary repairs. You can’t borrow from your own future forever. And when some crucial piece of the Benevolence breaks in a way you can’t afford to fix, then what?”
“I don’t know,” Nyx said. She’d been aiming for confidence, but the words came out small and pathetic, squeezing around the lump in her throat. “I was never good at making money.”
“So find something you’re good at,” said Xinyi. “And for your crew’s sake, find it soon.”
“I was good at exploring.” It sounded stupid when she said it, like a child’s fantasy. It had been her job for years. It was the only thing she’d ever been good at, really.
“So be an explorer,” Xinyi said. “Find a surveying company, take a contract, submit some reports. It’s a good job. It pays well.”
Those surveying companies weren’t out for the greater good of anyone but themselves. Hundreds of them had formed in just the last few years, rushing in to fill the power vacuum the Coalition had left behind. If someone hadn’t laid claim to a bit of territory, it was fair game as far as the corporate surveyors were concerned. They’d find a spot suitable for a mining outpost or a colony, ship in some colonists as fast as possible, and call it theirs. And if there happened to be complaints later that the planet they’d surveyed wasn’t as empty as it appeared, well, who would listen? Handling the delicate nuances of inter-species territorial disputes had been a job for the Coalition’s diplomats and lawyers. Now that there was no Coalition, there was no court that could make any ruling worth listening to.
Nyx looked down at her dinner. Without the constant motion of her fork, the piled greens had slumped into a damp hillock. A trickle of cold fluid was leaking out the bottom. “I’ll think about it,” she said.
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