At first, the voice was just another part of her dream. She was back home again, down in the cramped tunnels sunk deep into the lunar rock. A pack of bullies was chasing her, bigger kids who loomed larger in her dream than they ever had in life. She kept running, following a route that was both familiar and impossible to remember, and a voice was telling her to get to the bridge, get to the bridge right now.
She startled awake, the dream shredding, and for a moment she couldn’t remember what her name was or who she worked for. Sera, she thought at last, as the voice continued to tell her to get to the bridge immediately. I’m Sera, and this is the Benevolence, and that’s Captain Dysart’s voice telling me something’s gone wrong again.
Good thing she’d fallen asleep with her clothes on. She still needed a sling for her injured left arm during the day, and struggling out of her shirt and pants alone often felt like more trouble than it was worth. She slipped her socks and boots on one-handed, leaving the laces untied, and ran the fingers of her good hand through her hair. The shaved sides were getting fuzzy. They’d need a trim soon, although she didn’t think she could use a razor without help. Being injured sucked.
“I’m on my way,” she told the intercom before half-running, half-shuffling toward the bridge.
Captain Dysart was seated in her chair on the dais. She was wearing her old purple uniform short, the five silver circles of the Coalition’s symbol winking in the light. One sleeve was folded back over her forearm to accommodate the bulky cast over her fractured wrist. Xrrt wasn’t standing in her usual position at the captain’s side, but strapped down in one of the specialized rigs made to protect Centaurian anatomy during violent ship maneuvers. Weyland, sitting out of the way at the station that would have belonged to a xenolinguistic specialist if the ship had a full Coalition crew, also had safety restraints in place. Sera looked up at the crystalline window, but everything looked normal to her; they were travelling faster than light, and the pinpricks of starlight coming through the window wavered and smeared across the black as the Benevolence slipped through folds of time and space.
“What’s the problem, captain?” Sera slid into her own seat and pulled up a diagnostic chart of the ship. Normally she would have been the first to notice anything wrong with the Benevolence, since she slept so close to the ship’s engine that even a minute change in their steady hum could wake her up. Since she’d been taking painkillers, she’d been sinking deeper into dreams and waking up disoriented.
“We’re making an unscheduled stop,” said Jianyu from his seat next to hers at the navigator’s station. He was already plugged into the ship, looking up at the light dancing across the window. He was wearing his old uniform too. The bright orange made his green skin look even greyer and more washed out in comparison. “It’s a planet in the Eta Persei system.”
Sera checked her diagnostic screen, but the ship’s systems were green across the board. Well, green-ish, at least. The Benevolence was a mess of disparate parts, and she’d never run as smoothly the exploration vessel she’d been when the computer’s systems were designed. “I thought that was a war zone.”
“It is,” Jianyu said.
Sera reached for her harness and buckled the mesh straps across her chest. “Any particular reason why we’re stopping there?”
“We’re picking some people up.” Captain Dysart’s voice was tight with tension. “We’ll get in and out quickly. The worst fighting’s on the other side of the system, so if we turn around quickly enough, we might be able to slip by unnoticed.”
Looking over at Jianyu, Sera saw that his hands were clenched tight on the arms of his chair. His knuckles stood out pale against the green of his skin. “All right,” she said as she killed the diagnostic screen and pulled up the layouts she’d need to see as she flew the ship manually. “Ready when you are.”
Jianyu’s eyes rolled up in his head as he fed a new series of calculations into the ship’s computer, altering their current trajectory to bring them out of the folds of space-time. They would return to sub-light speeds about a half hour’s ride from a planet called Heimstätte, an earthlike outpost that had, until recent events, been firmly under the control of humanity. Now, with Eridani fleets encroaching on the system, she supposed there were plenty of people who wanted a quick escape route. She wondered how much the captain was charging for this particular ride. Their cargo hold was already full of vats of algae, and their client wouldn’t be too happy if this unplanned stop delayed their delivery.
The ship dropped into the normal flow of time and space. The stars beyond the window stabilized into unwavering points of light. Sera set a steady speed, one that would make them look like any other trader en route to the planet.
“Can’t we go any faster?” the captain asked.
“It looks suspicious to come in like we’re in a hurry,” Sera told her. “As far as whoever’s currently patrolling this system knows, we’re profiteers hoping the war means scarcity.”
Heimstätte was a pretty planet, like the earth Sera had seen in simulations of what the planet was like before humanity put its stamp across its homeworld. She keyed in a command to her console, typing awkwardly with just one working arm, and the ship maintained its steady course.
Their destination was a settlement at the center of a big green continent, set next to a wide silty river. The atmosphere was so favorable that there was no port to dock in, just a flat swath of grass at the edge of town where Sera set the ship down and opened the airlock directly into the native air. Jianyu supposed he could guess why this system was worth fighting over. Humans and Eridani thrived in similar ecosystems, and this planet would be a perfect agricultural world for either species.
Most of the passengers who filed through the door were human. He recognized a few in passing from his last visit. Captain Dysart waited by the door, watching the crowd come in and glancing now and then at the sky, as if she’d be able to see the fleet encroaching from all the way down here. Jianyu stood in the hallway a few steps away from her, directing the traffic and trying to hide his disappointment at every unfamiliar face. Sera leaned against the wall beside him, her right thumb hooked in a pocket of her vest, her left arm held up in its sling.
Beyond the doorway, Jianyu could see a beautiful field, the grass thick and remarkably close to earth’s native plants. The sky was a clear, cloudless blue. It didn’t look like a war zone to him. He supposed he didn’t know what a war zone was supposed to look like. He’d never been in one before, and whenever the news showed images of plasma-scarred fields, he always turned it off. He knew that the territorial squabbles between human and Eridani forces were boiling over into real, pitched battles, but it was easier to know that in the abstract than to confront the reality of it.
In the doorway, the captain stopped to talk with a woman. Her face was turned away, but when the two clasped hands briefly his heart started hammering. She turned his way, and they locked eyes, and his mother smiled. There were new lines on her face, although it hadn’t been that long since they last saw each other.
Sera straightened, noticing that he was watching someone in the crowd, but she was too short to see over the mass of people. “How much are we charging per head?” she asked.
“What?” Jianyu looked down for a moment, distracted, and when he turned his eyes back to the crowd he’d lost her again.
“The price per passenger,” Sera said. “It should work out to a nice cut for each of us.”
“Oh, this is all free.” Jianyu kept watching for another familiar face. “Personal favor.”
“Free?” Sera didn’t sound pleased hear that. “We’re flying through a war zone for free? And who’s so important that the captain’s willing to risk our lives for nothing?”
She couldn’t have known, of course, but that didn’t stop the jolt of anger from lancing through Jianyu’s chest. “Go back to the bridge and get ready to go,” he said, knowing he sounded gruff. “I’ll finish up here.”
Sera gave him a puzzled look, but headed off, pushing through the crowd. Jianyu kept waiting, his stomach tightening with every new face.
His father was last through the door, ducking to get under the metal frame. He too looked as if he’d aged years since they’d last spoken. He put his hand on Jianyu’s shoulder and squeezed briefly, then stepped back. “That’s all of us,” he said. “Time to go.”
Jianyu keyed in a command to close the airlock. The hallway was emptying out, the settlers filing off to the empty spaces that had been conference rooms and offices when the Benevolence was a Coalition vessel. The crew had done a hasty job of turning them into passenger cabins, moving furniture into the cargo bay and fixing emergency harnesses on the wall.
When they were alone in the hallway, he turned to his dad and stepped into his spread arms for a hug. He was never going to be as tall as his Eridani father, always child-sized at only seven feet, and he wished more than ever that he could be the one to step back and let his parents handle things.
“Where did mom go?” Jianyu asked. “I saw her for a second, but then she disappeared.”
“Probably went straight to the bridge,” his father said. “You know how she is.”
They broke apart. Jianyu led the way, taking advantage of the empty hallway and the fact that he was facing away from his father to dry his eyes with his shirtsleeve. His mother was indeed on the bridge, standing next to the captain’s chair with Xrrt and Captain Dysart, her arms clasped behind her back. Jianyu slid into his seat and began fastening his harness. Sera turned around in her own chair, leaned over to him, and whispered. “Do you know who that is?”
“Yes, I’m aware, thank you.” Jianyu picked up the cable that plugged into his neural port. His stomach was churning. The turnaround was going to be tight–he didn’t normally perform the tricky work of calculating the ship’s faster than light trajectory without taking at least a couple of days to rest, but they didn’t have a couple of days. The fighting was getting dangerously close to Heimstätte.
“I mean, we studied her work in class. That five-point plan at the battle over Sigma Scorpii, I did a presentation on that. You could have just said we were picking up Admiral Du.”
His mother walked over to his station. Sera gawked openly. In her retirement she’d gained a little weight, and let her hair grow out and braided it. If she’d kept her old uniform, she wasn’t wearing it; her clothing, her easy smile, everything marked her as a civilian now.
In Chinese, she said, “Your pilot only has one arm. Is this going to be a problem?”
Jianyu responded in kind, the syllables a little awkward on his tongue after so long speaking only English. His mother had insisted that he learn both his parents’ languages, but he didn’t get much of a chance to practice. “She can handle it.”
“She better,” his mom said. She rubbed a hand over his head, a gesture he remembered from childhood, then walked off to speak to Captain Dysart.
He turned back to Sera, who looked like she was putting two and two together. He knew he would never be the mirror image of either of his parents, but it wasn’t hard to see he had his mother’s dark eyes and hair.
“Holy shit.” Sera was giddy. “When were you going to tell me your mom’s Admiral Du?”
“Promise me you won’t get weird about it,” Jianyu said.
Sera’s eyes were shining. It was the happiest she’d looked in weeks, the first time in a while her face hadn’t been pinched with pain. “Oh, I’m going to get weird about it,” she said. “As your friend, getting weird about it is my sacred duty.”
“Just don’t get us all killed.” Jianyu glanced at his own console. Weyland had sent him another message about his neural readouts. He deleted it.
“Nyx,” Du said, coming up behind her, “is there anything I can do?”
“Captain.” Nyx stood up straighter, an instinctive gesture. “Uh, I mean, Admiral. Thank you for the offer, but I think we can take it from here.”
“Please, call me Xinyi,” she said. “I’m not your superior officer anymore, just a friend. Although I really would be happy to help.”
Nyx had begun her career in the Coalition under Captain Du, serving as a junior officer on the Eloquence. Some days it felt like that had been a different lifetime, and some days it felt like just yesterday that she’d stepped on board her very first Coalition vessel. Du had been a good captain, kind to her subordinates but not overly familiar with the youngest members of her crew. In time Nyx had moved on to the Compassion, and then she’d been given the captain’s chair on the Benevolence, and then everything had fallen apart.
Xinyi was looking around the bridge, and it was obvious that she wasn’t impressed by what she saw. Sure, the Benevolence could have used some touch-ups. Sera’s style of repairs was ruthlessly practical, with raised solder marks left unfiled and wires hanging out of abandoned consoles where she’d cannibalized hard-to-find parts. There had been many mechanics before her, none particularly skilled at maintaining the Coalition’s sleek and seamless look without the Coalition’s endless supply of free replacement parts. Nyx had learned to live with it, although now, under her old captain’s eye, she felt faintly ashamed that she hadn’t done more to tidy up.
“I noticed your copilot’s station is empty,” said Xinyi. “Mind if I sit there?”
“I’d be honored.” Lowering her voice, Nyx added, “To be honest, Sera could use the help.”
“I noticed. Why is she still flying?”
“We’re a little short-staffed at the moment. I’d planned to take a break after this quick run, but, well, you know.” Nyx spread her arms, a gesture encompassing the ship and its new passengers.
Xinyi was giving her a strange look. Nyx realized that she was looking at the cast on her wrist. The ship wasn’t the only thing looking a little beat up at the moment. “ I am, of course, grateful that you were available to pick us up on such short notice,” Xinyi said. “After this, I think you should take that break. Consider it friendly advice,” she added, barely heading off Nyx’s instinctive yes, Captain.
“We’ll definitely do that,” Nyx said. “Right after we’re done here.” How long has she been telling herself the same thing? They were always on the verge of having a chance to relax after just one more quick run.
Weyland approached, his com screen in his hand. His expression was neutral, his bearing unruffled–but then, it almost always was. “Captain, could I have a word with you?”
“Of course,” Nyx said. She expected Xinyi to stick around, but the older woman only gave her a thin smile and moved off to the copilot’s station to begin strapping in. “What is it, Weyland?”
“I’ve been checking the crew’s medical charts,” he said. “I don’t think they should be flying right now.”
“I know, but we’re going to do it anyway,” said Nyx, waving him off with her uninjured hand.
Weyland didn’t budge. “A standard takeoff in a ship the size and condition of the Benevolence exposes the human body to 2 gs of force. With the way Sera flies, the average for the Benevolence is closer to 3 gs…”
Nyx pinched the bridge of her nose as Weyland enumerated the many delicate structures of human anatomy that could snap under strain. Under other circumstances, delivered by a less monotonous storyteller, it might have been fascinating. Spaceflight was risky even for a species as strong as the Eridani or as a hard-shelled as the Centaurians. Even without letting the vacuum in, there were so many ways to die.
Now Weyland was going on about neural overload. Nyx held up a hand, and when that didn’t stop him, she said, “I acknowledge that this isn’t ideal. But do you know what happens when a human’s hit directly with a plasma rifle bolt?”
“Yes,” said Weyland. “The heat vaporizes organic material on contact, causing the expanding gas to–”
“This is a war zone,” said Nyx, flatly. “We’re getting out of it. End of discussion.”
Weyland nodded. If he disagreed with that decision, he didn’t show it. “Yes, captain,” he said, and went to his seat.
Nyx sat down in her own chair, looking down at the rest of the crew. She caught herself scratching an itch under her cast and forced herself to keep her palm flat on her armrest. Just ahead of her, Xinyi had pulled up a diagnostic report of the ship’s systems at her station. A good portion of it was solid red. The Benevolence’s computer still occasionally glitched out and tried to diagnose problems in the portion of the ship that had been blown off years before. Sera was tapping out a string of commands on the pilot’s console. Nyx buckled her harness, then killed time fiddling with it, tightening the straps and loosening them again.
At last she felt a familiar thrum through the soles of her feet as the Benevolence’s chemical thrusters powered up. Remembering the dozens of passengers the ship was carrying, Nyx used her own console to send a reminder to strap in. The view from the forward window tilted, the open field panning to a clear blue sky, and the thrust of takeoff pushed Nyx back into her seat.
Coalition designers had made a single pilot’s station the regulation on every type of ship, from science vessels to freight ships to defensive cruisers. Each station came with a variety of settings that could be changed for the pilot on duty. There was one setting for Centaurians, who had four clawed forelimbs. There was another for species with opposable thumbs. And of course there were hundreds of different options that could be altered to suit a pilot’s preferences, from the sensitivity of the yoke to the amount of resistance it took to move each thrust lever.
There was no setting for a pilot with only one working arm. Sera had done the best she could jury-rigging a solution. She’d set up voice commands for the buttons she couldn’t reach on her left side and for some of the trickier functions that required both hands. Although she hadn’t told the rest of the crew, she’d been hoping she never actually had to put her makeshift system to the test. Their now-abandoned flight plan had them scheduled for weeks of faster than light travel, and Sera had been hoping that by the time she had to take manual control again her arm would have healed.
She took the ascent slower than she would have otherwise, checking and double-checking the readings. The G forces of of the ship’s thrust were still strong enough to cut through the ship’s artificial gravity, a pressure that sat heavy on her chest. Her shoulder ached, and she ground her teeth but said nothing. There wasn’t anything she could do about it for the time being. Flying with one arm might be tricky, but flying with one arm and her reflexes impaired by painkillers would be stupid.
The clear blue of the sky thinned out to an airless black. Jianyu was already plugged into the computer, although his job wouldn’t start until much later. The ship needed thousands of miles of empty space as clearance before the faster than light drive could be engaged.
Her console flashed red. Sera still had a hand on the yoke, and she couldn’t tap her screen to kill the readouts and pull up the new warning message. She hadn’t thought to program in a voice command to do it for her. “Hey, someone read that for me,” she said instead.
Captain Dysart said, “There’s a military ship approaching. Looks like a combat vessel.”
Admiral Du added, “It’s coming in fast. The call sign is Eridani.” She must have pulled up her own set of information at the copilot’s station, because she added, “There are two more ships behind it. Both human, so they must be in pursuit.”
“Shit. Computer, show me all nearby objects, render in three dimensions.” Her holographic display showed the planet falling away behind the Benevolence. The three ships were still distant, but approaching fast. They were on a path that would intersect with the route she’d been planning to take. She adjusted their course, giving them as wide a berth as she could. “Okay, I think they have bigger things to worry about than us.”
She told the computer to feed some extra power into the ion rocket, hoping it wouldn’t make them look more suspicious. Any trader would want to get out of the way of a fight. She would circle the planet, and with that mass of rock to hide them from the other ships’ sensors, the Benevolence would set off on a new trajectory that would take them far away from the fighters. Sera had been in more awkward spots before. This would be easy.
Heimstätte turned beneath them, serene at this distance. The fighters slid away out of sensor range. Sera was just starting to relax when a new dot appeared on her tracking screen, this one on the other side of the planet.
Please be a satellite, she thought, but another dot appeared, and another–a whole cluster of bright points lighting up her holographic display, drifting across the vastness of space right toward them. The war had come to Heimstätte.
They were still out of visual range, but if the Benevolence had picked up dozens of ships, she’d be equally visible on their systems. Humanity had come to the fight with more vessels, but the ship’s computer had highlighted multiple Eridani dreadnoughts, some of the deadliest military ships in known space.
Captain Dysart said, “We have to turn around.”
The two human ships Sera had spotted earlier appeared on her tracker again, moving toward them. Either they’d made short work of their target, or they’d decided that an unknown trading ship in the middle of a combat zone was worth investigating. “We can’t turn around now,” Sera said, adjusting the ship’s course again to send them up over Heimstätte’s pole. If she could only get the planet between them and the battlefield, she’d be able to get away.
More dots appeared on screen. “Shit, shit, shit,” Sera muttered. Her computer, thinking she’d given a voice command, tried to downshift the power going to the ion rocket. She had to take her hand off the yoke to fix it. They were fully out of the atmosphere now, orbiting the planet, and the pressure that wrapped around her chest now had nothing to do with the rocket’s thrust.
“We can head back into atmosphere,” Captain Dysart said. “Go dark until all this is over, wait for our moment, and escape.”
“They’ll find us before we’re out of the thermosphere,” Admiral Du said. “If we’re getting out, we have to do it now. And we need a pilot with both hands, so with your permission, Captain Dysart, I’d like to assume control of the ship.”