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.
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