“You can’t do that,” Sera said.
Du’s voice was icy. “I think I know more than you about how to fly.”
Sera took her hand off the yoke and keyed in a new set of manual commands: full power to the ion rocket and the secondary chemical thrusters. “I’ve had worse flights than this.”
A warning popped up on her console: Admiral Du was requesting control of the ship’s primary flight functions. Sera didn’t have the time to turn around in her chair to see Nyx’s face, but she knew her captain well enough to understand that she was struggling with this decision. “Trust me, captain,” she said. “She can’t control the Benevolence.”
They were picking up speed. Sera brought the ship in an arc, heading around the main force, hoping the pursuing human vessels would drop off when they saw the enemy. The ship shook as the chemical thrusters fired at full force. Nyx’s voice was soft, barely audible over the sound of rattling metal. “Tell me why I should.”
“Because I took the primary capacitor out of the copilot’s station two months ago,” Sera said. “It’s still got full permissions to control of the ship, but there’s no steering.”
Du swore, at some length, in both English and Chinese. Sera turned her focus to the field of battle. Most of the encroaching vessels were falling toward the planet, but a collection of smaller Eridani ships were creating a blockade. She had heard of the technique: the slower dreadnoughts would try to herd the human vessels toward the atmosphere, but if they tried to escape, they’d be cut off. Human ships were awkward in atmosphere, and on the ground, humans troops wouldn’t stand a chance.
Her screen was flashing again. Someone was firing at them. Human or Eridani, she wasn’t sure, but the force field that protected their hull was just for deflecting debris. It wouldn’t stand up to real fire.
“Everybody hang onto something,” she said.
“Uh, should I be on guns?” Jianyu asked.
“No,” Sera said. “We can’t waste energy heating plasma. But Admiral Du, I need you for this part.”
For a moment she thought Du would refuse. Instead, in a clipped voice, she said, “Tell me what to do.”
Sera yanked on the yoke, turning the ship’s nose up away from the planet. Two of the nearby Eridani ships must have noticed, because they began to move, closing the gap to prevent the Benevolence from escaping. Sera checked the readouts one last time. The chemical thrusters’ fuel was running low, and every possible volt of power was going into the ion rocket.
“When I give the word,” Sera said, “I need you to open the cargo bay doors. All of them. Override the airlocks so they open at the same time as the interior doors.”
Their window was closing. Sera made a minute adjustment to their flight path, aiming dead center between the two closest ships. Spaceflight had a strange way of changing her perception of speed; they were going hundreds of miles per hour, and yet as the chemical thrusters finally ran out of fuel and powered down, a strange stillness settled over the ship as if they were drifting powerless in the void. The two warships closed the distance, massive hulks moving with the grace of microgravity.
“On my word,” she said when there was no turning back, just the two ships ahead and the narrow path between them, “Now.”
The ship lurched as the cargo bay’s doors blew, sending hundreds of vats of algae flying across space. They weren’t the missiles she would have chosen, but as far as the Eridani were concerned, the Benevolence was now the center of a field of unknown debris. One tried firing a round of plasma into the field, spraying metal and water in a glittering cloud. The other veered off course, trying to avoid the friendly fire. And then a heartbeat later they were outside the blockade.
The Benevolence was lighter now, and she kept going faster. The G force of their thrust pushed Sera back in her seat. Something unpleasant was happening in her shoulder as her half-healed muscle tore under the strain, and her vision was narrowing, the stars at the edges of the window going dark. She didn’t have the luxury of passing out right now.
The ships were turning too, but not fast enough. Another few minutes at full speed, and they’d be able to engage the faster than light drive safely. Sera could hang on for another minute. She could hold off the darkness creeping across the sky for that long. Another thirty seconds. Her whole side was throbbing now, but she could do it.
It took a lot of effort to turn her head. Jianyu’s eyelids were fluttering as he calculated their path through spacetime. Her display flashed. They had their route. She tried to reach for her console, but when she took her hand off the yoke, it was difficult to raise it to the screen. “I need,” she began, but couldn’t get the rest of the words out.
The stars shifted and blurred. It wasn’t just her eyes this time. Admiral Du must have engaged the faster-than-light drive. The pressure on her shoulder vanished as the ion rocket powered down, leaving them adrift in the bubble of spacetime created by the drive as it folded space around the ship. Without the pressure there was just the pain, and the darkness nibbling away at the edge of her vision, and a dull sense of alarm as Jianyu’s head fell forward and blood ran from his nose.
“The good news is, you’re going to survive this,” Weyland said.
From her makeshift hospital bed, Sera mumbled, “Suck it, death.” Weyland had given her a lot of painkillers. Either she had been in more pain than she’d been willing to admit, or he’d figured out that it was the only way to get her to sit still enough to accept treatment.
“The bad news is, you’ve set your recovery back by at least a month. You’ve got a complete tear through your supraspinatous muscle, and the tendon’s badly damaged. If you want to regain full range of motion I’ll need to perform surgery, and then you’ll be on a physical therapy regimen.”
Sera made a face, but quickly lost interest and began trying to scratch under her bandages. Captain Dysart redirected Sera’s hand with her good one; her fingers on the side of her broken wrist had swollen so much that she couldn’t move them.
Weyland turned to Jianyu, who was holding a tissue to his face, trying to stop the blood streaming out of his nose. “Time for your examination.”
Jianyu sighed, but ducked his head and allowed Weyland to slide the medical probe into his neural port. His senses shifted as the probe began collecting data; the metallic taste of the blood at the back of his throat was suddenly a high musical tone, and the cold metal of the algae vat he was sitting on smelled like cinnamon. When he came to, he was on the floor for some reason. Captain Dysart and Weyland were kneeling on each side of him, and Sera was doing a poor job of trying to sit up to get a better look at the action.
Parsing the sounds he was hearing was difficult. Jianyu stayed still, waiting for the words to make sense again, and then he kept lying down for a while longer so he could pretend he hadn’t heard phrases like can’t keep doing this much longer and irreversible damage if this continues. This was exactly why he’d asked Weyland to examine him before letting his parents into the lab.
When he was finally able to sit up, Weyland moved on to examining Captain Dysart’s hand. Standing too fast didn’t seem like a wise idea, so he scooted his way across the floor to the cot Sera was lying on. She grinned when he settled down next to her. “Hey, dummy.”
“Hey, idiot,” he replied. “Why’d you take the capacitor out of the copilot’s station?”
“Because nobody makes that kind of capacitor anymore.” Sera tried to pick at her bandages again. When Jianyu moved her hand away, she settled for scratching at the scars along her jawline. “I told you I could fly one-handed.”
Jianyu’s parents, held off for as long as Weyland could manage, finally pushed into the lab. The room was already cramped, and now, with another human and an Eridani inside, it was standing room only. Jianyu stood up carefully, his head still swimming, and tolerated his parents fussing over him. “It’s just a blood pressure thing,” he said. “Nothing to worry about. I’m not burning out.”
Sera glared at him. He looked away, and found Weyland staring at him with his eyebrows fractionally raised, which was about as expressive as Weyland ever got.
Better change the subject, and fast. “What’s next for you and dad? Are you going to try to find another farm?” It had been his father’s idea to try farming, after decades of service to the Coalition as a diplomat. He hadn’t expected his mother to take to a rural life, but after the end of the Coalition, she’d taken to land management with unexpected enthusiasm.
“I don’t know,” his dad said. “We’ll see where we land.”
“If you need money, transportation, anything, you know you can ask me for anything.”
“We know.” His mother slipped her arm around his, elbow crooked around his forearm, fingers resting on his wrist. A part of Jianyu would always remember her as a giant, but in that moment he was painfully aware of how small humans were, how frail. “The best option for us might be a Minervan outpost. We’re keeping our options open.”
Minervan space was as close to lawless as the known galaxy got, and most Minervan outposts were on small, mean planets that weren’t worth fighting over. Few of them had prime agricultural land. But then again, Minervans wouldn’t look twice at a mixed-species couple, and many had a fondness for the Coalition that a few years of turmoil hadn’t erased.
“That was certainly an interesting flight,” said his mother, turning to Captain Dysart but keeping her hand on Jianyu’s arm. Weyland was holding a scanner over the captain’s cast, and frowning slightly at whatever he was seeing.
“Sera used to be a Coalition pilot,” said the captain.
“Oh,” said his mother, smiling. “What ship did you serve on?”
“The Integrity,” Sera said.
“Under Captain Zttr?” his father asked. His pronunciation of the name, while not truly as good as a Centaurian’s, got some of the tonal clicks humans didn’t have the range for.
“That’s right,” Sera said.
His parents caught each others’ eyes, and shared a look even Jianyu couldn’t read. Sera, too high to notice, continued, “So, got any good stories about Jianyu? The more embarrassing, the better.”
His dad said, “Well, there was that time I came back from the treaty negotiations on Iota Pavonis…”
“Dad,” Jianyu said, already covering his face to hide his blush.
“You were, what, eleven? Twelve?” his mother said, picking up the story seamlessly. “And someone in your class had slipped you this anonymous note, covered in hearts–”
“Mom,” Jianyu said, as Sera laughed, delighted already or maybe just so far gone that everything was funny.
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.
At the aft of the ship, behind the cargo bay but just ahead of the engines, was a small room that the crew used for personal storage. On the ship it had originally come from, it might have been someone’s bedroom, but the constant hum of the faster than light drive made this part of the Benevolence too loud for everyone but Sera to sleep. Now the space was piled high with the discarded remains of the parts she’d scavenged, either from black markets or the recesses of the Benevolence itself, along with years of accumulated trash from the rest of the crew: Nyx’s mementos, Weyland’s broken lab equipment, and something belonging to Xrrt that looked like a spiky chitinous ball.
They were just a few days out from their destination, and the ship felt oppressively small. Captain Dysart had been in a funk for nearly a week, spending most of her time in her room and emerging at odd hours to eat or to sit on the bridge staring at nothing in particular. Xrrt was either holed up with the captain or talking as best she could with the passengers, trying to figure out whether the skirmish over Heimstätte was going to turn into a larger crisis. Sera vacillated between stoned serenity and crankiness, depending on how long it had been since her last dose of painkillers. Weyland spent most of his time in his lab, but then, that wasn’t much of a change from his regular routine.
Jianyu liked his parents. He didn’t mind spending time with them, even in the oppressively small living space of the Benevolence. But sometime in the last few weeks, he’d noticed that all their conversations had taken on a circular quality, spinning around the same topic with no resolution: What are you going to do now?
And so he’d decided to take a break in the storage room. There was a small window in the wall, and when he sat in just the right spot, he could look out through the thick crystalline pane at the stars. They were still traveling faster than light, and so the view was stretched and warped, the white light dissolving into blurry streaks as the Benevolence slipped through time and space.
The door opened. Jianyu shifted, nearly toppling the piece of scrap metal he’d been using as a backrest. “Don’t get up, it’s just me,” Sera said. She closed the door behind her, kicked some trash away to clear a space, and sat down at his side.
“Needed a break?” Jianyu asked.
“I told the captain I was taking a look at the artificial gravity control module,” said Sera.
“I told her I was helping you find the clog in the sewage system,” said Jianyu.
“There’s a clog in the sewage system?” Sera tipped her head back, using Jianyu’s arm as a headrest. “I’ll get around to it. Eventually.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes. The constant, subtle vibration of the ship’s faster than light engine pulsed through Jianyu’s body, closer to a physical sensation than a sound. He said, “I think I need to start following politics.”
“Why would you do that to yourself?” Sera asked.
“It’s just–it’s a part of my life now. I have to know how this war’s going to affect my family.”
Sera opened her eyes and looked at him, but for once she didn’t say anything.
Now that he’d started talking, Jianyu felt the need to fill the silence. “My dad told me what happened to the Integrity. They reconstructed it from the ship’s last recorded flight path. One of their navigators was burning out, but they were running with a reduced crew and there was no one left to swap out. They were on a supply run when she made a miscalculation and sent the ship directly through the heart of a neutron star.”
“I see why your dad told you that story,” said Sera.
“All hands were lost,” Jianyu said. “They died instantaneously. There wasn’t even time to send a last message out.” He paused and looked down at Sera, trying to gauge her reaction. “You didn’t have to lie to me. You could have just said you never worked for the Coalition.”
Sera shrugged. Her hair, usually shaved close at the sides, was getting long enough to tickle his skin when she moved her head. The new growth was black, and Jianyu realized he hadn’t ever seen her hair that color before. She bleached it and dyed the longer hair on top a new shade every month. “Nobody worked for the Coalition because it was just a job,” she said. “There were a lot of jobs closer to home, with better pay and better hours, even if you grew up in a shitty system. Everyone who signed up to serve the Coalition did it because it meant something to them. For the captain, it was a reason to go exploring. For Xrrt, it was about doing the best thing for her family. For you, I think it was the only place you fit in. And for me, it was the best chance I was going to get to be someone else.”
Jianyu stayed silent. Sera hadn’t been totally right about why he’d followed his parents into a career with the Coalition, but she’d hit close enough to hurt. She took a shaky breath and continued, “I really did train with the Coalition, I didn’t lie about that. But it was just before everything fell apart, and–and I never got a chance to fly a genuine Coalition starship. I’d only just graduated from simulations to light shuttles. I wanted this job, so I lied to the captain, and then I had to keep lying.”
Jianyu took a breath and let it out slowly. He’d thought he would be angry at Sera, that he would confront her with this terrible truth, but all he felt was tired. “I wish you’d trusted me,” he said.
Sera looked at the floor and didn’t say anything. Jianyu went back to watching the stars. Their light wavered and blurred as the Benevolence slipped through space on the course he’d calculated. A ship traveling faster than light was a world within itself, a precious little bubble of light and heat and air. So many things could go wrong, a tiny miscalculation or electrical short could kill everyone inside. But so long as the million little miracles that kept it functioning kept happening in just the right way, it could keep flying for a very long time.