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.