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.”
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