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.