The console beeps soft and steady in the stillness of the cabin and in the moment before she opens her eyes Lena is on Earth. She's in her bed listening to the chime and rumble of her phone buried somewhere in the sheets, a gentle text alert staccato that can only mean one thing: Sam is awake. Because the content that fills most people's social media accounts is, as far as Sam is concerned, reserved for Lena only. It's best friend content. It's a never ending conversation punctuated by dog photos and screenshots of the hundred thousand articles of clothing Sam is always adding to her cart and never purchasing. It's a reassuring reminder that Lena is not, never has been, never really will be alone, not so long as Sam has anything to do with it. She shifts in bed, fumbling for the phone, and-
The console beeps again. Lena opens her eyes, vision blurry, mouth dry. She's supposed to be on watch duty, but after so many months of empty space it's hard to take watch duty seriously. The light on the console flashes. Lena's gaze passes over it and then her eyes are closed again and she's reaching for the last wisps of the dream, for a glass of water on the bedside table in a bedroom she hasn't seen for eight months now, for her phone quietly announcing Sam's morning text messages. The window is open, and the breeze carries with it the sounds of birds and the smell of something cooking in someone else's apartment.
No, wait. This is important. The console never beeps unless it's something important.
Lena opens her eyes and shakes herself awake, and she's in space again. So many billions of miles away from Earth that it's beyond the scope even of a mind as sharp as hers to imagine it, eight months and fourteen days into a seven month journey to a planet they may or may not be able to find, a planet that may or may not even still exist. It's still their best hope. The ship has been decelerating for some weeks now, gradually slowing to a speed that can accommodate maneuvering among celestial bodies and from there to a speed that might accommodate landing. Maybe. If all of Cisco's calculations were correct, and if Nia's augmentations and modifications are all functioning as intended, and if Krypton still exists, and if they can establish contact or make it to the ground without getting shot at, and assuming they can find open and unoccupied ground to land on in the first place which is preferably also not in the middle of an ocean because there was never time to prepare for a water landing.
Compensating for a large number of variables is Lena's super power, but this is all feeling like a little much even for her. It's been feeling like a little much for a long time now, and all those empty miles of space have come and gone, and she doesn't feel any better yet.
The console beeps. The light flashes: proximity alert. The last vestiges of sleep leave Lena with a jolt. While traveling faster than light, there is no danger of impact - or at least that was Cisco's theory, and since the ship is still mostly in one piece it's probably true - but there is a danger during the long acceleration and deceleration periods on either end of the journey. If the proximity alert is sounding now, it likely means-
And there it is. Lena spies it with her own eyes before she has the navigation display on the shipboard computer up and running. Off to the left through the cockpit window, from this distance appearing only as large as a dime, is a planet. Lena hesitates. She could wake the others with the news, maybe even should wake them, but something stills her hand: the thought of Sam poring over the console, excitement fading to devastation as it becomes clear they've emerged from faster than light travel only to find themselves stranded in the wrong system. Lena doesn't think she could take it.
"Computer," Lena says softly. "Run star system analysis, please."
If this were a movie, if it were Battlestar Galactica, if it were any of the dozens of scenarios Lena has played out in her mind these past few years, she would have her answer right away. Just a few tense seconds and then the computer would spit out a confirmation of their location and a tidy graphical representation of the star system they're finally approaching. But the reality of it is that while the ship computer boasts impressive processing power, it depends on much of that power for the day to day business of keeping the ship running, the fuel and life support managed, and the whole venture pointed in roughly the right direction. The analysis of an entire star system is asking rather a lot on top of the usual load, and so Lena is disappointed but not surprised when the only thing the computer spits out is a 3hr countdown to the results she's ask for.
Well, she can wait. What's another three hours in the grand scheme of things? It's been half a decade since the Kara Danvers of Earth-72 flung herself out of Lena's universe, leaving nothing behind but a map, a phrasebook, and a promise. She'll know you when she sees you. I'd know you in any universe. Across universes. I knew you the moment I saw you. On that alone, Lena is gambling her life, the lives of her tiny crew, and possibly the fate of the human race. God, it would be nice if the computer could provide a little instant gratification just this once, because the anticipation these next few hours is going to be unbearable. The anxiety is going to be unbearable. She might as well settle in.
Lena tucks her legs up under her, fixes her eyes on the dull, flat disk hanging in space ahead of the ship, and curses Cisco for the thousandth time. She can remember so clearly the first day he invited her to sit in this stupid chair. "If it's too comfortable," he said, "We'll fall asleep on watch duty. Believe you me, I can fall asleep just about anywhere, and you do not want me dozing off behind that console."
Well, he never did get his turn on watch duty, and Lena has fallen asleep in this chair probably a hundred times anyway. The least he could have done was outfit the Avem ’s pilot nest with something a little nicer.
Lena shakes herself. That's an uncharitable thought to be having about someone who gave up so much to put this bird in the sky. Cisco was doing his best.
"Hang on," she whispers. "We're getting help. We're almost there." She isn't sure whether it's Cisco or herself she's talking to.
The first hour passes while Lena allows herself the rare indulgence of wondering about home. First about Cisco and all the details of his life - she does not allow herself to imagine a version of events in which he might not still be alive - and then about all the rest left behind under Bruce Wayne's shadow. She wonders whether Andrea is still hauling her father's company time and time again out of a sea of red ink. Whether the children's hospital ever finished that new cancer wing. Whether the elderly couple a floor down from Lena's apartment are still singing love songs together at the top of their lungs on Saturday nights. She wonders whether the sun is still rising, and rain is still falling, and flowers are still blooming, and that golden hour just before sunset is still hanging on for an extra moment or two every day as if it were somehow exempt from the rules that govern the passage of time.
She spends the second hour thinking of Kara. Not the Kara she's come all this way to find, but the Kara of Earth 72. The Kara whose laughter and seriousness and wonder turned Lena's life upside down in the three short days she knew her. The Kara who left. Well, and she had to leave, because those are the rules of interdimensional travel, and so Lena can't resent her for it no matter how much easier it would be for her if she could. She can only lie back out here among the stars and wonder whether the Kara of Earth 72 is happy. Maybe there's another version of Lena on Earth 72, and maybe they're getting married. Maybe they're having babies and saving the world and maybe it's beautiful. Lena wonders whether Kara ever looks at her wife and thinks of the three days she spent with another woman of the same name in another universe. She wonders, and she hopes so, and she hopes not.
She's still lost in her musings when a string of muffled curses from the bunk announces that Lena's solitude has come to an end. 53 minutes and change on the countdown clock, and Nia Nal is finally awake. Lena says 'finally' but-
"You were supposed to wake me up, you jerk!" Nia appears over Lena's shoulder, bleary eyed and grumpy. She straightens her hoodie with a few distracted tugs as she peers out through the cockpit window at the field of stars which has, for the most part, remained unchanged these past few weeks."You can't just stand every watch yourself, you know. Especially not now."
Tired as she is, Lena can't help the smile that tugs at the corners of her mouth. "Technically I'm not standing."
Nia purses her lips. "You work too much," she admonishes, "And one of these days it's going to catch up with you. Don't give me that look, you- Is that a planet?"
Lena doesn't bother to answer the question directly, because what else could it be? "I don't want to wake Sam until we've analyzed the system."
"In case it isn't Rao," Nia murmurs, nodding as she leans in to get a better look at the console. She nudges Lena's ankle with her foot. "It's been my watch for like four hours; get out of my chair."
Lena grumbles, but Nia is right. She vacates the pilot's seat in favor of one of the two passenger spots staggered behind and, ignoring Cisco's oft-repeated regulation that everyone strap in when seated in the cockpit, tucks her legs up under herself again and watches with absent curiosity as Nia pulls up the raw incoming data on the ship computer.
"You really were wasted on political science," Lena muses as Nia's fingers fly over the keyboard.
"It was one class and all I needed was a C," Nia says with a roll of the eyes. They've had this exchange a hundred times. They could have it a hundred more and they'd both still smile. "General education is still a thing, you know."
"Then you were wasted on general education."
Nia chuckles a little at that, and Lena knows they're both thinking of what Sam would say if she were awake to hear them. The outrage, the scandal, the inevitable breathless defense of the value of the humanities for those specializing in the hard sciences. And it isn't even that Nia or Lena disagree with Sam so much as it is that it's fun to press her buttons. That's what love looks like after so many months alone together on a spaceship, Lena supposes.
"See anything interesting?" Lena asks. Maybe she should stretch her legs, get some water from the kitchen. She's been sitting still for nearly ten hours now and conclusive results are still some time away. And yet she can't quite bring herself to leave the cockpit.
Nia hums noncommittally. "There are at least four planets in the system. One is a gas giant. There’s water on at least two, so that's good news for us. If this isn't Rao we might still be able to make a pit stop for supplies, figure out what the plan is from here."
They both know that a pit stop for supplies is the same as stranding themselves on an alien planet if they can't get their hands on fuel, but neither of them says as much. Everyone on board this ship has known from the start that coming out of faster than light travel into the wrong star system could leave them trapped on an empty world or dying of slow starvation in space. Given the choice, they'll all take their chances with the empty world.
"Did you eat?" Nia doesn't look up as she talks, busy writing all over something with a stylus.
"I asked if you ate while you were busy standing my watch even though you promised me not two days ago that you weren't going to pull any more double shifts. And I ask you this because you woke me up four and a half hours late for breakfast, and I could eat a horse right about now."
"I'm fresh out of horses. Can I interest you in half a shitty space burrito?"
"Damn, you really do know how to sell a dish."
Shitty space burrito it is. Lena heaves herself out of the passenger's seat and leaves Nia to her notes and her data. Maybe the kid is right; maybe she's overextending herself. But what else is there to do? Rest? Lena hasn't had a good night of sleep for weeks now. She slips past the bunks, sliding quietly along in her socks, imagining the ship is an ice rink for just a moment as she steals a quick glance at Sam. Still asleep, as she should be until the ship's day cycle begins in another two hours.
To call the ship's galley a 'kitchen' would be putting it rather charitably in Lena's opinion. It contains a coffee maker, Earth's fanciest microwave, several racks of plants which are simultaneously supplementing the food supply and augmenting the life support system, and a great deal of storage. Storage which is now mostly empty, because no one considered conserving rations until the ship failed to decelerate on schedule. Lena isn't honestly sure whether long term moderate calorie deficiency would have been less miserable than half rations have been for the last few weeks anyway.
But there are still a few shitty space burritos left - tortillas and spices from earth, some kind of powdered meat-and-vitamins product Lena doesn't want to think about, fingerling potatoes from the ship's garden - and so Lena peels one of these out of the container with exaggerated care. If the star system analysis shows they really have arrived in the Rao system, they can have a more generous breakfast later. Maybe even one of their last remaining packets of coffee. In the meantime, it won't do to waste even a single scrap.
The microwave is running and Lena is daydreaming about coffee back on Earth, perhaps even coffee with real cream and a teaspoon of raw sugar, when something collides with the side of the ship. The sound of it would have made Lena jump out of her skin if the impact itself hadn't sent her stumbling into the kitchen table, but before she can cry out there's another, and Lena feels terror ripple down her spine for several excruciating seconds. The last time anything impacted the ship they had to send Nia into the lower storage bay armed with nothing but a technician's suit several sizes too big for her and an untested patch kit. Lena considers the hours during Nia's repair work to be the most harrowing of her life, and that is really saying something.
"Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit," Nia is saying now. Lena can see the ship's damage report come up on the overhead display even from here.
"Everyone okay?" Lena calls. The microwave beeps twice; breakfast is ready.
Sam is already out of bed and leaning into the cockpit, her hair wild, her sweatshirt over her arms but not yet pulled over her head. "Turn on the flood lights," she says. She spares a glance back for Lena, who is making her way back up the ship now that her fear has released her from paralysis. Something - or several somethings - skitters along the hull below Lena's feet as she passes.
The flood lights come on just as Lena is getting a good look at the damage report over Nia’s shoulder. Her first thought is that nothing is flashing red, which is probably a good sign. Her second thought is interrupted as something careens off the cockpit window and Sam seizes her arm to keep her from tumbling into the console. Cisco's warnings about always remaining seated and strapped in while occupying the cockpit suddenly feel very relevant but Lena is frozen in place, transfixed. Stretching ahead of them as far as they can see is a debris field into which they are hurtling so fast that Lena can't track any but the largest obstacles with her naked eye.
"Decelerate," Sam says. Another chunk of debris slams the ship, this time with a metallic groan that sets the hair on the back of Lena's neck standing.
"We don't have the fuel reserves to waste inertia. If this isn't the Rao system-"
"Can we cut out over the top of the debris field?"
"No." Nia zooms out on the navigational display with her left hand even as she activates manual control with her right. "That gas giant is too close. If we overextend on fuel now, we'll get pulled down the gravity well. If we lose too much inertia, we may not have the fuel to make it to Krypton before we run out of food.”
"Decelerate," Sam repeats. "To hell with food. To hell with the fuel reserves. Survive now; figure out the rest later."
Nia opens her mouth to argue, but Lena reaches out to rest a hand on her shoulder. There are a number of things Nia understands about space travel that it would take Sam and Lena a lifetime to learn. She did, after all, come to Earth on a space ship of her own, with a family that expected her to take on the role of ship engineer at the ripe age of twelve. Lena cannot, for example, glance at the navigational display as it continues to update with raw data from the ongoing star system analysis and understand the relationship between fuel expenditure and the gravity well of a gas giant. What she does understand is that some of the chunks of rock hurtling past them are several times the size of their ship, and that even Nia doesn't have the reflexes to weave among them at the speed they're traveling.
"Strap in and prepare for a hard burn," Nia says. "This is about to really suck."
It does really suck. Lena swivels the chair around so her back is to the window and it leaves her hands shaking even though logic dictates that knowing whether or not the ship is about to be smashed to pieces against a rock the size of the empire state building will not stop it from happening. It's a testament to the urgency of the situation that Sam still hasn't finished putting her sweater on when she straps in. Lena hears the pilot chair click into position and Nia counts down from over her shoulder.
"3... 2... 1..."
After that there is only pressure.
Lena is vaguely aware that the passenger's seat has injected something into her neck on Nia's command. She's vaguely aware that she's meant to be counting down the maximum hard burn time because the numbers will help her stay conscious. She remembers something Cisco said once about the medical risks of emergency burns but it feels like something from a dream or another life and she can't quite bring it to mind. For a few moments she is aware of nothing at all, and then it's over.
There's a long silence but for the pounding in Lena's ears and the sound of a second needle hissing into her neck. Then Sam curses under her breath.
"I fucking hate that every fucking time."
They've only had to do it twice, but Lena figures two hard burns is enough to form a strong opinion on the matter. The only thing shittier than accelerating to faster than light travel is, so far, putting on the brakes at a couple thousand miles per hour.
"Check one," Nia calls.
"Check two," Sam says. "Fuck."
The second round of medication is supposed to push back the post-burn headache but Lena's still dizzy and her skull is throbbing when she answers, "Check three. Nobody dead today."
"Great." Nia swivels the pilot's seat back around. "Would you get me some water then? I gotta figure out what our situation is."
"You need me to pilot?" Sam asks, finally pulling her sweater on.
"Nah, I'm good. We're good."
Sam launches into a comparison of data analysis while piloting and texting while driving, but Lena isn't listening. Her head feels like it's splitting apart from the inside, and her mouth feels like sandpaper, and she'll be damned if water doesn't sound like the most beautiful thing in the universe just now. She undoes her restraints with trembling fingers and heaves herself to her feet. The ship seems to wobble a little beneath her and for one disorienting second she thinks they've collided with something again but it's just the nausea and the burn drugs. It's nothing at all.
Sam disagrees. The argument with Nia is cut short with a terse "If you get us killed I'll kill you" from Sam and an "I love you too" from Nia, and then Sam is putting her hands on Lena's shoulders and looking into her eyes with an expression that suggests something might be wrong.
"The burn meds aren't wearing off," Sam says.
It's not a question, but Lena tries to answer anyway. Except then the ship is wobbling again, and the pain behind her eyes is building, and Sam is pushing her back into the chair.
"When was the last time you ate?"
Lena thinks of the space burrito, probably a splattered mess now on the side of the microwave, and she groans. "I don't know. Couple of hours ago. When I started watch."
"Okay. And what did-"
There is a soft thump and then Nia screams "Oh Jesus, what the FUCK," as she leaps to her feet and scrambles to put the pilot’s chair between her body and the scene on the other side of the windshield. "Oh, what the fuck. Oh God he has no legs. He has no legs."
Lena hates herself for turning the chair around to look, but she does it anyway. Her head spins. Her stomach protests. Her eyes water. And there, butting up against the cockpit window, is a corpse. Well, half of a corpse. Wide white staring eyes meet Lena's, and then a number of things happen at once:
Nia repeats, "What the actual fuck," one more time.
The computer announces with a soft chime that the star system analysis is complete.
And Lena throws up a thin bile all over the cockpit floor.
Sam, to her credit, doesn't so much as blink at the corpse or the vomit. She gently pushes Nia to the side and leans in across the console to pull up the star system analysis results and the data provided to Lena half a decade ago by a Kara from another universe.
"Well," Sam says. Only then does she spare a glance for the corpse and, with a few deft strokes of the controls, disentangle the ship from his embrace. Lena throws up again. "Welcome to the Rao system."
"Coming around up top now."
Nia's voice crackles a little over the ship's speakers. Lena has made a smooth transition from the dizziness and nausea of the burn medication to the dizziness and nausea of anxiety. She's sitting in the passenger row of the cockpit clutching a cup of hot coffee - no cream because apparently there is no God, but yes sugar because even a Godless universe isn't that cruel - and watching the debris tumble by outside the window. It's not much to look at, but it's something to keep her from dwelling on the fact that Nia is on the wrong side of the airlock.
"What do you see?" Sam asks over coms. She's got the navigational display up, but she isn't looking at it, relying instead on her own eyes to guide them slowly, slowly among the detritus, all rock and twisted burnt metal and the occasional corpse. The nav system is an incomprehensible mass of proximity alerts; this ship was never intended to navigate this kind of space.
Which is why Nia is crawling around outside in Cisco's engineering suit, checking out the damage they did before they could hit the brakes. The truth is they're lucky to be alive; some of these rocks are only the size of a fist, but more than a few are roughly the size of a city block. If Nia hadn't killed their inertia when she did, there is no telling how long they might have lasted before smashing themselves into dust against a space boulder. Probably not very.
"Mostly cosmetic damage on the starboard side," Nia comments. "One of the panels up here's a little fucked up though; I'm going to take a closer look."
"Roger that," Sam murmurs.
"Hey Sam?" Nia calls.
"Try not to get too close to anything really big or really dead while I'm up here, okay?"
"Oh, don't worry. I got very high scores on Star Fox; you're good."
"I have no idea what that means," Nia replies.
Lena and Sam laugh. Sam maneuvers deftly around another obstacle, this one spinning faster than the ship is moving, and Lena thinks she might throw up again if she has to watch. What a strange place they've found themselves passing through. They have carefully avoided any discussion of what might have happened here, of the corpse Sam dislodged from the windshield or of the bodies passing them by every so often, some of them still strapped to shredded seats. Lena keeps imagining she'll see Kara floating out there in a halo of golden hair, that they're drifting through the ruin of Krypton, that all hope is lost for Kara's world in Lena's universe as well as her own. But of course they are too far away still for Krpyton to be the source of this wreckage.
One of the floodlights flickers and goes out.
"That wasn't me," Nia says. "Hold on, I can fix it though. Coming around front to check it out."
Nia comes into view around the nose of the space ship, a little clumsy in a suit two sizes too big but smiling broadly as she waves. She tugs her tool box up alongside her and disappears over the top of the windshield to examine the dead light.
Sam chuckles. "Remember when you told her she wasn't allowed on the ship?"
Lena smiles into her coffee. Oh, how well she remembers the day Sam's failing Poly Sci student showed up at a secret L-Corp facility and demanded to be included in Earth's very first diplomatic envoy to Krpyton. When Nia finally got a word in edgewise over the security officer actively removing her from the premises, it was to say, "I know Professor Arias. And I can help! I've flown shittier birds than yours; I'll know what to do when something goes wrong with her. Will you?"
Which is how Nia became Cisco's under-the-table apprentice, and how Lena's space ship came to be known as the Avem , though Sam and Cisco insisted on referring to it as the Love Rocket until the day Lena had its proper name affixed to the hull.
"Do you ever wonder how things might have turned out if we hadn't agreed to take her on?"
"Not well," Lena muses. "No offense to Cisco, but I think we might have died. I don't think we ever would have made it past Mars."
"No offense to Cisco, but I don't think we ever would have made it off of Earth," Sam replies.
They share a laugh about that, partly because it's at least a little true - Nia was responsible for a handful of significant modifications before the Avem ever left atmosphere - and partly to cover up the quiet sadness that always accompanies the mention of Earth and the people they left behind.
"Hey Sam," Nia says, "Can you do me a favor and strafe left?"
"Strafe left?" Sam's hands hover over the controls.
"Yeah, like move left without reorienting the ship."
"I know what the word 'strafe' means, Nia." Sam shifts the ship left, ignoring a flurry of panicked signals from the navigational display. Proximity alert, proximity alert. Sam has eyes mostly for the long finger of stone they are now approaching, a huge dark shadow just beyond the reach of their remaining floodlight. "You sure you want me to get any closer to this rock?"
Nia doesn't bother to answer that. Sam corrects course so that they are moving forwards again, towards the far edge of the debris field and, beyond that, the path of the gas giant they are so keen to avoid. Everything now depends on how quickly that second planet is orbiting Rao - if it doesn't move quickly enough they will be stuck hovering at the edge of the debris field burning resources and time while they wait for it to pass.
The dead floodlight comes back on all at once, and Nia murmurs "Well, there's that then," over coms. And then, "Is Lena in the cockpit? I'm going to clamp down."
Sam turns to Lena, a question half formed on her lips. Lena is frozen, recalling a hazy night on Earth some months ago, an open bottle of sake, Nia tipped back in her chair telling Cisco about all the mundane details of a life in space.
"We call it a 'clamp down' but nobody uses actual clamps anymore," Nia said, tipping so far back that for a moment she seemed to defy gravity. "Most people use grav boots. It's inherently dangerous to be on the outside of the ship though, so you would only hunker down out there if it were an emergency. If it were necessary for the ship to perform a complex maneuver before you could reasonably get back to the airlock."
"Like what kind of maneuver?" Cisco asked.
Lena lunges for the pilot's chair. "Sam, get out of the way," she says.
"You've barely slept-" Sam protests.
"Get out of the way and strap in," Lena repeats, pushing at Sam's arm even as she activates coms. "Nia, confirm clamp."
Sam scrambles for a passenger's chair, eyes wide. She wasn't there that night with Cisco and Nia, tipsy and sleep deprived and dreaming wild eyed of adventures among the stars. She was at the university, grading papers late into the night - one of them Nia's - and so she wasn't there to hear Nia tell stories about the excitement and the danger of high speed ship maneuvers in close quarters. But Lena was.
"Confirmed clamp," Nia says over coms. "Thread the needle, and watch your two."
Lena takes a deep breath. Hopefully there wasn't so much sake consumed that night that she isn't remembering correctly what it means to 'thread the needle' among Nia's people. A glance backwards confirms that Sam is strapped in, and then Lena executes a dive and barrel roll so that the nose of the ship is facing what was 'down' just a moment ago, and the cockpit is flipped around so that 'up' is now what used to be behind them. Lena experiences a few seconds of disorientation as the ship's gravity adjusts, and then Sam whispers, "Oh. Shit."
There, at their two, caught directly in the floodlights, is another ship.
Lena's first thought is that the other ship is a relic of whatever happened here, that it is surprisingly intact but otherwise not unlike the rest of the lifeless debris through which they are traveling. And then, ever so slowly, as though gradually waking from a deep sleep, it begins to move towards the Avem.
"Okay," Lena says, speaking low over the coms as if the other ship might somehow overhear her. "The plan is run like hell?" There are no weapons onboard; there wasn't supposed to be any need for them and all involved had agreed that shipboard weaponry might give Krypton the wrong impression should they not be able to communicate before attempting to land.
Sam lurches forward to grip the back of the pilot's chair. "Not until Nia is back inside the airlock. Then we lose them out here in these rocks."
"Agreed. Nia, get in here. What happens if we hit the edge of the debris field before we lose them?"
"Then we turn," Nia replies. "I'm coming in. Confirm clamp release."
Sam leans over Lena to access the coms. "Release confirmed. Get your ass inside." She shares an uneasy look with Lena and, with the coms off, puts words to the fear Lena is so desperately trying not to voice.
"We agreed we didn't have enough fuel to go around the gas giant," Sam says.
Lena nods. "We did say that."
The approaching ship is, in a way, doing them a favor by coming directly at them across the debris field: it is following a trajectory sufficiently different from that of the surrounding debris as to be immediately obvious on the navigational display. Lena takes the time to identify it as Stranger on the computer while the ship alarm rings to notify all present that Nia is preparing to cycle the airlock. The computer spits out data about time to impact but Lena isn't particularly interested. The important numbers are time until Nia is safely strapped in, and time until they run out of debris in which to hide.
Sam taps absently, quickly, on the arm of her chair, over and over and over until Lena reaches back to still her hand. Sam is good at many things, but taking a backseat in a crisis is not one of them. Lena, complicated maneuver successfully executed, is acutely aware of the throbbing in her head and the discomfort in her stomach, relic of her sleeplessness and of the burn meds still working their way out of her system.
"You pilot,” Lena says. “As soon as Nia's strapped in."
This plan, like most of Lena's plans, goes awry. The computer is reporting that the airlock door is closed behind Nia, that the chamber is pressurizing, that the cycle will be complete in a little more than 90 seconds, that the time to impact with the Stranger is a little more than four minutes, and that is when something collides with the ship and sends Lena tumbling across the console. Not for the first time today, Cisco is right about the importance of wearing a goddamn space seatbelt. And then a chunk of debris outside explodes.
The most surreal thing about it is the silence. One moment there is a boulder off to the right of the Avem , and the next moment it's an expanding cloud of dust and rock and heat, and Lena expects the roar of an action movie explosion but in space there's nothing at all. The computer is reporting no serious damage to navigational or life support systems, which is some sort of small miracle, but the fact remains that they and the debris beside them were hit by something . Another rock explodes. Shrapnel rains against the hull of the ship and across the cockpit window.
"Okay," Sam says. "Okay. We're taking fire."
There is no time to wait for Nia to make it out of the airlock; Lena is barely in her chair, let alone strapped in, before maneuvers begin. All is silent in the cockpit save for Sam occasionally clicking her tongue as she works, weaving in and out among the largest obstacles, hoping to shake their tail even as their cover comes apart all around them under fire from the approaching ship.
Lena jumps when the airlock door opens. Nia, suit safely stowed away, crosses the Avem haltingly in her socks, moving from handhold to handhold as gravity shifts and corrects over and over beneath her feet. At long last she makes it to the cockpit to strap in next to Lena with a grim smile.
"Not how I expected today to go," she comments.
"No," Lena agrees.
The enemy ship is still closing. Sam picks up the pace a little, executing a number of tight turns between crags the size of city blocks and making Lena wonder if she's likely to throw up for the third time today. Nia looks on with an air of extreme calm, but her knuckles are white where she's gripping the edge of her chair.
Sam glances back. "I told you, Nia. Very, very high scores on Star Fox. Nothing to worry about."
"Would you please keep your eyes on the road," Nia groans.
Sam pushes the ship faster, and then faster again when the Stranger matches their pace. The debris field is deep, but not so deep that they can run like this forever, and Lena is silently terrified that they will come out on the other side or that Sam will lose her focus before this chase ends. Only a few minutes have gone by and already it seems to be stretching on forever, and Sam's cocky comments and lazy smile belie the tension Lena can read in her shoulders. Nia's eyes are constantly flickering to the computer, watching the fuel gauge and the ship status report and the location of the gas giant on the navigational display. Every acceleration requires an equal burn in the opposite direction if for any reason they need to slow down, and at the rate they are traveling, they will have to hit the brakes hard to avoid plummeting directly into the Rao system's second planet.
Something collides with the ship again, and this time there is a horrible roar through the cabin of the Avem until the partition between the sleeping quarters and the kitchen slams down. The status display flashes red: oxygen is venting from the hull in that segment of the ship. Nia moves to get up, but Lena stills her with a look. This is not the time for ship repairs.
"After," she says.
Nia, half out of her chair, stares and then nods. The ship is designed to minimize oxygen loss; the system is closed off at the source of the breach. But everyone in the cockpit is thinking about the plants that were, until a moment ago, living there, providing oxygen and food and a reminder that life exists beyond the confines of their ship.
"No damage to the engines," Sam says. She doesn't look back this time. "I think we can go a little faster. In 3... 2..."
A new ship slips out from behind a chunk of charred, twisted metal ahead. Lena's heart stops.
"Yeah, I see it," Sam says. "Whoever it is has a friend shadowing us on the port side, about 150 meters out. That or the nav system is on the fritz. Not outside the realm of possibility."
"Whoever it is has guns," Nia observes.
"That too." Sam pushes the ship into a dive, and Lena feels her stomach drop. For an odd moment it feels as though they're going faster and faster as they dive, as though they're falling through atmosphere and not hurtling through empty space on inertia alone. A third ship - fourth, if Sam is right about the shadow on their port side - emerges from the shadows below, forcing Sam to level out the Avem to avoid a collision. Then the dot indicating the Stranger on the nav display blinks twice and disappears.
The computer console beeps. Message incoming.
Sam's hand hovers over the console, unmoving. The debris around them is no longer exploding; whoever these new ships are, they aren’t firing on the Avem. Lena is equal parts terrified and relieved. There was never any guarantee that their communications equipment would be compatible with equipment used in the Rao system. That they can receive a message at all is a good sign. That they are being unmistakably boxed in by a squadron of strange ships is perhaps less so.
The message comes in over the ship's speakers crisp and clear, a sharp contrast to the radio communication they've relied on for maintenance work on the outside of the hull. Lena's first thought is that Kryptonian doesn't sound quite like she'd imagined it, that the three of them will sound very strangely, very heavily accented to the people on those ships. Her second thought is that the voice coming over the speakers sounds somehow familiar.
"You are flying an unauthorized and unregistered civilian vessel through restricted airspace. You are advised that any attempt to break from escort formation will be considered a hostile action. Provide your pilot identification number immediately."
Sam looks back with raised eyebrows, as if to ask how she should proceed. "We definitely don't have a pilot identification number," she points out.
Nia shrugs. "You're the diplomat; aren't you supposed to know what to say?"
Sam mimes swatting Nia before recording her return message.
"This is Sam Arias. I'm afraid we don't have a pilot identification number. We come as a diplomatic envoy from the Sol system. No weapons onboard. We are seeking safe passage to Krpyton."
There is a long silence during which Lena can't help but fidget, and then the console beeps to announce another message.
"Sam Arias, one of my pilots is reporting a visual on structural damage to your hull. Are you or your crew in need of medical assistance or urgent life support repair?"
"Everybody's good here, but there's a hole through the side of our galley. Reserves of food, fuel, and oxygen are low. We're concerned about making it past the gas giant."
"Understood. Please prepare for immediate boarding. You and your crew are advised to disarm and to keep your hands visible at all times while military officials are onboard. Any attempt to break from escort formation will be considered a hostile action."
"Well that escalated quickly," Nia says.
The three of them share a look. Lena suddenly wishes for her cup of coffee, not to drink but to hold in her hands, to worry at with her fingers while they wait, but it's long since been spilled and forgotten in the chase. Something thumps against the ship heavy enough to make it wobble, and then again on the other side. A moment later Sam takes her hands entirely off the controls.
"The ship's not responding," she says. "We're sitting ducks."
"No," Nia replies. "We're tethered to the ships flanking us, and they've taken control of the computer system. If we broke formation now, we could rip somebody's hull open. It's a safety measure."
"You've been boarded before?" Lena asks.
"Never. But I've seen it done."
A while longer and the status display flashes green: the ship is repressurizing the kitchen. Lena quietly wonders how many people are walking around on the outside of their ship right now, silent in the emptiness of space, footfalls too light to reverberate through the Avem's heavy hull. When the partition between the kitchen and the rest of the ship finally lifts, Nia is out of her seat in an instant to look at the damage. The hole, patched now from the outside, is a foot and a half wide and cuts through the edge of one of the cupboards but not, thankfully, through the storage compartments above or below the living quarters of the ship. Still, anything not stowed away before the chase began has been vented into space or strewn around the room, which includes all of Nia’s plants.
Lena opens her mouth to say something comforting to Nia, but there's nothing to say. The ship alarm rings as the airlock begins to cycle.
"Keep your hands visible," Sam reminds them. "No sudden moves, and let me do the talking. Hopefully they're just here to help us with our supply problem."
"They did fix our ship," Lena comments.
"Would you board a ship with a hole in it?" Nia asks.
That's a fair point.
When the airlock door opens, two figures step through, dressed in black flight suits with opaque helmets, each carrying what is unmistakably a firearm on the belt. Lena feels suddenly self conscious standing there in the same hoodie she's been wearing for eight months and a pair of ratty sweatpants, hair disheveled, no shoes. Nia's socks, one pink and one yellow, suddenly feel conspicuously bright against the dull grey of the ship's floor. Sam shifts a little, her expression guarded, her hands held up at waist level to show that she carries no weapons.
The soldiers take up positions on either side of the airlock, and then a third figure steps through, identical to the first two from helmet to boots but for the star on the breast of the flight suit. The newcomer steps forward, surveys the little crew of the Avem for a long moment, and then reaches up to remove her helmet.
Lena's heart stops for the second time that day. She must have gasped, because Nia glances at her sharply, though whether out of curiosity or to warn her to shut up Lena can't be sure. It doesn't matter just now.
"Sam Arias? I'm Captain Zor El, Kryptonian Star Fleet." Deep blue eyes do another sweep of the room around them as she tucks her helmet under one arm. The other hand comes to rest on a long metal rod at her waist, a gesture at once relaxed and deliberate, an unspoken warning. "What brings you to the Rao system?"
Nia nudges Lena with her foot. "Is that a fucking lightsaber?" she whispers.
Lena remembers the first words she ever uttered in Kryptonian, sitting at her breakfast bar next to Kara's empty coffee mug with a laptop and a broken heart. My name is Lena Luthor; I am an emissary from Earth. I am looking for Kara Zor El. Kara Zor El looks back at her now with an unreadable expression, and Lena's heart is at once swelling and breaking as those familiar eyes pass over her without a trace of recognition.
And why should this Kara recognize her? They've never met. But the Kara of Earth 72, she promised. She promised that she'd know Lena in any universe, and here they are, and every word Lena has rehearsed for this moment is dead in her throat.
It's Sam who answers, stepping smoothly into her role as diplomat. "As I said, we come as a diplomatic envoy from the Sol system, seeking safe passage to Krypton. We've traveled a long way to be here."
Kara studies Sam's face. "Why?"
I was looking for you , Lena wants to say. I crossed half a galaxy for you. To find you. To tell you that the universe has a stupid sense of humor and that I think I'm supposed to love you.
"The nature of our mission is sensitive," Sam answers. "We're seeking safe-"
"Passage to Krypton, yes." Kara's voice is hard, and her eyes harder. "You are under arrest for the operation of an unauthorized civilian vessel, for unauthorized travel through the Theron Rubble Belt, and for lying to an officer of the Kryptonian Star Fleet."
"Lying to-" Nia starts.
Kara rounds on her. "Yes. Lying. Because there's not a chance any vessel this primitive is capable of interstellar travel. We rendezvous with the outpost in three hours. Then we can discuss the nature of your passage to Krypton." She nods to the soldiers behind her. "Search the ship. If you find any contraband or weaponry, blow the airlock on your way out."
And with that Kara Zor El turns on her heel, donning her helmet as she goes, and disappears back through the airlock door without another word.