“Great,” said Flowers, already sliding out of the booth. “I’ll send instructions–”
“I’ve got some conditions,” Nyx told him. “You’ll want to stick around for this.”
To Flowers’ credit, he sat back down without a protest. “I assumed you would.”
Nyx leaned forward, her palms flat on the table, her mind racing. “If I’m going to be playing the part of a Coalition captain, I’m going to do it right. Nothing’s allowed on my ship that wasn’t allowed under Coalition rules. That means we’re not going to do your dirty work. If you want cargo transported, it can’t be higher than a class C restriction under the most recently issued Coalition guidelines.”
“Okay,” Flowers said. He leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms, but he didn’t look entirely displeased. “I was expecting about that much.”
“If I’m going to be talking to the media, I’ll decide what to tell them. I won’t be micromanaged by you or your client.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Flowers said. “Actually, I’m going to need you to operate without waiting for instructions from me every time, so we’re in agreement there.”
“I’m going to need to know the name of your client.”
“Can’t help you there.” Nyx opened her mouth to object, but Flowers continued, “I’m not saying it’ll be a mystery forever, but I’m still negotiating with this guy. If I told you who it was, you could go to him directly and cut me out. Nothing personal, it’s just how this game’s played.”
“What if negotiations fall through and you end up with no client and no money?” Nyx asked.
Flowers shrugged. “It’s a risk, but I’ve got a good feeling about this guy. Oh, and just so we’re clear: if anyone comes around asking about who’s paying you, don’t tell them anything about me. I still officially work for Buddy, and he wouldn’t be too happy about this little side operation.”
“That’s another thing,” Nyx said. “Isn’t Buddy going to send more people after us if we start drawing attention to ourselves?”
“I’m sure he will.” Flowers didn’t look too concerned about the fact that a murderous crime boss was prepared to target the Benevolence. “You’re on your own there. I’ll warn you if I can get a message out on a secure line, but don’t count on it.”
Nyx turned to Xrrt, who clicked and gurgled in her own language. Her translator said, “We could hire more security staff and install better guns.”
“That’s a lot of money we don’t have,” Nyx said.
Xrrt moved her forelimbs in the closest her anatomy could get to a shrug. “What good would money be to us if we die?”
“All right,” Nyx said. “We’re in, but I want an advance on our first fee. Enough to cover the installation of two new plasma cannons and the salary of another security officer.”
“I’ll give you enough for the officer,” Flowers said. “For the guns, I’ll get you set up with a deal who owes me a favor. He’ll give you a reasonable rate on the parts and free installation.”
“It’s a deal,” Nyx said.
“Something’s not right here,” said Xrrt.
Nyx reached for the laser gun holstered at her hip, but Xrrt’s claws weren’t raised in her usual defensive posture. She was looking out at the restaurant, her many-faceted eyes catching the light of a screen silently playing the news above the bar. Nyx couldn’t see the screen from where she was sitting; she could barely see anything at all around Xrrt’s carapace. She looked at Flowers instead, and watched his face change: first a bleakness she hadn’t thought he was capable of feeling, and then his expression hardened. He didn’t move for his gun, but he looked out at the room, clearly assessing the other patrons.
Just a minute ago, the room had been buzzing with conversation. Now it was as quiet as a grave. Even the music that had been playing over the speaker system was gone.
Nyx nudged Xrrt. “Scoot over, I need to see.” Xrrt’s eyes weren’t capable of processing images on most screens; they were far too sensitive, capable of picking up a spectrum of light from infrared all the way through ultraviolet.
Xrrt extracted herself from the booth, moving as gracefully as an eight-limbed species with a chitinous carapace could in the face of humanoid furniture. Nyx stood up too, one hand still close to her gun in case she’d misjudged the situation after all.
The image on the screen was a cityscape she vaguely recognized, somewhere on the west coast of one of Earth’s American continents. The shot was of the skyline, looking out toward the ocean. It was close to dusk, and something white was streaking across the purple sky. The shot changed to another city, another pure white flame coming in from the ocean. Then the shot changed again, this time to an aerial shot of a wasteland, scorched ground and the twisted remnants of buildings. It looked like a war zone, but there were a lot of war zones in the galaxy, and to Nyx’s untrained eye they all looked more or less the same.
A few more shots of burned land, and then a talking head. The closed captions weren’t in English, and Nyx was lost there, but then the shot changed to a wide view of Earth suspended in the black void of space. “Oh,” she whispered. She was aware in a distant sort of way that she ought to be horrified, but it was the kind of horror you couldn’t wrap your mind around all at once. You had to start small with that kind of shock and work your way up to do justice to the scale of it, if it was even possible to grasp the scale of something so terribly, monstrously wrong.
“Yeah, that’s going to be a problem,” said Flowers.