The captain was holding a naked man at gunpoint. At least, Weyland thought it was a man. Trying to focus on his features was a struggle; there was something about him that turned the eye aside. This, then, must have been the Falacerian who’d been tailing them.
Sera had her gun out too, and Xrrt’s claws were spread wide, ready to swing with lethal force if their captive moved. They were standing in a little circle of light. The captain’s com screen was on the sand, its screen as bright as it could get, casting a soft blue glow over the strange tableau.
Weyland slowed down as he approached, so that the crew would have time to recognize him. He looked back across the dark beach, trying to figure out whether the people who’d been pursuing them were still out there. It was hard to see; maybe they’d realized that they were outnumbered and turned back.
Jianyu staggered up moments later. He hunched over and put his hands on his knees, gasping for air.
“Hi, Sera,” said Weyland. “Someone’s trying to kill you.”
“Thanks for the heads up,” said Sera, “but I figured that out already.”
“This is about the paintings, isn’t it?” Captain Dysart asked. “The ones we were supposed to be smuggling.”
“They’re worth a lot of money to the right people,” the Falacerian said. Weyland squinted at his face. It wasn’t at all like the images of Falacerians he’d seen in the museum, grey and noseless with a multitude of eyes. This face was very much human, but bland in a way real faces weren’t. Trying to delineate the exact places where his features ended was giving Weyland a headache. “You don’t have to give them all to us, if you want. We’ll cut a deal, half for you and half for me. And maybe we’ll send a few back to Buddy and tell him the rest got damaged.”
“You aren’t in a position to negotiate,” said Sera.
The captain frowned and glanced over at her, although the barrel of her gun remained fixed on the Falacerian. “This isn’t a negotiation.”
The man smiled, and Weyland noticed that he didn’t have a normal number of teeth. They crowded in his mouth like a shark’s, white and gleaming in the low light. He wasn’t looking at either of the women with guns trained on him. He was staring over Weyland’s shoulder, out at the expanse of pitch-black sand. “Oh, but this is a negotiation,” he said, “and we brought something to the table you’ll want to see.”
Their pursuers had caught up with them. Weyland realized why they’d taken so long: the blue-haired girl they’d brought with them was struggling, trying to dig her heels into the sand so they had to drag her forward. Flowers was on one side of her, the brown-haired woman on the other. As they got closer to the light, Weyland saw that the girl had left twin trails behind her where she’d fought for purchase and failed to find any.
Flowers had his tattooed arm locked around the girl’s elbow. His expression was flat, grimly determined. The brown-haired woman was struggling; she wasn’t strong enough to drag their captive along properly, although she had a good grip on the girl’s shoulder.
The naked Falacerian waved, his expression innocuously cheerful. “Flowers, Jane, glad you could make it. Explain the situation to these people.”
The brown-haired woman, who must be Jane, pulled a pistol out of her belt and pressed it to her captive’s head. Flowers sighed and dropped the girl’s arm to pull out his own gun. Weyland looked around at the rest of the crew, who all looked just as confused as him. All except Sera, whose hands were shaking so hard she could barely hold her gun straight.
“We just want the paintings,” said Flowers. He didn’t point his gun at the girl, or anyone on the crew. He kept the barrel aimed down at the sand.
“Hand them over, or the kid gets it.” Jane prodded their captive with her gun, just the way she’d pantomimed in the bar. The girl didn’t make a sound, but her eyes were wide and glistening.
Captain Dysart said, “This would be very dramatic, I’m sure, if I only knew who the hell any of you people are.” Despite their situation, the captain didn’t look tense. She had the bearing of a trained fighter in the moment before an explosion: superficially calm and still, wound tight as a spring just before it snaps. She looked over at Sera, who had managed to stop her hands from shaking, but only by gripping her pistol until her knuckles were pale with the strain. “I assume this means something to you.”
Sera gestured with her gun at the Falacerian and said, “This one here’s named Connor. A small-time crook, he’s worked with me before but he’s mostly just out for himself. You’ve met Flowers. He’s Buddy’s right-hand man. And there’s Jane. She’s one of Buddy’s daughters–and one of his best employees.”
“But Buddy’s a dog,” Weyland said, confused. He hadn’t seen any dogs tailing them. He was sure he would have noticed that.
“You know how Minervans are,” said Sera. Weyland was vaguely aware that Minervan lines of heritage didn’t always look like other species’ family trees, but he hadn’t done much research into the subject yet. There was a whole universe’s worth of knowledge he was still catching up on. “Since we accidentally stole some really precious cargo, I’m assuming they’re here to kill us.”
“We’re not trying to kill you,” said the naked man. Sera made a doubtful noise, and he amended that with, “Okay, we weren’t planning to kill you until we figured out where you stashed those paintings.”
Captain Dysart said, “We didn’t stash them anywhere. We gave them to people who’ll take care of them, and put them back on display when it’s safe.”
Flowers said, “Oh, come the fuck on. Those are worth millions of credits. Tens of millions, for the whole set. No one would just give those away.” He looked around at the crew, horror spreading across his scarred face. “You can’t be that stupid. You just can’t be.”