Jianyu had stayed silent throughout the confrontation. He had his back to the ocean, and he was so close to it that each new wave sucked at his ankles as it crashed on the sand. It would be so easy to keep walking backward until the water closed over his head. None of this had to be his problem.
He stayed anyway. He’d encouraged Captain Dysart to give those paintings away. He still didn’t regret it, but he did feel responsible. The small part of his brain that wasn’t paralyzed with indecision and fear pointed out how strange it was that of all the unfair situations he’d found himself in, this one was his own doing, and nobody even cared enough to point a gun at him over it.
Some of those bioluminescent clouds must have been blowing in off the water. Jianyu couldn’t see them from his position, but he could see the light coming over the strange tableau, a suffused pink like a false dawn.
Flowers was walking toward Sera. He still had his gun pointed at the sand and his finger resting lightly on the trigger guard. The captain tracked him with her own pistol, and Xrrt crept a little closer, her claws poised to strike. He said, “Giving your ID chip to that robot was a smart move. We wasted a lot of time chasing that thing around.” With his free hand he gestured to his face, where a fresh scar cut across his forehead. “Came pretty close to ending the story there. You’re a clever woman. Buddy didn’t see your potential, he only wanted a pilot. But you could be so much more.”
He kept moving forward, step by step, until his chest was just inches away from the muzzle of Sera’s gun. “Forget about these losers. Forget about Buddy. You and me, we could make something of ourselves in this galaxy.”
“Whoa, hold up,” Jane said. “That’s not part of the plan.”
She was surprised enough that her hold on her captive slackened, just for a moment. That was all the girl needed. She let her knees buckle, becoming dead weight, and Jane lost her grip. Then she was scrambling in the sand, and Jane was trying to grab her again.
It was an awkward shuffle, both of them sliding on the shifting ground, and then Jane gave up on trying to hold onto her and brought her gun around instead. Jianyu tensed, but she didn’t shoot; she swept her hand in a wide arc, and the butt of her pistol connected with the girl’s head. The girl stumbled, stunned but not knocked out, and Jane grabbed her by her hair.
The crack was loud enough that Flowers turned toward the sound. “Enough, Jane,” he said.
Jane’s hand swung again, and then wavered. She looked like she wasn’t sure who to menace, Flowers or Sera. Connor had taken advantage of the confusion to inch out of the center of the crowd and was doing his best to appear inconspicuous.
“No,” Jane said. “No, this wasn’t part of the plan at all.”
“Maybe not your plan,” Flowers said, and shot her in the head.
Time slowed down, thoughts rushing through Jianyu’s head in a choppy burst of images. He was aware of a plasma bolt, sizzling through the air perilously close to him. He saw the headless body that had been Jane tense, her fingers convulsing around the trigger of her gun. Her arm had dropped, pointing down at the ground. He noticed the girl swaying, struggling to keep on her feet. It was only a few quick strides for him over to her side; he didn’t remember making the choice to run. He pulled her backward as Jane’s gun fired, spinning her around behind him as a superheated ball of matter hit the sand.
He turned his face away. A moment later he felt the sting of white-hot grains against his skin. Plasma made for dangerous weapons. It wasn’t just the projectile itself you had to worry about, but whatever was close enough to it to melt or explode.
When he thought it was safe to look back, what was left of Jane’s body had collapsed. There was a fresh hole in the sand, catching the strange pink light at the edges. The direct plasma hit had turned it to glass. His leg hurt, and the white-hot sand had burned holes through the fabric of his pants, but he was pretty sure the damage was superficial. The girl was clinging to him to stay upright, frowning up at his face in confusion. When he looked down at her, he realized with a shock that the clouds’ light was glinting off something metallic on her temple. It was a neural port–and by the look of it, it was Coalition issue.
Stranger things had happened, but meeting another former Coalition navigator was high on Jianyu’s personal list of unlikely coincidences. There hadn’t been that many of them in the first place, and the ones who’d survived the messy dissolution of the Coalition had ended up with organizations that paid far more than small-time freight haulers like Captain Dysart ever could.
He didn’t recognize this one. She was human, maybe a few years younger than him, although it was hard to tell exactly how old she was in the diffuse light. Just enough of an age difference that they would never have met in a class, he thought. She pushed away from him, still a little unsteady.
Weyland came up to them, saying, “I’m a doctor,” but she turned away from him as if she didn’t see him at all. Sera was right behind him, and the girl launched herself into her outstretched arms, pressing her face to Sera’s neck and muttering something Jianyu couldn’t quite catch.
“I’m sorry baby,” Sera was saying, her face pressed against the girl’s hair. “I really fucked it up this time.”