“So, what do you say?” Flowers asked. “You and me, building a network Buddy can’t touch.”
“And me,” said Connor from the shadows. “I was promised a cut of the cash.” Sera had never liked the man, but when it came to turning a profit he had a tenacity she admired. He could have taken advantage of the confusion to cut and run, but he was still hanging around.
Mirelle’s arms were still wrapped around her, a comfort and a source of anxiety all at once. Sera hadn’t seen her since she’d started piloting the Benevolence. Hell, the last time they’d talked in person, the Sera ID chip in her arm had just been a felony-free backup identity she was saving for a rainy day. They sent each other messages regularly, of course, and Sera had transferred plenty of money to Mirelle’s accounts, but seeing Mirelle’s face on a screen was different than seeing her in person. She’d dyed her hair a new color, blue this time, and the back was shaved almost to the skin in a style that was popular with Minervan kids.
She hadn’t told Buddy about Mirelle. She hadn’t breathed a word about her to Flowers, or Jane, or any of the other low-level scumbags in Buddy’s orbit. She’d bought Mirelle’s ID chip at a different vendor than the ones who’d supplied hers, and she’d paid with an account she’d closed right afterwards. All the money transfers went through several layers of shell corporations, each believable to a casual inspector. Mirelle was supposed to be untraceable.
Of course, no one in the galaxy was really untraceable if you had enough money, and Buddy had more than enough.
Flowers was looking at her expectantly. So was the crew of the Benevolence. Sera toggled the safety on her gun and holstered it, then gently disentangled herself from Mirelle’s arms. She pointed to Weyland, who was stooping to check the burns on Jianyu’s leg. “Let him take a look at your head,” she said. “You got hit pretty hard.”
Mirelle turned away from her. She seemed capable of walking in a straight line, at least. Sera nodded to Flowers. “Let’s talk,” she said, “privately.”
There was nowhere private to go on the beach. They drudged over the sand for a couple dozen yards, until the crew was just a cluster of grey shapes on the strangely lit sand. Connor tried to follow, until Sera said, “Just me and him.” She put her hand on the butt of her gun as she said it, and he got the message.
When she thought that they were out of earshot of the crowd, Sera said, “How did you find her?”
“Buddy tracked her down somehow,” Flowers said. “He didn’t say who she was, just that she was important to you.”
It was getting cold on the beach. Sera shoved her hands into two of her vest’s mostly empty pockets. “Thanks for not killing her.”
“I don’t kill kids,” said Flowers, “and I don’t like the fact that Buddy told me to. You had the right idea, walking away when you did. He used to be afraid the Coalition was coming back to clean up, and now he knows it’s not happening, he’s getting bolder.”
“So you wanted to make some quick cash off those paintings,” Sera guessed. It wasn’t exactly a leap of logic. She’d heard a phrase once, honor among thieves, and thought that whoever came up with it hadn’t known any thieves at all. There wasn’t any honor among the low-lives who’d run with Buddy, just a bone-deep fear of what would happen if any of them got caught stealing from the boss. “And then what, you’d make a run for it? Change your identity?”
“I want to start a new network,” Flowers said. “Like Buddy’s, but better.”
“Legitimate?” Sera tried her best not to sound doubtful.
“Not… legitimate, necessarily, but with less of–all of this.” Flowers waved his hands, a gesture encapsulating the night’s violence and nearly a decade of various crimes. He was still holding the gun he’d used to shoot Jane. They’d have to do something with the body, Sera thought; they couldn’t just leave her lying headless on the sand for some tourist’s kids to discover in the morning. “You’re not a bad pilot, but you could be more than that. You could be–”
“No,” Sera said. “Thank you, but no.”
It was tempting, she couldn’t deny it. It wouldn’t cost that much, in the grand scheme of things, to buy a better ship than the Benevolence. She could fly fast, and make great money doing it. If she was very clever, and Flowers had more allies than just her, maybe they’d even be able to beat Buddy at his own game. She’d send Mirelle somewhere else, with a new identity and an even bigger bank account, to start her life over yet again.
And sooner or later the trail of the stolen paintings would lead Buddy to the Benevolence, and he’d dispatch a new set of scumbags to go through the crew to get to her. And the thing that really bothered her was the knowledge that when he did, she’d crumble right away.
“I’ll work for you,” she said, “I just won’t work with you. Use the Benevolence as one of your freight haulers. It’s getting old. It’s ugly as hell. No one expects it to be carrying anything valuable. It’s exactly the kind of ship you need. We’ll even do some side business, take on some loads that look legitimate, so we’ve got excuses to travel wherever you need to go.”
“And how much of my cargo are you planning to give away?” Flowers asked.
“As much as I have to,” Sera said. “No more than I need to. But this time, you’re going to be up front with the captain. No more lying about what we’re carrying.”
“Deal,” said Flowers. He stuck out his hand, and Sera took it. Both of their palms were clammy. It was time to get off this damned cold beach.