Nyx didn’t know what to do with herself.
Every morning she got up, got dressed, and went for a stroll along the beach. A fog would blow in from the ocean overnight, so that the weak morning sunlight came in pink and gold through the haze and the sand in front of her stretched off into a blurry white horizon. By the time she was done walking the fog had all burned off and the air was starting to warm up. She swam in the ocean, trying to get used to the way the salt made her eyes sting. She sat on a towel and read books. At night she went to dinner with the crew and ate the local seafood, which tasted almost like real fish.
At the end of the day she would go back to her room, stare at the walls, and wonder how her life went so wrong.
You’re on vacation, she told herself. You’re supposed to enjoy it. And she didn’t feel bad, precisely, she didn’t feel like she was suffering. She just felt like the part of herself that enjoyed things like walking on the beach was locked away inside her, in a glass case she could look through but couldn’t open. The days kept passing and she kept sliding through them without having to think too much.
The client whose algae they’d jettisoned had sent a series of increasingly irate messages. Nyx shut him up with a large transfer of cash from her personal account. The mechanics who were working on repairing the Benevolence kept finding new problems with parts Nyx didn’t even know the ship had. She authorized more repairs and tried not to think about the cost. Xinyi sent her several messages that she didn’t open, but didn’t delete either.
One night Nyx was out with Xrrt, sitting in companionable silence at a restaurant–or at least, Nyx was sitting, and Xrrt was doing her best to stand over one of the stools at the outdoor bar without crushing it. The sun was sinking low in the sky, but the air was still warm. The clouds that dotted the sky glowed in shades of purple and peach. It wasn’t just diffused rays, but a light-producing organism that lived in this planet’s upper stratosphere.
Nyx was looking up at the clouds, thinking about nothing in particular, when a deep voice said, “Is this seat taken?”
“No,” Nyx said. She looked down at her drink. It had been a blended margarita once, but the ice had melted. She couldn’t remember what it tasted like, or if she even had tasted it.
“I’ve never seen clouds like that before,” said the person beside her. “Absolutely stunning.”
Nyx glanced over, wondering if the stranger was talking to someone else, but he was looking right at her. He wasn’t the most handsome man Nyx had ever met, but then, she’d been to a significant portion of known space and met a large number of handsome men. He was easily in the top thirty, with that chiseled jawline and those bright blue eyes. He smiled, and she mentally revised his rank to at least top twenty.
“They are stunning,” she said.
On her other side, Xrrt clicked her mandibles together. Her translator said, “It’s a form of bioluminescent algae.”
“I’ve been trying to paint those clouds for weeks,” he said, raising a hand to the sky, as if it were one big canvas. “I can’t get the shadows right.”
“Oh, you’re an artist?” Nyx wasn’t sure where this conversation was going, but she wasn’t going to be the one to end it.
“I dabble,” he said. “I’m more of an art collector, really.”
“Oh, what do you collect?” Nyx leaned on the bartop. It was cheap laminate made to look like wood, already a little warped by humid air and spilled drinks.
“Human work, mostly. I’m particularly fond of neo-modernist revival paintings. And a bit of Falacerian sculpture–my mother was an artist too, and she passed down to me, although it’s not always popular with the mainstream art scene.”
So he was half-Falacerian, then, and presumably half human. That made sense. He was certainly breathtaking, but he didn’t have the ethereal beauty that a fully psychic Falacerian could project into Nyx’s human mind. “I’ve seen a little Falacerian art,” she said, thinking of Livia, who had preferred paintings that were mostly red and hard to look at without feeling queasy. “And Xrrt’s taken me to some Centaurian galleries, but I didn’t have the sensory organs to really appreciate it.”
Xrrt made noises for quite a while. Her translator tried to make sense of it all, emitted a short burst of static as it processed, and finally came out with, “It was beautiful.”
The stranger leaned in, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “I deal a little, when I’ve got a rare find. But the real money’s in Eridani art.”
“Really?” said Nyx. “I don’t know much about it, I’m afraid.” And I only smuggled it once, and that was by accident, she added to herself. She didn’t think a genuine art dealer would look kindly on how she’d come across a stack of priceless Eridani paintings, although he might appreciate what she’d done with them.
“Well, on first impression, most of it’s nothing special,” said the man. “But it’s rare, and only getting rarer. Do you follow the news?”
“I’ve seen enough,” Nyx said. “Some of the new obscenity laws are… extreme.”
The man gave a little shudder and looked pained. “They’re barbaric,” he said. “Completely savage. So much priceless art, so many precious items, just tossed away like garbage. I hope future generations, looking back on this one, will at least appreciate what was lost.”
“Maybe they’ll be appreciating something you’ve saved for them,” Nyx said.
That made him smile again, another dazzling flash of white. Now that Nyx knew what to look for, she noticed that he seemed to have a few more teeth than humans normally did. “You strike me as a woman who understands art. Perhaps I could show you a few items from my collection?”
Nyx pushed her watery drink aside. Finally, she had something–or maybe someone–interesting to do on this vacation.
News took a long time to travel through space. They were still in the relatively central region of the known galaxy, where signals could bounce from relay to relay at speeds faster than light, but it could be weeks or even months for a piece of information to cross the grid. To make things even more confusing, each species kept its own calendar based on the rotation of its own home planet, and so it wasn’t always clear whether the breaking story on the news now had really broken half a year ago.
Jianyu did what he could to keep up with the course of the conflict. The fight over Heimstätte was no longer a pitched battle but an occupation, with Eridani ships controlling the airspace around the planet and human forces launching periodic attacks from their base on the largest moon. It wasn’t fully clear whether the original settlers still owned the land beneath the contested sky, or whether the former owners who’d left would be compensated for what they’d lost. Without the Coalition, it wasn’t even clear if there was a court that could hear their claims.
A dozen similar fights were in progress throughout the galaxy, and that wasn’t counting the territory disputes between other species. Centaurian hives were taking advantage of the chaos to expand into new territory. The Falacerian government was in crisis following the suspicious death of a high-ranking princess, or perhaps it was operating according to its own inscrutable plan; it was hard to tell with Falacerians what was chaos and what was just good fun. The loose collection of predominantly Mineran colonies was talking about forming their own system of government, but no one could agree what that government might look like or where it ought to be located. And then there were all the other sentient species, the ones that had never been a part of the Coalition to begin with, profiting from the confusion or running from the fight.
When he wasn’t watching the news, he was swimming. The sound of the morning broadcast would echo in his brain all the way down to the beach, and then the water would close over his head and his thoughts slowed down.
Three weeks into the break, he got a message that his parents were moving to a Minervan colony in a far-flung system. It was on a moon orbiting a gas giant. There was no atmosphere, and the only farms were hydroponic. The message was a recorded video, and his parents tried to put a positive spin on it, but he could hear the real message in their pauses. He watched the video three times in a row, then transferred the majority of the money in his personal bank account into theirs. They were already on a ship bound for the edge of known space, travelling fast enough to outrun the news. The information that they were now marginally richer wouldn’t reach them for months.
After that he went for another swim, even though it was night and he was the only person out on the beach. Something huge was moving through the ocean, a mass of black cutting through the water, but it never came close enough for him to get a good look at it.
When he surfaced, someone was standing on the sand where he’d left his shirt. He didn’t even have to swim back to shore to know that it was Sera. When you spent so long living in cramped quarters with someone else, you started to recognize the way they moved. Sera was bouncing up and down on the sand, nervous or just trying to keep warm as the cold air blew in off the water. Jianyu went under again, where he didn’t have to think.
She was still there when he came up again, sitting on the sand with a towel wrapped around her shoulders. His gills were burning from the salt. He swam toward her, coming up out of the surf and feeling the cold air hit his skin. It never felt so cold under the water.
Sera was sitting on his shirt. She didn’t move off it when he walked up to her, just crossed her legs and looked up at him. It was hard to read her expression in the darkness, especially with the wind blowing her hair all over her face. She said, “I don’t like this thing where we’re not talking.”
“We’re talking right now,” Jianyu said.
“You know what I mean.” Sera pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them.
“Fine.” Sera still wasn’t budging from his shirt, so Jianyu sat down on the sand. “So let’s talk.”
“First off, I never expected to spend this long on the Benevolence,” Sera said. “If I’d known I was in it for the long haul, I would have come up with a better cover story.”
Beside her, Jianyu was stonily silent. That was the most frustrating thing about being his friend. He wasn’t the type to yell, or threaten, or even admit that he was angry. He just got quieter and quieter, and she just kept coming up with dumb things to say to keep making enough noise for both of them.
“I wasn’t lying about training with the Coalition, though. That part was real. I just never got to fly a Coalition ship. I only made it to the training shuttles.”
She paused, and was excruciatingly aware of the sound of the waves, so different than the familiar rumble of a ship’s engine or the hum of a life support system pushing air through vents. Somewhere out in the dark water, something roughly analogous to a bird was calling, its cry high and piercing.
“It’s not like I’ve never flown before. I’ve been flying for years. I just never flew a Coalition starship besides the Benevolence, and of course, you have to admit she’s not even a Coalition ship at this point. She’s got thirty percent Coalition parts, at the maximum. Maybe twenty percent of her original pieces.” This planet didn’t have a moon, and so the only illumination came from distant lights up on the land and the spread of stars overhead. She could only see the faintest outline of Jianyu’s profile, not nearly enough to guess at how he was reacting.
She kept on talking, not even thinking about what she was going to say, surprising herself as she said it. “And I know you think you’d never have made the choices I did, but you had it easy. You weren’t here when the Coalition fell, you weren’t even in communication range, so you don’t know how it really was. I did what I had to do, even if it meant breaking the law, and I’m being totally honest here so I can say that most of weren’t even sure what the law was supposed to be when we were breaking it. And for the record, I never killed anyone who wasn’t trying to kill me first, and I never stole anything from anyone who couldn’t afford to lose it, and I wasn’t just looking out for myself. I know that’s who you think I am, but I had people I was responsible for too.”
“You think I had it easy,” Jianyu said. He spoke slowly, like he was turning the words over carefully, examining them from every angle.
“Yeah,” Sera said, trying for brash confidence and not quite succeeding. She had regretted it the moment she said it, but there was no way to take it back now. And it was true, of course, a truth that had been scratching at her insides from the moment she’d first set foot on the Benevolence and heard Captain Dysart’s strange story. The crew had gotten lucky. They’d had it easy, as easy as anyone in the Coalition anyway. They’d missed out on the nastiest parts of the collapse. They’d never had to worry about whether they could trust their own crew members.
“My superior officer died in my arms,” said Jianyu. “Most of my friends were on the other half of the Benevolence, the one that didn’t make it out of the fight. You know this already. I’ve told you this story before, because I don’t lie about who I am.”
Now it was Sera’s turn to stay silent. She picked at a frayed thread on her pants, pulling until she had turned a frayed patch into a hole. If she’d been smarter, she would have come up with a way to expand on her original lie, some reason why she’d really been a Coalition pilot who’d only temporarily had to leave her ship right before its tragic end. If she’d been smarter, they wouldn’t be having this conversation at all.
Jianyu continued, “And when I finally got in contact with my family, after months of wondering if they were dead, I found out that they’d been forced to leave the planet where I grew up. And now they’ve been forced to leave the planet they moved to, so that’s a new thing I have to worry about. Oh yeah, and I’m have citizenship in two different governments that are currently at war with each other, and the place where I was born got bombed for reasons I still haven’t figured out, so yeah, go ahead and tell me how easy I’ve got it.”
He stopped and took a shuddering breath. Sera, assuming he was done, started to say, “I have–”
Jianyu cut in over her. “I’m sure the Coalition meant something to you too, but to me, it was everything. It brought my parents together. It kept my family safe. And now it’s gone, and I’m still not lying and cheating to get ahead. It’s not because I had it easy. It’s because every time, I make the hard choice to do the right thing. Every single day of my life, I wake up and I choose to stay with Captain Dysart, because she needs me. Pilots are replaceable. But without a navigator, the Benevolence can’t fly, and no one else is going to sign up to do what I do. So if you don’t respect what I’ve been through, what we’ve been through together, you can find a crew that meets your standards for suffering.”
Sera had picked half the knee off her pants while Jianyu talked. Her chest hurt, a fierce ache that made it impossible to get any words out. She thought of all the stupid things she’d said just a few moments earlier, and how she couldn’t find it in herself to say I’m sorry. She hadn’t even started to tell her story. She should have stuck with lying.
“Let me have my shirt back,” Jianyu said. She didn’t need to see his face to hear the cold fury in him. “I’m going inside.”
She rolled off the cloth, now damp with sea spray and covered in sand. Jianyu turned away from her, dressed hurriedly, and walked up along the beach in the direction of his room. Sera had been planning to go in the same direction, but she sat on the sand until he was out of sight, wondering where she was supposed to go from here.
Another week passed, and nobody died. Weyland found this surprising.
He was sure that the crew was being followed now, and he thought he recognized one of their pursuers. He had shaved his beard since the last time Weyland had seen him, but once in an unguarded moment he’d rolled his long sleeves up to try to relieve the sun’s relentless heat, and Weyland had seen that his arms were covered in tattoos of flowers. He’d been Buddy’s second in command, the one who’d arranged to have the crew transport a shipment of concealed artwork. Weyland hadn’t fully understood the concept of art then, and he was still working on his grasp of it now, but he knew that Captain Dysart had given away something immensely valuable.
He had tried to explain his observations to Sera, but he’d only gotten as far as, “I think someone’s trying to kill you.”
She had brushed it off with, “Yeah, they can take a number.” Weyland wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but she seemed almost as distracted as Jianyu these days, so he let her be, and he kept watching her back.
Their pursuers had gotten canny, but the island they were on was so small that there were few places to hide. Weyland was a small man, easy to overlook in a crowd, and he’d spent his whole life practicing the art of being overlooked. It only took a few days of observation to figure out that they liked to meet at a certain bar, and the day after that, he found a corner where he could sit and turn his face away while he watched them in the reflection of a conveniently placed mirror. He arrived in time to sit down and order a drink, something huge and tropical so he wouldn’t look out of place.
Flowers, the blonde man, got there first. He found a table, conveniently close to Weyland, and sat with his back facing the wall. First he looked around the bar, and Weyland had to look down at his drink to keep his face concealed. After a few minutes he relaxed and rolled his sleeves up to his elbows, and Weyland was free to study him. He had a new scar on his face, above his right eyebrow. It wasn’t fresh enough to bleed, but it was still bright red. Hypertrophic, Weyland thought, and he wasn’t doing much to treat it cosmetically.
The Minervan woman came in next. Weyland hadn’t seen her much since their unexpected chat. She wasn’t alone this time. She had her arm hooked around another woman’s, one Weyland hadn’t seen before, with delicate features and bright blue hair. This one looked human at first too, but her hair was cut short at the back, and the lump at the base of her skull showed through the stubble.
They might have their arms linked, but Weyland didn’t think they were friends. The brown-haired Minervan was scowling, pulling the other along as she walked. The blue-haired Minervan was looking at the ground, her expression closed off. Halfway across the room she stumbled over her own feet, and her companion yanked her forward with a jerk that almost made her fall.
Weyland watched them in the mirror as they found their spots at the table. The brown-haired woman sprawled in her chair, one arm thrown over the seat back. The blue-haired one sat with her shoulders turning inward and her eyes fixed on the tabletop. When the first woman spoke, Weyland missed part of what she was saying, but he caught, “I’m tired of getting stuck with babysitting duty. You should take a turn.”
Flowers said, “I wasn’t the one who almost tipped them off. You need lay low.”
“Connor’s not laying low,” she said. “He’s laying something else, if you know what I mean.”
Flowers sat back in chair and folded his colorful arms across his chest. The angle of the mirror meant that Weyland couldn’t see his face. During the tense silence, he studied the woman who hadn’t spoken yet. Even in the low light of the bar, he could tell that she had delicate features: a snub nose, a little rosebud of a mouth. She was dressed like the other two, in drab and durable clothing, but she didn’t have a vest and her white shirt looked cleaner. Her blue hair was parted in the middle and longer in the front, coming down to two points framing her sharp chin. She brushed one side back behind her ear, and something metallic on her temple caught the light.
“Is Connor even coming?” the brunette asked at last.
“He’s occupied tonight,” said Flowers.
“This whole thing is stupid,” she said. “I think it’s time to–” She didn’t finish her thought in words, but straightened her thumb and index finger in a gesture Weyland didn’t recognize at first. When she poked the blue-haired woman’s ear, and that woman flinched and shrank away from her, he realized that she was imitating holding a gun to her head.
“Not yet,” said Flowers.
The woman jerked her hand up to point at the ceiling, mimicking the kickback of a plasma pistol. Her target was trembling.
“No,” said Flowers. “I told you, I don’t kill kids.”
Weyland didn’t see any children. Both of the women looked the same age to him, maybe in their late twenties, although Weyland wasn’t good at estimating.
The brunette jerked forward, reaching for the other woman’s head. She recoiled, slamming one elbow into the table with a painful-sounding thud, but her tormentor only mussed her hair. “You do whatever Buddy tells you to do,” she said.
Weyland pulled out his com screen to send a message to the rest of the crew. He wrote out the name of the bar, then hesitated, trying to figure out how to explain the situation. Someone’s in trouble, he typed.
“Let’s just finish this up quickly,” the brunette was saying. “I think that little creep suspects something. You didn’t hear the way he talked, Flowers. He pretty much threatened to kill me.”
“Poor you,” said Flowers. He sounded unconcerned.
Get here fast, Weyland added to his message, and sent it.
Just a few second later, his screen chimed with an incoming message. This one was from the captain: Meet me at the beach. Bring weapons if you have them.
The brown-haired woman must glanced over the sound of the alert. When Weyland looked up, she was staring straight at him, and already beginning to rise from her chair.