Her hookup was a pleasant diversion in bed, but it didn’t take long for Nyx to realize that he was lying through however many teeth he actually possessed.
He’d told her on the first night that his name was Oren, after his father, but Nyx had caught a look at his com screen and noticed that he kept getting messages for someone named Connor. That alone wasn’t proof of much. Falacerians were famously secretive about their real names. It was possible that neither was the name on his original ID chip; there were plenty of reasons why someone might choose to go by a different identity these days, and Nyx couldn’t argue with many of them.
But then there was the way he talked about art. On the first night he’d claimed to be an artist, but Nyx saw no evidence of artistic pursuits in his room. There was no paint, no canvas, not so much as a stylus for his com screen. And though he talked about his broad interest in art often, the conversation turned every time to Eridani paintings: their rarity, the difficulty of finding them on the market, and most importantly their value.
After sex he always seemed to have a bottle of wine on hand. He made sure of it. Nyx wasn’t a habitual drinker, and after a couple of days she began to notice how often he topped up her glass. Their pillow talk always turned, sooner or later, to the art with the highest price tags. He showed her pictures of the pieces he was most eager to find. They were, invariably, the ones the puritanical Eridani government had been most eager to destroy. Canvas after canvas of green flesh, some tasteful, others unquestionably lewd. Nyx, curious, played dumb and let him keep talking.
And then one night he showed her a painting she’d seen before, and something clicked in her memory. Luncheon in the Pond, he called it: an nude Eridani figure in repose, gender impossible to tell from anatomy alone, although the crumpled clothes in the left side of the frame were feminine. There were two males in the picture, both clothed, talking to each other; the female stared straight out at the viewer. Her expression was difficult to read. Oren said her gaze was sultry. Nyx thought she looked bored.
She’d seen this painting before. She’d held it in her hands; hell, she’d accidentally smuggled it. And she’d given it away to someone who claimed, very convincingly at the time, to be an art professor. So as the man who called himself Oren waxed rhapsodic about it, dropping hints about how much he’d like to see it in person if only it hadn’t been destroyed, Nyx smiled and nodded and only said, “It’s not the sort of art I usually go for, but it’s interesting.”
Oren pressed the point a little longer before giving up. When he stood up to visit the bathroom–he’d been drinking heavily, and trying to get Nyx to do the same–she scrambled off the bed and went rummaging through his drawers as soon as the door closed behind him.
She found the gun in his underwear drawer. It was a plasma pistol, compact and easy to hide, so small it could only fire a single bolt before it needed to be reloaded with a fresh battery. It was fully charged now, its indicator light glowing green.
The toilet flushed. This island still used actual tanks full of water in its plumbing, a technological relic Nyx found quaint but wasteful. She didn’t have much time. She’d come in wearing a loose wrap over a swimsuit, and discarded both on the floor at the foot of the bed. She pulled the wrap over her head with just enough time to bring the gun up as the door swung open.
The expression on Oren’s face told her everything she needed to know. He looked startled, but he didn’t look surprised.
“Hey, be careful where you point that,” he said, trying for a casual smile. A full Falacerian might have been able to pull off disarming charm while standing stark naked at the wrong end of a gun barrel, but his human side was showing.
“I think it’s time we had a little talk,” Nyx said. “I’d like to know who you’re working for.”
“I’m an art collector,” he said. “I’m just very interested in art.”
“Wrong answer,” said Nyx, gesturing with the gun toward the door leading out of the room. “We’re going to take a little walk, and then you’re going to be honest with me.”
“We could talk in here,” he said, although he took a few obedient steps forward. Nyx remembered the feeling of staring down a barrel; she’d been on the other end of a gun more than once.
“I prefer a clear line of sight.” Plasma bolts didn’t stop when they hit a body. They were hot enough to burrow through everything in their path for a long time. Oren’s room was in a larger hotel, and there was no way Nyx could know for sure that there was no one on the other side of the wall. Besides, she didn’t want to damage an innocent bystander’s property if she didn’t have to.
She didn’t want to kill Oren either. He might have lied to her, but as far as Nyx was concerned that wasn’t a capital offense. “Let’s go down to the beach.”
“Can I at least put on–”
“No.” Nyx kicked her bathing suit aside, found her com screen, and picked it up. Her wrap didn’t have any pockets, so she tucked it under her arm and held it there awkwardly as Oren maneuvered around her toward the exit.
When they were outside and Nyx was confident that he wouldn’t be making a move for any unexpected weapons. She pulled out her com screen, juggling it awkwardly with the gun still firmly in her grip, and tapped out a quick message: Meet me at the beach. Bring weapons if you have them. She set her screen to emergency alert mode, so that it would broadcast its location to the rest of the crew, and tucked it back into her armpit. Oren was still walking ahead of her, moving in an awkward hunched scuttle to preserve what remained of his dignity. He was lucky he’d decided to stay at a beachfront hotel.
Jianyu opened the door of his room and nearly ran into Sera, who was raising her fist to knock. Xrrt was right behind her, rubbing her forelimbs together in a gesture that Centaurians used when they were anxious or preparing for a fight.
“Hey,” said Sera, not quite meeting his eyes. They hadn’t spoken since their fight on the beach, not even a few words in passing. Jianyu had been afraid that Sera might take his suggestion to leave seriously, that he might wake up one day and find out she’d left without speaking to him. But she’d stuck around, at least so far, and though he’d spend hours mulling it over in the water he wasn’t sure how to break the silence between them. “Did you just get some weird messages?”
“Yeah, from the captain and Weyland. What are you going to do?”
“I’ve got a gun, so I’m going to find the captain,” said Sera, patting the pistol holstered on her hip. “Xrrt’s coming with me.”
That left him to go after Weyland. Jianyu felt a flicker of annoyance that she hadn’t thought to ask him where he was headed, tempered by the realization that of course she’d already guessed where he was going. Jianyu wasn’t the sort of person who thought to bring weapons to a beach trip. Of course he’d leave whatever dangerous situation the captain had gotten herself into to the people who knew how to handle it.
“I’ll figure out what’s going on with Weyland and meet you at the beach,” Jianyu told her. “Message me if there’s anything you need me to know.”
Sera nodded and spun on her heel. Jianyu tucked his com screen in his pocket and headed for the address Weyland had sent him.
The island was small, and the useable land on it was smaller still. The crew’s hotel was one of the cheaper ones, comparatively far from the water and close to the center of the small town. He passed a few tourists and locals, some walking and others riding tiny hovering vehicles that kicked up stinging clouds of sand. It wasn’t quite the crowd Jianyu had expected when they’d first come here. The restaurants seemed too large for the number of people actually in them, and most of the hotel windows he passed were dark. This planet didn’t have an off season, it had practically no wobble to its axis. With the galaxy teetering on the precipice of war, he guessed visitors would be sparse for a while.
He was still a few blocks away from the address when he saw a small figure running full tilt along the sidewalk. He watched Weyland come to a cross street, look nervously over his shoulder, and then bolt into traffic just ahead of a vehicle. It swerved around him, nearly tipping as the anti-gravity device fought for purchase. Jianyu raised his arm and shouted, and Weyland headed in his direction.
He didn’t look like he was having any trouble moving, even after his near miss with the hovercraft, and Jianyu didn’t see any obvious blood or signs of injuries. Not that it would be easy to tell in the dark, with only the light spilling from a nearby window to see by.
Weyland reached him and grabbed his arm. “Run,” he said, his voice low but firm.
Jianyu didn’t move. “What’s going on? Who’s in trouble?”
“I don’t know her name,” said Weyland. Although he’d been sprinting, he didn’t sound out of breath, just annoyed that Jianyu wasn’t following directions. “It doesn’t matter. We have to go.”
There was someone else running down the street, not moving as fast as Weyland but travelling at a decent clip. Weyland tensed and pulled harder at Jianyu’s arm. “We have to go now.”
Jianyu kept standing still, staring at the runner in the faint light. He looked human, heavily built, his hair light and his clothing practical. There were two other people behind him, one dragging the other by the wrist. The street had emptied out; ambling tourists had decided to take a different path, and a waiter was back inside a bar and slamming the door behind him.
The runner in the lead got closer, and Jianyu thought he looked familiar. The last time he’d seen this man, he’d had a beard, a plasma rifle, and a pile of stolen paintings.
He turned and ran, following Weyland’s directions a little too late. Although he had a long stride, he wasn’t a habitual runner, and soon enough his chest was painfully tight. It was hard to figure out where to go in a town he didn’t know well. Weyland pulled out ahead of him, loping in the kind of steady gait that experienced runners could keep up for hours, and Jianyu followed him.
They were heading away from the center of town, down the island’s gentle slope to the place where the buildings stopped and the dunes began. Weyland headed for the walkway, and Jianyu followed as close as he could, gripping the splintering handrails as he climbed the stairs and knocking his shin with bruising force on a post.
Then they were down on the sand, and Jianyu was really struggling. It was hard to get purchase on a shifting surface. Every step he took barely seemed to move him forward. Weyland had his com screen out and was checking something as he ran straight toward the water. Jianyu hoped he was sending a message to the rest of the crew, but couldn’t spare the breath to ask.
When they reached a smoother, damper patch of sand just ahead of the waves, Weyland turned left. It was a little easier to run on that ground, although Jianyu still wished he weren’t running at all. He had a stitch now, turning every panting breath into a stab of pain.
“The captain’s signal’s up ahead,” said Weyland. He was barely breathing hard at all.
The sand deadened footfalls, and the sound of the waves made it impossible for Jianyu to hear anything but the sound of his own pulse pounding in his ears. He had no idea how far away their pursuer was now.
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.”
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.”