“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.
“It’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard,” Captain Dysart said, after Sera had laid out her plan.
“It’s got to be in the top five,” said Jianyu. He was tired and sore, shaky with the aftermath of adrenaline. Although Weyland had examined his burned leg and pronounced it not that bad, his skin throbbed where the hot sand had struck it. Making a deal with the man who’d just held the crew at gunpoint seemed like an appropriately shitty way to end the night.
“Xrrt, what are your thoughts?” the captain asked.
Xrrt had folded her two smaller forelimbs across her thorax, although the larger claws still hung loose at her sides. It wasn’t quite a threat posture, but it wasn’t a relaxed stance for a Centaurian either. She clicked her mandibles together and let her acid glands gurgle, a sound that was nearly drowned out by the waves breaking on the sand. Her translator emitted a burst of static–the sea air hadn’t been kind to its delicate circuitry–and said, “How much risk will there be to my maggots?”
Flowers waggled his hand in the air, a noncommittal gesture. “I’m not going to pretend this is going to be a cakewalk. Most of the cargo you’ll be carrying isn’t legal, strictly speaking. That’s why people are willing to pay so much money to ship it.”
“I don’t know about this,” the captain said. “What kind of cargo are we talking about?”
“Medicine. Cosmetics. Art. Clothing. Maybe some party drugs. Nothing that would have been more than a class C restricted item under the old laws. You can open any packages you’re given if you don’t trust me.” Flowers looked around the circle, clearly trying to read the room. Jianyu crossed his arms over his chest, fuming, but the rest of the crew looked like they were starting to warm up to the idea. “This weird thing you’ve got going on with the Coalition could even work in your favor. If you’re caught with cargo you’re not supposed to have, just say you didn’t know it was illegal.”
Jianyu opened his mouth to object, then closed it without saying anything. We’d be breaking the law, he thought–but a smaller, angrier part of him countered, Why bother following bad laws? He hadn’t agreed with the Centaurian ban of mammal-fiber cloth or the high human taxes on food coming from majority Falacerian planets. He’d resented the restrictive new Eridani laws, tightening like a noose around every member of their species with a valid ID chip, constricting what they could wear and watch and talk about. He hadn’t like watching Minervans get shut out, pushed to the edges of unpopular systems when they tried to organize colonies of their own. Although the Coalition had collapsed years ago, a part of it was still unravelling as hundreds of years of treaties and trade agreements broke down.
Instead, he said, “What are we going to do with the body?”
The sea, it turned out, was capable of hiding many sins. Xrrt and Weyland tried moving the body together, but Weyland was too short to get good leverage of the dead weight on the sand and Xrrt’s claws weren’t suited to handling soft human flesh without punching straight through it. Flowers and Jianyu, the biggest members of the group, took over before the body could get too thoroughly mangled. Flowers picked the corpse up under the shoulders, and Jianyu took the feet. He was grateful that he didn’t have to get too close to the empty space where Jane’s head had been. The plasma bolt had cauterized her wound as it killed her, but the end of her neck was ragged and blistered.
The salt water sent prickly fire over his burned leg. Jianyu gritted his teeth and waded in deeper, until Jane’s body was floating and the current was pulling her out instead of pushing her back to the shore. The water was up past Flowers’ stomach, and he was struggling to keep his feet as the waves slapped him around.
“Do you have any last words for her?” Jianyu asked.
Flowers thought on that. “Better her than me,” he said at last. It had a note of finality to it, and Jianyu took it as his signal to let go.
They were almost back to shore when a black shape rose from the ocean, a dark hump of some much larger creature cresting briefly out of the water. The clouds’ pink luminescence shone on rippling scales and glistened in a line of milky circles that might have been eyes. Then the creature was gone, the water rushing into the hole it had left, and Jane’s body had vanished with it.
Then it was all over except for the haggling over the price. Jianyu, satisfied that his soul had already been sold, went back to the hotel to change into dry and unburned clothing. He was about to turn on his com screen and try to find a news channel when someone knocked on his door.
Sera had a bottle of alcohol in each hand and dark circles under her eyes. Her hair was still mussed from the night wind, cascading down the side of her face in a frizzy fall of fading pink. Jianyu sighed and stepped back to let her into the room. “Where did you get those?”
“Can you believe they just leave everything out at the bar downstairs?” When Jianyu gave her a disappointed look, she said, “I’m going to leave a really nice tip for housekeeping.”
Jianyu let her pour him a drink. It didn’t escape his notice that she’d selected one bottle of Moridian sun-wine and another of Bantak distilled liquor. Both were banned by the Eridani government, for political reasons rather than potency. “Where’s your friend?”
“Sleeping in my room,” Sera said.
“What’s her story?”
“Ask her yourself.” Sera handed him a plastic cup full of sun-wine. It glowed faintly, just like the clouds outside. “She’s joining the crew.”
Jianyu took a sip of his drink. It was a mixing liquor, not usually enjoyed alone, with a cloying sweetness followed by a powerful bite. “And will she tell me the truth?”
Sera shrugged and took a seat on Jianyu’s bed without asking for permission. She’d poured herself a generous cupful of the liquor, and a little of it splashed over the rim of her glass. “Parts of it.”
“Why are you here?” Jianyu asked, sitting down beside her. The bed wasn’t made to take both their weight; the mattress bowed in the middle and the frame creaked.
“You looked like you needed a drink after all that,” Sera said. “I know you don’t like watching people die.”
“I mean, why are you still here?” Jianyu asked. “Why didn’t you go with Flowers? Why stick with the Benevolence?”
Sera blew out her cheeks in an exaggerated sigh. Jianyu waited patiently. He knew that if he was silent for long enough, she’d find a way to make conversation. At last, she said, “Do you know how much a qualified mechanic should charge to replace a two-cylinder fuel injector in a B&P engine?”
“Twenty credits,” said Jianyu, knowing he was guessing far off the mark and doing it on purpose to make her smile. “Forty. Okay, I have no idea.”
“There’s no such thing as a two-cylinder fuel injector for a B&P engine,” said Sera. “They only use four-cylinder injectors, and if anyone tells you he can replace them, he’s lying, because failure rates in that part are so low that if they need to be replaced then the whole engine’s probably junk. But if you modify the cylinders by disabling the injection speed limits, you can increase the thrust from your chemical thrusters by five, maybe six percent. No one else on the crew could tell you that.”
“Does the captain know you’ve been tampering with the fuel injectors?” Jianyu asked.
“You probably could replace me, if you really want me to go,” Sera said, “but good luck finding a pilot who can fly the Benevolence like I do.”
“Oh, screw this,” Jianyu said. “Get over here.”
Their hug was awkward, with drinks sloshing and the mattress dipping even more as Sera rose onto her knees to get her arms around him. “I’m sorry I said you had it easy,” she muttered into his shoulder. “I can make hard choices too.”
“I’m going to find out your whole life story,” said Jianyu, as Sera pulled back and slopped more liquor over his knee.
Sera grinned and said, “I’d like to see you try.”