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.