“It’s a maze down here,” Maurice said, poking a sausage with his fork.
He took a big juicy bite and chewed for days. After rescuing us, he’d led us past open pits where men played with their children, a table where mothers ate with their kids, and a room covered with blankets where the snores of the content wafted out along with the stench of the disavowed. It was a homeless paradise, and never in my trips down below had I ever seen such a thing. Then he had shuffled us all into a narrow room with a single table at its center. A gray-haired woman with dark eyes had brought us food, bandaged my arm, and given Maurice a peck on the cheek.
“Thank you, honey,” said the man.
She disappeared back into the maze.
“Myrna is my wife,” Maurice explained. “I’ve made a life for myself down here.”
“Why not above?” I asked.
Maurice considered the next bite of sausage. “The spiral continues, you see, at least in spirit. Downward spiral, all the way to the bottom.”
“I’m aware,” I repeated.
He shot a glance at Beck, his eyes narrow with suspicion. “Story of our lives, don’t you think? The spiral only goes down.”
“Maybe for those junkies out there,” I said, “but some folks manage to claw their way back up the spiral.”
He shrugged. “We’ve got music. Family. Everything we need, really.”
“Everything but a decent light source and proper citizenship.” I picked up one of the tiny sausages and gave it a sniff. Damned if it wasn’t rat or something, but it was good. Beck dropped a shade paler when I took a bite, so I finished it and picked up a piece of hard bread.
Maurice said, “That used to be me. Wanting things I couldn’t have. Citizenship isn’t in the cards for me, so why get worked up about it?”
I leaned in. “Is that what the art was to you? Something you couldn’t have, so you wanted it?”
He froze. “That was a long time ago.”
“Not so long to some people. Not long enough at all, actually.” The bread was good, too. Peppery. “Some folk say there’s a man by your description holding onto a pretty fancy painting.”
A deep chuckle rumbled in his chest. “Art was a means to an end for me. Never really rose to the level of a proper addiction. I’d never hold onto something like a painting.” He gestured around the room with a dented flask. “And where would I put something that big?”
“I never said what size a painting we were talking about.”
He looked at me with half-lidded eyes. “It’s a damn big painting we’re talking about, and there’s no need to dance around it.”
“Dancing? You have a lot of that around here?”
“When there’s music,” he said. He patted the pocket of his shirt where a harmonica glinted in the dim, blue light. “Not now, though. Not for a while.”
“How long have those junkies been around?”
“We’ve always had junkies. This is something else. Someone’s leading them down here and dumping them. Someone with access to the new drugs.”
Access. That was what it was all about. If the drug wasn’t something Trinity explicitly allowed, then someone must have an override. Or a recipe. Either way, it was bad karma. “Any idea who?”
Maurice opened his mouth to talk, but just then a girl ran in the room. She couldn’t have been more than two, maybe three years and she had greasy ponytails covering her ears. Myrna followed close on her heels.
“Come on over here,” Maurice said, opening his arms. The little girl ran into a big hug and he swept her up. To me, he said, “We’re not looking for trouble down here. We keep to ourselves and the world spins up above us.”
Beck leaned forward and looked Maurice right in the eyes. “We just want the painting, Mr. Ribar. Don’t care how we get it.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know…”
“It’d be a good thing to get that piece put back together,” I said. “For the sake of the art if nothing else.”
The little girl sat nicely on Maurice’s lap. Maybe it was his daughter. Maybe they communally raised children down here. It was hard to pick out any familial resemblance in the dim blue light. Maurice pushed his plate away. Something bothered him, but it wasn’t clear what.
“That job was fucked from the start,” he said. “Every one of us knew it.”
Myrna gave him a reproachful look, took the little girl by the hand, and led her away.
“If it was a bad job, why did you take it?”
A muscle in Maurice’s neck twitched. “It was a perfect job. Everything was lined up just right, like we all had the perfect skills and nothing could ever go wrong. Systems to hack that Ruiz had worked before. Safes—they had the newest model of Cryptliner Fortitudes. They’re titanium and iron all the way through and all the hardware is so finely manufactured it’s impossible to hear even the first tumbler fall.”
“You cracked safes?” I said.
Maurice’s eyes sparkled in a way that told me I’d hit the nail on the head. He pressed his lips together. “It was damn perfect. I’d just figured out how to crack that safe, and there were only seven of them in the whole world.” He cleared his throat. “Vitez had the connections lined up. There was supposed to be a drop at the silo—this place we worked for sometimes. It was a big center for space tourism, but they made an extra dime moving Earth artifacts to the colonies. There’s a good market for people missing their heritage, you know. At least that’s what Vitez always said.”
“He wasn’t wrong.”
The man sized me up, probably trying to decide if I was pulling his leg. I wasn’t sure the answer myself. He continued, “The painting was bigger than we would have liked, but old Hector Chance stepped out of retirement to lend us muscle. Between the four of us it was a cake job. All profit, hardly any risk.”
“Hardly any fun,” Beck said. Her voice hitched in her throat.
The distant look in Maurice’s eyes seemed to agree. “At that point I wasn’t much looking for risk. Things could have been a lot worse, and it was damn hard to pass up that kind of job given my financial situation.”
“So you took it.” I picked up another piece of bread and started picking it apart and eating it piece by piece. “And it went spinward.”
“It was a transport job. A bunch of art and other valuables were being moved out of Catalina due to the unrest in the area. Lot of things were getting sketchy round those parts of Europe. The idea was to move it to someplace more stable. Nigeria in this case. They loaded up one of those big ultra-fast unmanned transports and sent it on its way.”
“So there was other art on the flight, too?”
Maurice nodded. “Sure was, but the client only wanted The Garden of Earthly Delights.”
Beck asked, “Who was the client?”
“You’d have to ask Vitez, if you can find him.”
“About that,” she said.
Maurice grinned. He had a captive audience, and I got the impression he was going to soak it for everything it was worth. “My part in the job should have been straightforward. Board the airship as it passed into space, crack the safe, and help Chance transport the goods back onto our ship. Painting goes to the Silo, the transport finishes its journey unsuspecting thanks to Ruiz’s hacks, and by the time anyone figures out something’s missing, we’ve already unloaded the goods.”
“On the moon,” I said.
“On the moon. Pretty straightforward job, really.”
“So, what went wrong?”
“Everything. First, Vitez was also going to be our pilot. He’d had training and we spent a whole month practicing the maneuver. When it was go time, he flipped us like he was supposed to, matched pace with the transport, and then froze up.”
“He was afraid?”
“Something like that. By the time we talked him down, our window was drastically shortened.” Maurice wiggled his fingers, as if to dislodge the memories from them. “I can crack any safe you drop in front of me, but it takes time.”
“You got the job done, though.”
“See, here’s the thing. When Chance, Ruiz, and I dropped in on that transport, we didn’t find a Cryptliner Fortitude. It was the previous year’s Masterforce. Not an easy safe to crack, but I could do it.”
“Sounds like a good thing,” Beck said, leaning forward. She was getting into old Maurice’s story. “An easier safe means you got it done faster.”
Maurice shook his head. “An easier safe, yes, but the wrong safe. You see, intelligence failures like that are not good in the business. Ruiz took it in a stride, but Chance panicked. Tried to abort the mission.”
“Wasn’t Ruiz in charge of gathering that information?” Had Violet Ruiz’s husband been the one to screw up the entire job?
Maurice looked down at his own hands. “I should have double-checked his sources.”
“But you trusted what he brought you.”
“I wanted to trust his information. Right there on the transport, though, it didn’t matter one way or the other. We were either walking out with a painting or we were walking out empty-handed. I had my opinion on that, so I got to work. Ruiz kept busy, too, making sure we didn’t trip any alarms.” The deep lines in Maurice’s flesh darkened. “He bought me enough time to open the safe, but just barely. Just as soon as that safe cracked, the lights went red and two guys with guns floated into the storage compartment.”
“On an unmanned transport?” Beck said.
“Not quite as unmanned as promised, apparently. Chance dispatched them easily enough. That old man moves faster than any of us in a pinch, but even he wasn’t fast enough to do it without getting himself shot.”
“Killed?” I asked.
Maurice shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe. Doesn’t matter at this point. He wasn’t in any shape to help move the painting, but the painting was stored in three parts and we were in something pretty close to zero-G. Ruiz and I were able to maneuver one panel of it into our own ship without much trouble.”
“What happened to Chance?”
The old man sagged in his seat, looking a decade older. “Those two fellas were the pilot and copilot. We didn’t know that at the time.” He quickly added, “Chance’s wounds wouldn’t have closed in zero-G. People don’t heal right when there’s no gravity. He needed to land as soon as possible.”
They’d left him behind to his fate. Whether that was prison or a fiery crash or death from a gunshot wound didn’t much matter. “What happened to Ruiz?”
Maurice shrugged. “The timer said we had another minute before the transport was scheduled to reenter atmo, but everything started heating up. I tied down the first part of the painting, and Ruiz went back to grab the next panel. Right about then Vitez decided to separate. We left Ruiz and two thirds of the painting along with Chance.”
“Leaving you and Vitez with one panel.”
“Hell,” Maurice said, his voice low and grim. “All we got was hell. The third panel, I mean. The transport didn’t have a pilot, so it crashed, killing Ruiz and Chance. The one panel we had was too hot to drop on the Moon, so we had to look at our options.”
Beck leaned back and crossed her arms. “You came to Nicodemia.”
“Our ship had simple cross-colony support and enough fuel. Yeah, it wasn’t really meant for it, but it was our best option.” He gestured around at the modest room. “Welcome to the reward for our earthly delights.”
“So where’s Vitez?” Beck asked.
I said, “More important, where’s the painting?”
“You’ll have to ask Vitez where the painting is. The bastard thought this place was too heavy. Headed up-well with the painting after promising to send me half of whatever he made from selling it.”
“Where can we find him?” I popped the last crust of bread into my mouth and chewed. “Who was he going to sell to?”
He looked from me to Beck, then back again. “I don’t know.”
Beck didn’t move, but the air between her and the old man grew tense.
Maurice must have felt it, too, because he continued, “He was leaving for Onegee Nicodemia. Vitez always played his cards close to his chest, especially when it came to his connections. He knew a guy here in the Heavy, and that guy must have given him a connection up the chain.”
“Who did he know in town?”
Maurice chewed his lip for a long time. I’m not sure if he was trying to remember or trying to decide whether or not to tell us. I didn’t interrupt his thought process, and it paid off. “McCain or McCare or something like that. Fella seemed like he knew how to get upstairs.”
“McCay?” I asked, dreading the answer.
“Yeah, that might be it.” Thin lines creased between his eyes. “How did you know?”
“Because he’s dead. Any other ideas?”
Maurice went three shades paler and silent as a robbed grave. I made pleasantries for a while, then asked Maurice to show us out the back. Once we were there, he hung back, a shadow in the blue light.
“We appreciate your hospitality, Mr. Ribar,” I said, tipping my fedora. “Give regards to your wife.”
“Sorry, I couldn’t help more,” he said.
Beck watched him with her steely gaze the whole time he backed away. She might have drilled a hole in him with the look she shot his direction. “He’s holding back.”
“Doesn’t matter. He’ll keep holding back and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“So where do we go?”
“I have one more stop down here, then we’ll go up the chain to Onegee Nicodemia. We know Vitez went that way with the painting, and I still have some contacts that direction. Somebody had to notice a fella from Earth dragging a third of the Garden of Earthly Delights around.”
She didn’t seem overly convinced, but, then again, neither was I.
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Bio: Anthony W. Eichenlaub's short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Little Blue Marble, On Spec Magazine, and the anthology A Punk Rock Future. His novels range from pulse-pounding technothrillers to the adventures of irresponsible scientists on a colony planet. In his spare time he enjoys woodworking, video games, and working in his garden. Support him at: https://www.patreon.com/AWEichenlaub