By the time I stepped back into the main courtyard, the auction was well underway. The auctioneer displayed a golden device that looked like a sextant that ancient Earth seafarers might use to find their way under the stars. The device was utterly useless in Nicodemia, which apparently made it quite valuable. I watched the bids rise as irritation spread like ants under my skin.
Beck would find that the Garden of Earthly Delight wasn’t there. She’d eventually give up and return above. Whether or not she would want me to continue trying to find the painting was up to her. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that Vitez didn’t have it. His reaction wasn’t right. What bothered me more was Vitez’s connection to my father. Had Violet Ruiz known about that connection when she’d insisted on hiring me? Did Beck know?
That left me idly wondering about the rest of what we’d learned. Someone had been following Vitez. Could that be the same guy who had caught up to me in Onegee? It felt likely, though I couldn’t pinpoint why. If that was true, maybe that guy was still around.
The auction made things inconvenient. With bidding underway, I couldn’t question the other guests. I should have tracked the guy the second I saw him, and ignored Vitez.
Now, my best bet was to ask around and find any clues he might have dropped.
At the front door, the bouncer still waited by the windowed door. He tipped his hat as I approached. “Leaving already?”
“Did you see a fella come this way about an hour ago?”
“Quite a few, yes.”
“A guy with a fedora.”
He took off his hat and scratched his head. “Can’t say that I did.”
Outside, starlight and a false double moon lit the garden paths. Here in the Hallows, even the nights were uncommonly bright. The dark was enough to cloak the tips of grasping trees in shadows, but not enough to hide the searing lump of guilt in my belly.
Beck didn’t deserve to be abandoned, even if what she was wrong about the painting. Everything in my gut told me the painting wasn’t there, but what happened when Vitez woke? If she wasn’t careful, he would reactivate Trinity’s security and Beck would be in a mess of trouble. I remembered the look on her face when she had that gun pointed at him. She’d been upset—more upset than I had ever seen her.
Even if she found the painting, she couldn’t move it out of there on her own. All she could do was find it and report back to her boss. Ruiz could certainly figure out a legal way to return the painting to its rightful owners, whoever that might be. She might even be able to gain custody of it.
Would she know it from a forgery? Did it matter? The Garden of Earthly Delight wasn’t going to shatter the world if it disappeared forever. Nobody would mourn its loss except for a few art fanatics.
My father would have mourned. He would have raged for a full day if he heard I hadn’t done everything I could to recover the painting. I’d never thought much about his job when he was alive. He had tried to share his passion with me, but he had hidden that he was a curator in his own private museum. That he was a dealer of legitimate and stolen art—that he had a contact on Earth who sent him illicit goods in the hope of one day coming to the ship to live out his days.
Beck didn’t care about any of this. What was she there for? The painting? She’d be there for hours looking for a painting that Vitez didn’t have. The look in his eyes when I had mentioned it told me everything I needed to know.
No, not everything.
A shadow moved in the garden, a glint of moonlight caught the shape of a battered fedora.
I patted my suit pockets and found a pack of cigarettes. Lighting one, I gazed up into the moonlight, keeping the man’s shadow in the corner of my eye in case he made another move. I didn’t want him escaping or attacking without a little bit of a warning. The smoke lingered around my head, hanging heavy in the post-rain humidity.
I needn’t have bothered with the subterfuge.
The stranger made himself known with the click of a cocked weapon. “Thought I told you to back off.” He stepped forward and the light of my cigarette fell across the deep creases of his face.
A drag of acid smoke burned my lungs. “Vitez is sitting on half the Smithsonian down there, but a fistful of dimes says he doesn’t have the Garden of Earthly Delights.”
“I could shoot you right now. Nobody’s here. Trinity doesn’t care if we live or die.”
“Here’s the thing, though.” I turned to look him full in the face. “I don’t think this is about a painting. This lingering feeling that there’s something more at play keeps cropping up. Did you know Vitez is making forgeries down there and donating them as the real thing?”
This didn’t elicit any reaction from the stranger except possibly for the deepening of the creases at the corners of his mouth. Somewhere, an owl called in the night.
“There’s history here that I’m not privy to,” I said, “and it’s bothering me. How do you fit into all this? Vitez, my father, Ruiz, even Ribar down at the bottom of the Heavies. They’re all connected. All part of the same scheme. But what do you have to do with any of this?”
“You’re asking the wrong kind of questions, kid. Making it real hard for me to not pull this trigger.”
I took another drag on the cigarette. “The trigger gets pulled or it doesn’t. I’m just looking for answers.”
“There’s a play for power going on that’s got nothing to do with art.” He circled around, out of reach. “Frank Lauder’s coming after Saint Jerome, and I’ve been hired to keep an eye on you. Lauder thinks you’re the Saint’s main killer.”
“I’d hardly call myself a killer.” I showed him my palms. “I’m not even armed.”
“Big man like you hardly needs to carry a weapon to be considered dangerous. Just ask Leonard McCay.”
“McCay? What’s he got to do with this?”
“You tell me. Fella was a client of mine for two years. One of my first contacts on this bead. You show up one day and the next he’s dead.”
“It wasn’t me.”
“Sounds like a song I’ve heard sung before.”
“What did you do to get excommunicated?” A rude question, but manners go out the window at the end of a gun.
The stranger twitched. “There aren’t a lot of rules I won’t break, and having no rules at all makes the whole thing easier.”
“I’m not sure what you mean by that.”
“I heard you killed your parents to earn the ultimate punishment.”
That hurt, but I did my best to hide it. My best probably wasn’t much good, because a hint of a smile crossed his face. “It was a ship crash. I couldn’t have saved them.”
“That’s not what the records say. Records say you had plenty of chance. The controls were up and active, and all you had to do was keep the ship connected. You blew the seals instead.”
“Saving Onegee Nicodemia.”
He was right. I fought a shudder deep in my chest. “It wasn’t a risk I could take.”
“Most kids would do whatever it took to save the ones they love. Either you didn’t love them or you made a hell of a sacrifice that day.”
The image flashed in front of my eyes again, bright as the day it happened. The screen with the release in bright red. The big choice. Tear open half the ship by releasing the bad link or take the risk that the gate would hold and allow the passengers of the ship a chance.
It wasn’t a choice. It was a goddamn tragedy. “You don’t know a damn thing about it,” I said.
“No,” he said. “I wasn’t there. All I have is what Trinity kept of the record.” His accent changed timber and cadence, something I recognized from somewhere else. I’d heard it recently, too.
“You’re from Earth,” I said.
He smiled. “Sure am. It’s easy enough to pick up a Nicodemia accent.” This time he spoke with a pure Hallows accent, with lingering vowels and lazy trailing consonants. “Amazing what an accent and a few local sayings will do to help a person blend into a new society. Languages have always been a hobby of mine, but picking up accents is fascinating.”
“How long have you been here?”
My cigarette neared its end, so I dropped it and stepped it out. Once it was cold, I picked it up and flicked it at the nearest trash canister.
“Trinity doesn’t like a litterer, does it.” The stranger said.
“Trinity doesn’t much care how much folks like you an I litter. Part of the punishment, I guess. We don’t exist.”
That got a chuckle out of the man. “You still haven’t figured it out, have you?”
“Figured what out?”
“It’s not a punishment at all. Trinity excommunicated you because it trusts you.” He nodded at the trashcan. “Looks to me like it was right.”
He shrugged. “Hey, it’s all in the code.”
I took an involuntary step back. If what he said was true… If that could possibly be true, then everything I knew about my situation was turned on its head. Was it possible that I wasn’t a person punished for a crime, but a person being rewarded for my loyalty? What did this mean for the other excommunicated people out there? What did it mean for the church which increasingly considered religious excommunication and AI excommunication to be the same thing?
“The generation ship’s original design had a dozen handymen per node. Those people were exempt from the normal AI operations so they’d be able to bypass what they needed to help keep the ship’s systems in balance. They could retrain the AI if the parameters were out of whack or they could access forbidden sections of the ship. They’d be able to do whatever they needed, even murder, if it was required to fix something on the ship.”
It almost made sense, but I couldn’t believe it. “They’d have to be the most trusted members of society.”
“That’s the problem, isn’t it. Trust.”
“Always has been.”
“Like when you tell a man to back off for his own good. That seems like something a trustworthy man would do.” He raised his gun.
“If you’re going to shoot, you might as well shoot.” I raised my hands. No use giving him the satisfaction of claiming self defense. Something occurred to me. “If you’re excommunicated, does that mean you’re trustworthy, too?” It seemed such a stretch that Trinity would trust someone from Earth.
“That what you think is going on here?” he said. “Kid, I’m not like you. I didn’t kill my parents to earn the ship’s dubious trust. There are other paths to greatness, you know. There are better ways to make a living around here.”
He patted his pocket. “I’m a computer man, Demarco. Always have been. The right lines of code in the right place can do wonders to win a little trust with the machine.”
“Even when it’s not deserved.”
“Especially when it’s not deserved.” He swallowed hard, and sweat glinted on his brow in the moonlight. The gun shook almost imperceptibly in his hand. “I’m sorry, Demarco,” he said.
“It is what it is,” I said.
He raised his gun again.
Then, with his other hand, he powered up a stunstick and jammed it into my gut.
The ground rushed up to hit me, and everything went black.
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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