I woke to a sound like chattering geese. Voices swirled through the fog of my addled brain, sickening me. I turned to one side and wretched hard, producing nothing of substance. A crust on my suit coat and the taste in my mouth told me it wasn’t the first time I’d suffered that reaction. Common thing after getting hit with a stunstick.
Shit. The stunstick.
The preceding events flooded back into my head. The stranger. Beck. Vitez. I needed to do something, but the details slipped from my brain like sand through fingers.
Shrubbery surrounded me. The stranger must have dumped me in the thicket before leaving. How long had I been out? It felt like days.
Darkness wrapped the hazy garden, and the moons had only moved a fraction of their journey across the false sky. Ten minutes? An hour? My whole body ached.
Stunsticks are like a kick to the organs, only the kick hits every organ simultaneously. The heart stutters and lungs flail. A person’s lucky to avoid a full release of the bowels in all relevant directions. I was lucky except for the vomit.
As I sat up in the hedge and cleaned myself as best I could, the final effect of the stunstick hit me, and it was the worst of them all.
It is the profound effect of the modern stunstick that a person begins upon the long spiral of self doubt. What had I done to put myself in that postion? What kind of fool had I been? Most people live their whole lives without experiencing the gut-twisting agony of a stunstick. Why wasn’t that me? What would it be like to be married, hold a regular job, and accrue karma like a good citizen of Nicodemia.
The stranger’s words returned. He thought I wasn’t being punished? He was a damn fool. Trinity didn’t need me any more than I needed Trinity. We were separate. Excommunication works both ways, after all. Neither talked to the other. Neither gave a damn.
But I did give a damn. I’d help the citizens of this damn ark till the day it crashed into the sun. I’d answer questions for people—hard questions—because they needed answering.
The painting wasn’t in Vitez’s basement. I was sure of it. That question had been answered.
Almost wasn’t good enough. Doubt crept down my spine like a bad memory. Giving up on my fancy coat and shirt, I stripped down to an undershirt and pants. It was a rough look, resembling Frank Lauder’s thugs down in Heavy Nicodemia. My bowler went, too. A bowler was a chump’s hat, and I’d had enough feeling like a chump for one night.
I emerged from the hedge when the coast was clear. Flowing clusters of chattering guests migrated from one end of the garden to the other, taking in the artistry of the exceptionally maintained space. Branches scratched at my bare arms, but I pushed through anyway. No use slowing down. Once through, I paused to get my bearings. The auction must have only recently stopped, because the bulk of the crowd was still reluctant to leave the grounds. That made my job easy.
The guard at the entrance recognized me. “Mr. Demarco,” he said in his reedy voice. “We’re currently ushering guests into the garden for a toast.”
“I’ll be just a minute,” I rasped, brushing past him. “Need to use the facilities.” The words tasted strange on my numb lips.
They must have sounded odd to the guard, too, because he signaled a couple of his buddies with a flick of one finger.
Elbowing backwards through the flowing crowd, I ducked to avoid them, but it didn’t last. The crowd thinned quickly, and in the open room I had nothing to do but talk or run.
“What the hell am I doing?” I muttered to myself. It was one thing to sneak into an auction as a spy. Quite another thing to push past guards and run even when they said to stop.
And the guards said it pretty damn loud. A petite woman with short-cropped black hair and a stocky man with two gigantic ham hocks where he ought to have had fists approached. They didn’t bother with niceties as they shoved guests aside, which surprised me. They meant business.
I ran full out, leaping the barrier between the auction room and the starlit hallways beyond. Sprinting, I rounded the corner at full speed, almost crashed into a pedestal holding an expensive-looking vase, and spun full circle to avoid an errant waiter who looked almost as stunned as I’d felt only a few minutes prior.
By the time I was a dozen steps past the waiter, I plunged into the cold darkness of Trinity’s staunch disapproval. Blackness engulfed me, even as it retreated for the guards who followed. I ducked down a side hall, careful not to make too much noise. The guards rushed past.
Black wrapped around me like a blanket. Fine, maybe this wasn’t so bad, but the harsh darkness still felt like punishment. Feeling my way forward, I located the door Vitez had taken us through to reach the museum below. It opened for me, and I carefully stepped onto the stone spiral stairs.
Security was designed around automation and Trinity’s watchful eye, which meant I could walk in undeterred, but so could the stranger if he was still around.
I pushed open the double door leading into the first museum chamber, the one with the impressionist paintings. Light flooded through, blinding me with a piercing white. That’s not how I remember it. The lights had been pleasant. Perfect for viewing art, and even going so far as to emulate the color spectra most favorable to each piece. With the lights all on, I could see into other sections of the museum. A few steps forward, and the whole place lay out before me, sectioned loosely into rooms by the heavy arches, but in truth the entire museum was one large space.
The lights must have been Beck’s doing, because it made the task of searching for the Garden of Earthly Delight simple. Standing at the top of the stone stairs, I could see it standing in the center of its own room in the far corner. The space had been cleared around it, and a single spotlight shone on it from above. A haze settled in that room, suspending the painting as if in a cloud.
I blinked hard and shook my head to clear it. I had been wrong. Vitez had fooled me with his reaction. The painting was there, clear as broad daylight. Then why had he acted as if he’d lost it?
Something was on the floor in front of the painting, so I descended the stairs to see what it was. As I got closer, a lump of dread rose in my throat. The shape was a crumpled mess, like someone had tossed a rag doll aside and left it in the middle of the floor.
Only, it wasn’t a doll.
The body lay prostrate in front of the painting, so I couldn’t tell who it was until I was up close. My stun-addled sense of smell told me the fog was a lingering alcohol haze, but that couldn’t be right. Whatever it was, it flowed from somewhere behind the painting. By the time I arrived at the painting, the fog had nearly enveloped the body.
Bending down close, without touching the corpse, I peered at the side of the body’s face. Blood covered his features and pooled under him. A knife wound on his neck ran all the way up the side of his face, almost severing the ear. I circled around to the other side to see if I could get a better angle.
And I would be the number one suspect if I wasn’t careful.
There were two suspects as far as I could figure. If Vitez had woken and threatened Beck, she might have reacted poorly. I bent down and peered at the wound, despite everything in my body telling me how wrong it was. This was an angry strike. The kind of attack born of hatred and fury. If Vitez had threatened Beck—even if he had surprised her—she would have reacted in a controlled manner. That’s what Beck did.
The memory of her face when she had faced Vitez earlier flashed in front of me. Where had that anger come from?
The stranger could have killed Vitez. He had admitted to knowing the man. Vitez thought he had been followed for weeks. If he’d come here to assassinate Vitez, why would he wait until we were here to do it?
To frame me.
Dread in my belly threatened to choke me, but I forced myself to take in the scene. This was one question I wouldn’t get to return to, and I needed answers.
The painting. Here it was, the third panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights, displayed in all its hellish glory. I stood in front of it and studied the image, keeping clear of Vitez’s body. Lingering fog licked at my feet.
This piece was darker than the other two thirds that I had seen in Ruiz’s ship. It featured the hideous depictions of an afterlife earned by the pleasures of the mortal flesh. Human bodies, hollowed and suffering, housed the sorrowful few. Creatures consumed naked flesh, swallowing whole the pale damned. The abstract monsters writhed around the painting. Knives with ears and dogs devoured a knight. In the background, the broken ruins of a city burned.
For a long time, I couldn’t shake myself from feeling that maybe this was us. Here, in the afterlife of Earth, we lived in a garden of earthly delight, living out the suffering brought by the debauchery of the revelers of our past. Here we were, devoured by each other, consumed by the city in the heavens. This was our fate, to wander in the dark forever, lost in our suffering.
I don’t know how long I stood there taking it all in. Minutes. Maybe more. The guards would come soon, and I needed to be gone.
The fog swirled higher around my feet. Bending down, I took another whiff. Alcohol. Maybe something related. Methanol? I didn’t know my chemicals very well, but the fog only lingered in that section of the gallery. The ventilation system sucked it away as soon as it neared the edges of that particular room. But why? Was the fog part of the display? Something strange with how Vitez preserved old paintings? That didn’t make any sense. In all my years following my father’s work with art, I had never heard of anything like that. I circled around the painting to see where the source of the fog was.
That’s when I saw the bomb.
A canister leaked thick fog. On the side sat a red striped box. The pressure of the releasing gas kept a switch open. That would be the trigger. Close the canister, and the circuit closes. It would also close when the canister ran out of gas.
Which could be soon.
I didn’t dare move the device. The fog must be flammable, and interference would ignite it.
The question spun in my head. If Beck had done this—no, she wanted to steal the painting. She’d never burn it. Again, it must be the stranger. He was working for Frank Lauder. Why would Lauder want this painting destroyed?
Footsteps sounded from the stairs, but when I looked up all I saw was half of a faded image on the back of the painting. When the triptych was complete, the left panel would close to form a full image, and what I saw there struck me in the solar plexus, driving me back a step.
There was no time to process it, because there was a bomb at my feet. Any touch might set it off. The contact of the switch was hidden behind clear casing. If I could get the casing off without setting off the spark, maybe it would be possible to slip something in between the contacts.
The footsteps approached. Muffled voices carried off the high museum ceiling. I had seconds at best, even hidden behind the painting.
I checked my pockets. I had my music rig and a lighter. Nothing that resembled the tools needed to open the bomb. Nothing at all.
The painting stood before me, rooted in place by mechanical arms embedded in the hard floor. If I couldn’t stop the bomb, then I needed to move the painting. For that, I would need help.
I stepped out from behind the painting, hands raised. The two guards who had chased me circled the room, guns drawn. They would have found me in seconds anyway.
“Don’t move!” shouted the woman.
“We need to move this painting,” I said.
The man’s aim didn’t waver. “Hands behind your head.” The twitching muscle in his neck told that he was serious.
My hands edged toward the back of my head and I took a step away from the painting. “All I want is for this painting moved,” I said, “on account of the bomb.”
The woman scrunched her nose at that, sniffing the fog. She got it. Taking a few steps to one side, she peered behind me at the bomb. “Um, Max?”
“Step over here,” said Max.
I stepped forward. “It’s going to go any second. We need to save the painting.”
But as I stepped forward, the fog shifted and Max got a good look at the body. He took several steps back and his aim wavered. “Is that…”
“I didn’t do this, Max. We need to move this painting or it’s going to burn when the bomb goes off.” I spoke with the calmest voice I could manage. “Help me out, here, then I’ll come quietly.”
The woman didn’t holster her weapon. “What do you care about a painting?”
“This is more than just a painting,” I said. “This is the heritage of our humanity. It’s the ugly truth of Christianity’s hell and it’s a piece that revolutionized art through the ages with its gruesome, abstract depictions of suffering. This painting is one third of something staggeringly great and it’s worth more than a hundred August Saviors. The art of humanity through the ages is a collection of our ability to rise above our filthy day-to-day lives.” I indicated the threatened painting. “This painting is worth my life and yours, and when we’re dead and gone it’ll be worth the lives of anyone who comes after. This ugly thing has a thousand years of history and if we can move it right now it’ll have a thousand more.”
Finally, the woman holstered her weapon and took a step forward into the fog.
“Michelle!” said Max.
“Keep him in your sights.” To me, she said, “Get that side and lift.”
She took the other side and between the two of us we dislodged the massive frame from where the clamps held it in place.
It snagged on on clamp. I tried to force it, but the piece lodged in harder. Swearing didn’t help, though I tried.
“Twist it that way,” I said, casting a nervous glance at the bomb. Gas still hissed from its top.
“Back toward me,” Michelle said. She pulled and I pushed, but the clamp held. “Max, get over here and break the clamp.”
“Get over here!”
Max didn’t move. He kept his gun pointed at me.
“Max,” I said. “You know what your boss would want. He loved his art more than anything. Enough to steal it. Enough to forge fakes to give away so that he could keep the originals. He loved it with everything he knew, and if you ever want to work in this town again you’ll respect that love. It’s the kind of loyalty people in this town expect from the help. Every single day.”
“Fine,” Max said.
The hissing stopped.
It’s not easy coming across enough flammable substances aboard a space station to create a decent bomb. Oxygen is prevalent and available, but a fuel is always needed to supplement anything that might be more dangerous than a flash of light and a gentle wave of heat. For that, a bomb needs something that burns hot and loud. Those substances are controlled tighter than any drug, any weapon, or any political belief. The fact that the bomb existed at all was a miracle. That it worked, even more so. Still, compromises had been made. The explosive potential of most available substances was low, but there were still chemical combinations that might generate some heat. This was nothing like the true explosive potential of bombs found on Earth, but at the cost of speed and concussive blast, they could be no less destructive.
That was why I almost had enough time to get Michelle and myself free from the blast when the bomb exploded.
I barreled into Michelle, carrying both of us out, away from the fog. Behind us, a flash of light flared with the white-hot phosphorescent glow of the center of a star. It seared across my back, flashing through my hair and biting naked flesh.
My body blocked Michelle from the brunt of it. The initial flash wave was followed by a low, slow burn like the embers of a dying flame.
Michelle shoved me, and I collapsed onto my back. I didn’t want to look. I couldn’t look. I had to look.
The painting was gone, devoured by the flame. The last remnants crumbled from the grip of the clamps, tumbling down on top of the dead and burning Trey Vitez.
The three of us sat wide-eyed for a solid minute, unsure of how to proceed.
Pain stretched across the exposed flesh of my shoulders and back.
Michelle pushed herself to her feet. “Go.” Max made a move to protest, but she cut him off. “If he stays, we’ll have to detain him. If we detain him, we’ll need to get the police involved.”
I said, “If the police are involved, they’ll want to see what’s down here.” They would need to be involved anyway, once the record show Savior’s death.”
“We can’t just let the guy go,” Max protested.
Michelle helped me up. “He’s right. Mr. Savior cared about this art more than anything. If we fail that, then we’re sunk in this town.”
Max grudgingly holstered his weapon. “Go on, then. Michelle will show you the way out.”
She led me to a back exit, where a hallway led several buildings away from the castle to a small, fortified outbuilding. I stepped through the screen of a hedge to be greeted by the double moons low in the false sky.
“I’m sorry,” I said as Michelle left, but I don’t think she was as devastated as I was.
The Garden of Earthly Delight was gone. Burned to nothing. Destroyed. My mission was a failure. It was all I could do to stumble to the gilded pub in the analog of Rory’s Ramshackle, where I found Beck waiting in her gorgeous red dress: a flash of color in the bleak blue light of the double moon. I collapsed into the booth across from her, buried my face in my hands, and wept.
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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