Richard Ruiz leaned against the railing at the top of the world and stared up at the false sun above. The harsh light played across his features, softening the creases of age and sharpening the color in his brown eyes. Like this, it was easy to see the resemblance between this man and the young man in Violet Ruiz’s photograph. I should have seen it before.
“The job was bad from the start,” he said. “I should have seen how it would go, but the price was too good. The challenge was too tempting.”
“You had a buyer for the Garden of Earthly Delights.”
“It was Vitez’s job from the start, and Vitez had the contact. We were supposed to drop it off on the moon and be done with it. From there, we could collect or money and fly to the stars at our leisure. We’d live our lives out on a colony planet in luxury.”
“A fine plan if you weren’t married.”
“Violet was supposed to meet us on the moon.” He finally looked away from the bright sun to focus on me. “She knew every backup plan. I sent her the signal telling her where to meet when things went south. By then, I suppose it didn’t matter.”
“Tell me what happened, Ruiz. Why did this job go sour?”
“All we had to do was hit the transport flights. We had a ship to do the intercept, and with Violet’s help we had the math to make it click. Only, at the last minute I find there’s a decoy. There was a second flight loaded it with forgeries. When I told Violet to redo the numbers, she was upset. Almost abandoned the whole job.”
“Why would she be upset?”
“We were targeting the decoy, according to my source, but the same source hadn’t mentioned before that there was going to be a decoy. That kind of silence erodes trust, you know?” Ruiz strolled counterclockwise around the center railing, and I followed. With a wave of his hand, Trinity increased the tint of the overhead dome and the light became somewhat bearable. “Everybody knew the risk, but things kept getting worse.”
“Did you know Vitez was a forger?”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “Not at the time. Would have been good information to have though, don’t you think?”
“That’s the kind of thing that erodes trust.”
“You fed Vitez the new trajectories, but still ended up at the decoy ship?”
“I was fooled right up until he panicked about our docking time. That was his ploy to hide the difference in the intercept window. The decoy ship had a later window, and we were all synced up at that point. So, he docks us with the ship—which he had to have known was the wrong one—and the rest of the job went south.”
“Why didn’t you call it off?”
“He was our pilot. Once he had us in the air, we were at his mercy. I figured it was best if we picked up the forged goods and waited until we landed to confront the guy. He had other plans.”
“They involved murdering you.”
“Only he didn’t count on our tough guy Hector being so explosively violent.” Ruiz smiled at that. “Anyway, we got the first panel out easy enough. It was a solid forgery. Soon as I saw it I doubted myself. Maybe Vitez got us to the right place after all.”
I remember what Maurice Ribar had told me about the safe. “It was the wrong safe.”
Ruiz raised an eyebrow. “Was it? Ribar never made a lot of sense to me, to tell the truth, but I wish he had said something. Finally, Vitez gave in and called for the cut and run. I think his plan all along was to convince one of us to back out. Get someone else to abort the mission so that it didn’t look like he had anything to do with the failure.”
If Ribar had called everything off, then nobody got murdered and nobody got paid. He would crash the decoy transport, making it look like all that art was destroyed. “So, Vitez must have had another team hijacking the other transport.”
“You met Vitez. Does he seem like the type to trust another team to cut him in if he’s not there to supervise?”
“If there wasn’t a second team, then how was Vitez expecting to get paid?”
“That’s one mystery I’ve never been able to figure out. Maybe he just picked the wrong transport. Got outsmarted.”
“You, Maurice Ribar, and Hector Chance got the first panel aboard your transport before Chance got shot. What happened after that?”
“Chance was in a bad way. Gutshot. Bleeding.” Ribar got a far-off look. “He had kids, you know. He was the only one of us who had a family. Grandkids, even.” He drew a deep breath. “He asked us to look after them, and I promised I’d do my best. Do you ever feel like your best isn’t all that great, Demarco? Maybe like your best is a bucket of shit.”
“All the time.”
“Chance was on his way out. Vitez had betrayed us. Ribar must have known something was wrong, but he stayed in his own little world. Once we got that panel onto the ship, I was supposed to go back for the next one, but I didn’t. Instead, I went up front to confront Vitez. By that time I knew he had more to his plan than to hoodwink us with the forgery.”
“Why the forgery, then?”
“Hell if I know.”
I grabbed his shoulder and stopped him from walking so I could look him right in the eyes. “What do you mean you don’t know? All this time and you haven’t figured out why he would put forgeries on a decoy ship if he was just planning on murdering you? It seems like a big mystery to leave unanswered when the man with those answers sat around in the lap of luxury just down the street.”
He wouldn’t meet my gaze. “It wasn’t something I wanted the answer to. Some questions—”
“Did you kill him?”
He blinked rapidly and took a step back. Shock, if ever I’d seen it. “Why would I do that?”
“You cut him bad last night. Gutted him and slashed his neck. What did you find out, Ruiz? I know you went back there. What did he tell you that got you so upset you killed him?”
Ruiz shoved me away. “Vitez was an asshole and he betrayed me, but I didn’t kill him.”
“He ruined your life. Tore you from Earth, stole your chance at a retirement job, and ripped you from your wife. You’d have to be a damn saint not to hurt him if you had the chance.”
“I’ve had the chance!” Ruiz’s voice echoed off the dome. “I’ve had the chance a hundred times and I’ve never took it. There’s a million ways I could kill him without anyone ever taking notice. I’m excommunicated, remember? Trinity doesn’t care what I do to correct the problems of this station. If I decided that Trey Vitez’s continued existence was a threat to community stability, then he’d be a dead man and I would face absolutely no consequences. Why would I go in during an auction and slash the guy’s throat if I could do it any other time, cleanly and without any problems?”
“Rage,” I said quietly. “Trey Vitez was killed by someone who hated him. With passion and fury. What did he say to you?”
Now it was my turn to shout. “What did he tell you?”
Fury boiled under the old man’s skin, but he kept his lips closed tight until it passed. “We fought on the ship after the job. Shook things up bad, and Vitez had to tell Ribar that reentry had started. Vitez tossed me into an airlock and hit the cycle sequence, but when he went back to piloting, I was able to override his commands. I already had root access to the ship, so countering his actions wasn’t hard. I thought about killing him then. That, I’ll admit.” His shoulders slumped. “I was afraid. I couldn’t fly the ship. Whoever he was working with probably would have killed me.”
“Is that when you went into hibernation?”
Ruiz looked up at me, sadness in his eyes. “I never did. All those years. It was the prison I deserved, alone in the vast expanse of space. Ribar and Vitez didn’t find me on the ship. I heard them debate about landing on the moon or escaping to the stars. They even thought about landing directly on Earth, but their ship was never designed for that kind of abuse. They never would have survived. Ultimately, they decided to follow the backup plan, heading out to Nicodemia where they could start a new life. Ribar wasn’t happy about it.”
“He’s not doing too bad down in the Heavies,” I said, calm now.
“I visit him sometimes. He doesn’t know it, but I like to help him out.”
“It’s nice to have a man walking around in the dark for you,” I said.
“How did you manage to get excommunicated when you arrived?”
Ruiz drew a tablet from his pocket. “I told you, this is a maintenance routine. It lets an engineer sit outside the normal permissions infrastructure. It’s just a matter of spoofing the right trust level.” On the screen, he scrolled through lines of code until he found what he wanted. “With some program routines I brought from Earth this wasn’t such a hard hack. It’d be difficult to manage with the resources available on ship, but I had no trouble at all.”
“Do I need to worry about anyone else spoofing this access?”
“I doubt it.” He pushed a button. The dome above darkened further, and a rain of code displayed on it as if it were a giant screen. The code cleared away to reveal one huge sentence.
Reconcile Jude Demarco?
“Are you ready to rejoin society, Mr. Demarco?” Ruiz asked.
“I’ve got more questions.”
“It’s crowded here in the dark,” Ruiz said. “Starting to be a bit of a pain when there are too many people wandering around. Your help has been a real pain lately.”
“Why have you been following me? Are you working for Frank Lauder?”
“Frank Lauder doesn’t know how much he’s disrupting the established power structure of the Heavies. He thinks he’s arranging for a hostile takeover of the district, but really what he’s doing is making the district ripe for takeover.” Ruiz’s finger hovered over a button on his tablet. “Right now what I need is for you to be out of the way.”
“Who burned the Garden of Earthly Delight?”
Ruiz hesitated. “What?”
And that’s when I slugged him. My fist connected hard with his jaw, sending a spray of blood through the green-lit air. I brought a chop down at his hand, trying to knock the screen free, but he recovered faster than I expected and drew back.
I kept close, crowding him back, and swinging furiously. He ducked and dodged.
Then, he struck back. A fist flew past my nonexistent defenses to slam into my gut. He stepped past and elbowed hard at my kidney. Pain raged through the side of my body, dropping me to one knee. I pushed through it, throwing a block back behind me as I turned. It worked, deflecting another swing of his fist. He couldn’t fight properly with the console in his hand.
So, I helped him with that. I took his wrist in one hand and squeezed, twisting until he couldn’t maintain his grip. The little screen dropped, it’s flashing Reconcile dropping to black as it struck the floor.
The move left me open on the right, and he used the opportunity to land a series of hard strikes to the side of my head. Lights flashed behind my eyes. Pain burned. His wrist twisted out of my grip, and he reached for the screen.
Too slow. I kicked out at the device, and it slid across the floor, stopping teetering on the edge of the hole in the center of the room.
“Not so special without your fancy toys, are you?” I asked, spitting blood.
“You’re a goddamn fool, Demarco. You deserve what’s coming.”
He dove for the screen, but I tackled him, using my bulk to fling him across the room. He slammed into the wall, his head smacking hard. It had to hurt, but didn’t slow him at all. With a deft maneuver he rolled me off, launched himself in the low gravity, and grabbed my arm.
“Jujitsu,” he said. “Pretty rare that it comes in handy, but it sure is nice when it does.”
He had the position on me, and he had a decent lock, but I was much bigger than him and significantly stronger. Instead of fighting his lock, I moved my whole body into it, lifting him.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Demarco.”
“You attacked me.”
I put a surge of strength under me, shifting him up and back. In response, he placed more pressure onto my joint, and my tendons screamed in protest. He had me. “Seems we’re at an impasse.”
He breathed hard. “You need to give up. You could say it right now and Trinity would let you reconcile.”
“It would,” I said, “but what’s keeping me from getting excommunicated again?”
“You can’t go back. Not without help.”
I drew a deep breath, centering myself and steeling my resolve. Reconciling with Trinity meant forgiving myself for what I’d done that day my parents died. It meant taking the first step on the path toward forgiveness for what I’d done to my sister and all those people who might have survived if the ship’s coupling had held.
But what if it hadn’t? If I hadn’t disengaged and the supports had failed, how many people would have died in Nicodemia? How much of Nicodemia’s resources would be lost into the void? What kind of cascading failure would have happened. Legends told of the generation ships that didn’t make it. Final broadcasts told of hull failures and collapsing resources. Even with the seven layers of liminal space, the hulls were vulnerable. Space was a cruel master.
“Trinity,” I said, my voice low and serious.
“Jude Demarco,” said a voice from all around. It was trinity’s Hallows voice, which rang like the bells of angels. “Do you wish to reconcile?”
When I didn’t answer immediately, Ruiz tightened his grip. Pain lanced down my arm.
I closed my eyes and pictured those final moments as the ship tore away from the station, inertial force carrying it far past the coupling. Maybe I had done the right thing. Maybe I could be forgiven for it. Someday.
With every bit of strength I had left, I heaved upward. Something tore in my elbow, but I reached up and around to grab Ruiz with my right hand, lifting him high into the air. His face was a mask of fear and rage.
“Catch,” I said to Trinity, and I threw Ruiz as hard as I could.
His feet struck the railing on his way over, and he spun head over heels as he dropped over the edge. The vibration from his hit rattled the railing, and the screen wobbled. Tipped.
I dove for it, biting back the pain in my injured elbow.
My hand closed on air. Ruiz’s screen fell into the city below.
As the tablet fell the entire height of Hallow Nicodemia, a hundred questions ran through my head. If Ruiz hadn’t burned the painting, then who? Who murdered Trey Vitez?
I stuck my head over the ledge and watched the device flutter through the flying traffic. Ruiz was gone. Either fallen out of sight below or, more likely, captured by the rescue drones. The problem of what to do about him was something that I’d have to deal with later. If he hadn’t killed Vitez, who did?
Only one answer made everything fit. I didn’t like it for two reasons. The second was that it meant I needed to hurry if I wanted to save Maurice Ribar’s life. He was the last of the thieves to survive, at least of those known to be alive. Even if Ruiz survived the fall, he didn’t count so long as I didn’t spill his little secret.
But Ribar? He was a good man. He was decent person who had moved on from his life of crime. He didn’t deserve the death headed his way. If I wanted to save him, I needed to run faster than I’d ever run before. There was only one reason Maurice Ribar hadn’t been murdered already, which brought me back to the first reason that I didn’t like this answer.
Charlotte Beck didn’t want me to know she was the killer.
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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