Beck stepped through the double bulkhead doors that would soon separate the entryway from the rest of the ship. To the sides, the two other doors still stood open, ready to shut when the big one finally closed. Behind me, the massive outer shell of Nicodemia prepared to seal the final airlock by moving smoothly into position. Maurice leaned against the Mercury airlock door. His bleeding had slowed, but sweat beaded on his pale brow.
I took Beck’s hands in mine, trying my best not to wince at the pain in my burnt skin. “You’ve had your revenge.” Warmth flowed from her fingers and I longed to pull her close. “You can go on Violet’s ship to whatever the next colony is, and when you get there you can make a new life for yourself. You can move on and become the person you think your parents might have wanted you to become.” I swallowed my own emotions. “You can even be better than that if you want.”
Her eyes searched mine. “Come with, Demarco.” She bit her lip. “Jude.”
Tempting. We could travel the galaxy. Visit strange and wonderful places. Something deep in my chest twisted at the idea of spending my nights in her arms and my days by her side. I could leave behind the endless slog of Nicodemia. No more would Trinity’s judgment weigh me down. Crush my soul. I could leave behind everything that I hated so much about this broken city.
“Nicodemia is my broken city,” I said. “It always will be. I live and breathe this place from its darkest corners to its brightest heights. I am this city and this city is me. I’ll never leave.” When I saw the question lingering on her lips, I continued. “And you can never stay here.”
She let go of my hands and took a step back. Her eyes searched mine.
“I can’t help but think about McCay,” I said. “He was innocent. A go-between, who didn’t have a clue about this whole art ring. Now he’s dead. If it hadn’t been for Retch’s theft, I might not even have known about him.” Where was Retch, anyway? I shot a glance at the side exits leading from the foyer, but there was no sign. The dots connected in my head. “But you knew that, didn’t you? You were the one who convinced Retch to steal from McCay as a way of flushing Ruiz out of the woodwork. I can only imagine your surprise when I showed up instead.
“I kept thinking, who would off a guy who just wanted to trick his way into the upper reaches of society? What ambition could this guy have had that might put him on the wrong side of the gangsters and thugs of our district? He had his drugs, but I checked. Those drugs were harmless and not particularly valuable. Lauder’s gang had access to a decent supply of painkillers, so why worry about McCay’s supply? And he had been doing his best for years to stay under the radar. The man wasn’t dangerous to anyone.”
Beck’s expression hardened.
“Then in occurred to me. McCay was in the way. When I told you I couldn’t work for you because I already had a job, you went and eliminated that job.”
“You never stopped when McCay died.”
“No, I didn’t. That’s how I am, isn’t it? But you didn’t know that at the time. You thought killing McCay would get me to help you faster, given that you had a limited amount of time to get your job done before Violet Ruiz gave up and left with your ride. You made it look like a random robbery when you stole McCay’s gun, and hey, that gun came in handy.”
“So you say.” She took another step back, as if wary of me. On the floor, Lauder let out another moan and shifted. The ship boomed as it shifted to another phase of its slow lockdown process.
“Then I got thinking. Why me? Why work so hard to get my help in this whole business? Was there some reason you couldn’t hire someone else to be your guide through the city or was there a reason you wanted me in particular?” I paused as the disengage alarm blared a warning. “You knew I was Wilson Demarco’s son. You knew I was meant to be his successor and if he was dead, you wanted me close so you could kill me as well. Revenge demanded its price.”
“Your father was a terrible man.” Her voice lacked any conviction, but her words still stung. “He drove the entire operation, funding everything and creating all of the right conditions for an art thievery ring that spanned several solar systems. He was the cause of my father’s murder as sure as any of those other bastards.” She paused, stepping back from the bulkhead. “But I couldn’t kill you. You lay helpless in that bed, and I couldn’t do it. You mean too much to me Jude. You always will.”
“A part of you still wanted to plunge that knife in my heart.”
“I can change.”
“Goodbye, Charlotte,” I said. “Go be a different person if you can, but don’t come back here.”
She looked at me with those big blue eyes. With a blink, she saw right through me down to the bruised and broken core of by torn up soul. Her lips parted slightly, and her words of redemption hung from the tip of her tongue, ready to be loosed into the world. One dark apology was all it took. All she had to do was step forward and I’d forgive her. I felt it in my heart.
Then, the big gate closed, and Charlotte Beck was gone.
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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