The Man in Window Three by Darren Speegle [sci-fi]

The Man in Window Three by Darren Speegle

Art imitating life? Veins had to stifle a laugh at the thought. He couldn’t believe he was actually here, on display, occupying window three of Vileci’s famous Stations of Vitruvian da Vinci. That a vagabond like Veins should assume one of the twelve poses of Icon’s most highly regarded and valuable work of art was more than ironic—it was bizarre.

The idea had come to Veins when his friend Turtle returned from a week in incarceration bearing news of a roundup. Turtle and another man had been going through out-processing when they overhead an officer in an adjoining room talking over the com about it. It seemed the operation was going to be the most substantial of its kind in years, in anticipation of the arrival of the Fveldan czar on Icon. Not only did Turtle obtain the what, he also got the when, which set the wheels in Veins’s head spinning. Knowledge like that, he told the Four Block gang, could not be allowed to go to waste. Sebastian had made the observation that avoiding a roundup could hardly be considered a waste, but he was the youngest and so easily forgiven his naiveté.

The idea had begun to spread petals almost upon the moment of its birth. Veins was the one among the close-knit band of six who could see beyond the inevitabilities to action. Yes, the space station Icon, population exceeding two million already, was in a continuous state of construction, and yes, as long as the port swam with indigents to be rounded up for what amounted to slave labor, the authorities would continue to do so. However, alternatives to that fate could and must be created. Whenever he used the E word, they laughed at him, spurting their mantra about the insanely expensive cost of passage off Icon and the impossibility of stowing away, with the level of dock security as it was. He might have grown hopeless having to remind them over and over again that had fools not dreamed their dreams, mankind would still be carrying clubs. Instead, their fatalist speak kept him lucid and alert. He knew in the end it must be Escape.

Wielding his background in chemical science—a career path that had been cut short by ethical considerations—Veins managed to convince the gang to help him break into the built-in exhibit while the roundup was in progress. As convenient as the diversion was, it by no means solved all the problems associated with a bold scheme like this. In order to remove the contents of window three, which Veins had concluded was the one part of the display where the scheme could crystallize, the power flowing there had to be cut off. Ultimately, a guard had to be captured and interrogated. They learned enough from her to know that the power source was independent, which played into their hands perfectly.

When it was shut down, a sort of whine escaped the hominotron it fed, as if the thing were cognizant of its own submersion into torpor. Veins took its place without hesitation, the drugs in his body neutralizing the juice it was imperative his friends let flow again. In deep space, chemical power was cheapest and easiest, but it was also, by nature, susceptible to counteraction. The question was, would the lie sell? Would his skin shimmer to the satisfaction of the looker? Would his movements convince the eye of that inhuman perfection that characterized automatons? Would his eyes tell tales? It all remained to be seen.

The first bay in the three-kilometer stretch of Icon’s port was the one set aside for visitors of highest distinction—hence the presence of Vileci’s masterpiece. The twelve windows in which the Stations were sequentially depicted ran along one wall, number three being directly across the broad naked pad from a larger-than-life hologram of da Vinci himself, for whom Icon’s galactic museum was named. To one side of the hologram was a rotating image of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, while on the other was a sketch of the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius. Veins watched the images through eyes that were not supposed to see, wondering when someone would show up, putting his act to the test. Before disappearing with the others, Turtle had assured him none of the dock hands or security personnel would give him a second glance. It was the next ship into port—precisely what they were waiting on—that he should worry about, particularly if its occupants had never experienced Vileci’s work of art. Veins knew he was right, but it wouldn’t hurt his confidence to have even a disinterested audience.

As if manufactured by his thoughts, a uniformed janitor, broom in hand, emerged from a door in the opposite wall. The gray man glanced right and left as if to assure himself that he was the only one in the cavernous bay, then he lifted a foot and stepped right through the da Vinci hologram. Veins kept his amusement within, watching with the blind eyes of a dummy. The broom began to work, briskly, moving bits of nothing around in spaces already addressed by low-suction ventilation. It was as though the sweeper’s vocation was to be a reminder of old Earth. And yet everything about him, not least his playfulness, precluded his being a robot.

Meanwhile, we docksiders starve and share shipping boxes for homes, thought Veins. He had of course seen janitors about the docks, but he had never really observed them. Something about this one sang of absence of purpose, absence of…illusions. Hadn’t Veins himself hired on for cleaning duty, only in other, more needy places? He wondered if he was suited for looking at the world through a window.

The janitor glanced up suddenly, finding Veins across the cold slab of the bay floor. Veins lowered his head, lifted it again, lowered it, lifted it… It is doneIt is doneIt is done

The janitor approached, broom bristles trailing along the floor, the squeak of his rubber soles on the glassy-smooth surface saluting the bay’s sharp acoustics. When he stood in front of window three, he stared directly at its occupant’s eyes, which remained in a fixed position as Veins performed the repetitive motion over the otherwise immobile cruciform of his body. For a moment, Veins thought the other might attempt to plunge a hand through the glistening security field to touch him. He wondered if this fellow longed to leave Icon too. In that second in the revolution when their eyes made contact, Veins was certain he detected a void beneath the mixture of suspicion and expectancy. He submerged himself in that amorphous, disturbingly familiar emptiness as a substitute for fear of discovery. Soon, the janitor’s expression yielded to a shadow and he turned away. Window three could do no more for him than he could do for it. It perhaps had glowed with life for a moment, but that moment was gone.

The inertia resumed for the bay in general. As the man drifted out to the periphery of his periodic forward vision, Veins considered a possibility that the captured guard had confirmed to be less than slim—that the bay would remain empty until the next scheduled arrival of two days hence. In that awful event, the Fveldan czar would be looking upon the eleven of the Stations of Vitruvian da Vinci because Veins would have since collapsed. He chided himself for his imagination. He should be pleased; his first test had proved a confrontational one, and he had passed it without event.

A male voice came from the rear of the bay, where the janitor had slipped from view. Veins resisted the impulse to glance that way, homing in on the words instead of their source. His control paid off, for the speaker walked as he talked. When the speaker came into view, enough had been said to render Veins surprised to find the janitor holding the com.

“Welcome to Icon, Sirus. Leonardo opens his arms to you. Object one is disabled, object two is currently abandoned as forecast. The bay itself is empty. Remain sheathed. Repeat, Sirus, remain sheathed until you are in the lock. No need to revert to secondary plan. Your approach has gone undetected. Leonardo opens his arms to you.”

Veins didn’t know what to make of this strange development. Who were these people who had dared approach the station invisibly? Whatever they had in mind, surely it could only aid the Four Block crew. Veins laid aside all other designs, poising for the moment. The com hovered in the janitor’s hand, as if he considered saying more, then he hooked the device to his belt and strode towards the portal, which would open when the ship was in-lock and air generation complete.

It occurred to Veins that a third party had to be controlling the portals, or else the ship would not be able to dock. Since the janitor’s back was to him, and obviously the bay wasn’t currently being surveilled by human eye, he risked a glance up at the control station, some twelve meters aloft. Sure enough, someone moved within. The protruding enclosure had been as vacant as the rest of the bay when Veins took his position in window three.

The portal opened, revealing a small, sleek craft easily identified as a Sifter, manufactured right here on Icon. The vessel remained in the lock instead of entering, its opaque black shield concealing its cockpit. With his limited vision, Veins experienced what followed in intermittent frames. At a gesture from the janitor, the door opened and two persons, darkly clad and hurried, stepped out. One appeared to be the pilot, the other, judging by his bearing, master of the situation.

“I can’t stand this cold, inorganic place,” the latter told the janitor. “It’s worse than being in the Sifter. I’ll be glad to be out of here as quickly as possible.”

“The Boor is in place?” said the janitor.

“It is. They’d better be cutting through the wall as we speak. How long now?”

The janitor gestured up at the control station. A woman’s voice called down: “Twenty-five minutes.”

Cutting through the wall? thought Veins. Twenty-five minutes? It struck him with the force of a hammer. These people were here for the Vileci.

It might have been his imagination, but he thought he detected the slightest tremor in the metal surrounding him. The wall in which the twelve alcoves were set divided this bay and the adjoining one. Had these people occupied bay two as well? Were they cutting through from the other side? Boor, the janitor had said. A Boor was an asteroid mining vessel, if Veins wasn’t mistaken. It would possess the equipment to move and carry, say, an entire wall. How else could the thing be accomplished without compromising the integrity of the art?

A hum sounded as a door along the wall to Veins’s right slid open. A voice preceded the person who emerged from the adjoining bay.

“We’ll have it in the ship within fifteen minutes, Sirus. The acid laser is an amazing tool, silently slicing through construction metal like cheese. Step over and see her work.”

“I saw her work on V-2, Creps.”

“You didn’t see her work on Berian. She’ll be through two meters of one of the hardest metals known before you can blink an eye.”

“Fifteen minutes, Creps. Loaded and all.”

“Right, boss.” The door slid shut behind him.

How had these people known they would have the place to themselves? They were obviously professionals, having doubtless chosen this point in time with great care and planning—as Veins liked to think he and his vagabond gang had. It occurred to him that the answer to that question mightn’t be quite as mysterious as seemed. When Turtle had stumbled on the information about the roundup, a man whom he hadn’t known had been going through out-processing with him. For that matter, Turtle himself sometimes had a loose trap. With the stakes involved here, anyone, including insiders, might have spilled. These were art thieves making off with one of the galaxy’s most celebrated works of art.

Veins had no idea what he should do now. If he weren’t the comrade he was, he would stay put and board the mining vessel with the rest of the Stations of Vitruvian da Vinci. How simple that would be, escaping with the art. Of course, they would very likely kill him when they found out the art and its value had been compromised—or would they? It struck him that he was as valuable to them as the thing they stole. The ring on his finger was a signaling device, and friends at the other end knew where the real contents of window three had been secured. Suddenly he knew what he should do.

It is done… It is done… It is—

The chemicals shimmered and sang as he stepped through the field, trailing wires and apparatus like severed nerves. The motion drew all eyes, followed by mouths dropping in wonder and disbelief. Shaking off the sensation of being pulled back into place, Veins thought to say something profound, a smattering of humor for morale, but he and his crew were on as tight a schedule as these people. The words that came out of his mouth were:

“We seem to have a situation.”

“I knew it!” announced the janitor.

“What is going on here?” demanded Sirus, the volume forcing an echo in the bay.

“What’s going on is that you are about to steal the incomplete Stations of Vitruvian da Vinci.” Veins reached behind him, producing the object attached by adhesive to the small of his back. He leveled the weapon at Sirus. “Back off and I would be more than happy to signal those who know where the missing part is.” Without waiting for an answer, he touched the bottom of the ring with the thumb of the same hand. “They’re on their way,” he said. “Don’t do anything stupid, and we might be able to resolve this thing before unwanteds show up.”

“Who are you?” said Sirus. “What’s your fucking game?”

“Our game is to get off this hunk of metal. Our game is escape from Icon.”

Incredulously: “So you sabotage a priceless work of art? Are you an imbecile?

“An imbecile with the contents of the third Station.” Veins gestured behind him at the window, which looked ragged, gutted, now that he had stripped it of even its surrogate poser.

Sirus twisted his lips in disgust. “What you’ve done…it’s blasphemous.”

“Spare me,” said Veins, looking towards the rear of the bay.

The Four Block gang, on cue, appeared in the door, weapons in hand, expressions transforming with surprise.

Turtle started to speak, but was silenced by Veins.

“I’d like to take time for proper introductions,” Veins said, “but I think we’d all like to get out of here as quickly as possible. Turtle, these are art thieves. They want the contents of window three. In exchange, they offer us safe passage off Icon to wherever they are going. Right, Sirus?”

Sirus glared. “Get the art. We’ll talk about it.”

“I don’t think so,” Veins said. “Look, we’re people with nothing to lose but our freedom, which we never had in the first place. You, on the other hand, have a fortune at stake. Do you really want to waste time?”

“Fine.”

“Turtle, take Sebastion and bring back the art. The rest of you will go aboard—”

“No way,” Sirus stated. “You produce the goods, then you come aboard.”

Veins considered only a second. The gang might well be better off where they were. At least now, they enjoyed the advantage of holding the bay under their weapons.

“Go,” he told Turtle. Adding: “Quickly.”

Turtle and Sebastion disappeared through the door. Veins looked up at the control station, found the oval of its occupant’s face looking down at him. He turned to Sirus. “Earlier, the lady said you had twenty-five minutes. Is there a specific reason for that schedule? Does something happen then?” The roundup would go on for hours, and he guessed the other knew it.

“Yeah. The lock opens and we’re out of here. It’s called efficiency.”

Raising his voice so the woman at her station heard, Veins instructed Sirus, “Tell the lady to shut off all access between this bay and the next—” Too late, as the hum sounded and the door in the wall slid open again. In two strides Veins was there, weapon extended in both hands. No one appeared against the backdrop of the gray hull of the Boor, all components apparently at work on the wall. Veins deduced the woman in the control station had opened the door in hopes of revealing the goings-on in bay one. For whatever reason, communication between the two bays apparently wasn’t doable. He leaned on the wall control, making sure his command wouldn’t be overridden before turning back on Sirus.

He inclined his weapon in the direction of the booth as he said, “Do it. And while you’re at it, tell her to set the exit portal to open five minutes from now.”

Sirus stared at him. “No way.”

“Five minutes,” Veins said. “Unless she won’t be going with us. In which case, she’s welcome to stay in the booth and open the lock when we’re safely tucked away in the Sifter. Which, I assure you, will be within five minutes.”

“I don’t care for the us talk, friend.”

Veins stepped to him, pushing the weapon in his face. “Guess what, asshole? I don’t care whether you care for it or not. Now do it!”

Sirus looked up at the booth, and nodded.

Veins gave it less than a half minute, then ordered her down. She had just reached floor level and was stepping off the pad when Turtle appeared, followed by a two-meter-long, disintegrating shipping box, then Sebastian trying to hold together the tail end. Before they cleared the door, a shout sounded in the corridor behind them.

“You there! Where are you going with that?”

“Oh fuck,” said Sirus.

“Run!” Veins yelled at his comrades. Automatically, he swung his weapon on the one person outside the gang who mattered at this moment—the pilot.

Turtle and Sebastian dropped the box, spilling its contents on the floor. As they tore past Sirus, his eyes never left the twisted, marionette-like thing. Veins watched him as he ushered the pilot, the janitor, the woman from the control booth, the gang, one by one into the vessel. “Come on, dammit!” he shouted.

But Sirus wasn’t coming without window three. As he hoisted the hominotron up into his arms, one uniform followed by another appeared in the door, weapons drawn. At the same moment, two fiery seams appeared in the wall housing the Stations of Vitruvian da Vinci, a long, undulating moan escaping the separating metal. The security men, unable to believe their eyes, merely stared in wonder as the wall sank backwards, so smooth in its retreat as to leave the art’s integrity perfectly intact.

All except window three, which Sirus clutched in his arm like a wounded lover as, at last, he put his attention on getting to the waiting Sifter. Veins held his breath, knowing that at any second the security men were going to overcome their stupefaction and turn on Sirus. Eternity seemed to intervene as Sirus crossed the threshold into the lock, such that by the time he inhaled the aroma of escape, the five minutes had expired and the inner portal engaged. As its door slid closed, the hominotron’s leg caught on the lip and was pulled from Sirus’s grasp. Veins shouted at him to let it go, but Sirus ignored the warning, managing to free the thing at the last second. Unfortunately, that second consumed a full one-third of the lull between the closing of the inner port and the opening of the outer. The last thing Veins saw as the Sifter’s door closed, sealing him in with the others, was Sirus’s head fall to his chest.

It is done.

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