An Original Sin
Eva slipped in through a rusted, decaying vent on the surface level. It came apart with a simple heel stomp and she glided down the shaft, knocking loose a fan on the way. It clattered and tumbled, coming to rest some hundred meters below.
If anyone was in the bunker, her element of surprise was gone. She continued down, muttering.
Soon she reached the shattered fan blades in a juncture in the vent system and lightly set her feet down. The vent moaned, its fastenings creaking. The last thing she needed was to be thinking about how chubby she must be if the vent collapsed under her weight. She began to crawl.
If her intel was good – and it usually was – the vent system would let out into the gallery after sixty meters south and another twelve meters down. She ticked off the meters as she crawled, once having to stab a rat to death that barred her way.
She came to another drop and peered down with her electric torch; twelve meters down, as expected. She crawled into the vertical shaft and pressed up against the sides with her rubber-soled boots. She descended like a spider dropping towards its prey.
Then she hit a patch of dampness and her left boot slipped away. On instinct she reached out to grab something, anything, but where her fist collided with the vent it shattered through the rusted metal, knocking out the fastening holding it upright. Suddenly the whole vent shrieked and separated from the wall, and she was stuck inside as it collapsed downwards. Bolts ripped from old moorings and she managed to pull her hand back inside before the inevitable crash.
She twisted sideways, sliding downwards in a vertical shaft that suddenly turned diagonal, then horizontal. It spun downwards again and she toppled end-over-end trying to grasp at anything at all that might save her. She cried out as she caught a glimpse of the faint, glowing gallery floor in the second tumbling rotation.
The vent struck a large statue, separating just enough to create a pivot point. Eva felt the shift as her downward motion was jerked to the side. She tumbled inside the bottom of the vent until it swung downwards and into the statue, where the pivot point shrieked and gave way. The rest of the vent shaft crumpled and collapsed against the statue, dropping her to the floor in a heap of stressed, torn, rusty metal.
She groaned after she decided she wasn’t dead or dying. She sucked in great lungfuls of air once her chest would let her. She started to laugh as she recognized the statue.
Atlas holding the world on his shoulders. Only the world was missing and the vent was on his shoulders instead.
“That rat bastard told me he didn’t sell to you!” a man called out. A familiar voice. She tensed, reaching for her taser. Her disorientation betrayed her for she pointed the taser away from the gun that reached her temple moments later.
She sighed and dropped the weapon. The man kicked it away, then holstered his handgun.
“Good God, Eva, when are you gonna get a real piece?” Addis held his hand out and she ignored it.
She stumbled and swayed a bit getting to her feet, but she refused his hand a second time, and when her vision swam in front of her and he tried to place an arm around her to hold her steady, she shoved him away.
“I’m fine. You don’t touch me.” She dusted herself off, checking for damage. Her vision blurred and she struggled to remain upright, but everything went foggy and she collapsed back to the floor face-first.
Smelling-salts. She sneezed and bolted upright. She couldn’t tell how much time had passed. She rubbed her nose to get the burn out.
Addis pulled his hand back and tucked the salts away.
“How long?” she asked.
“Long enough for me to have tied you up.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Addis shrugged. “You okay now?”
She felt over her body; minor cuts and bruises, a small nick on the back of her head, no longer bleeding. She stood up in response. This time she accepted his hand.
“So now what? We can’t both have the painting,” she said. She stared around in the faint illumination. Artwork, metal cylinders, strange devices, sculptures. She couldn’t see the prize.
“We can flip for it.”
“Not with any coin you’re carrying.” She rolled her neck back and forth, working out the muscles. “And not with any coin I’m carrying.”
“Fool ya once, right?” he smirked.
“Ent you just chuffed to bits you got to say that.”
“Life is a cliché, Eva.” He took a few steps away, picked up her taser, and tossed it to her. She caught it and stared dumbfounded at the man. “Wouldn’t be fair, otherwise.”
She holstered the weapon, watching his face; he turned away, staring around the vast room. She gasped. “A- are you trying to be cute?”
“Never had to try at cute, darlin’.”
She scoffed. “Seriously, Addis. How the hell do we do this?”
He shrugged again. They started walking, canvassing the gallery. “Let’s just see how it plays, eh?”
“How you ever steal anything is beyond me,” Eva said.
They passed a statue of burlesque dancers, the colorful paint long since flaked away; a gadget that looked a bit like an electric chair; half a dozen paintings in various states of disrepair, none of them the contract item; and other strange bits of science and art history.
“What a creepy place,” Addis said as they passed what seemed to be an operating table with spikes coming out of it.
“Guy was a creep,” Eva responded. “Did all sorts of weird experiments down here before he blew himself up.”
“Like cutting on people?”
She shrugged. “Probably. He’s got an electric chair, so no telling what kinda tortures he worked up in the name of science.”
Finally they came to a small alcove, where a backlight still glowed around the painting.
“The Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Addis mused. The painting was immaculately kept, the only thing in the entire building that didn’t look like it was ready to collapse or flake away. The water still churned, angry and destructive. The men still appeared to be in awe or terror. The light on the left side still had a glorious quality to it.
“Did you read up on the theft?” Eva teased.
She smiled as she stepped closer to examine it. “Of course you didn’t. Your FBI never gave up looking, you know.”
He stepped up beside her. “Never mine.”
She rolled her eyes. “Never mind. It was stolen twenty-five years ago, by a crime syndicate intent on selling them off to private collectors. This crazy old bastard-” She waved a hand around the facility, “bought it for a million back in the day.”
Addis yawned. “And then he died trying to set the world on fire, yaddayaddayippee.”
“I have a novel solution,” Eva suggested.
“I take the painting-”
“Bullshit you will.”
“… You take the painting-“
“Shut yer bleedin’ mouth, godamnit.” He grinned. “One of us takes the painting. Doesn’t matter which. We split the cut evenly, and tear our rat bastard contact a new arsehole for double-dipping intel.”
He considered. “I definitely like getting the little fucker back for this. But I’m not just gonna let you take the painting.”
“A contest, then.”
“My coin or yours,” he sneered.
“Neither, ferfu-” She sighed through clenched teeth, fists locked in tight little balls. “Rock Paper Scissors.”
He grinned. “Best out of three?”
“Seven.” That was the ideal number to read an opponent in Rock Paper Scissors.
She held out a fist and he did the same. She noted his other hand on the gun and her stomach clenched. Never trust a thief…
They began. “One, two, three, break!” they said together. Paper covers rock. Eva won. Men choose rock first nine times out of ten.
He chuckled. “Good thing we didn’t say best of one.” Men follow the win 67% of the time.
“One, two, three, break!” Rock breaks scissors. Eva won her second. Halfway there.
He frowned. Men try to psyche you out after losing twice in a row.
“One, two, three, break!” Scissors versus scissors.
“One, two, three, break!” Scissors cuts paper. Eva won her third.
His grip tightened on the gun. She tensed, ready to pounce.
“One, two, three, break!” Rock covered by paper. Addis won one. He laughed.
“Whew, almost a skunk there!”
“One, two, three, break!” Rock covered by paper. Shit! Addis’s second.
“You aren’t the only one who studied game theory, honey.”
And now it was time to gamble. She knew she couldn’t reliably win if they both knew the system and both knew the tells.
“One, two, three, break!” Scissors crushed by rock. Three to three.
She threw everything she knew about game theory out the window. Pure randomness. She closed her eyes and imagined a di rolling in the mental space.
“One, two, three, break!” Rock breaks scissors. She’d done it!
Addis smiled, a grim rictus. She shoved him away and darted off to his right, the way they had come, seeking cover. Tiny explosions sounded behind her, rattling off the walls and deafening her. Shots pinged around her until she could get behind the cover of a statue.
“I told you I can’t let you have the painting, Eva!” Addis shouted. He was reloading. She couldn’t take advantage of that with just a taser.
“I think we’ve established that, love,” she called back. She darted to another alcove, this time with the burlesque statue. She realized after a moment that she was clutching a woman’s stone breast and almost laughed out loud.
She noticed the weird chair she’d seen on the way in, with its electrode cap hovering over top. She darted from her cover again and this time more shots rang out, ricocheting off the floor around her. She got into the alcove with the chair and hid inside the privacy screen next to it.
Addis came barreling down the lane, gun at the ready. She couldn’t see out of the curtain, but she could hear his footsteps coming closer. And closer. Soon he was breathing not two feet from her, as if he’d followed a path.
Dust on the floor! Damn!
“Eva… you can leave with your life,” he prodded the curtain with the gun, “or your pride. I can’t let you have both. Now come on out here.”
She shifted, grabbing the taser from its holster and readying it. “Okay, Addis. You win.” She twisted sideways and lowered to her knees, careful not to disturb the privacy screen.
His footfalls retreated a couple steps. “Get your bottom out from behind that curtain or I’ll just start shooting.”
She breathed in and out. Just one shot would end it, either way.
Eva shifted the curtain with her free hand, away from her body, then tore it open and pounced. Addis fired a shot. She tucked and rolled into his perimeter, then turned the motion against him by sweeping a leg out behind his knees. Another shot spanged off the ceiling as he fell back. The kicked-up dust from the commotion got in her nostrils and she sneezed as she got to her feet, nearly toppling on top of him as he fell ass-first into the electric chair.
He leveled the gun at her face and she jumped forward, throwing her weight against his arm to push the gun away. She came diving into him with a knee to the groin, but he caught the motion and blocked with his other arm, pressing her leg away. For a moment they were locked together, he struggling to free his gun arm, she straddling him on the chair fighting with her taser hand. Smell of ozone filled the air as the taser’s spark ignited. The electric click of the weapon was deafening in the silence of their struggle.
The gun fired uselessly again. He dropped it to get the upper hand on the taser struggle, and she took advantage of his reposition to launch a headbutt straight at his face. Stars exploded and she almost tumbled free, but the blood spatter from his nose was worth her disorientation. Addis cried out, reaching to his face with his now-free gun hand, and Eva redoubled her effort with the taser.
Addis stopped struggling and the taser flew toward his face. His head dodged at the last possible instant and the taser punched through wood and rusted metal, connected with a power cable behind the chair’s headrest.
Thought vanished, sucker-punched by electric current. Her entire body went rigid as it tried to disengage from the taser, to turn the taser off, to leap away from the paralyzing electricity. The chair whirred into life, and visions swirled before her. She couldn’t contemplate them, there were too many and her mind was fuzzy from the electrocution. Addis fared no better as spittle flew from his lips and his eyes rolled back in his head.
Sunlight flared high in the sky. What? Sunlight? They were a hundred meters underground. The taser sparked its last, and her hand spasmed, releasing the weapon. It thudded to the ground as she collapsed on top of Addis. Her own drool leaked from her lips as she struggled to regain coherency. Why was it so bright?
Thud. The taser shouldn’t have thudded. It should have clattered. She managed to rub her eyes and look down. A soft patch of grass cradled the spent taser.
She worked sensation into her fingers and toes, then her limbs. Addis was insensate below her, his tongue lolling from his mouth. She finally pushed herself up off him and fell backwards off the chair. She landed with the same soft thud as the taser. Grass, dirt. What the bloody hell?
A light breeze ruffled her hair. Honeysuckle, pungent wildflowers, the heady aroma of animal dung. She struggled up from the grass and stared around.
Everywhere she looked were endless fields, forests, lakes and rivers. Gazelles roamed and lions lazed. A rainbow of birds flocked through the sky, squawking. Fish burbled and flicked at the surface of a nearby river. Not a building in sight.
Eva got to her feet, swayed a bit and steadied herself on the chair. Addis was coming to, but she hardly noticed him. She stepped forward, approaching a tree for its shade. She knew that if she didn’t get a grip she was going to faint again, and three times in fifteen minutes was more than she could handle.
She collapsed under the bough of the tree and found ripe, purple figs littering the ground. Nearby a snake slithered through the tall grasses, ignoring her.
Of course it was a dream. But she didn’t wake up. She always woke up when she realized she was dreaming. She pinched herself. Slapped her face. She bit her arm so hard it drew blood, and tears formed in her eyes.
“No bleedin’ way,” she crooned, as from twenty meters or so she heard Addis exclaim, “What the shit is this?”
She gathered to her a few figs and breathed in their sweet scent. Her mouth watered. She’d always loved figs. She scrubbed it clean and took a big bite. Juice erupted and dribbled down her chin. Her eyes widened and she took another bite. So sweet! So fresh! She’d never had fruit like this before. She began to suspect that it had been many years since anyone had eaten fruit so fresh, so pure, so full of taste. Every meal she’d eaten in her entire life seemed a pale imitation of flavor compared to this. She gorged herself as Addis stumbled up to her, the depleted taser in his hands.
“What did you do?” he demanded. Terror crossed his face and he danced back. “Holy fuck there’s a snake next to you.”
She eyed the snake curling through the grass. “‘S not hurtin’ ya,” Eva replied between bites. “Let it alone.”
“Easy for you to say. I got bit by a snake once, nearly died.”
“Remind me to thank that snake for trying.”
He laughed. “You’re a wonder, you know that?” He collapsed next to her in the shade, examining himself. “We’re not dead, are we?”
“Dead don’t eat.” She sniffed the air. “Dead don’t piss themselves, either.”
He stared down. “Oh, gross.”
“Hazard of the taser, I guess.” She took another bite of the fig and held one out to him. “Taste this.”
He took it and stared at it. “What the hell is it.”
“It’s a fig, ya numb fuck. Take a bite before I shove it down your throat.” She finished her fig off and tore into another.
Addis brought the purple fruit to his nose and sniffed, then took a delicate bite. He chewed for perhaps two seconds before his eyes widened and he tore into it.
“My God, this is the best thing I’ve ever eaten!” he said between bites. She nodded and handed him another.
A light rain began to fall, despite the sun still shining down from the west. Eva leaned back. Addis did the same, so their shoulders were touching and their backs were against the bark of the fig tree.
“Any idea what happened?” he asked after sating himself on figs.
She was licking her fingers clean of juice and seeds. “None.”
“We should probably try and find a village at least. Is this Africa?”
Eva shrugged, and he nudged her with his shoulder. “We’ll leave in the morning.”
She leaned forward, plucking the taser from the grass where Addis had let it fall. “Were you really gonna snuff me?”
“I have a lot of debt, Eva. I can’t lose this big of a whale.”
“I think we’ve both lost it now. Your government caught wind of the Rembrandt’s location, and were sending a team to recover it. We had maybe an hour from when you betrayed me.”
“Now, now, Eva. Betray’s kinda strong, don’t you think?”
“What else do you call renegging on a deal for selfish reasons?”
“That contest was a sham and you know it.” He reached out for her shoulder and she shrugged it off.
“I would have split the take with you, Addis. I really would have. I owed you that much.” And she did, once, owe him her life.
“None of that matters now,” she said. “Remember those experiments we talked about?”
“One of his obsessions was time travel.”