I hopped off the trolley where its track veered into a little residential neighborhood on the opposite side of the big spiral. Securing my hat on my head, I pulled my long coat close and walked the long road up into the seething mass of the city. The air grew heavy and wet, and the cool air tasted like the start of rain. Upward, along the central spiral, neon nightlife throbbed like the frantic pulse of a city that forgot how to sleep. The fastest path ran up the center of the spiral, and I took that until the crowds of revelers became too much.
All three beads of Nicodemia were nodes along a single miles-long strand. Like a kid’s top, each node was narrow at the top and bottom with a wide, bulging middle. The address in my pocket led me to a location on the lower arc, not far south of the gaudy jewel called the Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi marking the city’s midpoint. Outside that central spiral stretched the fat belly of the city proper, where trouble lived and breathed every day. Unlike the other nodes, Heavy Nicodemia’s inner spiral teemed with humanity. Tiny booths crammed close like sardines, and people ran and shouted almost as if there was something to get excited about.
There wasn’t, and there never would be.
I cranked the volume of the music in my earpieces to drown out the city’s endless chatter. Ancient tunes from before the Nicodemia and her sister ships left homeworld Earth rolled through my skull. These songs originated long before the travelers converted their ships into permanent residences for people who hadn’t known the feel of real soil under their feet for a dozen generations. Music was our connection to the soil. Muddy Waters filled my world with the blues along with John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf. All the chaos of the tin can city dropped away into the endless void of space.
The address the kid had given me was a better part of town, if such a thing existed this close to the raw stink of the fisheries. When I got there, I spent a long time looking at the front door to his apartments. Two shrubs with big, fat leaves flanked the red double door. From twenty feet away it wasn’t clear whether or not the shrubs were fake. Closer up the fraudulent foliage was even less obvious.
My knife was almost out to check the plants when a stocky man in a suit coat keyed his way through the red door. I followed close knowing he would ignore me. The man took the elevator, but I took the stairs. An elevator wouldn’t take me where I wanted to go.
Because the A.I. that ran the ship, from Hallow to Heavies, wouldn’t acknowledge my existence. It wouldn’t turn on the lights if I was the only one in the room. Nor would it steer a vehicle if I were the only one in it. Terminals didn’t respond to my touch. Nobody knows how many of excommunicated souls there are in Nicodemia, because, well, there’s no record of us.
As situations go, excommunication was a whole helping of freedom lumped in with a shitload of pain-in-the-ass.
In tall buildings, being excommunicated made for the fantastic cardio workout that I absolutely did not want. I made a mental note to check what floor potential new clients were on before agreeing to meet them. Anything above the third floor was probably not worth it. McCay lived on the fourth.
“Mr. McCay?” I said when he answered the knock at his flat. The fibersteel door frame gleamed in the too-bright light of the apartment hallway.
“Doctor McCay,” The man said. The fat of his bonus chins as he looked me up and down. He stood taller than most, a giant by most local measures, and his dark skin looked blotchy in the harsh light. He’d probably never met someone who stood a head taller than him.
“Word is you need help.”
He straightened the lapels of his suit, swallowed a lump in his throat, and motioned for me to step inside. “My usual guy—“
“You have a guy.” I said, cutting him off. “Nobody said you have a guy.” Last thing I wanted was to step on someone else’s turf. I moved to leave, but he blocked my exit.
“Hear me out,” he said. Something about the puppy dog plea in his eyes kept me from muscling past him.
Paintings adorned the iron-gray walls like posters in a prison cell. Little hints of wealth dotted the room, from a vase made of real glass to a taupe sofa whose only hint of use was a single slightly askew pillow. The carpet was the kind of off-white that looked like it had never been stepped on—and wasn’t really meant for it. I stepped on it.
He led me farther into his house, letting me into what appeared to be either a cluttered study or an abandoned storage closet.
Unlike the well-kept living room, McCay’s office looked like the dumping ground for a particularly messy gang of anarchist accountants. Binders overflowed with papers and books cluttered the shelves that lined all four walls. The doorway was the only clear spot on the floor, which otherwise hid under mountains of discarded trinkets. Zoomball pucks, broken trophies, and a single glove hinted at sports in McCay’s past. He’d been a goalie based on evidence.
A good one. I filed the information away for later.
Back under the desk, almost out of sight, sat a single gun safe with its door wide open. Inside sat a box of plasti-ceramic bullets and a pistol to fire them. Not just any pistol. This was a antique plastic model designed to pass through detection scanners. The crimson barrel had a word etched into the side of it, but I couldn’t read it from where I stood.
“Interesting hardware,” I said.
“We can talk in here,” he said. “Trinity can see us here, but can’t hear us.”
This job was getting interesting and a whole lot sketchier. “Gun safes typically work better if you close them,” I said.
McCay rushed past me to kick the safe closed, but he didn’t engage the lock, which struck me as odd. The only people who left their guns unlocked were the paranoid and the sloppy. McCay seemed like a careful man, cluttered office not withstanding. What was he afraid of?
“You’re a traveler, aren’t you?” McCay blurted it out and then had the decency to look appalled at himself. “Descended from, I mean.”
“You could say that.”
“So you’ll understand. I have some traveler blood, but it’s been a long time since my parents brought me down here to the Heavies. They fell on hard times, you see.”
“It happens to the best of us.” And the worst.
It would have been a brutal transition for McCay’s family. Travelers were the people who originally traveled from Earth to the Paradise System, a cluster of several stars deemed potentially habitable. The first travelers were chosen for their ability to metabolize efficiently, live long lives, and foster a stubborn tenacity on a ship for years without going crazy. The fast metabolism allowed them to pack on weight before enduring long hibernation cycles. Several generations passed with them alternating periods of wakefulness and hibernation, extending their lives for hundreds of years each. More often than not, those first generations were also lazy people, but I like to think that wasn’t a genetic trait. The whole story stank of eugenics enough already. The original travelers sacrificed their lives for the journey. Their children never had a choice.
Once the ship arrived they had access to resources, but the system proved much harder to terraform than anticipated. As immigrants from homeworld Earth arrived on faster and faster ships, the Travelers tightened their control over Hallow Nicodemia, taking the most luxurious bead as their own. They fashioned themselves into the ruling elite, with the immigrants as their servant class.
McCay was right about me. Both my parents were descended from Travelers. Most anyone could see it in my heavy stature, but the more observant noticed it in my patient demeanor and quiet stubborn streak. He was wrong about me wanting to ever go back to the Hallows.
“It stinks as bad up there as it does down here. Take my advice: forget about moving back up the chain.”
His eyes narrowed.
I continued, “That’s what this is about, right? You think you have a way to get back in good with the upper crust. Maybe a little deal going on the side or a friend of a friend who says he can get you in.”
“It’s a job opportunity.”
“Sure. They need doctors up the Hallows as well as we need them down here. But, see, here’s the thing. You’ve spent most of your life in the Heavies. Yeah, I can tell. The gravity here makes a person hard. Me, I’ve spent years down here and I can feel it in my bones. You’re not like that. Your body isn’t used to the lighter gravity up above. Sure, you felt great when you went to visit on a vacation, but that wouldn’t last. So, don’t worry about it.”
“You don’t understand.”
He was right, I probably didn’t. “It’s your life, either way. I’m just saying that whatever you got going on here probably isn’t worth giving up for whatever you stand to gain up there.”
He really seemed to consider that. His lips tightened as the thoughts churned around in his head. “I still have to try. For my kids.”
“You have kids?”
I sighed. Men and their ambitions. “What do you need a handyman for?”
“I need my medicine.”
“You’re a doctor.”
“Word is you had medical credentials.”
“You’ve got medical credentials. Just write yourself a prescription.” I knew full well it wouldn’t be that easy.
“It’s not that easy.”
Damn. “You want this off the books, then. You’re talking about stealing the meds.”
“Or record that they’re going to someone else.”
“That’s exactly what I mean by stealing.”
His shoulders tensed. “Who is it stealing from? Trinity can print more and it’s not like anyone is going to miss it.”
When a medical technician dispensed meds, Trinity tracked where they went and what they were used for. It got factored into a thousand equations in a thousand subroutines that kept the ship stable. I didn’t explain this to McCay. All I said was, “Body. Soul. Community.” The three competing optimizations of the ship AI.
McCay deflated like a stuck balloon. “My other guy had no trouble with this.”
“So go back to him.”
“He died a while back. New guy I found flaked out on me.”
“Why didn’t your new guy stock you up before he left?”
After a long pause, he said, “He did. It disappeared.”
Odd that he didn’t say it was stolen. A prickle of curiosity brushed the back of my neck. “When?”
“Last week. I usually need to take my meds every day to keep everything normal.” He looked up at me, genuine pleading in his eyes. “It’s a form of sickle cell.”
A genetic disease. No wonder he didn’t want it in the record. “You’ve been getting meds under the table your whole life.”
He nodded. “Lester’s was always reliable, but he died a couple years ago. I found a new guy, but when I tried to contact him this week he wasn’t around. He’s nowhere. I’m having a flare, and—“ he choked on the words. The poor sap was desperate, so he’d reached out. “It hurts so much.”
He suffered from a chronic condition and the only reason he wasn’t seeking help was that he wanted to trick the ship’s A.I. into giving him Traveler status for children he didn’t even have. I wasn’t lying when I said he was better off down here where the gravity pulled half again as much as Earth normal. He was a medically trained technician in a place that highly valued his skills. The apartment was nice, even if I didn’t necessarily like his decorative choices.
But, “disappeared” hooked me. Heavy Nicodemia was a closed system, or nearly so. Nothing disappeared. Ever. Anything lost could be found. Anything wronged could be made right.
I closed my eyes and drew a long breath, feeling his penetrating, pleading gaze on me. He wanted me to order him some new meds. That job didn’t interest me at all.
“All right,” I said. “Show me.”
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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