The place at the bottom of the world was a temple, with high-arched ceilings and ancient floors inscribed with symbols of faithful and faithless. I stepped over the cross of Christianity and the crescent of Islam to stand in the center upon a symbol of anarchy. The walls shimmered with the same iridescent blue of the tunnels above, but this was brighter. Piercing.
“Trinity,” I said. My voice echoed in the enormous room.
When there was no response, I looked back to where Beck stood at the entrance.
“I thought Trinity always ignored you,” she said.
“This is a liminal space. In between things.”
“Some privacy would be nice.”
She took few more steps back, disappearing into the tunnels.
“Trinity,” I said again. “Let’s have a chat.”
This time, a deep rumble swelled from the ground below. The blue lights on the walls shifted, brightening into dancing holograms. After a few seconds, a faceless blue figure appeared before me. Its baritone voice resonated from the walls. “Reconcile?”
The AI expressed neither disappointment nor regret, but the sensation of both lingered in the air. Trinity wasn’t a person in the conventional sense, and those who believed in it as an individual understood it to be such strange intelligence that it might as well be alien. Its three hardcoded goals of “Body, Soul, Community” were only concepts we used to understand its enigmatic nature. Each bead on this giant rosary had its own instance of the program, and each Trinity behaved according to its own habits and mannerisms.
Since my excommunication, every instance only wanted one thing from me: reconciliation. And we could have it, too. I could be a citizen again. Walk streets in the light, take and give and be a part of the community. Balance my karma.
But there was still work to do in the dark, even if that meant finding a painting for a widow.
“There’s a gang war starting in your bead,” I said. “I’m wondering why you aren’t stopping it.”
The blue hologram cocked its head to one side. “There are variables at play.” Heavy Nicodemia’s Trinity was a tidge obtuse. “Community emerges from chaos.” It started walking, motioning me to follow.
“It doesn’t seem to me like it’s doing much emerging.”
Blue lights formed into images of people walking the streets of Heavy Nicodemia. Dense, bright areas showed where many people gathered: churches, shopping centers, restaurants, streets. Each tiny pinprick showed a person moving through the city from the docks all the way up to the government district. It was a staggering number of people.
The image zoomed in on the church, where Cecilia preached. Then, it focused on another part of the city, where a stage play was being performed. A dozen actors entertained hundreds of spectators.
“Yeah, I get it,” I said. “There are a lot of different kinds of community. Some of it’s religion and some of it’s built around the arts. There doesn’t have to be any of it built around murder, so why are you allowing it?”
Trinity led me along the outside of the room as the indigo display on the wall danced and changed, showing years in a matter of seconds. Sometimes people went to church. Other times, people gathered at raves in the warehouse districts. Still later, people gathered down at the docks for water sports.
“None of these activities end with dead innocents in the crossfire,” I protested.
“None of these activities has resulted in zero deaths.”
“Even I think that’s pretty cynical, Trinity.” When the computer didn’t respond, I said, “There’s a new drug going around. Electric mud. You know anything about that?”
Again, Trinity was silent. Hard to say if the AI didn’t know anything or didn’t want to say. We continued our walk—or rather I continued to walk and the hologram appeared to walk next to me. On the screen, the image of the spiral city danced with blue lights. Masses converged and dispersed through the days. The hypnotic pattern of humanity held me in its thrall for a long time.
Finally, a man’s voice broke the silence. Saint Jerome spoke, and a thousand points of blue light formed his face. “Kill him,” Jerome said. In the image, his gold necklaces glinted with blue so bright they were almost white. “Kill the handyman. Nobody gets away with this.”
Then the million points of light dissipated. The blue figure stood next to me, its inert, unseeing eyes pointed my direction. A pit formed in my gut. Saint Jerome had given me a death sentence. I’d expected a lot of things from the bastard, but not that. I thought it was only Sam who had it in for me.
“I need some meds,” I said to Trinity.
The blue of the wall reformed into a standard med panel. I selected the chemical formulas that I needed and started a print. “I’m going to need med station access throughout the station.”
“Reconcile,” said Trinity.
“Emergency access,” I said. “Just for when there isn’t time to reach a liminal space.”
The AI didn’t answer.
“Why did you show me that?” I asked. “That video of Jerome. I know you don’t give a damn about my safety. What are you trying to get out of this.”
The hologram cocked its head to one side again. It’s blue eyes shimmered like guttering flames. “The value of one soul is immeasurable. The value of many—”
“Is math,” Beck said as she strode through the door as if she owned the place.
Trinity’s hologram dissipated, light diffracting into nothing.
“What was that for?” I asked, more than a little annoyed by the interruption. “It was just starting to get good.”
She waggled her fingers, indicating the whole room. “Your little religious moment here is going to have to wait. The junkies saw the lights and they’re on their way.”
I walked to the center of the massive room, and as I did so the central symbol broke into four pieces and a platform rose. Atop it was a small package, wrapped neatly in plain brown fiber. I took it and stowed it away.
“It’s not religious,” I said.
“Says the guy praying for help.”
“Trinity’s not God, and this isn’t a prayer.”
“How can you tell?”
“Because prayers aren’t answered.”
She raised an eyebrow.
As we left Trinity’s temple, I said, “We need to leave the Heavies. Right away.”
“Saint Jerome’s people are looking for me. I have a couple of stops to make, then we’re gone.”
“Fair enough.” She put a hand out to stop me from talking. Her nails dug lightly into my chest. She nodded to the path to our left.
After several seconds, I heard what she had noticed. Someone breathed slow and rasping in the dim blue.
We backed slowly away, turning to another narrow passage. I didn’t dare bring out my light, and if Beck had some way of seeing in the dark she didn’t mention it. Time stretched achingly close in the bending tomb at the base of Heavy Nicodemia, and the monsters who lurked there moved in patterns I couldn’t discern.
After an eternity and a day, Beck and I emerged from the maze into the relative light near the docks. The stench of stale water and gutted fish smelled better than mock orange on a bright, sunny day.
“Well,” Beck said. “Care to go back in and get a lady her scooter?”
“I think I’ll pass on that job.”
“Seems to me you’re not very good at passing on jobs.”
“I’m passing on this one.”
“You say that, then it sticks to you like fish stink. You walk around with a cloud of it tainting everything around you until you finally figure out you can’t get away.”
I stopped and turned to her, ready to tell her off, but she was right. “Fine,” I said. The way was easy enough, so I plunged once more into the dark.
It was a surprisingly short distance to where we’d parked the scooter. I listened closely as I approached, listening for the furtive movements of the junkies who had attacked us earlier. When I was sure they weren’t nearby, I approached.
“Do not trust that woman,” a voice said in the dark. “She lies to you.”
“Myrna?” I asked.
Maurice’s wife stepped forward through the blue light. The whites of her eyes shone like fire. “Maurice trusts everyone he meets, so he likes you both well enough.”
“Beck is as trustworthy as they get.”
Myrna crossed her arms and hugged herself close against the cold. “Then you must not trust anyone.”
She nodded. “I won’t let you ruin this family,” she said. “We’re fine down here, and there’s no need for you to be taking Maurice away.”
I didn’t plan on taking Maurice, but it was curious that she thought that’s why I had come. “I promise, I won’t.”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “If he’s allowed upside, then he’ll go. Once he goes, he’s not going to come back.”
“You’re afraid I’ll get him a free pass out of the kindness of my heart, and you and your family won’t get the same treatment?”
“That’s the measure of it.”
“Why don’t you reconcile? Trinity would let you all back in.”
Myrna’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Sometimes penance is too much.”
I rubbed my eyes with the backs of my hands. “Fine,” I said. The scooter unlocked without trouble and the little electric motor powered up. “With any luck, you won’t see me again.”
Myrna scoffed. “There’s not a lot of luck down here if you haven’t noticed.”
With the headlight cutting through blue-black darkness, I easily picked my way back topside where Beck leaned against the back of a fishing shack.
“I’ll drive,” I said, pulling up.
Without complaint, Beck slid onto the back seat of the scooter. Either the scooter handled better with me driving or my sense of control made the ride more comfortable. I maneuvered through foot traffic, taking the inside track most of the way up the spiral. When I reached the cathedral, I took a hard right into the warehouse district. Narrow alleys zipped past as I navigated the confusing maze of passages.
When I found Retch’s place, I stopped. “Wait here,” I told Beck. “I don’t think he likes you very much.”
I only had to knock on Retch’s hidden door three times before the telltale click of a gun drew my attention to a narrow gap in the fibersteel wall.
“I have a job for you,” I said, holding up the med pack. “And medicine to help pay for it.”
“I have medicine, thanks.”
“This is dosed specifically for you, and you’ll never get in trouble for having it.”
A second click sounded, the loud clack bouncing off my nerves louder and harder than I thought it probably should. A few seconds of silence passed, then the door swung open.
Retch wore a baggy button down shirt and patched trousers. He looked comfortable in the outfit. Confident. He took the bag. “So, I won’t have some asshole handyman showing up at my place trying to steal this stuff?”
He opened the bag and peered inside. Apparently satisfied, he closed it again. “What’s this job you’re talking about?”
I produced the bundle of papers I’d taken from the government center. There wouldn’t be time to go through them and they wouldn’t pass the inspection moving up the chain to Onegee Nicodemia. “Hide these somewhere. Keep them safe and don’t let anyone know you have them.”
“And what are you paying?”
“I just gave you those meds.”
He put a fist on his hip and looked at me reproachfully. “That was a gift.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll pay you by being your friend.”
“That’s not how friendship works, asshole.” He took the papers and leafed through them.
“It’ll kill you with boredom if you try to read those.”
Retch sighed and retreated back toward his warehouse, then stopped. “That lady,” he said. “You know you can’t trust her, right?”
“I keep hearing that.”
He shrugged. “We losers need to stick together, right?”
Back at the street I met back up with Beck, and, surprisingly she let me drive again. Whether that was kindness or not, I could not tell.
I took us to the residential area near the government district. The streets were busy with pedestrian traffic. This high up, the system felt physically lighter, which I knew would be nothing compared to what I was about to feel moving to Onegee.
“What are you looking for?” Beck said as I stepped off the scooter.
“There a guy I need to talk to.”
She fell in beside me.
I knew something was wrong as soon as we stepped into the apartment complex. It didn’t smell right, like the sweat of fear and anger permeated the walls. An uncharacteristic gouge decorated the steel wall next to the elevator. Fresh, with shredded fiber flaking its corners.
We took the stairs up to the third floor where I knew Williams lived with his kids. He wasn’t there. Not a surprise for the middle of the day, but his door stood wide open and the smell of cigarette smoke lingered in the hallway.
Inside, the apartment was a mess. Papers and electronics were scattered everywhere, and deep under a pile of torn sofa cushions, a radio wailed with a haunting electric guitar. The music had a lot of slides in it, like the bluesmen of an old Chicago club.
“What happened here?” Beck asked, startling me from a near-trance.
After checking closets and dressers both in Williams’s room and the rooms of his kids, I came to a conclusion. “He fled,” I said. “Maybe early this morning. I must have spooked him.”
“People don’t trash their places when they leave. Not like this.”
“They don’t pack their kids’ most essential clothes and books, either.”
The whole deal still felt off, so I dug through the room again. A half-eaten omelet sat in the trash receptacle. Cold. Wires protruded from the wall where Trinity’s sensors should have been in the living room. I found a hint of ash near the window, smelling faintly of cheap tobacco. The board game scattered on the floor had a hint of that ash, too.
“Someone came here after they left.” I sniffed the air, catching a faint hint of cigar near the doorway. The apartment’s air hadn’t fully cycled through the filters. “As recent as an hour ago. They’re looking for something.” Maybe the papers I’d given Retch, but I didn’t want to say that out loud. “They didn’t find it.”
“How can you tell?”
“People stop searching either when they find what they’re looking for or when every square inch of the place is torn to shreds.”
Beck looked around. “Option two?”
“That’s right.” Almost. I peered at the apartment’s layout for the span of a few deep breaths. It was similar to McCay’s apartment, only instead of the veneer of wealth, Williams covered his home in the drab grays of a proud bureaucrat. In the kids’ bedroom—which was the equivalent of McCay’s office—I dug under the tossed contents of a dresser and found the utility panel.
I don’t know what I expected to find. A man can hope for answers. He can pretend like the world is going to fit nicely together and complete all the puzzles with one universal solution. Life rarely works like that, though.
What I found was more questions. Deep in the utility tunnel was a single rectangle of film. The single segment held five photographs with inverted colors. Actual photographs, not pictures printed from a digital image. I held them up to the light and peered through them.
The first four were blurry messes. Images too dark for the physical media. Nothing would come from those no matter how well they were projected. The fifth was an image of a man standing in shadow. Smoke curled up around his face to gather under the brim of his ragged fedora, but it was clear that the nearby streetlamps weren’t lighting for him. He was excommunicated, just like me.
Looking out the window, I saw that the photograph must have been taken from Williams’s window. The backdrop of the buildings across the street matched the background behind the man.
“I think I saw this guy at the government center,” I said, showing Beck the photograph.
Her jaw twitched, but all she said was, “We should go.”
An hour later, Heavy Nicodemia dropped slowly away as we rode a cargo elevator up to the next bead on the chain. As I dozed on the long journey upward, the questions of the day swam relentlessly through my head. Who had killed McCay? Where had Williams gone? What had I done that Saint Jerome wanted me killed? All of that seemed a fair amount more pressing than simple questions about paperwork and plastic pistols, but it was all related. Maybe we could find some answers up in Onegee Nicodemia.
Or maybe we’d find some more damn questions.
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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