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A note from AWEichenlaub

Part 3: the case of the shady past

The elevator doors parted and the turquoise brilliance of Onegee Nicodemia burned a hole right through the ache in the back of my head. I squinted at the scintillating light, holding up a hand against the piercing illumination. Somewhere, a jazz saxophone wailed against the hard fiberstone corridors. The reception and customs room was much like Trinity’s temple beneath Heavy Nicodemia, but with better acoustics and fewer judgey asshole AIs.
A silhouette approached, but in my blindness I couldn’t tell if he held a gun or a scanner. Beck must have sensed my tension, because she stepped in front of me, one hand wheeling her scooter forward beside her.
“Charlotte Beck,” she said, raising one hand in the air. “Here on the travel authority of Violet Ruiz.”
The man pulled the trigger. Once the scanned cleared, he turned to me.
“I’m nobody,” I said. My vision cleared enough for me to get a good impression of his annoyed expression. I held up my hands. “Handyman.”
The man shrugged. He wore a stiff gray uniform complete with a brimmed hat. When he scanned me, it came up clear, just as expected. “Second one in two days.” He holstered the scanner and patted me down manually.
“Who was the other guy?”
The customs inspector looked me straight in the eyes. “Nobody.”
“Wise ass.”
“You’re telling me.” The inspector moved on to scan the more inert cargo farther back in the container.
The tunnels under Onegee were the same layout as Heavy, but here the space was well-lit with eerie turquoise and reasonably well populated. Travelers moved along cordoned-off lines to await inspections. Inspectors moved in packs, swarming and consuming travelers with paperwork and scans. Nobody stepped out of line the whole walk up. They’d be fools to try anything in this bead.
“We need to split up for a bit,” I said.
Beck raised an eyebrow. “Already?”
“I know some folks up here, but they’re not the sort to enjoy surprise company.” Seeing the dubious look on her face, I continued, “We’ll meet up at noon tomorrow by the cathedral. Onegee Nicodemia uses the exact same layout as Heavy. You won’t have any trouble.”
“Never said I would.”
“Head to the government district up at the top. Same place as the one in Heavy. You ought to be able to pressure someone into telling you where this Vitez guy got off to.”
“What am I paying you for?”
“My good looks.”
We stepped out of the tunnels and breathed the open air of Onegee Nicodemia. It stood in sharp contrast to the fish-gut smell down in Heavy, but it wasn’t much better. The smell of wet fur rolled over us like a hot breath. Nearby were the pigs, guinea pigs, hogs, goats. It all smelled damp and shitty to my unaccustomed nose, and by the expression on Beck’s face, she felt the same.
“You get used to it,” I said.
“How long did you live here before that happened?” She pulled her scooter to one side, opened the storage compartment, and withdrew the crimson-barreled pistol.
“You brought that through customs?”
She holstered the weapon. “It’ll make it easier to pressure government officials.”
“Not if you got caught by customs.”
Beck shot me a sideways smile, and the charm of it almost knocked me off my feet. “Always a rule-follower, huh, Demarco?”
She tossed me a fresh roll of dimes and sped away on her scooter. I marveled at how much faster it handled the slope here in Onegee. The vehicle had probably been designed for an environment with one Earth-equivalent of gravitational pull. More Gs than that strained its motor, and adding a massive guy like me to the mix probably didn’t help. Beck ignored the street signs and well-ordered rows of pedestrians and blasted her way up and away from the farm district, leaving me without a ride.
I strolled past hundreds of little pens, divided by narrow grassy rows. The animals inside were mostly pigs, but some contained goats or sheep. A few even had more interesting animals like capybaras or enormous rats. These gravity conditions worked well for the formation of meat, so that’s what this whole damn bead smelled like. It wasn’t a bad way to go. Better than fish. Barely.
Most of the little farm plots were organized into neat grids. The workers wore coveralls arrayed in a spectacularly wide variety of grays. As I spiraled up past the farm district, I fell into the fastest pedestrian line available. This wasn’t the mad free-for-all of the city below. In Onegee Nicodemia, people largely respected the traffic suggestions. Every time I wandered out of line, I earned a sour look from some well-dressed businessman.
I didn’t have far to go. Something about the location of Rory’s Ramshackle made it the ideal location for a dive bar, and this copy of the city was no exception. Only, here the place was called Ever Upward and the glowing sign out front had its full array of letters like it was a fancy place or something. Hell, everything was fancy here. Even the sidewalks looked like they’d been recently polished.
Squinting against the bright sky, where real solar light filtered into the fortunate bead, I broke from the pedestrian stream and entered the bar.
The location was the same as Rory’s, but everything else was completely different. High dividers sectioned off areas of the room, dividing it in an ordered grid. Tables sat clean and polished in the early afternoon, every single one of them at perfect right angles.
At the bar, a man with an immaculate red beard and a dimpled smile perked up as I entered and said, “Hello, there! What can I—“ The rest of his words must have got lost on the way because his dimples disappeared and all he had to say was, “Demarco.”
“Aiken.”
“I’ve been expecting you.” He hardly moved, but now there was a shotgun in his left hand.
I showed him the palms of my hands. “This place always did have the friendliest service.”
“Ever since you left.”
“You’re upset I didn’t have time to say goodbye?”
Aiken took a step to the right. His aim didn’t waver, and he pressed a button under the bar. “Demarco’s here.”
Shit. “I was hoping we could keep this conversation between the two of us.”
“Not after what you did.”
My mind raced. What the hell had I done? I had debts here. Nothing big—well nothing that big. They were the kind of debts that went away if a person ditched out of town for a decade. It had been four years and that shotgun aimed at my chest told me they hadn’t done much forgetting yet.
Slowly, while keeping eye contact with Aiken, I reached into my pocket and withdrew a dime. I walked over to the jukebox and dropped the coin in. They didn’t have much in the way of blues around these parts. Everything on the list had a certain level of pep to it that didn’t jive with my current mood. Finally, I found something sufficiently morose and set it to playing on the tinny sound system. It featured a deep saxophone solo that ached in the heart.
“Somebody’s been telling stories,” I said, approaching the bar.
Aiken shook his head. “I’ve seen the evidence, Demarco. We used to be pals and that’s the only reason I haven’t plugged you already.” The icy look in his eyes told me he was telling the truth.
“There’s plenty bad in all our lives, Aiken.” I placed my hands on the bar. His shotgun was inches away, but I’d never get it from him before he perforated me. “I’d be interested in seeing this evidence.”
A voice came through his intercom. I could barely hear it over the crooning of the music. “Show him the video.” It was a woman’s voice, with the weary hint of old age nipping at its edges.
Aiken pressed a few buttons and the screen behind him flickered to life. Grainy, gray footage of a large, empty hallway came alive. A liminal space, not the crisp, powerful surveillance of one of Trinity’s controlled areas. The video played for several seconds, showing the empty space, but he didn’t need to show me any more.
I knew that place. It was burned indelibly into my memory for all time.
My heart hammered as the video rolled forward.
“All I need is the location of a man who passed through here,” I said. “We don’t need to do this.”
Aiken’s smile returned, but his dimples failed to reappear. “Your timing’s funny. This video just fell into our laps.”
“I bet.”
The video jumped. Without sound, it looked as if the camera had been bumped, but I knew the truth. The cruiser docking at that airlock had just slammed into the station. Redundant failsafes were failing and every passenger onboard was in danger.
“Come on,” I said, failing to keep the edge of panic from my voice. “What is it you want?”
“We want you to watch,” said the woman’s voice through the intercom. The voice sounded achingly familiar.
“Who are you, lady?”
“None of your concern,” she said.
“She’s an information broker,” Aiken said.
On the video, the airlock door opened, and the world shook. Several people rushed through the door. A man in a tweed suit, the janitor who worked for my family’s estate for years, three women in their Sunday best, my sister, and me. Young, barely pubescent Jude Demarco in all my glory. I swallowed back the bile of hate I felt for that boy. As the boy on the screen reached the console, another crash cascaded through the corridor. My sister flew straight up, smashing her back on the bulkhead. Others tumbled and flew, one of them skewing the camera with a solid thump.
“We know what you did on that console,” the woman said. “We can prove that you endangered the whole city.”
But I was already on my way out of the Ever Upward. I didn’t care if Aiken shot me in the back. They could make it all public for all I cared. Watch as the mobs came at me for everything I’d done. They were right. This was a damn fine piece of blackmail, and an excellent reason to hate me.
My pulse pounded in my throat, and bitter bile rose in my throat.
The crowd parted in chaos around me. Squinting against the searing bright light, I careened forward, not caring where I was going as long as it wasn’t there. As long as I didn’t need to relive that horrible memory. The day my sister was injured. The day my parents died.
And there were so many more who died that day.
A hand gripped my shoulder, and I swung a wild haymaker, missing Aiken by half a mile.
He shoved me against a wall. He’d left his gun at the bar. Nobody carried weapons in Onegee Nicodemia. Not openly, anyway. Maybe that’s all that saved me.
“Listen,” Aiken growled. He shoved something hard into my ribs. Warm, wet blood oozed down my side, but he didn’t go deep. “If it were up to me you’d be a dead man right now, but that’s not the play. I get a lot of money by turning you over, you asshole, and that goes away if you’re dead.”
“That’d be a shame, wouldn’t it?”
He slipped something into one of my pockets and took a step back. By the time I turned he’d concealed his knife. “Go where that sends you. Do what it says.” His lips tightened into a thin line. “We used to be close, Demarco. I thought you were a decent guy. So, what’s going to happen to you when people who don’t even know you see what I’ve seen?”
I balled my fists, letting my pain channel into rage. My old friend turned on me. Blackmail. “All I want is the location of a guy.”
“You’re not getting it from me,” Aiken said. “So, piss off and do what you’re supposed to do. Maybe you’ll get out of town without taking the long dive, but Demarco?”
I stared at him without saying a word.
“Don’t ever come back.”
A siren sounded somewhere far off in the distance. I didn’t know if it was meant for me, but I wasn’t going to wait around to find out. Without looking back at Aiken I stepped into the pedestrian flow, letting its massed anonymity swallow me whole.

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About the author

AWEichenlaub

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

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