The days of Onegee Nicodemia were brighter than those of the Heavies, but the nights were just as dark. When finally nighttime fell over the city, the bleak, black alleys grew familiar once again. Grim pedestrians passed on the street under the neon glow of the jazz nightclubs dotting the cityscape. The world grew into a kind of mournful wail only found in the emphatic insistence of brass and wood.
Trinity, the AI, was different here, a separate instance of the same core program. “Body, soul, community” got a new interpretation in each bead, and Onegee Nicodemia was a place where the structure of community was scaffolded by rules. Lights on the sidewalks told pedestrians which way to walk. Neighborhood curfews brought streets under control at night. In this city, everyone knew when to work, when to eat, when to play. It wasn’t a terrible place to live, but it wasn’t exactly a free society.
Onegee Nicodemia didn’t have street food or free markets, but there were gambling halls nestled into its darkest edges. They called out to me—promised to fill the void in my chest not with answers but with the endless siren song of cards and chips.
The first few haunts I visited were closed, but I finally found one with a dim lantern still glowing over its recessed stoop. Muted voices came from inside, an acknowledgment of broken curfews with an understanding that enforcement would be lax. I entered and hung my hat and coat on the rack.
“Here for a game, sir?” said the host, a swarthy Traveler with a mop of black hair and a double chin. The big man’s mustache twitched as he took me in.
“Thought I’d tap a card or two,” I said. “And grab a bite.”
“Very well.” The host led me to a blackjack table and exchanged a few dimes for gambling chips. “I’ll send the server over immediately.”
I was at a table with three other players, two women wearing fancy hats and a big man with more piercing than ear on the left side of his head. The dealer hands danced over a deck of cards and I landed a jack and a two. An easy choice, so I tapped and picked up a nine. Early victory.
From there, I was hooked. They brought food and drinks. Hours drained into the empty void of blackjack. By the time my river of dimes ran dry, it was well past midnight and the crowd was starting to thin out. I blinked the bleariness away and realized the two women were gone and the fella next to me didn’t have any piercings at all.
“Shot three times,” someone behind me said. “Twice in the chest and once in the head.”
The host responded in a loud whisper. “Professional?”
I twisted around to steal a look at the pair. The host was leaning close to a woman dressed like an off-duty police officer. Very trim. Very blue. Ten dimes said she was a detective of some sort.
“We’re not sure,” she said. “But it was ugly.”
“We should shut down for the night.”
“Probably. Maybe for the week. Blue’s going to be wild after this.”
I stretched my back, which felt as if it had been planted in that same spot for days. I left the gambling hall at the same time as a pack of men in business suits, fog clearing from my mind. A nagging suspicion told me Beck had killed someone, but my head couldn’t put together why. She was armed, of course, but she wasn’t the only one. Firearms were illegal to carry around, but plenty of people still had them.
Plenty of people would use them. Hell, Beck could have been the person shot.
Something told me she wasn’t. I moved through dark alleys again, trying to organize my thoughts. Aiken’s blackmail still made no sense. The paper with my instructions still sat in my pocket.
It was a name and a question. Jacob Donovan. Under it was scrawled the words: Who crashed the Michelangelo?
The Michelangelo. The ship that had crashed as it docked with Onegee Nicodemia all those years ago. That accident had killed my parents and put my sister in a wheelchair. That crash left me with a burden of guilt so heavy it left me excommunicated. It burned in my dreams, and the fact that there was a recording of it made something deep in my chest ache.
I didn’t want to find Donovan. I didn’t want to know one damn thing about that crash. It was the one question I couldn’t answer. My mouth went dry at the thought of it and even though my head still felt fuzzy I wanted another drink. Maybe a few. No, I wouldn’t track down Jacob Donovan. To hell with the blackmail.
Even through the blood-thick haze of alcohol, the memories of my youth refused to stay submerged. The woman’s voice on Aiken’s intercom had resonated with some bone-deep memory. Something there nagged at me.
I needed to track down Vitez, and none of this was helping. The blackmail, the gambling, it was all a distraction from finding that painting. If I could locate Vitez, I could get out of town before things got too bad. The blackmailer didn’t want to release that video. She wouldn’t bother once I’d left. There was no profit in it.
All she wanted was a way to interrogate Jacob Donovan, and the blackmail was a convenient way to make me do the hard work. I wouldn’t do it. She could hire her own damn handyman if she needed a job done. I was busy.
But that meant I needed to finish my work and get out of town fast.
I started to walk, trudging upward along the open spiral, wholly absorbed by the shadows of the empty night.
But I wasn’t so absorbed I couldn’t spot when someone picked up my tail.
The Trinity in Onegee Nicodemia wasn’t as aggressive about lighting the way for nighttime travelers. Maybe that was because there weren’t supposed to be many of them. Maybe it was because the contrast between light and dark was so drastic there. The piercing intensity of their days made the night feel darker. It seeped into the skin and the gentle breeze that had been present in the day turned hard and cold at night.
A hundred steps behind me, a single streetlamp lit as someone passed too close to its detection radius. A while later, it happened again. The follower didn’t step into the light as a normal traveler would. They tried to avoid it. The AI wouldn’t have switched on the lights if they weren’t making direct course for it.
It was almost enough to make me wish I carried a weapon.
The cool breeze helped clear my head of its alcohol haze, and I tried to think of who might be following me. It could be a random criminal, but not likely. Crime tended to be better thought out this high up the gravity well. Beck might have been tailing me, making sure I stayed on task. I liked to think she’d be better at it. Hell, the times she’d tracked me down in the Heavies, I’d never picked up her scent. Who else could it have been? Would Saint Jerome have sent someone already? I wouldn’t have put it past Aiken to tail me, the way he was talking at the bar.
After a long walk and a hard think, I decided it might be more efficient to figure out who wouldn’t be following me. It was a shorter list.
By then, I’d reached the midpoint of the spiral, where the cathedral sat like a post-modern thumb on the pulse of the city. It couldn’t have been more different from the Cathedral of Saint Francis below. Its stark, brutal angles loomed over half the square, and its broad, sweeping windows shone black in the clear night. This was as severe a church as I’d ever seen, and its people more so.
Behind me, now only fifty steps back, another streetlight flared to life. This time, a figure stepped out into the pool of yellow light. He wore a trench coat and a battered fedora, just like me. My doppelgänger’s face was hidden in the harsh shadow under his hat, but I felt the gaze of his stare right through the dark of night. Was this the man from Williams’s photograph? I stood in the blackness of the street, cathedral as my backdrop, and he looked up at me from the darkness below.
He stepped forward out of the light.
I had a choice. Face my follower, or retreat to the safety of the church. I thought of all the bad bets I’d made earlier in the night. My nerves still jangled with the adrenaline. I’d lost all my dimes. Lost my knife and a fair share of my dignity. What did I have to show for it?
Not one damn thing.
I stepped forward.
Thirty yards away I saw a flash—turquoise lenses fitted over his eyes. Night vision. That fits solidly into the loss column for me, then. Night vision gave him a significant advantage if he itched for a fight.
But I didn’t back down. Fists balled at my sides, I strode like a man on fire toward my follower. My footsteps pounded like the drums of war, and if his goggles showed him heat he’d surely see the burning in me.
Twenty steps. I heard the scuff of his boots. Ten, and he stopped.
“Demarco,” he said. His voice was the gruff gravel of a long-time smoker. That voice told me two things about the man speaking it. First, it told me he was an older man, world-weary but still strong. Still determined. This was the voice of a war vet or a criminal—one who had survived the worst and come out the other end tough as nails.
Second, it told me exactly where his jaw was.
My first haymaker went wide, but it was a feint. At the sound of his sidestep I swung a hard backhand. Plastic and glass cracked under my blow. The guy swore.
He staggered back, but I caught his lapel. Three quick jabs and I felt blood slick on my knuckles.
“You got ten seconds to tell me why you’re following me,” I said.
“I got nothin’ to tell you,” he said through red spittle.
“The hell you don’t.” I lifted him and slammed him against the wall. To my gravity-accustomed muscles he was about as light as a toddler. “I know a tail when I see one.”
“Sure, sure,” he said, his pitch rising higher. “They said to follow, that’s it.”
Lifting him with one arm, I finally got a decent look at his face. His lip was fat and bleeding, and the goggles were still askew on his face. He’d have a hell of a black eye in the morning, but nothing he’d learn much of a lesson from. The dark splotch of old tattoos marked the side of his face, further evidence he’d been a criminal of some sort. The symbols weren’t a style I recognized from any local gang, but they were harsh and dark. Almost violent.
“You got some nerve, old man,” I said. “Who put you up to this.”
“Some guy,” he said. “Some guy was paying debts and gambling with real coin, just like you.”
“Sure.” He held his arms out indicating the coat. “Guy gave me this getup and said to follow you. Discretely.”
“You didn’t do all that great a job.”
“He didn’t pay all that much.”
I let him drop to the ground. He landed unsteadily on his feet. “You were set up.”
He rubbed his neck. “I’ve been through worse.”
“What makes you think you’re not about to get worse right now?”
His haggard grin flashed in the dim starlight. “Big softy like you? I bet you’d let the guy who killed your parents walk free.”
“That’s mighty specific.”
The man picked his hat up off the ground and placed it gingerly on his head. “No hard feelings, all right? We’re just a couple guys doing our jobs.”
I let him walk, because what he said dislodged something in the back of my brain. People got paid to do a job. I finally recognized the woman’s voice on Aiken’s intercom. Floretta Smith, my parent’s long-time housekeeper.
The old man strolled away as if nothing bothered him in the world, and I wondered for a long time how much the old guy had been paid for his trouble. It wasn’t until I’d walked halfway up the remains of the spiral that I reached into my pocket and found the note he’d stashed there while we’d scuffled.
It read: Back off the painting, Demarco. Next guy I send won’t be so nice.
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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