“Priest,” I said, my voice a deep rumble in my chest. Beck still slept curled up next to me, her warm body rising and falling with each deep breath.
The priest was a silhouette in the office door. I don’t know how long he’d been watching, but he didn’t move when I spoke.
After a moment, he said, “I thought you would be gone by now.”
With great effort I extracted myself from Beck. She barely stirred. Her painkillers would wear off soon, but for now they still kept her under. The nap had only lasted a couple of hours, but I felt more rested than I had after a long night’s sleep. I smiled at the priest. “We appreciate the assistance, Father.”
“Normally, you people are gone before I come back,” he said. A hint of peevishness lingered in the tone of his voice.
I gave him a weak smile. “I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“Everyone has somewhere to go,” he said. “Trinity cares for us all.”
“Not all of us,” I said.
The expression on his face ran through a rainbow of emotions. Fear first. Fear was always first. He understood that I was outside the system. Then his eyes narrowed as his priestly greed considered how this could be turned to his advantage. Finally, resignation came in the drooping of his jowls. “I shouldn’t have let you in here.”
“I’m excommunicated from Trinity. Not the church.”
He opened his palms in an accepting gesture. “These are the same to us. Trinity does God’s will, and if you have become excommunicated, then the church shouldn’t allow you access to its tools.”
“Would you let a man starve?” I gestured at Beck. “Would you have let her die if you had known?”
The priest walked down the hallway, and I followed. “Sometimes it is best to let God’s will play out.”
I shook my head in disbelief.
The priest pursed his lips. “You need to leave.”
His voice went up an octave. “Excuse me?”
“She needs time to recover, Priest. Your duty is to those who need help.”
“She is stable enough to move.”
Beck stepped out of the office. The ragged, bloody edges of her shirt still hung in scraps around her abdomen. The bandages covering her wound hadn’t bled through, though, so I figured the glue was probably holding well enough.
“Beck,” I said, “you need rest.”
She flashed a weak smile. “You heard the man in black. We need to leave.”
“Sam will be waiting for us out there,” I said.
The priest tugged the cuffs of his black shirt, and adjusted a thin silver bracelet. “It’s for the best.”
“Demarco,” Beck said through gritted teeth.
“I want my gun back.”
I patted the pocket of my coat where the pistol sat. “You need it right now?”
“I want to point it at this priest.”
The priest took a step back and cleared his throat.
“What do you want to do that for?” I asked.
“It’ll make it easier to shoot him.”
“Now hold on.” I took the gun out of my pocket. Its crimson barrel caught the light like a cardinal’s robes. “Nobody needs to point a gun at a priest.”
Beck fixed her gaze on me with a hard stare. “We do if he keeps on being an asshole.”
“First of all,” I said, taking a step away from her. Beck looked weak, but her intense gaze made me nervous. “We need to discuss your criteria regarding who deserves to get shot.”
She nodded at the priest. “He does.”
“This guy was here for us last night when you were bleeding out. He showed us where to access the medical supplies that you needed, and he left us enough room so that I could perform the necessary surgery.” I put an arm around the priest’s shoulders. “None of that makes him an asshole.”
“Give me the gun, Demarco.”
“I think I’ll keep it.”
“I should be going.” The priest tried to pull away, but I tightened my grip on him.
“Maybe we should finish that theological debate, Father,” I growled.
His eyes locked on the pistol in my hand, which was pointed at the floor. “Are you threatening me, Mr. Demarco?”
“Hard to see how that could happen, considering excommunication means I can’t even talk to you.”
“That’s clearly not what it means.”
Beck stepped forward. Some of the color had come back to her skin and she was standing on her own. “This priest knows more than he’s letting on.”
The old man squirmed in my grip, but I had him tight.
Beck said, “I told you I was tracking the paper trail. There’s a ring of art aficionados in town. This guy was at the meetup.”
“Was he?” I looked questioningly at the priest, but his face gave up about as much as a brick wall.
“He was in the wings, but I got a good look at him. His buddies wouldn’t talk, and soon as things got rough, he was gone. So, I know he’s tied to the art theft in this town and he’s a coward.”
I nodded. “Hence, wanting to point a gun at him.”
“Get some answers.”
We both stared down the priest until he cracked.
“She’s a murderer,” the priest said. “A cold-hearted killer. You don’t understand, Mr. Demarco. She’s not going to let me live whether I talk or not, so go ahead and point that gun at me. So what if the church is involved in the art trade. There’s nothing illegal about what we do.”
“Trafficking stolen goods isn’t illegal?”
“Trade is the lifeblood of Onegee Nicodemia. Everyone knows that. If art passes through here, we make sure we have a handle on where it’s coming from and where it’s going. The church’s interest is that religious works are preserved and accounted for.”
“Exactly,” Beck said. “He knows right where we need to go next.”
“And you won’t get that information from me. My goal is to keep the art in the hands of those who care for it. Not the bloodied hands of a killer.”
Beck hugged her arms close to herself, hiding her bloodied hands. It was her blood, but the move made her look guilty as sin.
“Listen, Priest,” I said in my mellowest voice, “you might not trust her, but you can trust me.”
“The excommunicated man.”
“Excommunicated from the AI. I’m still a decent guy.”
“They always say that.”
I let go of the man’s shoulder. “Priests are supposed to find the good in people. You’re supposed to take confession and give penance. When someone comes to your door asking for help, you offer it. That’s the job description.”
He said, “I won’t be a part of this.”
“Shoot him in the leg,” Beck said.
“You’re not helping, Beck.”
“Neither are you, Demarco.”
I turned back to the priest. “I just want to get the painting back to someone who’ll take care of it. It’s one third of a triptych and belongs with the rest of the painting.”
He took a step back. One more step and he’d bolt, I was sure of it. Beck was in no condition to chase him down, and I didn’t think I could bring myself to hard tackle a priest in his own church, whether or not he was an asshole.
I stowed the gun in my pocket and held my hands up, palms outward. “Let me tell you what I know, Father. Call it a confession, so it’s confidential.”
“That’s not how it works.”
“Look how much I don’t care. The Garden of Earthly Delight was taken from its resting place in Catalonia about a decade ago. Someone decided to move it to a safer location, and in transit there was a heist. Things didn’t go according to plan. The operation got dicey and two of the thieves escaped with one of the panels. They high-tailed it out here to the colony, figuring they could find a buyer. Guy by the name of Troy Vitez sold out his partner and came through Onegee Nicodemia with his prize. Following so far?”
He gave no response.
“Bringing hell with him in the form of an ancient painting, Vitez found a few things he liked around here. He brought the painting to a few museums in town, discovering that letting them do a full scan earned him a little spending cash. He took that cash to change his identity, which allowed him to move even farther north to the Hallows, that lucky guy. Walking into heaven with a crate full of hell.”
The priest swallowed. His eyes darted to the exit at the end of the hall, but he must not have liked his odds because he stood still.
“But here’s the thing. Fake IDs don’t stand up too well to the Hallow Nicodemia customs office. He needed something real. Something that looked a whole lot like a real birth certificate. Maybe a First Communion or a Baptism or something to complete the picture.”
This got the priest’s attention. “You think I forged his documents?”
“I think you gave him real documents, with the assumption that he was telling the truth about needing replacements for them after his long journey. What did he tell you? Space accident? Asteroid encounter? Databank corruption? Whatever it was, I’m sure it was a thin excuse. You chose to believe it because that’s how the church justifies itself in the criminal underworld. You make sure people carrying important artifacts get where they’re going safely, whether it means bending plausibility or not.”
The air went out of the priest. His jowls sagged and his shoulders slumped. “What do you want from me?”
“I want the name, Father. Who did Troy Vitez become?
“I don’t know.”
Beck spoke up, “Then find out.” There was enough threat laced into Beck’s voice to leave trace radiation.
The priest locked eyes with Beck and gave a slight nod. He led us down the long hall. The deeper layers of the church had more life to them than the upper layers. Carpets covered the floors and vacuum-preserved art decorated otherwise drab walls. I thought about giving the priest a hard time about hoarding all the best treasures, but he’d probably heard it all before.
Walking behind the priest, I leaned over to Beck and whispered, “How are you feeling this morning?”
She flashed a mischievous smile. “What did you give me? I feel great.”
“Painkiller cocktail and a bag of synthblood. The synth they use here has a better O2 conversion than normal red blood cells. Keeps it so we don’t need to give you quite so much.”
Beck placed a hand on her side where I’d sealed the wound. “You fixed me up.”
“Go easy for a few days. It’s basically glued together, and anything too rough is going to pull it open.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, I know. I sound like your mom. I get that a lot.”
“Lester’s going to run,” she whispered.
“Lester.” When I still didn’t comprehend, she said, “Father Lester. Didn’t you even read the bulletin?”
“I don’t go to mass anymore.”
She shrugged. “I did my research.”
“You were planning on coming after this guy anyway. That’s why you wanted me to take you to the church.” Once again, I was impressed by her ruthless efficiency.
“I trailed him back here, and then I had to go find your sorry ass.”
“Sorry about that.”
She flashed a wicked smile. “It’s the least I could do.”
Father Lester led us down another set of wide stairs. We were so deep in the church we had to be close to coming out the sky of the lower level. I pictured us opening a door and falling straight into the tenements below. It wouldn’t be the first time someone fell from the sky, though typically it happened when maintenance workers were opening panels they ought not to open.
The hall opened into a record repository that dwarfed the one down in the government center of the Heavies. Row upon row of tall, thin shelves stretched far enough that the floor sloped up along the spiral. All that separated us from the archive was a clear wall of resinsteel. There was no door.
“How do we get in?” I asked.
“We don’t,” said the priest, “we make requests to the archive, and it brings us the papers.”
I wasn’t a fan. “If Trinity decides what papers you see, how is that any better than letting the AI store it digitally?”
“It’s not Trinity,” said the priest in a grave tone. Something about his demeanor bothered me.
“You have your own proprietary AI?”
He gestured at a terminal on the wall. “Go ahead, request what you need.”
“Records issued,” I said into the terminal’s microphone, giving it the dates in question. “And cross reference that with anything about Troy Vitez around that time period.”
Father Lester took a step closer to the exit, but I kept him in my peripheral. Beck was right. He was a runner if I’d ever seen one. Only, Beck wasn’t up for chasing him and I’d never been the quickest guy around. “Priest,” I said without looking up from the terminal. The numbers flashed up on the screen, but it was too much information.
I braced myself and asked him something that had been bothering me. “When you said being excommunicated from Trinity meant the same as being excommunicated from the Church, what did you mean?”
Father Lester bristled. “It’s just like it sounds. Trinity acts as an agent of the Lord our God, and if Trinity has decided your position in society, then we must respect it.”
But the priest wasn’t respecting it. That was what bothered me. “How long has that been policy?”
“As far back as the first time Trinity came online. The Catholics of the time designed the AI to be treated in this way.”
It didn’t make sense. “When I lived here before, I never noticed the policy, and it certainly isn’t the case down in the Heavies.”
“Well, even if that’s true, I’m sure it won’t last long. For the sake of consistency it’s important we all understand the doctrine of our faith.”
“Sure.” On the screen, the document collection had filtered down to only a thousand docs. I paged through the abstracts, looking for something I could use. “You worship the computer.”
A flash of anger crossed his face before he returned to his placid, priestly self. “We do not worship Trinity any more than we worship the saints.”
“So you say.”
His fists clenched at his sides. “There is no god but God, Mr. Demarco. You know that.”
I found what I was looking for. A document for someone in the right timeframe matching the right description. It even had a retrieval of customs documentation for his rather large luggage. I poked at the screen. “Retrieve this document. I want to look at it.”
Inside the sealed room, an arm descended from the ceiling and zoomed off through the room.
The priest took another step toward the door.
“I wouldn’t do that, Lester,” Beck said. Her voice dripped with a threat I’m pretty sure she couldn’t follow up.
“Let him go,” I said. “We have what we want.”
“Nothing,” I said. “Priest, go in peace.”
“What?” Beck shouted.
“We never meant you any harm,” I said to Father Lester. “I’ve got nothing but respect for the church, even if your branch does lean a little more machinist for my taste.”
His jaw worked like he wanted to respond to that, but better judgment won out, and he slipped out the door. The sound of his footsteps faded down the hall.
Beck got up in my face. “That guy was scum, Demarco.”
“He was a priest.”
“I sure as hell hope you have a plan.”
“Did you notice how he kept stalling?”
“We were having a nice conversation.” I picked up the paper as the robot deposited it in the slot. “August. Trey’s new name is August Savior.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
I considered my options and cycled through the interface for older records. “I’m looking for anything on the wreck of the Benevolent.”
The machine cycled for several seconds, then delivered a single thin document. It was worse than useless. A couple paragraphs describing what could have fit any docking crash in the history of Nicodemia.
“Using church resources for personal gain?” Beck asked.
“Something like that.” The comment gave me an idea. “Computer, I need a map of this church and the surrounding maintenance tunnels.” The machine listed a hundred copies. I picked a fairly recent one and sent the robot arm dashing off for it. “I figure the church is still a sanctuary for us. If the priest alerted anyone to our presence, they’ll be waiting to jump us when we walk out the door.”
“So, we’re going to sneak out the back?”
The map dropped into the slot and I held it up for Beck to see. It had the same tunnel design as the cathedral in the Heavies. “Better,” I said, “we’re going to follow the tunnels all the way up to the northern port. In a few hours, we’ll be in Hallow Nicodemia.”
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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