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The Cathedral of Saint Lucy of the Light was a monument of mirrors and glass befitting of its name. Inside, stained glass refracted the candle soft glow to make the whole of the structure burn with the powerful illumination of a hundred false suns. It was like stepping under a magnifying glass when the sunlight was already too bright to bear. In the center of the halo of light stood two priests.
“Just distract them,” I said to Beck. “I’ll go downstairs.”
Beck’s footsteps cracked like whips in the otherwise silent space, drawing the grim attention of the two priests. I abandoned her to their judgment, ducking into a side passage that I remembered from the Onegee version of the same cathedral. The materials that made the space were different, but the layout was exactly the same. That meant I could find what I wanted by going down to the documents room.
Or, at least, I thought I could. As soon as I veered from the main room, the lights grew dim. The walls behind the narthex were steel and stone, lit by Trinity’s benevolent glow. Those lights wouldn’t shine on me, so I took out my lighter and navigated by its flickering dance.
These walls were sharply different from the ones in Onegee or the Heavies. They held art, sometimes ancient painting or vases decorated with depictions of the stations of the cross. Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross stood sealed under glass at the end of one hallway, it’s sharp perspective lending the space a greater depth. Gold framed fragments the original Notre Dame stood on a vacuum-sealed pedastal. These were the halls of a fully decorated and wealthy Catholic church. A Vatican in space. I followed along, picking my way through to where Onegee’s cathedral had its morgue. The morgue sat empty, but the smell of preservatives lingered on the air. Beyond that, I picked my way through halls and down stairs until I found my way where Father Lester had shown us the document room.
If the records of Onegee were any indication, this church might contain every answer I needed. I could learn about Trey Vitez’s new identity, August Savior. These records might have more about my parents and the crash that killed them. Or I could learn about my childhood and all the things we never think about when we’re growing up that bother us so much as adults. What exactly did my parents do? Where did our wealth come from? Even as a teen I was protected from that information, and something bothered me about that.
The third level down I hit a snag. Where Onegee’s cathedral had another staircase, this version had installed an elevator—one that wouldn’t respond to my excommunicated face.
“Come on,” I said to the wall. “Open up.”
It didn’t.
Prying did no good. The systems kept the doors shut solid, like the heavy steel of a security gate. There was a panel in the wall that might have offered an override, but it sat dormant. No need to light up if nobody was around.
I was just thinking about finding some tools to smash it open when a light came on around the corner. I hurried away from the elevator and doused my light, letting the shadows surround me.
“Father said he came down this way,” said a voice. It had the deep resonance of a large man.
The second guy had a thin, reedy voice. “Security doesn’t show any movement at all.”
“There are ways around security.”
“You think it’s the thief?”
The two men approached the elevator door. One of them was a big guy with muscles that tested the elasticity of his humble acolyte robes. The other was shorter than me by a head and thin as a rail. The console in the wall flashed to life as they approached.
The one with the deep voice spoke, surprising me when it turned out to be the thin man. “Father said to have a look down here, so we’ll take a look.”
This wasn’t the door to an unguarded apartment complex, it was an elevator. The likelihood of sneaking up behind these men, riding the elevator, and getting where I needed to go seemed on the low side, so I took a more direct approach.
“Greetings, gentlemen,” I said, stepping from the shadows. “I was hoping you might help me.”
The thin man took a step away from me.
“Surprised?” I asked. “Don’t you take everything your priest tells you as gospel truth?”
The big man flexed, no doubt an attempt at intimidation. I did my best to not show how much it worked.
“We’re going to have to ask you to leave, sir,” rumbled the thin man. “Immediately.”
“I’m just here to take a look at some documents,” I said. “I’m investigating some stolen art.”
“You won’t find any documents down there.”
The big man made a grab at my arm, but I twisted away.
Without taking my eyes from the big guy, I said, “When I’m done I’ll leave. We’ll both be happy. You can watch to make sure I don’t steal anything out of your storage room.”
For a brief second I thought they might do something smart. I wasn’t really a threat to them or their church. What could the church possibly have to hide that would interest me? Even if it did have something to hide, they could easily steer me away from it if only they accompanied me to the document center.
The thin man clicked his tongue.
Big guy lunged, but I was ready for it. I dropped my weight and stepped forward, coming in below his center of gravity. It had been a long time since I’d fought in lower gravity, but schoolyard scuffles take a long time to fade from a boy’s memory. I hit him low in the stomach, lifted, and threw him behind me as hard as I could. He flew down the hall and slammed into the wall.
By the time he hit the floor, I was on the thin man, but he wasn’t such an easy target.
He blocked a dozen grabs in half as many seconds. The thin man moved with a fluid grace that only came from rigorous martial arts training. His center of gravity was low and balanced, and he protected his center. If I overcommitted, I had no doubt he would throw me. A kick snapped out at my head, but I twisted away, turning it into a glancing blow. A punch to my elbow sent spikes of pain through my whole arm.
I swore.
“Have some respect,” said the thin man, “this is a church.”
“I give the church all the goddamn respect it deserves,” I sad. Angry heat burned behind my eyes. Too much anger. It made me sloppy.
A scuff on the hard floor was my only warning the big guy was up. I turned just in time to catch the full weight of a charge. The blow pushed me toward the thin man, but I kept my footing. The big guy was taller than me, and he had a lot of muscle.
But I’d just spent a decade in the Heavies. Years of hard living had turned me into a pillar of muscle.
His legs pumped, trying to force me to the ground. I shifted my weight, took hold of his wrists, and shoved. He moved. His eyes went wide and he looked at me like I was some kind of monster. Maybe I was.
The big guy was a distraction. The thin man struck me in the back, first with a kick to the back of the knee, then a punch to the kidney. Damn, I’d be pissing blood after that. A roundhouse kick to the side of the head made the world spin.
It also made me mad.
Hollering in righteous fury, I pulled hard at the big man’s wrists, yanking him off balance. Still staggering from the blow to the head, I switched grips, picking the big man up by his acolyte robes and throwing him as hard as I could at his rapidly backpedaling ally. The two collided and collapsed, landing in a tangle on the ground.
I strode forward, fists clenched at my sides. “Listen up,” I said. The big man tried to stand, but I slammed a fist into the back of his head. “I’ve got some business here, and you’re going to help me out.”
“Never,” gasped the thin man. He was pinned and couldn’t extract himself. “This is The Church you’re messing with, and we are bound to protect it.
“I didn’t say you’d have a choice,” I said. “And I’m not doing anything against your church.” I wondered again what the church had that was so worth protecting.
When the big man tried to get up again, I took his wrist—he was so slow—and locked his elbow. Keeping the thin man in the corner of my eye so he wouldn’t try to sneak up behind me, I used the big man’s hand to activate the console. The elevator door slid open.
That was when the big man started to struggle. I could barely keep him under control. He dipped low and lifted, but the weight of my body against the joint lock became too much. He couldn’t lift me.
“That move might work on lighter folk,” I said, “but I’m heavy right down to my damn soul.”
This time it was the big man who swore, earning him a scowl from his partner. I pulled the big man into the elevator, used his hand again to activate the controls, and soon we were going down to the document level where Saint Lucy’s records were kept. It would be information on my parents, August Savior, and any number of answers I so desperately wanted. Apart from the government—maybe more so than the government—the church was the greatest record-keeper in the entire of Nicodemia. The church thrived on its history and the long memory of the Catholic Church was the sole source of its power.
Only, when the elevator opened, it revealed a long expanse of empty space.
Nothing.
“They got rid of the documents a while ago,” the big man said, a touch of sadness in the tone of his voice.
“Why?”
“Blasphemy, they say.”
At first it didn’t make sense. How could documentation be blasphemy? How could a long record of a storied history work against the word of God? Then it made sense. “Paper documents only exist to contradict Trinity.”
The big man nodded. I let go of his elbow and he didn’t move to fight me. There was no need. I knew their secret. The church was dissolving from within, succumbing to the machine worship that was so prevalent in the population.
“My parents were Catholic,” I said. “How long has this been going on?”
He shrugged.
“You just work here, don’t you?”
“It feeds the family.” Suddenly I felt bad for hitting him so hard.
“Let’s go,” I said.
He reached for the button to bring us back up.
“Wait,” I said, “what do you know about art thieves?”
He shrugged. “Sometimes we catch them. Trinity won’t prosecute anyone who’s going to take care of the art, so we usually end up letting them go.”
I furrowed my brow. “How does that work? Shouldn’t the police get involved?”
“Police defer to Trinity, and Trinity goes easy on them. It’s a revolving door prison system, and it’s only a problem for the church and for collectors.”
“Ever heard of a painting called The Garden of Earthly Delights?”
The big man slowly shook his head. “Look, I’m not an expert in the art.”
“No, that’s fine. Where would you go if you were trying to track down a piece that got stolen?”
“I wouldn’t,” he said, and my hope faded. I thought for a brief second the big man might just be able to point me in the right direction. Then, he continued, “I’d talk to Augie and figure out when the next auction was.” He reached out and pushed the elevator button.
“Augie?” I asked. “As in August?”
“Nice guy. He’s a collector, and he always seems to know when the black market is active. He’s been known to buy up stolen paintings and donate them back to the church were they belong.”
“Sounds like a real saint.”
“Don’t let him hear you say that. He’s pretty much the most humble rich guy I’ve ever met.”
“You’re kidding me.”
He shrugged. “The guy likes art, and he’s been a big help for the church.” Before I could respond, the elevator dinged and he turned to me. “So, Gregor probably had time to get some backup.”
“I’ll go quiet.”
He winced by way of an apology. “No,” he said, “it’s probably not going to be quiet.”
The elevator door opened to reveal the thin man flanked by two stocky, suited men carrying truncheons. They grinned at me through ugly teeth. Muscle from the Heavies, if I had to judge. Hired muscle.
I put my dukes up. “All right, then,” I said. “Let’s do this.”

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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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