“A lot of people think the Catholic Church’s reverence for the Saints is a kind of idolatry,” I said, popping a grape into my mouth. The burst of sweet exploded on my tongue.
Beck squinted in the harsh light. Even under the shaded canopy attached to an open-air restaurant, the brilliance of Hallow Nicodemia pierced even the best sunglasses. She nudged the fruit tray between us with a look of distaste on her full lips. “Is that what you believe?”
“I’m a lot of things,” I said, “but I’m not a theologian.”
“You seemed pretty upset about how those boys back there felt about Trinity.”
“Those ‘boys’ are blurring the line between the AI and the divine.”
“That’s exactly what a theologian would say.” Her eyes twinkled. She had recovered significantly since the ordeal of the church, but if she didn’t eat, she would fade fast.
“I like to think of myself as opinionated but uneducated.”
“You’re the worst kind of opinionated, then.” She finally took a peach and bit into it. The juices dribbled from her lips and a laugh escaped as she tried to contain the mess. “I can see why people like it here.”
“Give me a bowl of noodles and a dark cafe any day,” I said.
She took another bite and let the flesh of the peach linger on her tongue as if its flavor were the grace of God. “We don’t have these on the ship. I think Violet is allergic.”
“You gave up a lot to travel with her.”
Beck took a huge bite of peach, this time letting the juices dribble down her chin onto her plate. She didn’t break eye contact with me until she swallowed. “You have no idea.”
Heat rose in the back of my throat, and suddenly the suit that had fit so perfectly suffocated me. Instead of responding to her, I searched the crowds passing by outside the restaurant, keeping an eye out for the stranger who had followed us.
Amusement laced Beck’s words when she finally spoke again. “Do you think Sam followed us up here?”
“I doubt he could gain access,” I said without thinking. “Saint Jerome might have that kind of pull, but if Sam’s on his own, then I don’t think we need to worry about him as long as we’re up here.”
“That’s something, at least.”
I met her heavy-lidded gaze. “We’ll have to deal with him eventually.”
“You will, maybe,” she said. When she saw my curious expression, she said, “I’m an optimist, remember? I still think I can probably get away with the painting before he catches up to me.”
Her words smothered my mood like a leaded blanket. “You’re right,” I said. “You’ll probably be gone.” I don’t know why, but the embers of old anger boiled up in my belly. It was all I could do to keep my voice steady. “That’s the kind of person you are, aren’t you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Her face went pale and gray and flat.
“Why did you leave Earth?”
“Life is complicated.”
Beck gestured at the too-bright Hallows. “Why did you leave this place? They seem to welcome you back well enough. A guy like you could do well around these parts. A whole lot better than being crushed down in the Heavies.” She leaned forward. “Or are you punishing yourself like Maurice?”
“I think you mean to say, ‘Thank you for saving me back there,’” I snapped.
“If I’d had my gun—”
“Neither of us has a gun now,” I snapped, as if it were her fault.
She held her palms out. “I’m not saying we need one.”
“Sounds like you are.”
Her attention shifted to the meandering crowds. “I had a rough time on Earth.” She plucked a grape from the fruit tray and rolled it between two long fingernails, puncturing it slightly. “Ever since my father was killed…”
The hairs on the back of my neck bristled. I got the impression that she was trying to manipulate me with the hint about her past and something in me hated it. But when wasn’t she trying to manipulate me? After all, I was supposed to be working for her. Her whole job was convincing me to help her out.
Again, I wondered why.
“The priest is right. We won’t need a gun for what we’re doing,” I said.
She popped the grape into her mouth. “I hope not.” Again, she watched me through half-lidded eyes. “For your sake.”
“The auction is in the warehouse district behind Saint Lucy of the Light,” I said.
Her expression grew serious. So serious I thought she might be mocking me. “We seem to spend a lot of time back there.”
“This time it’s for the job,” I said, remembering Retch and his secret home. “I promise. I’m done with distractions.”
She ate another grape, chewing it slowly and extracting every molecule of pleasure from it that she possibly could. “Are you sure?”
I wanted to tell her that I knew it the second I had stepped into Hallow Nicodemia. I’d felt in my bones how my former home could never be my home again. How it could never offer answers that would satisfy my curiosity. I’d never find justification for the way my parents were killed, and I’d never find the connection of friends and family that I’d once only found here. My sister lived down in Heavy Nicodemia. She was happy there. That was my family. She was my connection to a life that otherwise rejected me. I wanted to tell Beck all of this and confess to her that I didn’t give one good goddamn about this whole place or the people in it.
But I couldn’t. All I said was, “Yeah. Let’s find that painting.”
With that, we pushed the plate aside, paid our bill with a scattering of dimes, and allowed ourselves to be swallowed in the afternoon crowds of Hallow Nicodemia.
“Do you know the problem with being an optimist?” I asked.
She raised an eyebrow.
I pointed up at the sky, where the harsh sunlight was starting to fade. “It doesn’t matter how much of an optimist you are,” I said. “It’s still going to rain.”
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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