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Modern fashion didn’t allow for trench coats in Hallow Nicodemia, so I settled for a new button-down shirt, some comfortable slacks, and a subdued burgundy tie. Everything fit nicely, but that and an egg sandwich burned up the last roll of dimes Beck had left me before she disappeared without a trace.
Not without a trace. She had left a note that said, Goodbye, Demarco. Funny how a woman can stab a person through the heart with so few words. Beck always had been efficient.
I wandered the city unsettled and alone. With Beck gone, my only conclusion was that Violet was no longer my boss, but there were still questions that I couldn’t let drop. The first one lingering in my mind was the stranger. I kept an eye to the shadows wherever I went, but he didn’t show. He probably finished following me as soon as Ruiz stopped paying me. The whole business didn’t make sense, unless—
Unless.
I checked the dive bars first. If the man needed to burn time, a stiff drink would help. Hallow Nicodemia’s light gravity allowed faster, better transportation, so canvassing all the worst places only took me the better part of the afternoon. They were all drinking holes designed for the working class people who weren’t Travelers. When I stepped inside each one, the light crowd would stop and stare. I was a Traveler to them. A cruel master looking to slum around in places they felt were sacred.
It was only when I spoke that they accepted me. “Looking for a guy,” I said in a sharp Heavies accent. “tough sort. Kinda older. Fedora.”
“He in trouble?”
“Not from me.” If I was right, I was the least of his concerns.
“We haven’t seen anyone like that today.”
Next, I checked the museums. If I was right about who he was, he’d have at least a passing interest in the arts. Hell, everyone around the Hallows had a passing interest. The stranger could have burned an afternoon at one of the many art museums.
Museums swarmed with natives of Hallow Nicodemia, who were as tall as me but with their noses pointed permanently toward the ceiling. When I spoke to the museum hosts, they regarded me the way a servant regards a boss, and when I spoke to them I dragged my vowels thick with the Hallow accent.
“You seen a guy about this tall come through here today? Older gentleman? Likes to wear good-looking hats?”
“Like a bowler?”
“More of the Fedora type.”
The host frowned as if trying to remember every guest they’d seen all day.
“About this tall,” I repeated.
“Oh, no. None of the workers bother much with the arts.”
“They’re too busy?”
“Something like that.”
By the time I finished with those, the sky grew dark and the moons sat lazy in the projected sky.
As the last of the the massive fiberoak doors swung shut behind me, an understanding blossomed in my brain. The stranger wasn’t an art fanatic like Vitez. Vitez was passionate about the art and dreamed of nothing more than to experience the various beauties of humanity’s creation. He had been an art dealer simply so he could touch the works of genius as they passed through his hands. Later, art had become an obsession for the man. He created his museum in space so that he could have, all to himself, the art that he had so often seen changing hands. He might have wanted to protect it for the ages, but something told me what he really wanted was to have it for himself.
The stranger—if he was who I thought he was—didn’t feel that way. That man was a hacker. He loved technology the way Vitez loved art, and he made it his life’s goal to be the best of the best at mastering the machine. There was only one place in Hallow Nicodemia where such a man would go to spend his time.
The Apex.
Swift transport buzzed past me, but my feet carried me past the Cathedral of Saint Lucy of the Light. Even though I had been contemplating the chase all afternoon, this certainty of my success meant that I needed to really consider what I might say. If he split before I could catch him or if I caught him the wrong way, he might never give me the answers I needed. I didn’t know if he was a killer. My survival the previous night hinted that he would hesitate, but what I had to say might put him over the edge.
A man protecting a secret was a deadly man indeed.
The priests of the cathedral still had Beck’s crimson gun, but I didn’t bother trying to get it back. They wouldn’t be happy with how things had gone with Vitez. I was taking enough of a risk walking so close to the towering glass structure.
Upspiral from the cathedral, the population began to thin. Hallow Nicodemia didn’t have a dense population like the other nodes of the city, but even that turned into a downright suburb in the upper reaches. Plants swallowed every surface, starting with mossy grasses near the cathedral, then transitioning to dense vines over high arching trellises. The air was heavy with the humidity and the scent of flowers. The path along the inner spiral thinned until it was nothing but a weaving trail through a dense forest. Up above, the leaves of mighty oaks waved in the gentle wind, and my feet crunched a loosely packed duff layer of leaves.
Nestled in these many winding passages through the plants were mansions the likes of which residents of Heavy Nicodemia have never imagined. One of them, modest by comparison, was the one where my sister and I grew up. It might have been nice to visit the place, but I had a mission. I continued my climb upward.
There was almost no government district in Hallow Nicodemia. At the very tip of the upward spiral, seven brick buildings stood. Flying transports still carried a straggling trickle of government workers down to their residences below. Government was a farce in this node. Trinity truly ran everything for the Hallows. Trust in the machine was so deeply seated in every Traveler’s heart that they were comfortable depending upon it for every aspect of their lives. It was a leftover cultural ideology from the Travelers’ long voyage between the stars.
When I finally arrived at the top, the air warmed palpably as I pressed into the uppermost liminal space. Vegetation parted to reveal a domed room a hundred yards in diameter. Above, the great white sun shone through tinted glass. The light burned my senses, searing into my skull and scouring my soul down to the bone. It was fire on my skin.
In the center of the room, a circular railing stood around a hole in the floor. That hole overlooked all of Hallow Nicodemia, and a lone figure stood watching the city below. Waiting.
The stranger looked up as I approached. His expression darkened as he saw me, but something in his stature looked defeated.
“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” he said.
“Couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get some questions answered,” I said.
“I figured.”
His sad eyes caught mine, and for a moment I wasn’t sure what he wanted. It should have been obvious. “The truth eats a hole in a person if its bottled up too long,” I said. “So tell me, Mr. Richard Ruiz, what really happened that day you stole the Garden of Earthly Delight, and why does your wife still think you’re dead.”

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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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