/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

Lilith hadn’t spoken since we left the tunnels. I wanted to ask her if she needed medical attention, but the moment I tried to gain ground and catch up, Pill-R stopped me by grabbing onto my hand. The short man shook his head, his unfortunate facial hair blowing up into his nose and mouth. She had just risked her life to save us, I could give her space for the moment. She’d earned it.

The pier. Once a spectacle for tourists, filled with restaurants, arcades and even an amusement park, now deserted and considered part of the slums. The pier reached into Lake Michigan, one of the largest supplies of drinking water and now a protected resource. Few boats traveled its waters and nearly all the beaches were closed. It remained beautiful, but it was beautiful to see, not to touch. A little slip of paper won in an auction said it was our destination. The rendezvous fast approached and somewhere on the pier we’d find transportation from Chicago into the Corruption.

“Do you know how we’re leaving the city?”

“Smugglers.” Pill-R’s single word answer provided about as much information as I expected. The sun was setting, and we were meandering through a section of Chicago known for its rowdy population. We had seen several pairs of synthetic patrols, but so far no human police. The lack of human officers made the situation that much more worrisome. I was less worried about being shot by a synthetic, and more so being mugged and robbed at gunpoint. It would be the perfect end to a horrific day.

“There.” Lilith paused at the mouth of the alley. We had to cross at least a dozen lanes of roads and over tufts of patchy grass in a park and we’d be at the pier. Between, there was almost no coverage. A drone would easily spot us and it’d only be a matter of time before synthetics descended on the structure and we’d be without an escape.

“No way to hide. Must be a fast transaction, yes.” Even Pill-R saw the dilemma in front of us.

“This is where we say goodbye. I owe the 5.”

“We will watch, Lilith. We always watch.” That sounded more ominous than I expected from the hacker. I didn’t know if this was a hugging situation or a be on our merry way. The hacker reached into his pocket and pulled out a thin strip of plastic. “The 5 seek to expose all information. We will support you, yes. Keep this with you and we will find you in the Phantasm.” I had seen the piece of plastic before, a phone of sorts, a way to speed dial your contacts. I placed it behind my left ear, pressing it against my skin until the adhesive bonded.

“Thank you, Pill-R. I hope we won’t need more of your help.”

“We know that is false. Safe journeys, yes.”

And like that, he walked into the alley and vanished around a turn. If I had access to my tablet, I’d research more about this infamous, “5.” But for now, the propaganda about their destructive espionage didn’t seem as truthful, at least I hoped it wasn’t.

“Eyes down and stay close. Drunken lovers for a stroll, you read me?”

“You’re not really my type, but sure.” She didn’t see the humor. I couldn’t imagine what made this woman laugh. She didn’t strike me as the puppies and rainbows kind of girl. So far the black market had been where she shined the most, that and destroying two synthetics with her bare hands. I imagined she was the type of woman who would throw flowers in the garbage but would swoon over a new pistol. No, rifle, definitely a big rifle, with lasers.

Her acting was uncanny. I assumed she spent more than her share of nights intoxicated on cheap booze and hanging off the shoulder of a man she was about to take home. She held my hand tightly, occasionally staggering, making us veer from one direction to the next. I nearly froze when the whirring sound of a drone approached. She didn’t miss a beat, turning to me and grabbing my face. As it slowed overhead, she pulled me close, her lips smashed against mine. I had given little thought to my first girl-on-girl kiss, but she wasn’t half bad, if not intense. She wrapped her arms around me and we fell into the grass. She kept the back of her head covering my face. Her lusty advances were skilled subterfuge, and I wondered how many times she had used this trick before.

Her body stiffened as the drone continued off toward the financial district. I couldn’t tell what was more unnerving, nearly being spotted by authorities or how soft her lips were. “Despite what you think, your idea of a first date sucks.” The corner of her lip curled, and I thought I nearly broke through. Would she smile?

”My first dates involve more punching.” I shook my head. Nope, not surprised, not even in the slightest.

She pulled me to my feet, and we drunkenly worked our way to the pier. The massive building that stood in the middle had seen better days. Most of the roof had collapsed and the side of the building seemed held up by reinforcement columns fighting a losing battle. At its height, I imagined this building had been beautiful, a beacon of joy. Now, it stood as a testament to a better time long gone. I was about to ask why they hadn’t torn it down when I spotted the massive GD on the front of the building. Genesis Division owned a hefty portion of Chicago. They bought every decaying structure. Chicago needed hope, the moments of joy inspired by the museums, concert halls and even the parks. Hope was almost as rare as food.

Lilith inspected the seems and when satisfied there was no security, pulled a piece of metal grating blocking the door to the side. Down the rabbit hole we went.

Graffiti artists had claimed the interior as their personal canvas. Every inch, crumbling or not was covered in beautiful designs, some new, some years or decades old. We walked past empty spaces where stores once stood. We could have been outside, walking along the pier, but I had to imagine Genesis Division would keep a watchful eye over their assets.

”Do you know who we’re meeting?”

”I know of them. They’re smugglers, taking a very select clientele north through the wall into Canada.” The Canadians had erected a perimeter fence to prevent an onslaught migration from the Free Republic. They were demonized in our history books, hoarders of wealth and resources. My father insisted they were anything but. Now I knew why.

”We’re going to Canada? Isn’t that the long way around?”

”Into Canada, then we’ll travel east and slip through the wall in Maine. Nobody goes into the Outlands, it’ll be easy to sneak in.”

“How long will it take?” I don’t know why, but this adventure felt timely, and her insistence on taking the scenic route didn’t sit well with me. I wanted to be in the Outlands as quickly as possible.

”A month unless we can find reliable transportation. We have a better chance of finding an unregistered car in Canada than here.”

I didn’t like it at all. The longer I evaded the authorities, the more chance there was for them to send additional resources. If Genesis Division took an interest in one of their employees stealing information about Children, we’d be screwed. Synthetics would come for us, police would come for us, bounty hunters would come for us.

The building opened up as we neared the end. The two story structure had once been floor to roof windows overlooking the water. It was depressing to see so much grandeur reduced to rubble. If it hadn’t been built to withstand the waters, I feared Genesis Division would let it wash away entirely, another monument of our past lost forever.

”Stop. Right. There.” Shit.

I froze. Lilith however took a slight step forward, her hand reaching behind her back slowly. Her fingers were inches from the knife. “Touch the blade and lose your arm.”

”We’re here for the rendezvous,” I blurted out. “We need passage.”

Lilith could yell at me later when we were safely stowed away. Did she always resort to violence first? If talking got us somewhere, it’d save us the effort of fighting to the death again. I mean, Lilith fighting to the death, I would hide and pray she survived.

”I need help. The police—

”We don’t care your reasons.” I gasped loud enough everybody in the room could hear. I joked about Lilith being more machine than woman, but the man stepping out of the shadows was just that. There were plenty of enhanced people, but few reached the level of being seen as a cyborg. With silver arms and half his face made of metal, there was no doubt he’d spent an uncanny time in a Body Shop. A sign of money was to have enhancements but look as if you were nothing but original parts. He didn’t seem bothered by appearances.

”Lilith?” A woman jumped from a perch in the rafters. Her feet splintered the flooring. Like her male counterpart, she wore her synthetic limbs with pride. The left side of her body from neck down was metallic as was her left leg from the knee down.

“Halo,” Lilith’s hand inched closer to the blade. “Still running?”

”No thanks to you.” Oh great, another one of Lilith’s friends who might kill us. She seemed to have as many enemies in her contact list as she did friends.

“We need passage to Canada,” Lilith stated.

”Why?” Asked the man.

”I thought reasons didn’t matter?” I replied.

“They do when you’re traveling with her.” He didn’t like her anymore than Halo. Great.

The man and woman paused, looking toward the ceiling. I stared up, half expecting another person to drop from the rafters. “They’re here.” She said. I didn’t know who they were, but I know I didn’t want to be here when they arrived.

”My name is Madison Walker. I’m trying to find my father. I need to get to the Out—

”Walker?” Halo turned to the man. The fading light outside reflected off the metal. They both appeared almost statuesque. I could tell by the expression on their faces they had heard the name before.

“You know my father?”

They might have replied, perhaps told me something about my father that would have explained his involvement in the Network. They might have, except for the synthetics dropping through the rotted ceiling. Two, four, six, they started to descend. It was like before, except fewer people to stop slow their approach. Had I known stealing the hard drive would have led to this… No. I would have still done it. I needed to know.

”Run,” I yelled. Running meant a chance. Running meant survival. Running meant fighting another day. But neither smuggler ran. Even Lilith turned around as we passed them. What came next was terrifying, not the killing machines, those were programmed to be scary.

The scariest thing in that room were three humans unwilling to run.