I hurled the last bit of food from my stomach. Choppy waters mixed with a permanent knot in my stomach proved I would never be a pirate, or in this case an international smuggler. Lilith sat in the captain’s chair, staring forward, unfazed by the turbulence. I sat up, pulling my hair into a poofy ponytail and wiped my face clean, making sure I hadn’t wretched all over my clothes.
“Do you think they’re alive?”
She didn’t turn around as she spoke, a trait that was steadily growing on my fragile nerves. “Possibly. If I were in control of the synthetics, I’d want both of them secured. If they didn’t reveal other members of the Network, I’d tear apart their enhancements looking for stored feeds, geotags, even a manufacturing mark. I’d want every bit of information about the Network I could scavenge.”
“How did you know Halo?”
The pause was long enough I worried she didn’t hear the question. I opened my mouth to repeat it when she broke the silence. “They sent me to kill her.” It wasn’t the killing part, horrible yes, but her emotionless delivery made it even more frightful. She could see me about to ask a follow-up. “Her name wasn’t Halo then. She was a member of a covert military operation locating and extracting mentalists. The Valentine felt this went against their doctrine. My job was simple enough, search, gain intel, terminate.” Lilith’s face softened as her eyes drifted, staring at nothing.
“I found her. We fought. I won. She didn’t have nearly as many enhancements then. She refused to give me any information about her commanding officer or who they were using as informants. I tortured her.”
“You’re the reason she has the enhancements?” I said it before I processed what that meant. Had Lilith carved the woman’s face? And severed her arm? I didn’t know much about my protector, but that seemed cruel even for her.
“Some.” Lilith stood and walked over to where I I sat, my hands clasping the railing with a vice-like grip. “Things were different then. I was young and needed to belong to something bigger than myself. I took orders without questions.”
“The Valentine wants something from you. I suspect it’s your father. His legacy means enough for the Church of Nostradamus to get involved. It has the synthetic’s controller’s interested. You’re a pawn in this.”
“A smuggler nursed Halo back to health. Ironic, it was the same telepath who she had been tracking. People change if they’re given reason. I’m not a young girl blindly following orders. Do you know the lore behind Lilith?”
I knew it had something to do with Christianity. It had all but faded away, consumed by the growing Church of Nostradamus. Lilith had been mentioned early in their sacred texts. I had taken comparative religions as a freshman, but I’ll admit, I was too young to do more than the minimum necessary to get high marks. I shook my head.
“Lilith is the first wife of Adam, made from the same clay by God. When she refused to submit to him, he cast her out of Eden. Her name literally means monster of night.” The woman standing before me struck me as many things, but subservient was not one of them. “I am the thing the monsters fear.”
“And who are the monsters?”
“In this day and age, it’s easier to name those who aren’t monsters.” There was a sadness to the speech. The sun had faded and I couldn’t make out her face, but the tone held a bit of remorse, perhaps even longing. Lilith had proven to be a ferocious protector, but this was the first time I had seen through her thick exterior. I almost believed there was another human drifting in the lake with me. Perhaps the sacrifice of Halo and Francis softened that dense hide. I didn’t push, instead putting away further questions until she was in better shape.
“Get some rest. We’re heading to Detroit.”
“They’ll know that was our destination. We’re cutting through Detroit and heading south in New York. I have associates that can help us.”
Detroit. The city that manufactured most of the synthetic army. I tried not to dwell on how close we would come to thousands of metallic killing machines. It had been simple, take the hard drive and find my father. Now there was literally an entire fleet of killers between us and him.
I rummaged through my backpack and pulled out the Phantasm glasses. I needed a burst of sunshine and the sensation of my feet firmly planted on stable ground. The moment I slid them on, the tiny directional speakers muted the tumbling waves and the visor blocked out the stars hanging in the sky. Lights flashed as it calibrated, synching to my anatomy and infiltrating my brainwaves. They might not be as good as the suspension pod, but this was far more hi-tech than I expected. The sensation of the waxed wood under my hand grew distant as the glasses altered my brains perception of reality. Even shroud in absolute black, the real world faded away and for the first time in over an hour, my stomach thanked me.
Consumer model glasses come with a handful of manufactured scenarios. I wanted to be on a beach, the tiny grains of sand wedged between my toes. The hair on my arms would stand on end as I basked in the sun’s warmth. But the menu screen never loaded. Instead, I stood in the middle of cement buildings, on a grassy area in the middle of what appeared to be a college campus. I spotted the sign. New York University. It was an unusual destination for the Phantasm, but I let the scene play itself out.
It was cold, almost enough to need a jacket. I could see my breath and a shiver worked its way up my spine. I caught sight of my hands and realized they were my own and not a generic avatar. Whoever had sent me the glasses had custom made me a replica of myself.
A light flashed in the sky and everybody in the quad looked upward. A rolling wave of light flashed overhead again. It reminded me of heat lightning in the summer as the ground and air temperature waged war. The chill made it unlikely, but I was standing in a world where I could be a sword wielding dragon slayer.
“They’re coming,” said a nearby student. I was about to ask the teenager who when I noticed everybody on campus was staring at me. “They’re coming,” they all whispered. They were no longer looking to the sky. Now they stared at me, unblinking, whispering, terrifying.
“The future.” The single voice cut through the others and I spun about, expecting a person to be standing behind me. As I turned, the world shifted, transforming under my feet. The Phantasm obeyed no law of physics, no more coherent than the imagination. Whoever programmed this scenario had a disturbing sense of humor.
I stood in the streets of New York, looking toward the Twin Towers. I had seen photographs from a century ago, but standing within the Isolation gave me hope that I was on the right path. Would I see these monoliths of mankind’s ingenuity soon? Would I be standing in a landscape made of brick and mortar? The avatars filling the streets were human, but they moved in animalistic ways, jerky, as if on the prowl. Were these people the reason we had erected the perimeter? Were they what was left of mankind? I couldn’t recall the dates, but it must have been closer to the 21st century than the 23rd. What was the Phantasm attempting to show me? How did the two timelines link together?
Fire burst from the streets, rising into the sky like a massive wall. I had seen the city burn before. Whoever programmed this scene for me had attempted to reach out before. As the fire approached, the people were consumed, incinerated until nothing remained. The hair on my arms stood on end, bracing for the rush of heat. I threw my arms up to protect my face. A lukewarm sensation flooded my skin and vanished.
The street was replaced with a high school gym. There were tables covered in computers, except I was hovering above them, floating on nothing. Below I watched as two men argued and a third man shot one of the others. I did not understand what any of it meant. I couldn’t make out who was the good guy and who was the bad. All three, including the corpse, whispered again. “They’re coming.”
On the opposite side of the gym, hovering in the shadows, I saw him. The man from my last encounter in the Phantasm. I couldn’t make out his face or any of his features. He merely watched, an observer to another scene of death. I tried to force myself forward, but I remained suspended in the air, levitating against my will.
The screen went blank. I could suddenly feel the rocking of the boat and the hum of the motor pushing us through the waves. There was somebody else out there, trying to reach me. Could it be my father? Was the man trying to make contact in the Phantasm my father? There were too many coincidences happening at once. I couldn’t explain it, but Lilith had said it, I was a pawn in a bigger game. I believed her. There were more players than I could sort out, each of them tugging me in a direction. I had no idea who was friend or foe or which direction would lead me to safety. I pondered telling Lilith, but even she had made it clear, “Trust no one.” This felt like a secret worth keeping.