Detroit, an industrial wasteland. We raised walls to bury the mistakes of New York, but I had to wonder if our attention would be better served here. The houses had long since been abandoned as families sought air not filled with cancerous smog. Mankind created this disease, but worse than that, we stood by, benefactors to a limb we’d one day need to amputate. The infection started in the factories and the sludge pushes its way down the streets like a dark spiderweb.
Once a haven for working men and women, Detroit led the way in the auto manufacturing revolution. We made mankind redundant as we taught machines to build more machines. Synthetics were programmed, taught to replicate themselves. Without need for food, water or rest, they became the most efficient workforce in the Free Republic. The very machines we created to help protect us threatened our way of life. The irony was not lost, but it was placed far enough out of view that we could pretend it didn’t exist.
Nothing living remained in Detroit.
The factories stood in the distance, marked by the plumes of black smoke spewing from long chimneys that resembled half burned cigarettes. How many machines inside were operational? Were those destined to be part of our military aware of their existence, or were they still asleep awaiting orders? The idea that thousands of synthetics waited to be activated disturbed me deeply. It was frightening from a philosophical point of view. It was terrifying knowing we were within range to be victims of the infection.
“We will travel at night.”.
With the sky black, it hardly mattered the time of day. Detroit remained covered in a perpetual blanket of darkness. We spent the day driving in a truck that threatened to die every time Lilith stepped on the pedal. We abandoned it, pushing it into a vacant garage before setting out on foot. I stopped questioning her tactics. I believed the curriculum in secret assassin school taught her to remain undetected. Now we waited in a brick house, counting down the minutes until the sun set.
“The brick will mask our thermal signature. Unless they know we’re in Detroit, they’ll assume we’re looters. Nobody cares as long as we avoid the factories.”
“I was just thinking to myself, would it be fun to get a tour inside one of those giant death makers?”
Lilith had returned to her normal stonewall self. I almost believed she had another personality hidden beneath this one, but whenever she discussed survival, this is what I was left with. To this point, she had been right, getting the drive unlocked and finding us safe passage out of the city. Both times ended in death squads trying to kill me. Is this the life Lilith led? Perpetually on the run from people trying to kill her? It made me exhausted thinking about how often she must look over her shoulder.
We had hours to kill, and it appeared Lilith had no desire to open up about her life. I fished around in my backpack and pulled out the Phantasm goggles. On closer inspection, I could see they were more advanced than I expected. The neural interface was subtle and easy to miss. With the ability to tap into my brain directly, it became less about seeing the Phantasm and more about experiencing it. My finger ran over the etching in the side, a single digit, the only clue as to where this might have been made.
“What do you know about the 5?”
Lilith turned away from the window, moving through the living room to the dining room in the center of the house. She extended a hand, and I gave her the goggles. Spinning it about, she inspected the craftsmanship. She slowed as her fingers ran over the carved number.
“They’re hackers, the best at what they do.”
She handed me the goggles. My guardian had a tendency to be short with me, but in her infinite wisdom, she must know more that that. “You know Pill-R, have you met any others?”
“Pill-R came to me. He needed man power to get him access to a mainframe off the grid. Otherwise, he’d only ever be a ghost. The 5 are a group of people who don’t exist. The Corruption wiped out data across the globe. After that, those that controlled information rose in power. They like to liberate that information.”
“So they’re freedom fighters?”
Lilith nodded her head. “Just like the Valentine has no past, no records of who he was, the 5 are similar. Joining means giving up your life. You vanish. You become a ghost. Meanwhile, you become part of a group of people determined to make sure the missing parts of our past come to light. They don’t like the data centers you worked for. Why should one body control our history?”
“There’s more than five of them?”
“Nostradamus is the father of mentalists, they have a founder too. Or…” She gave a slight while she searched for the word. “Not a founder, but a beacon to rally behind.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Pill-R speaks about the man as if he were still alive. He inspired a group of revolutionaries. I don’t think they’ll change the world sitting behind keyboards, but it’s good to know that we’re not alone.”
It was the first time Lilith let slip her allegiance. The Network served the Church of Nostradamus, but she served another group. Her muscles tensed and I was certain she caught the over share. I had to press on.
“Who are you working with?”
“Nobody,” she responded quickly enough I knew it was a lie.
“Watch it,” she said. She stood abruptly, attempting to end the conversation.
“Not this time,” I said as I stood. “Who is this we?”
“Trust no one.” The words were barely a whisper, but they slammed into my chest. I dropped back into my seat under their weight. Lilith left the room, resuming her perch in the living room, watching the front door. I had questioned her, unsure if she could be trusted, and for the first time I realized she had been doing the same. What treachery had she endured that she could suspect me of anything other than an unwilling pawn?
“Keep saying it,” I spoke quietly, “because, trust is all you and I have right now.”
I grabbed the goggles and slipped them on as I got comfortable in the dining room chair. I slipped them over my head and waited for the familiar flashing lights. I tried to relax my muscles and prepare for the tech to distort my sense of reality. The cool wood faded, and the broken slat in the back vanished. I hovered in the emptiness as my muscles got used to their freedom. Each time I journeyed into the Phantasm, I understood more why people would rather be here than spending valuable money on rations.
I dropped several feet, striking the ground and as I did, the room changed beneath my feet. Color spread outward, racing along the imaginary surfaces until I stood on a street, beneath a massive building. The sandy color raced upward until I was staring at the bell tower of a massive church. It was tiny compared to the church in Chicago, but this one looked older, more worn and far more deserted.
“Hello?” I shouted. I expected to see people, the throngs of people speaking gibberish. What architect would send me bouncing from one location to the other. Were the scenes before real? Were they historic events or constructs by whoever gifted me the goggles? If there was a message hidden in the Phantasm, I had yet to figure out the clues.
The light about the church dimmed, making it appear as if it were slowly being consumed by shadows. I backed away, worried it was an omen. I turned around and started a light jog, putting distance between me and the darkness. It matched my pace, chasing me as if I were in a nightmare. No matter how fast I ran, it continued to follow, nipping at my heels.
“Help,” I yelled.
Ahead, the world dimmed, infected by the spreading darkness. Only one building maintained its luster. I steered to the left, running as fast as my legs could carry me. At the last moment I jumped, hurling myself through the massive glass window overlooking the street. I covered my face as I struck the glass, I could feel it scrape along my skin, but thankfully whoever programmed my avatar made it far more durable than a human body.
I smacked against a bar stool, collapsing along the floor. I bounced back to my feet, preparing to keep running when I saw the darkness outside the window held at bay. It was a bar, an old one. The floor had all but worn through and the top of the bar looked as if it had seen more than its fair share of spills. There were a collection of coffee cups stacked neatly, the only sign that somebody had been inside in the last decade.
“Is somebody there?”
It materialized out of nothing, standing only a few feet away. I didn’t need to ask, I knew it was the man from yesterday, the same man who had been stalking me through the Phantasm. I tightened my fist, ready to put my avatar to the test. He reached out, looping his finger through the handle of a coffee cup. He lifted it slowly, studying the chipped corner.
“Did you send me the goggles?”
“I… don’t… I don’t know.”
“Who are you?”
“I… don’t know.” I believed him. I don’t know why, but I did. Even if he programmed this vacant avatar and the trembling voice box, something felt off about the man. As he rotated the coffee cup in his hand like an infant inspecting a new toy, he seemed confused.
“What do you know?”
“Who—“ Before I could finish the question, I was catapulted from the Phantasm. Lilith stood over me, and even in the dark, I could make out the panic on her face.
“They’re here,” she said.