The Outlands were no different than the Free Republic. I don’t know why, but I imagined that the barrier separating them would mark the change in foliage, roads, or something. But here we were, inspecting cars, looking for something that might still have enough juice to go.
“We’re not going to find a solar car on this side,” I said. “The barrier went up before they built the photocells into the frame. We might find one that uses electricity, but I can’t imagine that the batteries last for hundreds of years.”
She slammed the car door shut, irritated. We had gone for almost miles with little more than a whisper. She had reverted to her silent self, wallowing in her own thoughts. I spent the time practicing my walking, seeing how quietly I could make my shoes touch the ground. I had gotten good at it, or at least I thought.
“This will be a long walk.”
“Is there any way to reach the people in Troy?”
“Telepathy isn’t welcome amongst the Children.”
She had a point. “Have you ever asked why? I mean, telepathy is kind of a supernatural gift, the same goes for people who can move stuff with their minds.”
“Right. So they can do stuff with their minds. It’s not so different. I would think you’d—“
“Invite them? No. Mentalists and Children do not associate.”
“You’re the historian, you know all about the Battle for Chicago. Who was that between?”
“Children and the President.”
“Who was…” She paused, raising her eyebrow. I honestly didn’t know where she was going with the statement. The President had waged war against the Free Republic while the military had attempted to stage a coup. The general of the Corps himself attempted to murder the President. A great civil war devided the country, with the battles raging in the Midwest. The tide turned in Chicago.
“I don’t know what you’re getting at.” The historian in me grew aggravated that she poked holes in my knowledge.
“President Jacob Griffin killed Cecilia Joyce to wrestle the presidency from her. Jacob Griffin only held on to the position because he,” she waved her arms, attempting to guide me to the conclusion.
“Was a mentalist?” I laughed. “No. There’s no way the government could cover up something that massive.”
Lilith continued walking, letting me dwell on the information. Could she be right? President Griffin, could he have been a mentalist? I tried to recall every text book I had ever read. There were gaps, sure. The victor writes the history, but in this case, the Free Republic had won. Why would they have skirted around such an important fact?
“It can’t be.”
I chased after Lilith, struggling to keep up while I lost myself in a world of lies. The text books had been written post Corruption. Had the computer virus been a way to bury the truth? If that was a lie, what else had been false? I understood why my father journeyed into the unknown. On one side of the fence we deemed one set of facts true, could the missing parts of the puzzle be here.
“If the President was a mentalist, then…”
“President Griffin stole the presidency. This is where youwill lose your shit. He was the head of the largest corporation in the world. Him and a small cabal of mentalist.”
“Genesis Division? No.”
“Yes. Mentalists have been around for hundreds of years. Long before Children appeared, they were manipulating the world from behind the scenes. It was the Nighthawks who finally put an end to the madman.”
We walked along the road in silence. It felt like minutes, but I’m sure we had walked miles before my brain attempted to digest the magnitude of this. What alarmed me most was that the history we accepted as fact was rather one-sided. Did Troy hold more answers? Did they keep records that preceded the Corruption? I had so many questions it was difficult to find a starting point.
“A corporate mentalist attempted to seize the power of the entire government? Is that everything?”
“He was being controlled by a disembodied mentalist from Russia who wanted to watch the world burn. But, a mentalist is a mentalist.”
What? I had to stop walking to let that one sink in. “Can you stop saying these things as if they’re no big deal? I get it, you’re part of some inner circle who knows the hidden truths of the universe. But really? One mentalist living in another mentalist? Russian conspiracy? Next you’ll say Nostradamus himself got involved.”
“Not Nostradamus, his daughter however, she had her hand in it all.”
Valentine. She held the title, Daughter of Nostradamus. We learned about her in visionary school, but I wondered if everything we learned was also lies. My entire life, all the years of schooling had been shattered in a five-mile walk. Did Lilith take some sadistic pleasure in stabbing me in the proverbial heart? I had to wonder.
“Start at the beginning.”
She glanced over her shoulder at me. “Are you sure? This will contradict so much of what you know. I—“
“Tell me. My life has been pursuing knowledge. I’m here because of the secrets my father chased. The more I know, the better equipped I’ll be.”
She started. From the Nostradamus Effect, she delved into Eleanor’s role with the President and a failed assassination attempt. She explained about a mentalist researcher rising to power. The Culling, the nuclear explosions. It went contrary too much of the texts I read. I noticed as she talked about the Battle for Chicago, she mentioned a group of Children, but she refrained from explaining why the group had gotten involved.
Lilith nodded. “Eleanor Valentine manipulated the future. She believed that they were the only way to stop a disembodied Ivan Volkov.”
“Who were they?”
“We refer to them as the Founders in Troy. They were nobodies before Eleanor brought them together. She changed the course of destiny. Putting them together, she created the best plausible outcome.”
“It sounds like she wasn’t one of the mentalist you’re fond of hating.”
“She robbed them of free will. Her actions forced them into the situation. I’m not sure about you, but being controlled by some dead woman isn’t my idea of fun.”
“If you’re against mentalists, why do you help the Valentine?”
Lilith gave me a smile. “You’ve finally asked the important question.”
The landscape had gone from rural grasses to sparse houses. Once upon a time, it might have been a remote location to raise your family. The houses were spread out, massive yards and plenty of enormous trees to support swings. I had always lived within the city of Chicago, but part of me wanted something like this. Distance, space, and the ability to breathe without bumping shoulders with neighbors.
We reached an intersection with a faded white sign. The massive letters that would have welcomed us to this town or directed us to the next city had long since warn off. Now, it appeared as if our only destination was a patch of rust.
“Wewill be approaching Syracuse soon. It’s the only big city between us and Troy. We should camp out now.”
“I thought you were worried about being followed?”
“I am. But I wouldn’t attack here. I’d wait until the city served as a backdrop. We do not want to be trapped in the city at night.”
I supposed the good thing about being followed by a potential killer, I had one with me to delve into their psyche. How many times had Lilith been the one doing the tailing, waiting in the city for unsuspecting victims.
“You never answered my question.”
“Why do I help the Valentine?”
Lilith pointed at a nearby house. She walked along the stone walkway until we reached the porch. Scanning the surrounding area, I had to assume she was making sure we had a strong vantage point for anybody who dared follow us. If we were being tailed, could Lilith take them? Were they like Lilith? I believed she knew who followed us, or at least that she had a clue.
“The Valentine raised me to infiltrate Troy. I was to be their spy and give them insight into the Children they worshipped. What would it do to their religion to find out the Gods they beseech had turned their backs on them?”
“You’re double crossing them.”
“I suppose I am.”
“Then why help me?”
“Troy wants you.”
My head spun. Why did the largest settlement of Children want me? It dawned on me that perhaps it wasn’t me they wanted, but the data I kept in my backpack. But how did they know I’d take it? The mystery continued to deepen, and I spiraled down a rabbit hole of theories.
“We’ll camp here tonight.”
I stood on the porch while Lilith went inside. Storm clouds had rolled in from the north, threatening to bring a torrential downpour. The strip of darkness in the sky appeared far more ominous than they should. I knew I projected my own insecurities, but I could feel the storm coming.
The closest house across the street had wooden shudders that had long since withered and fallen into the tall grass. This part of the world seemed desaturated, as if a painter had removed the rich tones from their palette. Nobody had lived here for decades, but the buildings resisted crumbling to the ground. It was a testament to their architects or the stubbornness of the builders.
Lightning flashed in the clouds and a low rumble erupted all around. The rain fell in the distance, and at any time it’d be upon us. Would this make it more difficult for Lilith to detect the person following us? Or did it mean they’d take refuge from the rain and wait out the storm?
I needed a break, from the traveling, from the walking, from the deconstructing of everything I knew to be true. If she didn’t put me to work, I’d be able to escape into the Phantasm before calling it a night.
I pulled off my backpack, fishing around for my canteen. Holding it above my mouth, the last bit of water wet my tongue. I hoped the house had plumbing, or at least water pipes that hadn’t fallen apart from disuse. It’d be fantastic to take a shower, wash my clothes, or hell, just wet my hair and pull at the knots.
First, I attempt to make myself feel human again. Then, I return to the Phantasm to see what new secrets my digital companion wanted to hurl in my direction.
Secrets begot secrets, and truth had shone a light on the lies of my youth. This was my life. It wasn’t much, but it was mine.