Wearing the Skin of a Child

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/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

Tampons. I know historians reading this journal will think, “Why does she feel the need to discuss hygiene products?” But let’s be honest, nobody discusses the minutia when on the run. The shower worked, even if the water ran a delightful red color from the rust. But the real score had been tampons. Going on the run might be fighting for survival from killer robots or breaking into uncharted lands, but the actual struggles are in the details.

At no point in my brilliant plan did I think I’d be standing naked in the bathroom, trying to figure out how to clog the sink so I could wash my underwear and bra. I considered it a victory that I washed my hair, but at the rate we were going, my afro would be start getting twisted and turn to dreadlocks before this adventure had ended.

I found myself lucky to see the woman of the house had a full-stocked closet. The fashion wasn’t my taste, but let’s discuss my excitement to find out she must have been a woman insistent on working out. Here I am combing through a woman’s underwear drawer, delighted to find a bra that can manage my chest. Right now, I had to focus on the victories or I might lose my mind. Band t-shirt, sure, pair of musty leggings, I’ll take them. Hell, even century old sneakers were looking good at this point.

When in a wasteland, it’s the minor things that matter. Tampons and bras. It might as well have been my birthday.

Lilith insisted I remain on the ground floor in case we had to run. She refused to let me be one of those women who found themselves trapped upstairs as a killer stalked their prey. I had pulled the cushions off the couch onto the floor. I got comfortable as I pulled the goggles from my backpack.

The moment I tapped the side of the goggles, they did their thing and the real world grew distant. I stood in a room filled with floating menus. I hadn’t expected to be put into the menu selection room. Each time I had used the Phantasm before, it thrust me into a virtual world of its choosing. I wondered if the person behind those screens had vanished.

Each set of goggles came loaded with a custom set of experiences. The more expensive goggles had the ability to contact the server and pull from thousands of experiences. For a headset like this, there should be a couple dozen generic screens to choose from. It impressed me to find there were more than a hundred rotating on the screens.

Right now, I wanted something to distract me. While the Phantasm had the ability to put you somewhere peaceful, new locations a world away, it also came equipped with plenty of games for patrons to play. Right now, I wanted to be the one in charge, the powerful one. Scrolling through the game, I found a simulation of the Corps in battle. I figured why not learn how to fire a gun while saving the day? With a tap of the screen, the room fell alway.

Madison Walker, leader of a Corps special ops unit. The gun materialized in my hands, a standard issue pulse rifle. I reached down to my belt to find various grenades and additional clips of ammunition. My avatar had ocular enhancements, giving me readouts of the enemy in the distance. The scene looked very much like a war zone, buildings collapsing all around us. I couldn’t identify any of them, but I had a suspicion this was one a city within the Outlands.

“You need to stop them from acquiring central processing. It could be the last uncorrupted data storage unit in the world.”

I patted my chest, surprised I wasn’t wearing a standard issue uniform. More than that, my lower arms were encased in large metal bracelets. I found it surprising that in a generic simulation, I was anything but generic. After my last jaunt into the Phantasm, I had a suspicion that something about this was unusual.

“I’m on it.”

I charged through the street of broken rubble. The map in my left eye had a path laid out, taking me down the street. Once I reached the intersection, I found myself behind two synthetics with weapons in hand. This is what I wanted. Blowing apart metal robots was the experience I wanted.

I inspected the weapon in my hand. The implant displayed the weapon, standard issue, explosive rounds, short rapid bursts. I had never used a gun like this before, but I looked forward to learning how to wield the weapon.

I raised the gun, bracing it against my shoulder. The simulation helped course correct, making sure I tucked it tight and leaning my head in for me. The program’s suggestions almost felt like a somebody stood behind me, correcting my bad posture. Ocular enhancements locked in on the synthetics, displaying their model numbers and showing me the weapons at their disposal. I always believed the robots had a lengthy list of supplies, lasers, cannons, and who knows what else. The fact they only had guns, shoulder mounted lasers and forearm weapons struck me as odd.

I eased my finger back on the trigger. Three shots fired. The first struck the robot in the shoulder, tearing away the metal. The second struck its neck, obliterating the structure holding its head. My last shot flew off, missing the mark. The weapon shook my entire body.

Its companion turned, lifting its gun. I pulled the trigger again, trying to beat it to the punch. All three shots struck its torso. Tiny explosions erupted as the bullets penetrated the metal, striking the power core. The ocular enhancement marked them both off with x’s, letting me know I had defeated them.

Something slammed into my back, throwing me against a smashed car. I hit the passenger door, surprised that the Phantasm tapped into the pain receptors. It hurt. Not as much as if it really happened, but enough that I knew there were consequences in this virtual space.

Metal scraped against the pavement, and I knew another one of the synthetics had snuck up behind me. I rolled over, raising the gun and firing before my enhancements locked on. Two synthetics, and my spray and pray only landed a shot on one of their arms. Three arms from synthetics were just as terrifying as four.

“We’re taking heavy fire. Be careful out there.”

“I’m almost there,” I shouted.

I steadied my weapon, holding my breath as I eased my finger over the trigger. Three bursts, then three more. They were only twenty feet away and I couldn’t land a shot without the air of my enhancement. Slow to lock on, I finally acquired the target. Pressing down on the trigger again, no vibration, no triple bursts.

“Dammit,” I said. I threw the gun to the side, inspecting my belt. I pulled one grenade. Pulled the pin, threw and prayed.

The grenade hit the ground just in front of the machines. I ducked down, plugging my ears as the asphalt erupted in a shower of rock. The two machines were scattered along the road. One continued crawling, dragging itself by its remaining arm. It wasn’t going to do any harm in its current state.

I pulled the pistol from my shoulder holster and continued running down the street. I had nine bullets, explosive rounds. It wasn’t much, but I hoped it’d be enough. I wondered if the simulation pulled the idea of the data storage from my mind, using that as the end game as it had been on my mind for days.

“You’re the closest to the target.”

“I’m on it.”

Synthetics crawled from behind cars, hiding, waiting for their prey. I ran close, skidding to a stop to raise my gun. Three shots and I downed another synthetic. If they had linked me to other people, if I’d have more members of the Corp with me or if there’d be more enemies. I could see a band of teenagers cleaning up in this simulation.

Riffle in hand, I gunned down three more synthetics before I reached the next intersection. I had a single bullet remaining and between me and the building containing the rally flag sat a large mech. I wasn’t military, and even I knew that a single bullet would do nothing to slow the machine.

Sitting on inverted legs, its arms were replaced with enormous guns with multiple barrels. It already detected me, pivoting to fire. I panicked, looking for cover to regroup and consider which grenade might do the most damage.

My arms were on fire, and I wanted to pull off the bracelets to itch at the skin. Seemless, neither bond had the ability to be pulled off. The skin underneath burned, and the pain reached my brain as if it were really happening. I tried to summon the exit menu to escape, but the goggles refused to initiate the termination protocols.

The mech’s guns spun, and at any moment, it’d begin firing. If I could feel the burning on my arm, I feared that I’d be capable of feeling the bullets as they tore through my flesh.

The pain spread along my skin, and I fell to my knees screaming. It consumed my entire body. My skin felt as if it were rippling, growing faster than my body could handle. I buckled over, too heavy to even stay upright on my knees. My limbs were sluggish, unable to move. My entire body felt like it were encased in concrete and I struggled to fight free.

The mech fired. The bullets spit up bits of road, growing closer and closer. I closed my eyes, prepared to scream. The bullets struck my shoulder, and the top of my head. I expected pain to scream as I found myself slaughtered in the simulation.

The bullets ricocheted off my body, striking a nearby car. They were no different from somebody poking me with their pointer finger. The bullets were a mild inconvenience, almost void of any pain. However, inside my body, I could feel something moving, growing. The weight of my limbs eased, and I found myself able to stand.

“What the hell?”

The bullets struck my chest, and I watched as the uniform tore apart. Had the simulation initiated some sort of safe mode? I jumped as two synthetics jumped from a nearby window. They struck the ground, not missing a beat as they powered toward me.

I couldn’t explain the sensation. Somewhere in the simulation, it provided me a sense of confidence, an almost uncanny power. I leaned forward and charged toward the two machines. The mech halted firing, waiting for its tiny breathren to terminate me.

They fired. The bullets did nothing. I grabbed the first one by the arm, spinning around, whipping it into its companion. The machines flew through the air as if they were rag dolls. Slamming into the building, they regrouped. The lasers on their shoulders flipped into action. Red beams struck my chest, and I hissed out loud. It didn’t hurt as much as it stung.

“I’m invulnerable.” I assumed the easy mode had been enacted. For those not capable of playing the game, it allowed them the ability to storm through the streets without consequence.

“Incoming,” a voice barked in my ear.

The light nearly blinded me. Something beat against the building behind the robots, breaking enormous chunks of concrete free. It was like watching lightning strike. It pounded against the building until rubble fell below, crushing the two synthetics. I looked for the source, still squinting.

“I’m tapped,” said the man, “it’s up to you.”

Steam rose off a shirtless man. Glancing back at the building, I expected him to have some sort of large weapon strapped to his shoulder. I stared, trying to make sense of what was happening. Then it dawned on me. He didn’t need a weapon.

He was the weapon.

I raised my hands, suddenly aware of why the pain had been distant at the start of the simulation. I wasn’t a member of the Corps, my avatar was a Child of Nostradamus. Naturally strong, I assumed the role of my avatar.

I had read the file. I knew the woman, the member of the Corps, with the ability to make her skin so dense she couldn’t be hurt. This wasn’t a random gaming simulation, I was reliving a piece of history. I owned the body of the legendary Child who worked for the government.

“Holy shit,” I said.

“It’s up to you,” he shouted.

I turned to the large mech, aware that there was nothing stopping me from reaching my goal. I ran into danger. The mech continued firing, the bullets doing nothing to slow my approach. As I reached it, I thrust my arms out, striking the leg. The mech stumbled backward, trying to get its footing. I no longer fought with human strength, I had been granted the limitations of a Child.

I reached for the foot and lifted. The mech was heavy, forcing a growl from my lips as I pulled up. It tried to shake me, but my fingers pressed into the metal, refusing to let go. It groaned as it lost its balance, falling onto its back.

I stepped between its flailing legs, reaching the undercarriage. Punching at the metal, it dented, then tore open. I peeled back its skin as if it were a ripped sheet of paper. Reaching in, I started pulling at its interior. Wires broke, and fluid sprayed across my face. With one last thrust, I disconnected something important, and the robot stopped moving.

“You’re almost there,” said the voice.

I climbed on top of the machine, turning around to see the man joined by two smaller women. I jumped down and ran into the building. The lone synthetic at the door tried to punch me in the face. I let it. Almost nothing, no pain, no reaction.

I grabbed it by the neck and chest. Stretching my arms apart, the synthetic tried to jab at me and then reach for its weapon. Its head pulled loose, flying onto the tile. The husk stopped moving, dead. I threw it toward the door and waited for my enhancement to tell me where to go.

A red flag blinked into existence, standing in the middle of the room. I sauntered closer, almost hoping there were more synthetics to tear apart. I took the flag, raising it high into the air.

“Simulation over.”

The game melted away, and I stood inside the Phantasm lobby. I inspected my hands, hoping I had the bracelets gripping my arms. Only my hands remained. I had stepped out of the Child’s avatar and returned to my own.

“What does it mean?” I asked.


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