One hundred and forty miles. I couldn’t fathom walking that distance. But staring at the sign for Route 20, I knew I had to keep moving. Lilith estimated it’d take five days, four if we pushed ourselves. I didn’t want to speak up, but I think she overestimated my abilities. In Chicago, I considered walking more than a few blocks, a perilous journey. I never thought I’d reach a day where I missed public transportation. What I wouldn’t give for the L right now.
The day seemed to go on forever.
Walking along the road might have been tedious on its own, but without clouds in the sky, the pounding of the sun became relentless. By lunch I had soaked through my shirt. Lilith forced me to drink from my canteen despite the water tasting like dirt. When we stopped to break, I discovered we were nearly out of food. Five days with nothing but two packs of beef jerky and a package of crackers.
“Eat,” Lilith commanded.
“What about you?” She took a package of jerky and devoured a piece. She handed me the plastic wrapper. Here I was concerned about rationing, and she made it seem as if my rucksack had a pouch concealing lasagna. I really wanted lasagna.
“Eat,” she said again. “I’ll make sure we restock when we stop tonight.”
“Because you can make food magically appear.”
Lilith’s smile was one part cocky and one part confidence. I had no idea what she had in mind. As we sat in the shade of the gas station canopy, I realized this wasn’t her first time making this trek. While I appreciated a spirit guide in the Outlands, I continued to find her secretive streak somewhat annoying.
I chomped down on the rest of the package. While normally I would be thrilled to enjoy the salty taste of dried meat bathed in teriyaki, the fact it was the salt helping me retain water diminished the enjoyment. Why did I even know about salt and water and the human body? My degree in history steadily became more useless as we ventured into the wilds beyond the fence.
“Are you ready to go?”
If it hadn’t been for me, I think Lilith would have continued without stopping. While she continued to put up with dead weight, I grew increasingly agitated with my inability to contribute to this duo. I stood and dropped the rucksack. It was time I found a way to be less than helpless.
“Show me how to fight.”
“We don’t have time for that,” Lilith said getting to her feet.
“I didn’t ask. I’m tired of feeling useless.”
I had a flash back to the Phantasm the night before. In the course of a single night, I learned to shoot a rifle and how to destroy synthetics and even take on a mech. Granted, I didn’t have metallic skin, but I had to start somewhere.
I shoved Lilith. She rolled her eyes as she held up her hands. Considering I had seen her go toe-to-toe with enforcers, I knew at any moment she could hurl me against one of the gas meters. She walked away, I grew more and more angry. I might not have super human strength or the ability to generate shields, but I wasn’t completely helpless.
I stomped toward her and froze as she spun about, her hand balled into a fist. I leaned out of reach. Lilith raised her other hand, as if she prepared for a boxing match. I had taken unarmed self defense during my undergrad. Being a black woman in Chicago meant being ready for the unpredictable. The man who taught the class had never prepared me to square off against a Child of Nostradamus.
“You will get bruised,” she said.
“I was thinking more—“
She jabbed. I pushed her hand out wide. Lilith didn’t follow it up with her other fist. I blocked one, but I left myself open. She could easily have clocked me square in the face. As the humor drained from her face, I raised both fists. This was going to hurt.
I kept my mouth shut. “You’re looking at my hands. Stop. Focus on my legs. Look at the heel and ball of my foot. If you know where I’m going to move my body, you’ll be able to predict what is happening with my fists.”
Lilith punched me in the shoulder. Even restraining herself, the jab hurt.
“You said look at your feet.”
“Did I? Look at my hands too.”
I kept my fists up, but made sure I could see her feet. She lifted her rear heel, putting weight on the ball of her foot. There was only one way she could move forward. Feigning with her hand, I prepared to slap her fist away. Her knee came up, and I rocked back, while getting my hand ready to stop her from kicking.
Lilith stepped in close enough to punch. She lunged with the hand closest to me. Even if she hit, it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful as her rear fist. Putting her weight into it, the back fist came forward. I blocked it with my forearm, and stepped in close, jabbing her in the torso. The woman took the blow. I hadn’t seen it, but she knew where I’d strike. Wrapping her arm about mine, she had control of my upper body.
“Then I’d drive my fingers into your throat and we’d be done.”
Lilith raised her arm, the pressure threatening to pop my shoulder out of joint. I refused to let her see me wince. In self defense, the most important lesson had been to resist at all costs. Once you gave up, they won, and often in the dark alleys of Chicago, that could mean death. I’d apologize when she cursed at me later.
I kicked, my shin slamming into Lilith’s side. Startled, she let go of my arm. I knew she was taking it easy on me. But taking it easy meant I had an advantage. I pulled her arm, bring her in close and smacked my forehead against her face. I didn’t quite hit her nose, but it gave me enough slack to step back from her. Raising my fists again, I readied for another bout with the woman.
“Christ,” she swore, “if you broke my nose I’m going to be pissed.”
Without so much as a warning, she put all her weight on one foot. The other came flying at my face. I tried to block, but there was no stopping the blow. I nearly squealed out loud as her toe touched my nose. With hardly any pressure, she held the position. Lilith wanted me to know she could have easily dispatched me and there was nothing I could do to stop her.
When she dropped her foot, she grabbed my rucksack and threw it at me. I caught it and feared the woman was mad, upset that I had taken a cheap blow. Putting on the bag, we silently ventured from under the gas station canopy. I might not have won a fight with Lilith, but at least I had landed a blow. I blocked her fist a couple times. For a first round against a Child of Nostradamus, I felt proud.
After the first fifteen minutes, I couldn’t bear the silence any longer. “Sorry about your face.”
Lilith froze. She turned around, and I thought she was going to slap me across the face. She pointed, her finger driving into my chest. “In a fight, there is only one thing to remember.”
“Don’t give up?” Had she taken the same class? Was it a universal piece of advice when learning to kick butt.
“No,” she leaned in close. “Win.”
“Isn’t that obvious?”
“No.” She said poking me hard in the sternum. “There are no rules. When you fight, you win. You fight to put the other person down at all costs. You take cheap shots. You cheat. You do whatever you must. But at all costs, you win.”
Our friendly competition delved into a darker tone. I hadn’t thought about killing Lilith. But perhaps that was the missing ingredient. Is that why she treated me with kid gloves? Had I not reached a place where I understood, it’s me or them?
“What just happened was child’s play. You want to learn how to defend yourself?”
I nodded again.
“Do you really? Can you make the tough decisions?”
I hesitated. Without saying it, Lilith wanted to know if I’d be willing to kill. I wouldn’t go out of my way to hurt another person. But if it came down to killing or being killed. I thought about it for a moment, and I didn’t have an answer for her. Watching the light in somebody’s eyes simply vanish, I shrugged.
“I don’t know.”
“When you know for certain, then I’ll teach you.”
We had another six hours of walking ahead of us until we made camp. As Lilith turned around, weaving her way between abandoned cars, I knew time would move quickly. In the back of my head I had to sort through a mix of emotions. What was I doing here? Could I become part of this world? Would I lose myself to the Outlands?
I didn’t say it out loud, but I suddenly felt as if I was playing a game. Those around me were suffering consequences while I stayed safe inside my little bubble. Lilith assumed the brunt, protecting me from the dangerous things that continued beating against us day after day. Would I let Lilith die for me?
“Yes,” I shouted.
Lilith turned around. Without a word, she nodded.
I didn’t know what I agreed to, what demons I might have to face. But I couldn’t let her assume responsibility on my behalf. Imagining myself beating somebody to a pulp, I clenched my fist. I hope it never came to that, but this wasn’t Chicago. I had transitioned into a ruthless world, and I had to play by their rules.
Had I just signed away a piece of my soul?
It no longer felt like a game of cat and mouse. I would find my father, I would discover what happened with the Isolation. And somewhere, buried in the hard drive in my rucksack, I’d unlock the secrets to the Corruption.