I once asked my father where babies come from. It’s a question every kid asks, and for some reason, every parent lies. He responded with, “The stork of course.” Most kids would have accepted the answer and moved along, but I had more questions. How much weight could a stork carry? What if the child was large? Where was the magical land of pre-diapered babies that these birds stole? And how did the storks know which people wanted babies? The response didn’t make sense, and I’ve never been one to accept the easy answer.
I’ve been digging for more than a week, and so far my effort have been fruitless. How can this place only several hundred miles away exist but almost no documentation. The University has records about the Battle of Chicago, even about President Cecilia Joyce’s assassination, but nothing on this radioactive waste land. I’ve been given enough information that I should stop. But I need to know, where do storks get their babies from?
If the university library doesn’t have any answers, I only have a handful of options left. I can go back to the church and hope that the Valentine will speak with me. But knowing I will only ever see him once more, I don’t want to waste the encounter, not yet. I work at a data center, and there is a chance that we have something stored digitally, but but the files I want are beyond my clearance level. Seducing my boss isn’t exactly on my to do list, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it. He’s gross.
That leaves me with my father’s journals, hundreds of them. I appreciated that the image the Valentine conjured revealed some clues as to which. I knew the binding, and the color. My father had a weird habit of color coding his journals. I’m sure he had a reason, some sort of secret code I’ve yet to decipher, but I’ll take a small victory.
I did indeed find the correct journal, even the exact page shown in the vision. Was it a vision? Once this all gets sorted out, once I finish my thesis, I need to go back to visionary school for a refresher course. The entry spoke of the Outlands. My father’s searches weren’t a whole lot better than mine. He believed the government was redacting files to keep information about the Children and the Outlands from reaching the public. He had no idea why, especially with the church more than happy to spread gospel about the Children. In the margins he asked himself if he was missing something, some big picture mysteriousness.
Only a few pages later, I found the spot where he vowed to enter the Outlands. That hurt more than I expected. He decided to pursue something, something he didn’t quite understand, and leave me behind. There’s some trauma that never truly heals, the wounds linger below the surface, ready to rear their ugly head. Apparently abandonment is mine.
I feel like a sheep admitting it, but I decided to have another go in the Phantasm. The idea of sitting by the lake and listening to the wind blow through the trees sounded majestic. People are starving, and here I am spending money on virtual reality like I’m made of money. I’m not sure if I could confess to Michael that I had a genuine desire to detach from the real world. He’d say good for me, but in that way that says he’s really judging you.
I didn’t know what I wanted to experience, so I asked the tech if I could browse the catalog of options. Here I am, prepared to dip my feet in a babbling brook and feel the sun beat down on my shoulders and I discover they have historical archives. There weren’t many options, and I could tell that many of them were liberal interpretations of historical events. As I scrolled through, I found myself faced with a conundrum, relax, or be the uptight workaholic Michael claimed.
Battle of Chicago it was.
I had the option of being integrated into the scene as a civilian, a soldier, even a Child. I didn’t want to partake in the madness, I wanted to watch. A sniper was the best they could do. I was positioned in a building nearby with the ability to watch the conflict. The history books don’t speak of the specifics, instead falling back on general stats of soldiers lost and the damage to the synthetic army. Seeing the numbers gathered in the park, it was hard to believe a conflict this large had unfolded only blocks from my apartment.
A lone figure stood in from of the Corps. Through the rifle’s scope, I could see a woman with her enhanced arm lifted in the air. My walkie talkie roared. She called for the soldiers to advance. It was a like waves of water barreling into one another. I have seen mechs up close and personal patrolling the streets, but seeing them in action, I couldn’t imagine how human soldiers could possibly stand against these juggernauts.
I had to pull away from the scope as something on the battlefield flashed white. I thought it might be an explosive, but then one of the mechs fell backward. I had to squint, but the bursts of white came from a person on the front line of the Corps. It was a Child of Nostradamus, somebody who could wield lightning. He hurled it like a god. He was a god. I should have been firing, assisting in the battle, but the historian in me wanted to observe the display. I couldn’t tell who else might be a Child, only this one man showed power beyond my averageness.
The warning chime had signaled and I almost considered telling the operator to give me another hour in the Phantasm. I hadn’t brought enough money for more. It’s a good choice, if I had more, I’d have spent it. I started to understand how this virtual world could become addictive. I had no desire to speak to a man in France looking for me to take off my shirt, but this? Being part of one of the greatest moments in history? I would give up a day’s rations for this.
Then the man was there again. It was like before, he appeared just in the corner of my eye. I wasn’t sure I saw him. When I turned, he didn’t vanish like they do in the horror movies. The man’s avatar wasn’t one of those high quality custom jobs you can buy, a simple digitized human male. He didn’t come at me, or acknowledge my existence. He focused on the fighting down below with the same curiosity I had. This time I’d ask the operator how somebody was hijacking my feed, maybe if I was lucky they’d discount my visit. Had it been once, I could over look the intrusion, but for a second time, this man violated my space. I was about to question him when the simulation ended. I wanted answers, but the operator was convinced it was my mind being overwhelmed by the stimuli.
I froze at the boom of his voice, afraid of what awaited me on the other side of the massive wooden door. The preacher kindly opened it, gesturing for me to step inside. At first, I wasn’t sure if the darkness was my eyes adjusting from the light pouring through the hallway windows. But as the preacher shut the door, I could hardly tell if my eyes were open or close.
I could hear him breathing, a steady in and out. I could only assume it was minutes before I started to feel awkward? No, vulnerable. He knew my name, but other than referring to him as a Valentine, I knew almost nothing about him. For a moment, I swore I could hear the steady rhythm of my heart, I wondered if he could as well?
“Madison.” He whispered my name. I didn’t know if I should respond? He said it like I was a curiosity, not an invitation to speak. Did he know my life story? Did he know about my thesis? I had seen him once as a child, kindly greeting the kids as they headed into the church for Visionary School. Other than the crooked smile, I hardly recalled anything about the man. Who was he? Why Nostradamus? What journey brought him to this moment? I had questions about this man, about this human and his chosen path.
“I see you.” I barely whispered the words. It is a mantra used by the Church of Nostradamus. I said those words often as I stared into the chipped bathroom mirror. The affirmation always started with those words, reminding myself to see the entirety of who I am. I am a black woman, a bold and curious person with hopes, dreams and both rifled with fear. I am as Nostradamus predicted and so much more.
The single candle rested on a pedestal. I didn’t hear the match strike or the torch ignite, all of a sudden there was a flickering light. He was younger than I remembered, the white only beginning to creep into his beard. Based on the robes, I almost expected to see stone walls like you find in the ancient churches. It had been so long since Visionary School, I didn’t know if I should bow. I couldn’t recall his title, it was all quite humbling, and embarrassing. Mostly embarrassing.
“Your eyes ask the questions you fear to speak.” I’m not embellishing. If I was to say those words aloud, you’d think I got hit in the head. But coming from him, it was insightful. I had so many questions, I had them written down on my phone, but it seemed foolish to take it out. I hadn’t prioritized them and there were at least a hundred, some easy, some certainly requiring stories.
“Any of our order can provide you scholarly wisdom. I believe there is something more pressing.”
I was seven again. Visionary School we listened to the tales of Nostradamus and how he foresaw all that we know today. Children drew the man’s likeness, taking extra care to color in his all-seeing eyes. The church elders spoke of a time Nostradamus sent an angel to protect the Children to ward away evil. My father’s work referenced the angel and I always wondered if she had curly hair like my own. My father assured me that any angel would be lucky to have my tight curls.
My eyes were close to watering. “Can you see my father?” I tried to prepare myself to talk about my father and his work without getting emotional. I hardly made it five words and I thought I might burst into tears. Nostradamus teaches to embrace our hearts as much as our minds. The moment I said it, I realized that had been my burning question.
“No.” He closed his eyes and held his arms out wide. “But, you can.”
The room transformed in front of my eyes. We were in my apartment, except my father was pouring over his journals scribbling notes on a pad of paper. I hadn’t seen him in forever. I didn’t care that it was a memory. The lines across his brow were scrunched up while he pounded away at the paper. It remembered that day. I came running into the room and insisted he get away from work for a while. I lured him away from his work so we could take a stroll in the park. I cried when I reached for his hand and my hand passed through the illusion.
“How are you…”
“Do you remember why we call ourselves Valentines?”
“The founder was named Valentine.”
“A slight lie. Eleanor Valentine was a psychic from the 20th century. Like Nostradamus, she predicted the future and helped to right the wrongs of mankind. Much of what we know of the woman are stories handed down from elder to initiate. Valentines have sworn to use their gifts to do the same.”
I could hardly believe it. I thought he was a Child of Nostradamus, but a mentalist? A real living mentalist? I thought that was a legend, or perhaps a Child masquerading as a mentalist. I didn’t care about my thesis in that moment, I wanted to hear this man’s stories. It was a gift, him revealing the inner workings of the church. Thankfully the revelation didn’t quite pertain to my thesis. I’m not entirely sure I’d be allowed to reveal this information.
“I can not predict the future as the Daughter of Nostradamus could. But I can see into the mind of a single person. Thanks to the technology developed by the church I am able to share these visions with those in need. Your mind seeks answers, but your heart, your heart keeps you here, in this moment. There is a reason you’ve yet to discover.”
The Valentine moved through the illusion, standing next to the desk. He beckoned me forward and pointed at the pad of paper as my father continued scribbling. I hovered over him and he was circling a single word.
I had been spinning my wheels with this thesis I hadn’t considered aligning my work with my father might actually send me walking in his footsteps. The rest of my questions seemed trivial, but I had to ask to distract me from my father. From there we discussed the Children of Nostradamus. My recorder eventually ran out and the man ended the conversation with, “We shall meet only once more, Madeline Walker.” The door opened as if by magic and I took my leave, giving a slight bow, because how do you show gratitude to the man who just rifled through your memories?
Starvation is only avoided by graciousness of the government.
Long ago, the east coast fell victim to radiation, leaving large chunks of land incapable of producing crops. As displaced citizens relocated to the midwest, food distribution became problematic. For those like me, government jobs provide a steady stream of rations when they were available. However, many Americans are not nearly as lucky. Even when they have credit for rations, many distribution centers run dry from the demand. I am perpetually confused as to why the government or even private industries like Genesis Division continue to sidestep the people’s number one concern.
I was returning from store with fresh oranges and the distribution center was the same as always. A line thirty people deep waited outside while nearly three times that many protested the unjust practices. Signs read, “Feed, Not Greed,” and “Death for Dinner.” I’d seen the same group for weeks, continuing to grow until the distribution center guarded by synthetics. Two machines hovered at the doors while the other two walked through the crowd, careful to avoid physical contact. I feared for the protestor’s safety, one-act of aggression potentially leading to an all out fight. I felt guilty as I clutched my bag of oranges.
It happened. When a woman stepped outside the doors of the center claiming there were no more rations, the agitation turned violent. A man rushed the door. The obscenities stopped as the synthetic grabbed the protestor by the throat, not advancing, simply holding him at bay. Had it stopped there, it might have returned to peaceful demonstration. Signs transformed into weapons. Swinging and jabbing, the synthetics hardly flinched. They only responded when a gun fired. A man in the crowd held a projectile gun, smoke streaming from the archaic device.
The synthetics reacted.
From across the street, myself and an elderly couple watched in disbelief. The man tugged at my jacket, “Get home, child.” His wife pulled him along, seeking shelter from the disturbance. The synthetics weren’t as aggressive as I expected. They didn’t attack with reckless abandon. Each movement was careful and deliberate. Their weapons remained locked to their hips, instead touching protestors, stunning them with non-lethal force. I’ll admit, I was terrified with how easy they worked through the crowd.
Some ran, others tried to resist, but when the gunman started to run, the two robots on patrol grabbed their weapons and fired. I expected to see blood. I yelped, even jumped a little. The man fell to the ground but quickly rolled over, attempting to scurry to his feet. Whatever the synthetics used to shoot the man, it hadn’t been lethal. I hated that the protestors were a necessity, or that men and women were going hungry, but I was pleased to see the reports of synthetics slaughtering innocents was greatly over exaggerated.
I froze as the man rushed past. Both synthetics had guns drawn, pointed directly at me. I couldn’t move. I was terrified. Even if the force was non lethal, I’m not exactly accustomed to being shot. They holstered their weapons and ran in my direction. I closed my eyes and tried to shrink. I could feel the wind whoosh on either side of me. Their feet hit the pavement with a weird clack and scratch. I only opened my eyes when something tugged on my jacket again. The elderly man held out his hand, “This is no place for a young lady.”
It was. I lived less than a block away. This was the neighborhood I had been raised in. At one point, I had stood in the same distribution line, praying to be fed. The man fleeing could have been a childhood friend for all I knew. It might not be a place for a young lady, but it was the only place I knew. I walked along with him, thanking him and his extremely annoyed wife.
“Warren, good deeds, they’ll get you killed.” She wasn’t wrong, but I appreciated the man acting as my guardian angel. I offered them a couple of oranges but he scrunched up his nose and shook his head. “You need them more than us.”
I thought the excitement for the day was over. I walked up the stairs inside my building and found a man huffing and puffing. It was him, the man with the gun. He was hiding in the doorway of an adjacent apartment. If it had been any other door, I might have believed he lived there, but Margret had moved in over a year ago after getting a job nearby.
He continued muttering, “I just want to feed my kids.” At any moment, synthetics may burst in the boarded up window at the end of the hall or traipse up the steps to apprehend the criminal. He had drawn a gun, but I could understand why. I started to walk past and slide my keys in my door, thinking if I could make it in I’d be safe. I had enough locks on the door that even a synthetic couldn’t burst through.
I don’t know what possessed me. Warren’s wife would have rolled her eyes or cursed at me. “If you go to the roof, there’s another building you can get down the fire escape.” The man’s eyes focused on me. He didn’t have the gun anymore, but I held my keys in my palm, ready to stab him if he got too close. He eyed the stairs going up and gave a slight nod.
I set the oranges down on the floor and gave them a light kick in his direction. “You need them more than me.” I don’t know why I did it. Perhaps I was paying Warren’s good deed forward. Or perhaps I’m just tired of seeing so much hurt in the world. If I could ease a man’s suffering, or better yet his kids, I should. Warren might be proud. My dad might be proud. I was raised to perform acts of kindness.
“Thank you.” I nearly choked up as he started sobbing. He took the oranges and bolted for the stairs leading up. I slid inside my door and turned every lock. I slid down the door. I don’t know why, but I cried.
I often feel invisible. I’m sure I’m not the only one. In the bigger picture of the universe, I’m a nobody. Average at best. Hopefully I’ll leave the world a better place than when I entered it. But overall, there are more important people, things, and events than me. I’m not even unique in having this point of view. I’m sure many people feel their significance is barely noticeable.
“I see you.”
The Church of Nostradamus offers people the opportunity to define themselves, but more so, be seen. In a world where our history is fractured, the difference between reality and conspiracy can be a simple lost newspaper article. The church offers its parishioners the chance to be seen. More than that, it preaches about the “titans who walk amongst us.” In other religions, they pray to an unseen deity. In the Church of Nostradamus, the deities being worshipped could be sitting next to you. The Church refers to them as titans, careful to not call them gods (there are radical branches who believe this) and that they are not our superiors, but our equals and we should advance the world in unity.
“We will support them, and in return, they will support us.”
I wish I could have taped the sermon, but Michael has yet to fix the camera on my phone. I hoped that boy would attend church with me, but his family raised him a devout atheist. The idea of setting foot inside the church causes him to scrunch up his nose. His flare for the dramatic knows no bounds. It had been so long since my father had taken me, I worried I would come back to something unfamiliar, but it was as uplifting as I remembered. I never knew why my father stopped taking me, I assumed he was too busy. Perhaps he suffered a crisis of faith?
At the beginning of the sermon a nearby woman attending church alone, rested her hand on my shoulder. Had it been at work or on the street, hell, even in my own apartment, it’d have made me uncomfortable. She had the most beautiful brown eyes, a rich color that exuded warmth. “I see you,” she said with a smile. In our chaotic world, that simple statement carries a force that eases the burden resting on our individual shoulders. “And I, you.” She opened her arms and I couldn’t resist the hug. For a moment, neither of us were alone. There is a beauty in the solidarity of two lone women. As we listened, I watched her nodding her head, the conviction of faith exuding from every pore. That woman reminded me of a happier time with my father.
My purpose in attending wasn’t to rekindle my faith. I guess had I thought about it, my faith has never waned. Each church has a group of preachers who speak the message of Nostradamus. However, Chicago is one of the homes of the “Valentines,” men who are said to commune with Nostradamus himself. Many have speculated that the Valentines are Children capable of psychometry, the ability to see past events. I am not sure if this has ever been confirmed, but I have a feeling there is a slightly more rational explanation and the mythos surrounding their role is greater than the reality. However, I feel my research will begin with meeting the Chicago Valentine.
Before I could reach the apex, a preacher approached me. He moved through the crowd of onlookers as if he needed to speak with me. Preachers are intuitive as hell, and it is easy to understand how people believe them harbingers. He approached me, a much older man whose deep inset eyes and winkled face spoke of a full life. Eye contact. He held out his hand until I set my hand in his massive palms. The man’s smile was unsettling at first, like he knew a joke about me but wouldn’t say. His face was pure joy. I smiled which caused him to show a toothy grin. “You have questions, young one. These are not the questions you need answered. See me again when we can sit and enjoy one another’s company. I will help you discover the questions that fuel your heart. Remember, I see you.”
I left smiling. I’m Madison Walker, I don’t smile. First, how did he do that, and second, what are the questions that fuel my heart? I guess I’ll know soon.
It’s been a rough couple of weeks. The night terrors have persisted longer than ever. I’m sleeping roughly four hours a night, which might be a blessing in disguise. After taking seven minute shower, the hot water turned chilly and somewhere between yelping and lunging for a towel, I found my topic. “The Emergence of Gods: A Study of the Church of Nostradamus’ and its Incorporation of Dieties on a Corporal Plane.” I sent the email and it couldn’t have been more than a minute that my adviser mailed back with, “Tell me more…”
My office isn’t large, and truthfully, it’s used for storage of dad’s files more than it is my own work. I decided to rummage through my his files to see what inspired him to enter the Isolation. I’m deviating from his research, but the Church itself has strong roots in New York City. I hoped he’d already touched on the subject, at least enough to give me a lead that allowed me to skip awkward introductions with the local church. He wrote in code, a lot of it. We played this game as a child, swap this letter for that, this number means this, and it seems he used it to encrypt physical documents. I’m not sure if it’s part of the paranoia that slowly came over him, or perhaps this is the legacy he left to me. I’d trade research for a real father, but somewhere in those dusty papers, his mind lives.
Michael is going to come by and help me sift through the mess and try to make heads or tails of it. This is where we begin those hour long conversations about our research. Lately it’s mostly been me helping him lay out the groundwork for his research. I know almost nothing about sustainable food sources in a crowded and drained ecosystem, but I find it fascinating that his work is attempting to save mankind. If it goes well for him, he’ll be picked up as a research assistant for a corporation like Genesis Division and be able to work in their environmental department. I laugh every time he starts to explain science. I’m smart, but I’m nowhere near his level when it comes to his research. I serve as his ethics soundboard. I’m excited for the first time, I’ll be able to bounce ideas off him as well. Finally, I feel there is some momentum.
He’ll open the door and the first words will be, “Madison, you look like bloody hell.” The lingering British accent from his parents is why I really keep him around. I’m hoping he can help make sense of my father’s papers. I know my dad would be proud of my topic, and he’d promptly launch into a discussion of scholarly proportions asking me to considering the most minuscule detail. This is going to happen. First this paper, then my degree.