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.
I should be sleeping, curled under the covers in nervous anticipation for what work holds for me tomorrow. A phone call this afternoon stated I had been cleared for work and apologized for a mix up in my credentials. I will be returning to work, but not as part of the Children of Nostradamus specialty division. I really don’t care, my rent is coming and I’m already dipping into my savings. Michael will say it was brought on by stress, which normally I’d believe, but not this dream.
When I was little I’d wake in the cold of night, shivering, my blankets tossed to the floor. My father would barge into my room, convinced an intruder had snuck in my window. He wielded the metal bat like he’d know what to do if a stranger loomed over my bed. Each night he’d set it down near the door and drag the blankets back onto my bed and curl up next to me until I fell back asleep. With him nearby I’d have normal dreams, the zoo, being naked on the first day of school, kid stuff. Weeks might go by before I’d have another night terror and it’d begin anew.
This one started like any other. I’m standing in a city I’ve never seen before, nearly choking on the smog. A gray haze covers the sky and it could be any city. As I walk toward the towering skyscrapers, I realize there are no people. The city takes on an eerie quality after that as if it’s been robbed of its soul. Even in the middle of the night, Chicago has a voice, whispers of people with the occasional screeching of sirens. But this, it’s as if people vacated in the dark of night and the city awoke a hollow shell.
It feels like hours as I wander the streets. Each time, I wander into new stores and down different alleys. This evening I found myself in a pizzeria. The warmth of a brick oven fireplace is almost as real as the smell of marinara sauce. I can see the steam rising off food placed in boxes but yet to have their lids shut. Not only is it vacated, but each location I stop is the same, it’s as if the denizens of this world blinked out of existence.
It feels like days as I search through buildings. Unlike my normal dreams, I can recall the feeling of brick under my fingers or the scratch of a chainlink fence along my back as I crawl through. It might not be real, but it’s close enough to play tricks on my brain. And like every other terror, I find myself on the top of the parking garage. Sometimes I don’t remember what comes next, last night, the whistling sound jogged a memory. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t muster my voice.
In the distance, miles beyond the city skyline the sky flashes a red, orange, and grows until a white light sears my eyes and I have to look away. It’s twenty seconds later when I hear the boom. The concussive force behind it washes over the city, shaking buildings as the tallest crumble under their own weight. Wind brings the heat and moments later the temperature starts to burn. The blast of whatever bomb is detonated pushes through the city and I watch as the skin on my hands flake and peel away. Moments later, I am nothing.
I’m not there, but I am. I can’t explain it. The city is in ruins. The people who fled were the fortunate ones, me, I’m nothing more than vaporized dust on the wind. The creepiest part of it was the figure from the Phantasm, I could swear I saw them. Not while it was happening, but as I started to drag my frightened ass out of the dream, they were standing on the rooftop where I had been.
I’ve never been scared of a foreign power destroying the city, at least I don’t think so. I bet I snuck into my father’s office while he was working and he was studying footage of an old world nuclear disaster. Perhaps the other day in the Phantasm gave my brain a jostle and me being me decided to conjure up the one thing that terrified me as a child. It figures.
I think instead of hiding in my apartment for the next three hours, I might go to the coffee shop until work. At least there, I can be around people. I’ll admit, I’m missing my father and that damned baseball bat right now.
I have spent years scoffing at the idea of the Phantasm. Mankind is struggling to put food on their tables. People are being murdered in ghettos while gangs divide cities. Chicago police are renowned around the globe for not tolerating injustice within their borders. I’m lucky to live here, but the rest of the country doesn’t have that luxury. So while all of this is going wrong, Genesis Division, the largest conglomerate in the states spends their time investing in escapism instead of addressing real issues.
My thesis adviser caught me at school burning the midnight oil. He dropped a credit on my phone for the local Phantasm cafe. I argued with him and all I got was, “You need to get away from it for a bit. Go for a walk in the country.” I might have taken him too literally when I selected the Canadian wilderness.
There have been numerous studies regarding how the Phantasm pods circumvent the body’s senses. There are many places where people can congregate and interact with avatars from around the world. Home units are so common that the cafe pods are seen as a decadent item. I’m not a prude, but stripping down in a room with a technician watching left me uneasy. I laid down in the pod and the technician walked through the process and then initiated the simulation.
How do I describe it? I could taste a richness in the air, a mix of fresh air and moisture so thick each breath is like a drink of water. The tiny pebbles along the water are smoothed and massage the feet. Caribou are snacking just beyond the tree line, watching me with curiosity as I calibrate my virtual body. I want to touch the water, but the chill in the air assures me it would be even colder. An eagle dives along the lake catching a fish, and for a moment my brain tricks me into thinking I’m as free as the winged predator.
My brain knew I was in a metal coffin. Logic told me all of it was fake, a construct by a talented coder. However, my body didn’t care. Once I stopped trying to dissect the experience, I found myself surrounded by a beautiful landscape. I spent the hour walking along the lake, contemplating life. It might have been the first time in my life I didn’t feel the stress of success crushing me. I didn’t think about my dissertation once. Chicago was a world away.
A doorway appeared signaling my departure, and I’ll admit, my animosity toward the Phantasm was replaced with bit of empathy with the people seeking to escape. I paused to take one last glimpse of nature’s beauty. I could swear, a man stood at the water’s edge watching me. I asked the technician and he assured me as the mind detached from the simulation echoes of our memories could surface. He babbled something about neural something. It was only an hour, but I feel energized. I have some research to do, but I think I might have a grasp on this thesis. Now, back to work.
When you open the door and synthetic greets you, your first reaction is always fear. The hollow husks of law enforcement have a reputation of conducting themselves in a way that, let’s just say, seems extreme to the flesh-and-blood population. But there it stood, its white and silver chassis. Even without eyes, you get the feeling it’s staring at you, or more like, it’s staring through you. Alone it almost didn’t seem as threatening, until it raised the rifle and a computerized voice said, “Madison Walker, you are needed for questioning.”
I almost died.
The machine wasn’t as aggressive as I’d seen on the news feeds. Granted, most of those were trying to stop rioters, looters, and gang violence. This one gave me a moment to grab my phone and let me lock the door to my apartment. It held the door open for me as we exited the building and even helped me into the back of the police transport. There were humans driving and the synthetic stayed in the back with me. The machine had been sent into a potentially dangerous situation while the humans sat safely inside their vehicle. Did the police think I was dangerous? I have a taser for emergencies, but beyond that, the most dangerous thing about me is my singing voice.
At the police station they put me in a small room. Everybody was civil and polite even if they were a bit stand offish. When Detective Chen sat me down and started asking about my experiences with Children I got my first clue as to why I was brought in. I answered honestly, other than seeing them in videos, I don’t think I ever met one in person. He asked me about the Church of Nostradamus. There was a small branch of the church a block over from my apartment, but other than tossing loose change into the donation bin for the homeless, I’d never set food inside. Then he slid the photo across the desk. I expected it to be the man with the dark eyes, but it was the circular hawk. My job has lot of gag orders, but I was able to tell him I had seen it thanks to work.
Now I had questions. What is the hawk? How did it tie into the Children? What did the Church have to do with it? The man gave me little to nothing. Just said it was a symbol pre-corruption used by the Children of Nostradamus. When he leaned forward to grab the photo, he made his one and only slip. The pen in his pocket, the one cops infamously use to jot notes in their archaic notebooks had a company name in thin letters, “Genesis Division.” He tapped a finger on my cell phone and loaded his cell and work number and said, “If you come across this symbol again, I’d appreciate a phone call.”
He offered me a ride home, but I opted to walk. I hadn’t heard back from work yet, and seriously, I needed some time outside away from my thesis (which was going nowhere.) Something about work, about that hawk had pinged the largest conglomerate in the world and landed me without a job. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but it was the first time I need to use the word “conspiracy.” There weren’t many pieces to the puzzle yet, but I had a long walk ahead of me to figure it out.