I shouldn’t have complained about the walking. The pain in my feet had been annoying, but it was nothing compared to the agony of waiting. I continued touching the inhibitor, ensuring it hadn’t somehow slipped off. In a bunker underneath a farmhouse, it was impossible to tell the passage of time. Despite the clock giving away the minutes passing by, I believed it lied. As hours seemed to pass, only a quarter of an hour.
Lilith didn’t speak. For the casual onlooker, it’d almost appear as if she were meditating. She moved one crate to sit opposite of the door. There was enough firepower in the room to start a small war, but she hadn’t bothered looking at the containers. She might appear calm and collected, but her right hand held the knife, her knuckles occasionally turning white as she gripped the handle. To anybody else, she bided her time, but to me, she fought against anxiety. I didn’t like this version of Lilith.
I paced. Reading had been fruitless. Even going into the Phantasm to distract me instilled a fear I couldn’t react fast enough should I need to fight. The only thing worse than walking through a wasteland was walking the same twenty feet repeatedly. Death. Maybe that would be worse than waiting. I pushed the debate aside as I tried to focus on the positive.
The lights dimmed and returned red. I knelt down, pulling the blade from my ankle. The notion of Tracers had frightened Lilith. She stated they couldn’t infiltrate her mind. But me, I’m a liability. Would I know if a telepath was influencing my mind? Had I just grabbed the knife because somebody told me to? My heart raced, and I nearly yelped as I spun in circles, trying to decide if I was thinking clearly.
“If they’re efficient, you’ll never know they’re in your head.” Lilith had looked over her shoulder, watching my downward spiral. Her eyes followed my arm to the blade. I couldn’t tell if she approved or found it sad I was attempting to be like her.
“So, I shouldn’t worry?”
“You should worry. But there’s nothing you can do. There’s no point in dwelling on things outside your control.”
“Says the woman staring at a door.”
“If that door opens, then I’ll worry.” She lied. I didn’t out her deceit, but I it was obvious after traveling with her for days. Even Lilith’s facade of bravery had its limitations.
“I’m past worried. I’m trying not to have a heart attack.”
The lights flickered again. She held up her finger. “They’re on the property. The best you can do, sit down and breathe. Try to quiet your mind.”
If they were on the property, did that mean they had tracked us here? I wanted to believe that Lilith had attempted to lead them astray while hiding our footsteps. I put all my faith in this woman and I struggled to believe. With death lingering nearby, any assurances I had in her abilities as a runner vanished.
I sat down on a cot. Shoving the knife back into its sheath, I tried to quiet my frantic mind. I wanted to be transported to my happy place. For years that had been my father’s office, but with him gone… Even my apartment or work were now dangerous. There were so few places I could go without the fear of somebody hovering over my shoulder.
The Church of Nostradamus.
In Chicago, the cathedral had been purchased from the Catholic Church and converted. It maintained its history. Inside were stones carved with the passing of time and the rise and decline of a religion. The new owners wanted to preserve the history, and I found something about that endearing. The stained glass windows were massive and the colored light reaching the pews had captivated me on the days Visionary School attended.
I imagined myself strolling through the center aisle, fingers grazing each of the pews as I passed. The only thing that had changed was the altar. Religious artifact had been returned to the church. The symbols of the cross had been set aside and replaced with the symbol of a man kneeling. Each time I joined a thousand other parishioners for service, I wanted to believe sprinkled throughout church were Children. Was the lady with pink hair capable of flying? Or did the man in a business suit have the ability to lift a car? I’m sure we all wondered if they hid among us.
Sitting in the pews when there was no service was my favorite. The room was quiet enough you could almost hear the building breathe. My father would leave me in one of the first few pews as he met with the priest. In hindsight, they were probably talking about some secret matter he wanted to keep from me. But sitting there, I had time to stare at the giant pictures around the mezzanine and wonder where the artists got their inspiration.
The doors between the main gathering hall the lobby opened. The light pouring in from the outside made it impossible to make out the figures. Standing from the pew, I started walking backward, trying to imagine what could be happening. I tried opening my eyes, to find myself trapped. I couldn’t recall where I had been before, just that it was dark.
A man stepped forward, walking down aisle as he reached to a holster on his hip. I recognized the insignia, a Paladin. He was fit, rugged even, but the red light in his eyes gave away his ocular implants. He didn’t quite move like a normal person, almost jerky like the synthetics. Despite my fascination, I stepped backward as he attempted to close the distance.
Around his feet, two things moved about, bathed in ominous shadows. I thought of the Tracers, but how did I know that term? I couldn’t place my finger on it. When one of them reared up on their hind legs, I could see the chain from the Paladin’s waist swinging until it met the collar around the Tracer’s neck.
“This isn’t real,” I said. I wasn’t here. I knew that, but I couldn’t tell why. I touched my eyes, thinking perhaps I was wearing the goggles. Had I gone into the Phantasm? I had heard of people being unable to tell the difference between reality and virtual reality. I wanted to believe I was too smart for that to happen.
“Madison Walker.” The Paladin’s voice was deep. In the church, it echoed off the walls, making him sound as if he were forty feet tall. “You are accused of crimes against the Free Republic. Punishment is death.”
The Tracers jerked forward, pulling at their chains. I yelped, backing up. Weathered and bald, they foamed at the mouth. Their hands reached out, snarling as they clawed at the air. Smaller than an adult, I thought they might be children. Their eyes lacked any humanity. I couldn’t fathom what would make such a vile creature, but I didn’t want them to come close to me.
The Paladin dropped to one knee, yanking the chain. The Tracers didn’t seem concerned with him. They wanted me. He stroked the head of the one on the left, rubbing its skull as you would a dog. Then he reached for the collar. The clasp came off one and then the other.
I turned and ran. Moving down the aisle, I swerved left, moving through the narrow row of pews. I didn’t have any place I could go. There were doors near the altar, but if they were locked, those things would catch me. My heart beat rapidly, like at any moment it’d seize and stop working.
I reached the end of the row and spun right. The front of the church would have something, anything I could use to fight the Tracers. I had a moment to see one of them scurrying along the pews, jumping almost like a cat. The awkward way they ran, their chest low to the ground, made them even more frightful. They were like dogs. If they caught me, I didn’t think they’d stop and wait for the Paladin.
I reached the front and center stairs leading to the nave. I was going to keep running when one of the flags hanging with a metal pole caught my eye. Climbing the stairs two at a time, I jumped for the flag. Pulling it down, I slid the pole free and prepared for the Tracers. Having a weapon didn’t make me any more certain I’d survive. Even if I tackled these mutts, I still had a Paladin standing in the aisle, getting his jollies like a sadistic voyeur.
The first man-dog reached the stairs, slowing as it climbed the stairs on all fours. I was going to die in a Church of Nostradamus. Killed by creatures manufactured to hunt Children, the irony was not loss. For a moment, I glimpsed a woman standing in the aisle between me and the Paladin. Before I could call out for help, the Tracer lunged.
I poked with the curtain rod, hitting it in the chest. Drawing the pole back, I prepared to smash it over the thing’s head when I caught the other fiend trying to climb up the side of the nave. I bashed its head and then spun in time to be knocked to the ground. I held the pole at its neck, pushing it back as its jaws snapped. Drool splashed across my face.
Its teeth were crooked and discolored. It pulled back for a moment and then tried to lurch forward, gaining inches. Its hands pressed against my chest. The sunken eyes and emaciated cheeks were the least terrifying part. Its hands, placed just below my breasts, sank through the fabric, vanishing into my torso.
Beneath the surface of my skin, its fingers moved through my body. Slowly, it’s hand continued to sink until it reached the elbow. No matter how hard I pushed, I couldn’t stop it. Then its companion joined, standing by my head. There was no way to stop, no way to win against the two of them.
She stood on the stage. Tight braids made it easy to see the displeasure on her face. My heart raced, and I tried to call out for her help, but I couldn’t form words. The hand in my chest reached for my heart and steadily it slowed, then stopped. I was dying.
The woman shook her head, her mouth forming words. There was an eerie silence falling over the church as the room turned black.
The woman stood in front of me, kneeling, her hand resting on my face. She gave me another light jostle, and I backed away, pressed against the wall. I looked for the man-dogs, certain they were hiding in the shadows. I inspected the corners of the room and caught sight of the crate sitting in front of the door. Lilith had been guarding…
“Oh gods,” I tried not to cry, but it was inevitable, “it was horrible.”
Lilith put a hand on each side of my face and stood close, her eyes locking with mine. “You’re here with me. Focus on me. Listen to my voice, Madison. They’re not real.”
“It reached inside me—“
“They’re not real.” Stern, calm, forceful, Lilith tried to connect. The only thing I could see was the snarling face and the hand snaking its way through my chest cavity. “Think about the book. Think about the hard drive. Think about why we’re out here.”
“My—“ I froze as the words caught in my mouth. She shook me again. “My father.”
I leaned forward, my arms wrapped around her. I didn’t care if I violated her personal space. I needed to feel the warmth of another person, a real sane human being. Lilith wrapped her arms around me, squeezing me.
“They’re gone,” she said, “they’ve left. We’re safe.”
The moment the sun set, I found myself shivering. One would think walking one foot in front of the other wouldn’t be a tedious exercise. However, miles had passed, and the sun had assigned itself the role of killer. Even Lilith sweat. But unlike her, I didn’t do in a way that looked warrior-esque. My drenched body appeared more like a wet dog. How long could I blame her being a Child of Nostradamus for the grace in which she endured?
“Here,” she pointed to an empty farmhouse. We had passed dozens up to this point, each of them crumbling as weather beat against their roofs. Lilith had made this trek before, and I wondered if this was the place she stayed each time before.
“I’ll show you. Follow my exact footsteps.”
She pointed at her tracks as we ventured toward the building. I kept my feet within her prints. The grass had grown tall, but not so tall we couldn’t pass through. Instead, she required me to walk the long way around the farmhouse, until we reached the storm doors leading to the cellar. Like everything else in the wasteland, it speckled them with rust, under-used and barely holding themselves together.
“Doesn’t this violate your one point of egress rule?”
Lilith had many survival rules. Some she kept to herself, but I had started a list of the ones I observed. She kept her back to the wall, made sure she had the ability to see in every direction, and she always made sure there were multiple exits. At some point, I should compile the list. Always the academic, if it was in writing, I could study, memorize, and make use of the information.
Pulling at the doors, it surprised me they didn’t groan in response. We descended into the basement under the mammoth farm house. Lilith pushed at the rickety wooden door, and it opened into a compact room. I strained my eyes, trying to see into the shadows. Then, a red light shone brightly enough I had to squint.
“What the hell?”
The tiny room appeared vacant, except for the hand print authentication pad. Lilith pressed her fingers into the pad. The red light filled the space again, pausing for a moment over her eyes and then proceeding. From the outside, it looked as if the building might fall in upon itself, but whatever lay beyond this door was at least a century newer.
“I told you I had a plan.”
“What is this?”
Hissing filled the air, gears and locks spun, and the far wall opened. I hadn’t even noticed the seams. First sliding back and then to the side, lights flickered to life inside the space under the farm house. Lilith walked in. I shouldn’t be surprised, littered amongst the many secrets, this was just another part of being a rogue Child of Nostradamus.
“We have supply bunkers throughout the area. Most have been deserted for years, but we keep them stocked for just this reason.”
“But no cars?”
“Easier to track a moving vehicle. I don’t particularly care for the trek, but this should at least make it easier for us.”
Lilith ushered me in and then went for the door. “Only runners can open the door. I will go cover our tracks. Give me a couple hours to put a decoy trail in place and I’ll be back. You’ll get an alert, if anybody other than me is standing at that door when it opens, kill them.”
“With my bare hands?”
“Plasma rifles are in the trunk over there.”
It wasn’t the fact we were hiding in a room stockpiled with weapons. No, I expected that from Lilith, but the manner in which she said it. The tone of her voice would be how I’d mention there was an extra beer in the fridge for a guest. Sure, just help yourself to a weapon that can obliterate a human. Would you like a coaster with that?
The door sealed in place. Not locked, but sealed. The seams around the edges vanished, and it was no different than if it were part of the wall. I ran my hand along the surface, nothing. I had never seen technology like this before. Did the Children in Troy have access to equipment light years beyond the rest of society? If that were the case, I can understand why they stood as a nation amongst themselves.
The room stretched the length of the farm house. One wall held massive industrial sheds with military looking footlockers while the other had cots and tables. I flipped open the first trunk, expecting to find hi-tech weapons, but inside housed rows of cans and plastic packaged meals. Further down were large tanks of half-filled water. There were changes of clothes, jackets ranging from spring to winter and even a section filled with lightly used shoes.
The first section held rational supplies, things any person journeying on foot might need. But after that, in a gap between the shelves, pins on the wall held a variety of knives. I had a sneaking suspicion this is where the weapons started to appear. Peaking into the first footlocker, rows of hand guns sat next to multiple boxes of ammunition. The next held bigger guns, I’m not even sure what to call them. The last box was nothing but grenades.
“What have I gotten myself into?”
Going through them again, I noticed there were rations missing, and the water tanks had been depleted. People had been here since the restock, but the weapons had gone untouched. Did Children rely solely on their own abilities, or were runners less likely to take supplies that might weigh them down? I decided a handgun was as powerful as I could manage.
I took a magazine from the box, a handful of bullets and one of the guns. It took a moment to figure out logically which direction the bullets should go into the magazine. Then only a few more minutes before I got it in the gun. I knew there was another action, something that I needed to do to prep the round. Pulling back the top part, a bullet loaded into the bullet hole.
Mental note, research guns.
Once I was ready to lose a gunfight, it came down to a change of clothes. A shower in the back corner only had a few minutes of water, but it was enough to wash away the soot and grime of the day. More than that, I hoped the shower served its original purpose and washed away the radioactive particles. The media had ensured that the wasteland was deadly to humans. I prayed that Lilith had thought about that before we ventured across the border.
Nourishment. I tore open the plastic of one meal and found inside all the ingredients for a meal. A small tin can with matches suggested I should heat it, but I didn’t dare start a fire in a room I couldn’t escape. I dined on cold meat sludge. It tasted disgusting. I had never experienced a tepid ice cream before. Truth be told, I hardly remembered what it tasted like at all. But as I chomped away the first bite, memories of my childhood came back to me. Father enjoyed his secret treats and now and then, he’d bring one back for me to greedily slurp down. I finished the first pack and decided if this was my only meal for a while, I wouldn’t hesitate on a second.
As I fished around, there were bags of dried vegetables and cans with pictures of animals on it. I didn’t dare check the dates. Had they been there for long? Were they meant to last forever? If they were, what chemicals could they have possibly pumped into the food?
“Finally,” I pulled out bags of sealed hygiene products. Remember when I said tampons were a godsend? A woman must have stocked this safe house. There were soaps and washes, and I almost wished I had found them before showering. I stole a handful of each, shoving them into my bag. I added a few plastic bags of meals and even if we didn’t find another place to rest, I’d be prepared.
Before settling in, I stopped at the knives. Lilith had assured me she’d train me to fight, or at least to be less useless. It only reasoned that I should have something to train with. In a wild land, I imagined military weapons, guns, rockets, maybe some lasers. But so far, her knife had been the most useful tool in her arsenal. I scanned them, looking for something similar. None had the atom thin edge, but several were close. Pulling it from the peg, I inspected the blade, aware of the weight. I didn’t know an excellent knife from a bad one, but the handle fit comfortably in my hand. I slid the holster into my boot and carefully hid the blade.
Sitting on a cot on the far wall, I rummaged through the bottom of my bag, pulling out Pill-R’s data pad. I flipped it and started rummaging through the files. After being a Child of Nostradamus in the phantasm, this two-dimensional searching lacked the same sense of wonder. I reached into the bag and pulled out the goggles, wondering if there was a way to access the data in virtual reality.
“It’s worth a shot.”
I slid them over my eyes. Either because of the basement walls or maybe some hidden security, there was no connection to the outside world. Poking in the air, I navigated the menu until I found an available source of data. I didn’t know if they were compatible. Typically this method accessed downloaded simulations, but it was worth a try. A hacker, I am not.
The goggles attempted to establish a connection. Three dots appeared, the color slowly changing from red to black. It took a moment, but all three blinked green. I disconnected the audio and made sure the pistol was within reach. From here, I could jack into a remote version of the Phantasm and still have access to my senses.
The lobby appeared as a circular room. Transparent screens hung in the air, spinning slowly about, putting files on display. From here I could conjure a variety of small locally stored scenarios, but sitting in an old study with a fire burning as I sorted files felt overkill. There were thousands upon thousands of files. The file structure made little sense. Either the goggles or the creators had been sloppy. I reached out, touching the transparent windows. Newspapers, videos, and photographs filled the screens. Dates, timestamps, the data reconstructionist who cataloged the information was available on every article.
I laughed when I came across one of my own. “Actor Becomes Governor of California.” I laughed at the trivial nature of the information I first recorded when I joined the agency. They gave me trash tabloids, rag magazines, and copious amounts of information unworthy for consumption, and certainly not worthy of recording a second time. But I did my job, and I did it well.
“Children of Nostradamus.”
The three dots appeared, hovering in the air as the goggles synched with the data pad. I didn’t know how much information was on the device. How much fit had surprised even Pill-R.
All the screens blinked at once. There were still thousands of files, but the ones closest to me contained photographs. I knew the Children of Nostradamus were impressive, but I hadn’t been prepared for this.
“Amazing,” I whispered.
There were photographs of city officials shaking hands with Children and even members of the church listening intently as a Child provided a sermon. Somewhere between the rise of powered people and today, they lost their luster. But housed in these files were bits of information that explained why they had become like deities to modern man.
As I spun through the screens, I’d freeze to admire a photograph. There was only one image I wanted to uncover. The hawk, a circular bird nearly biting its tail. I brushed away all the screens when I saw it appear on the far wall of the lobby. Grabbing at the air and pulling it toward me, the single file filled my screen.
Something about this band of Children captivated my attention. They had spawned the inspiration for this journey and now I owed it to the historian in me to learn all I could. Tapping the screen, it opened. Inside were the entries of Sean Carlson, artwork commissioned to show the emotion and power behind each of this group’s members.
I scrolled through the images until I saw the man with his lightning. Bald and without eyebrows, he appeared almost inhuman. He wielded lightning as if it was part of nature. I tapped the screen, recalling the destructive way he tackled the synthetics in the simulation. On some level, I envied the man, the confident way he thrust himself into danger. I needed to know more.
I opened his file and delved into the history of the Nighthawks…
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.
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.
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.
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.