A Debt Owed

I am useless.

Ask me debate corporate intrusion into Free Republic politics and I can fight like a champ. But ask me to make a stand against death machines sent to capture me, my feet turn to lead and fleeing becomes difficult. I can do nothing but gawk and pray to Nostradamus for divine intervention. There were no more angels left to protect mankind. Instead, we turned to monsters lurking in the night.

“Francis, light em up.” Did I hear Halo correctly? The cyborg meant to save my life had a proper English name? I barely had time to imagine him as a child in attending Visionary school. A burst of light projected from his raised arm. Four lasers spun about his arm fast enough the light appeared to to criss-cross in an elegant pattern. The beautiful lights hit a synthetic and bore a hole through its chest before he pointed at the next machine.

The synthetics jumped out of the way like scattering insects. Crawling on all fours, their shoulder pointed in our direction. Lilith jumped behind the woman and I dropped to the floor. Both cyborgs held up their arms, the metal flipping open to create shields to protect their faces and torsos. Bullets pelted the metal and even a laser pulsed, striking their bodies but doing no harm.

“Those are new,” Lilith said. She had the knife drawn. It seemed smaller than before, or perhaps it appeared smaller because of the size of the situation. I didn’t want Lilith to be holding a knife, I wanted her to be wielding a rocket launcher. No, I wanted her driving a tank and mowing down—

Halo reached into an opening in her thigh and produced a long rope. Lilith took the moment to pivot around the woman and hurled her knife at an oncoming synthetic. The blade sunk into the cranium, a precision hit from almost thirty feet away. The synthetic didn’t fall down like the others, but it staggered as it tried to assess the situation. I had been wrong; she didn’t need a bigger weapon, just more of them.

The rope hanging at Halo’s side glowed a vibrant blue and as a cat-like synthetic lunged; she brought it back and snapped it forward. It wasn’t a rope. It was a whip and as the blue end wrapped around the synthetic, the blue flared. A yank and the rope seared through the metal of the machine. The moment it was free, she repeated the action, snaring it around the wrist of another machine.

Francis ran toward the remaining four, his arms shielding his head and heart. The synthetic sat upright, grabbing his arm and struggling to expose his body. I swore the man’s muscles thickened as he grappled with the machine. The lights in his right arm pulsed, burning away part of the machine’s skull while removing its entire left arm. Grabbing onto the thing’s face, he jerked backward, ripping away part of the skull. The synthetic tried to grab at Francis’s hands. Overpowered and refusing to submit, a second pulse from Francis’s arm penetrated the exposed skull.

“Lilith,” he yelled, “help us.” Lilith appeared to be the underdog. There were no flashy limbs or storage compartments filled with high-tech weapons. But what she lacked in bulk she made up for in an elegant prowess. She ran, jumped, and somersaulted around a barrage of bullets from a synthetic on all fours. It leapt into the air, determined to throw her to the ground, but she slid underneath it. Had she fought enough of them to know their tactics? Or was she just that skilled? If we won, I’d ask.

She reached the staggering synthetic and pulled her knife free. Another jab and twist of the blade left it in rubble. Lilith chucked the blade. A synthetic grabbed her leg and pulled her down while the blade sank into the skull of a synthetic getting dangerously close to me. Her aim was deadly, as was her confidence in knowing she’d strike the machine and not me. It continued crawling toward me, it’s body smacking against the ground attempting to carry out its mission. I scurried to my feet, looking for a place to hide in the open room.

“Dammit,” I cursed. I inched closer to the machine, taking care to watch the gun mounted on its back. It could shoot and still kill me, it had a clear shot. But it didn’t. Whoever sent the synthetics didn’t want me dead. I had more questions. But for now, I grabbed Lilith’s knife and twisted it as I pulled. I had to put my weight into it. Leaning back, it jerked free and the synthetic’s limbs froze. I had just gone from completely useless to mostly useless.

The pressure suddenly dropped, and the floor wobbled under my feet. I had the sudden urge to hurl as if I had been drinking a bit too much wine. One synthetic stood upright, its back to me. I couldn’t be sure, but it appeared if its chest compartment had opened. The deep bass pulsing sent the other three to the ground. Lilith tried to crawl, but the synthetic pointed its palm in her direction and the pulse undulated until she collapsed. Their lethal arsenal was impressive, but the real sight was a synthetic’s ability for non-lethal crowd control. I had witnessed the bursts of sound before in a food riot. Even the cyborgs curled into tight balls, unable to resist.

Even though the tactic wasn’t directed at me, the fluid in my ear vibrated to where I could hardly stand. I willed myself upright, certain I’d hurl from the rumblings in my stomach. One foot in front of the other, two steps turned to three. For the moment, they wanted us alive. It was my time to shine, to show I was more than useless.

I clenched the knife tighter, focusing on the textured black handle. The sound was both loud and oddly quiet. My associates had dispatched five synthetics, but it only took one. The artificial intelligence had declared Halo and Francis as expendable, but they wanted Lilith and me. It was a mistake. I shoved the knife into the back of its skull, the nearly invisible blade penetrated the metal. I pushed as hard as I could and slammed the heel of my other hand on the butt of the blade. It slipped through. I refused to be useless. I was on a mission and a tin bucket would not stop me.

It turned, batting me with its arm. Without effort it flung me from its back. The knife pulled free and as I collapsed onto my butt; the machine froze in place. I had done it. I had made myself useful. I killed a synthetic.

The victory didn’t last as Lilith ran over to me, took her knife and pulled me to my feet. Even Halo and Francis were checking their weapons. I thought we had won, but the speed in which they moved suggested otherwise. Lilith must have seen the confusion on my face. “That was the scouting party. More are coming.” And as if on cue, I could hear the vibration of vehicles crashing through the front of the pier.

“You need to run,” Halo shouted.

“We’ll buy you as much time as we can,” Francis added.

“Thank you.” It was the first time I heard Lilith offer any amount of civility. It didn’t surprise me that in the heat of the battle, that was when she was most human. A scary human, yes, but a human none-the-less.

“Not for you,” Halo said, “for Walker.”

“Tell him we say, hello,” Francis said. I had so many questions. I didn’t want to leave them behind. They knew something about my father, answers about who he really was. But as glints of metal started to show, synthetics poured into the pier, climbing walls and running along the floors, I knew they were willing to sacrifice themselves for a debt owed to my father. I took pride in whatever he had done for them.

Lilith grabbed my hand and tugged at me. We ran from the building toward the end of the pier. They had tied a single boat to the dock. It was less of a helping hand and more of a shove as she hurled me into the back of the boat. With a cut of the rope, we were free. I turned to watch as the building lit up. There was gunfire and the bright red of lasers. I tried to ignore Halo’s screams cutting through the air. A moment later there was nothing but the splash of water against the boat. The engine roared to life as Lilith took command and we sped away from the pier, another near death experience tacked on to an already busy day.

Four drones overhead followed, but the synthetics were contained on land. The only benefit of being in a boat, we were watched, but not chased. At the moment, it didn’t seem we were a big enough catch to pull out the airships, not yet at least. Lilith pulled out a rifle, even with the choppy water six shots, four destroyed drones.

For the moment, we were safe, if drifting aimlessly in Lake Michigan could be considered safe. The Valentine encouraged this mission, but Lilith said he couldn’t be trusted. My father was part of the network and the cyborgs owed him a debt. I eyed my bag. What was on the hard drive that was so important? And how did my father and the Children of Nostradamus tie together?

I stared at the bruising on my hand, the indents of Lilith’s knife leaving tiny welts. Things were changing, and it was obvious few of them would be good. But even if tonight was categorized as a defeat, I had one small victory.

“I’m not useless.”

A Rendezvous with Old Friends

Lilith hadn’t spoken since we left the tunnels. I wanted to ask her if she needed medical attention, but the moment I tried to gain ground and catch up, Pill-R stopped me by grabbing onto my hand. The short man shook his head, his unfortunate facial hair blowing up into his nose and mouth. She had just risked her life to save us, I could give her space for the moment. She’d earned it.

The pier. Once a spectacle for tourists, filled with restaurants, arcades and even an amusement park, now deserted and considered part of the slums. The pier reached into Lake Michigan, one of the largest supplies of drinking water and now a protected resource. Few boats traveled its waters and nearly all the beaches were closed. It remained beautiful, but it was beautiful to see, not to touch. A little slip of paper won in an auction said it was our destination. The rendezvous fast approached and somewhere on the pier we’d find transportation from Chicago into the Corruption.

“Do you know how we’re leaving the city?”

“Smugglers.” Pill-R’s single word answer provided about as much information as I expected. The sun was setting, and we were meandering through a section of Chicago known for its rowdy population. We had seen several pairs of synthetic patrols, but so far no human police. The lack of human officers made the situation that much more worrisome. I was less worried about being shot by a synthetic, and more so being mugged and robbed at gunpoint. It would be the perfect end to a horrific day.

“There.” Lilith paused at the mouth of the alley. We had to cross at least a dozen lanes of roads and over tufts of patchy grass in a park and we’d be at the pier. Between, there was almost no coverage. A drone would easily spot us and it’d only be a matter of time before synthetics descended on the structure and we’d be without an escape.

“No way to hide. Must be a fast transaction, yes.” Even Pill-R saw the dilemma in front of us.

“This is where we say goodbye. I owe the 5.”

“We will watch, Lilith. We always watch.” That sounded more ominous than I expected from the hacker. I didn’t know if this was a hugging situation or a be on our merry way. The hacker reached into his pocket and pulled out a thin strip of plastic. “The 5 seek to expose all information. We will support you, yes. Keep this with you and we will find you in the Phantasm.” I had seen the piece of plastic before, a phone of sorts, a way to speed dial your contacts. I placed it behind my left ear, pressing it against my skin until the adhesive bonded.

“Thank you, Pill-R. I hope we won’t need more of your help.”

“We know that is false. Safe journeys, yes.”

And like that, he walked into the alley and vanished around a turn. If I had access to my tablet, I’d research more about this infamous, “5.” But for now, the propaganda about their destructive espionage didn’t seem as truthful, at least I hoped it wasn’t.

“Eyes down and stay close. Drunken lovers for a stroll, you read me?”

“You’re not really my type, but sure.” She didn’t see the humor. I couldn’t imagine what made this woman laugh. She didn’t strike me as the puppies and rainbows kind of girl. So far the black market had been where she shined the most, that and destroying two synthetics with her bare hands. I imagined she was the type of woman who would throw flowers in the garbage but would swoon over a new pistol. No, rifle, definitely a big rifle, with lasers.

Her acting was uncanny. I assumed she spent more than her share of nights intoxicated on cheap booze and hanging off the shoulder of a man she was about to take home. She held my hand tightly, occasionally staggering, making us veer from one direction to the next. I nearly froze when the whirring sound of a drone approached. She didn’t miss a beat, turning to me and grabbing my face. As it slowed overhead, she pulled me close, her lips smashed against mine. I had given little thought to my first girl-on-girl kiss, but she wasn’t half bad, if not intense. She wrapped her arms around me and we fell into the grass. She kept the back of her head covering my face. Her lusty advances were skilled subterfuge, and I wondered how many times she had used this trick before.

Her body stiffened as the drone continued off toward the financial district. I couldn’t tell what was more unnerving, nearly being spotted by authorities or how soft her lips were. “Despite what you think, your idea of a first date sucks.” The corner of her lip curled, and I thought I nearly broke through. Would she smile?

”My first dates involve more punching.” I shook my head. Nope, not surprised, not even in the slightest.

She pulled me to my feet, and we drunkenly worked our way to the pier. The massive building that stood in the middle had seen better days. Most of the roof had collapsed and the side of the building seemed held up by reinforcement columns fighting a losing battle. At its height, I imagined this building had been beautiful, a beacon of joy. Now, it stood as a testament to a better time long gone. I was about to ask why they hadn’t torn it down when I spotted the massive GD on the front of the building. Genesis Division owned a hefty portion of Chicago. They bought every decaying structure. Chicago needed hope, the moments of joy inspired by the museums, concert halls and even the parks. Hope was almost as rare as food.

Lilith inspected the seems and when satisfied there was no security, pulled a piece of metal grating blocking the door to the side. Down the rabbit hole we went.

Graffiti artists had claimed the interior as their personal canvas. Every inch, crumbling or not was covered in beautiful designs, some new, some years or decades old. We walked past empty spaces where stores once stood. We could have been outside, walking along the pier, but I had to imagine Genesis Division would keep a watchful eye over their assets.

”Do you know who we’re meeting?”

”I know of them. They’re smugglers, taking a very select clientele north through the wall into Canada.” The Canadians had erected a perimeter fence to prevent an onslaught migration from the Free Republic. They were demonized in our history books, hoarders of wealth and resources. My father insisted they were anything but. Now I knew why.

”We’re going to Canada? Isn’t that the long way around?”

”Into Canada, then we’ll travel east and slip through the wall in Maine. Nobody goes into the Outlands, it’ll be easy to sneak in.”

“How long will it take?” I don’t know why, but this adventure felt timely, and her insistence on taking the scenic route didn’t sit well with me. I wanted to be in the Outlands as quickly as possible.

”A month unless we can find reliable transportation. We have a better chance of finding an unregistered car in Canada than here.”

I didn’t like it at all. The longer I evaded the authorities, the more chance there was for them to send additional resources. If Genesis Division took an interest in one of their employees stealing information about Children, we’d be screwed. Synthetics would come for us, police would come for us, bounty hunters would come for us.

The building opened up as we neared the end. The two story structure had once been floor to roof windows overlooking the water. It was depressing to see so much grandeur reduced to rubble. If it hadn’t been built to withstand the waters, I feared Genesis Division would let it wash away entirely, another monument of our past lost forever.

”Stop. Right. There.” Shit.

I froze. Lilith however took a slight step forward, her hand reaching behind her back slowly. Her fingers were inches from the knife. “Touch the blade and lose your arm.”

”We’re here for the rendezvous,” I blurted out. “We need passage.”

Lilith could yell at me later when we were safely stowed away. Did she always resort to violence first? If talking got us somewhere, it’d save us the effort of fighting to the death again. I mean, Lilith fighting to the death, I would hide and pray she survived.

”I need help. The police—

”We don’t care your reasons.” I gasped loud enough everybody in the room could hear. I joked about Lilith being more machine than woman, but the man stepping out of the shadows was just that. There were plenty of enhanced people, but few reached the level of being seen as a cyborg. With silver arms and half his face made of metal, there was no doubt he’d spent an uncanny time in a Body Shop. A sign of money was to have enhancements but look as if you were nothing but original parts. He didn’t seem bothered by appearances.

”Lilith?” A woman jumped from a perch in the rafters. Her feet splintered the flooring. Like her male counterpart, she wore her synthetic limbs with pride. The left side of her body from neck down was metallic as was her left leg from the knee down.

“Halo,” Lilith’s hand inched closer to the blade. “Still running?”

”No thanks to you.” Oh great, another one of Lilith’s friends who might kill us. She seemed to have as many enemies in her contact list as she did friends.

“We need passage to Canada,” Lilith stated.

”Why?” Asked the man.

”I thought reasons didn’t matter?” I replied.

“They do when you’re traveling with her.” He didn’t like her anymore than Halo. Great.

The man and woman paused, looking toward the ceiling. I stared up, half expecting another person to drop from the rafters. “They’re here.” She said. I didn’t know who they were, but I know I didn’t want to be here when they arrived.

”My name is Madison Walker. I’m trying to find my father. I need to get to the Out—

”Walker?” Halo turned to the man. The fading light outside reflected off the metal. They both appeared almost statuesque. I could tell by the expression on their faces they had heard the name before.

“You know my father?”

They might have replied, perhaps told me something about my father that would have explained his involvement in the Network. They might have, except for the synthetics dropping through the rotted ceiling. Two, four, six, they started to descend. It was like before, except fewer people to stop slow their approach. Had I known stealing the hard drive would have led to this… No. I would have still done it. I needed to know.

”Run,” I yelled. Running meant a chance. Running meant survival. Running meant fighting another day. But neither smuggler ran. Even Lilith turned around as we passed them. What came next was terrifying, not the killing machines, those were programmed to be scary.

The scariest thing in that room were three humans unwilling to run.

Men, Machinery & Mechs

Alarms traveled through the upgrades in Chicago’s underworld. Alerts appeared in the eyes of the patrons and sirens must have sounded in the auditory enhancements. Lilith grabbed me by the hand, her grip far stronger than I anticipated. Pill-R gave her a nod and pointed to a metal hatch near the back of his vendor space. Later, Lilith explained he paid extra to be close to an escape. As we cleared tables filled with junk, he pulled a wire from one of his servers and slid it into a port just behind his right ear. Pill-R didn’t computers. He was living tech.

I’m a college student at a respected university. I shouldn’t know what gunfire sounds like. I shouldn’t have empirical proof that a bullet entering the forehead causes the rear of the skull to explode. I shouldn’t know any of this, but I do. 

I have witnessed the very definition of a massacre. Even as the black market dealers returned fire, synthetics tore their way through the entrance. Their bodies lit up as bullets ricocheted. They fired into the crowd with frightening accuracy. Those unfortunate to be within arms reach were eviscerated. Sword-like fingers punched into a man as a forearm mounted gun blew through his body. These weren’t peacekeepers, these were the boogeymen people feared. 

I found myself rooting for the gang members. The killers and drug dealers, I wanted them to fight back and win. I didn’t approve of them destroying my city or poisoning our kids, but I didn’t want them to die. If it was going to be imperfect humans or soulless machines, I would always cheer on those with a heart. 

I had to shield my eyes as a something struck one of the synthetics causing an explosion. The air in the room vibrated. Whatever they fired, it sent the two robots into the stone, shredding them into scrap metal. The pressure in my ears made it difficult to hear and nearly impossible to stand. As quickly as those two fell, they were replaced by two more, and then another two. Everybody in that room was going to die.

“Hurry,” Pill-R skipped formalities as he yanked on my arm, pulling me through the small hatch. Lilith braced her foot against the wall and tugged on the door. The woman was only an inch or two taller than me and perhaps ten pounds heavier. Her muscles strained as she pulled at the circular door. Whoever had performed Lilith’s upgrades had been careful to hide their work, nowhere on her body could I find the familiar scars. 

With a grunt, she jerked the door shut and our world went dark. The barrier didn’t stop the yelling or the screams of dying of humans. There’s was a second explosion. With so many men and women infused with technology, I prayed they’d have a fighting chance. They deserved life in prison, not being eradicated under a train terminal. 

I grabbed a small flashlight from my backpack. By the time I flipped it on, Lilith and Pill-R were already down the tunnel. I was glad to know my protector and her weird hacker friend were concerned about my safety. I get it, we’re all trying to survive, but they could do it without being assholes.

We spend the next ten minutes coming to splits and small rooms with half a dozen exits. Pill-R continues leading us and I wondered if he’s done this before or if he’s somehow seeing a map of the tunnels in his ocular enhancement. I kept pausing to look over my shoulder, but at that point, it didn’t sound like we’re being followed. I was thankful, Pill-R may be a world renowned hacker, but I think too much time in an office chair rendered him useless to fight. While Lilith might fair better, I couldn’t imagine she’d…

They both froze and I barrelled into them. The large chamber joined multiple tunnels. We were far enough away from the action I couldn’t hear the screams, but I still didn’t feel safe.

“Shh,” Lilith said as she pressed the button on my flashlight. It went dark. I’ve always heard when one sense is useless, the others step up their game. I can assure you, standing in a pitch black room did not give me super hearing. Other than Pill-R dragging his heels on the floor, I couldn’t hear a thing. He took my hand, backing me against a wall, I can’t make up or down. I had no idea what he could see that my human eyes couldn’t make out. Reaching out, Lilith had deserted us.

My blood turned to ice as red dots appeared down one of the corridors. Synthetics. I couldn’t tell how many there were. Metal scraped along the cement and the thin beams of light moved until one centered on me We’re about to die and all I could focus on is that the hacker’s hand isn’t reciprocating my death grip. I assumed in his line of work he’d be used to the safety of his home office, but perhaps he had more than a passing familiarity with life or death encounters.

The red dot zipped up my body, catching my left eye before it vanished entirely. Metal grinding against metal. I heard the servos in the machines wheezing as they attempted to react. A gun fired and in a burst of light I made out Lilith, weaving between two robots. I reached for the flashlight flipping it on. 

The head of one synthetic rolled off its body. While I shone the light terrified, Lilith moved as if the synthetics should fear her presence. Spinning out of the way, she dropped and knocked one robot off its legs. Whatever she is held in her hand sliced through its arm, sending it and the gun on its forearm clanking against the ground.

I started to walk forward. I couldn’t let her fight those god-damn robots on her own. Pill-R grabbed me, stopping me in my tracks. The machine kicked Lilith in the torso, knocking her against the tunnel wall. Even with enhancements, she’d be bruised, a perfectly shaped footprint on her stomach. 

The machines refused to surrender.

Lilith pushed off the wall, launching herself at the machine. A blade flashed. The tip of the knife sunk into the synthetic’s skull while she caught its hand. She relinquished the blade, slamming her palm against the inside of its elbow, snapping the arm in half. A synthetic could lift me off my feet without effort, and here Lilith tore its limbs free. This wasn’t her first time dealing with Chicago’s enforcers.

The headless synthetic grappled with her leg. With a stomp of her heel, it flattened on the stone. Several more kicks and the power source surged and a blinding orange light filled the cavern. She didn’t slow, pulling her knife free and sheathing it in a well-rehearsed motion. She hurled the standing synthetic against the wall. Two blows from the palm of her hand its chest cavity collapsed inward.

Holy shit.

The light caught her eyes, tiny silver orbs. Ocular enhancements. Lilith might be closer to machine than human, but at that moment, I was grateful. She dispatched two synthetics without effort. She has a story, a complicated one. Lilith might not be the person I wanted, but she was the person I needed.

“That was amazing.”

“I hate machines.” Irony. I’d let it slide.

“We are near the exit. We can go now, yes?”

Pill-R, was an awkward little man, but between the two of them, they were all I had. I didn’t think stealing a hard drive would put me under Chicago, fighting for my life. I didn’t think I’d be a fugitive hiding with a hacker and an agent of the church. But there we were. 

“Are you ready for what’s next?”

Lilith asked as if being part of a police raid and watching dozens of people be slaughtered was only the opening act. Did my father experience this? When he claimed to be at the university working late, was he partaking in this world? Every step further led to more questions. I was starting to wonder if I truly knew my father. 

I nod. “We have a rendezvous to make.”

Lilith asked if I was ready, but nothing prepared me for what came next.

Compassion is a Warrior’s Trait

/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

Haven has a set of rules unlike anything in the surface world. There are guns on the hip of every patron, and while hands hover close by, sometimes even on the stock, they are never drawn. I would assume that money would reign supreme, but more often than not, I can hear the patrons discussing trade. Food serves as a currency in the city beneath Chicago. The rocket launcher from early is nearly a month worth of rations. I have to wonder if Haven exists to fill a need by the surface dwellers? How many people above us even know Haven exists?

Pill-R, our world renowned hacker has been inspecting my hard drive for nearly six hours. He mumbles to himself and every time he says, “Do you know who I am?” I roll my eyes. Before Lilith ventured into Haven, she gave me a simple command, “Stay.” Of course, my first instinct is to wander away. I’ll show her who’s boss, even if I am shot in the process.

What I find even more shocking than the guy next to me with a three fingered metallic arm and shotgun strapped to his leg, my father knew about Haven. Lilith returned to her strong silent demeanor when I asked her for more information. Who comes up with these names, Watchers? The Network? The Five? My father is part of the Network, people cultivated by the church for some ominous reason, and somehow I’m a pawn in their plan. Was the promotion a a recruitment ploy? Or were they using me to gain access to the Children of Nostradamus? And if they were, why did I lose the position so quickly? Was there somebody out there trying to stop them?

I find Lilith bartering with a man over a table near the center of the vendor area. The man is nearly twice her size. His broad shoulders and bulging muscles are the product of hard work, not the gym. His exposed shoulder had a collection of tattoos, the faces of a woman and two children. Whatever they were discussing she didn’t find the terms agreeable and he stood upright with a smug look and folded his arms. Lilith holds up more fingers, raising her offer and he continues shaking his head. Whatever he wants in trade, money won’t suffice. As I approach, she’s giving the man the finger, prepared to walk away. I reach into my bag and pull out a dehydrated meal.

“That’ll cover her.”

Will it? I mean, I’m not exactly sure of the exchange rates down here. His demeanor changes as his eyes widen ever so slightly. Lilith’s face is stark, cold, and I can see she’s playing the barter game. I raise my eyebrow and start reaching for the meal. The man puts his hand on it. “Lilith, you should have told me you have a new benefactor. I like her far better than the priests.” Really? Does everybody know about the Watchers but me?

He starts to hand a data chip to Lilith but his arm swings about and presents me with the chip. “It’s a pleasure doing business with you.” Lilith is irked. I take it with a smile. I like her irked.

As we walk toward her hacker’s station, she leans in close. “That meal was worth twice as much as the chip. He would have eventually caved.” At least from behind, she can’t see me smiling. We got what we wanted and his kids will eat today. Lilith is proving a lack of humanity, or at least a very self centered view of the world. While she sees compassion as a sign of weakness, I know better. Perhaps during one of our bonding sessions she’ll reveal who made her such a frigid bitch?

Pill-R waves us over. He’s found something. There is a smug sense of satisfaction on his face. It seems as if Lilith only associates with people with egos large enough to fill the room. I’m not overly impressed, but as I see the screen filling with images and page after page of data, I can see that his confidence is well founded. I can see flashes, a repeating image. “Can you adjust the speed of the display? Slow it just a bit.” My lack of complimenting makes him grunt, but he does what I ask. There is a repeating image and as he adjusts the image, it flashes in perfect time, the circular hawk.

“The Nighthawks.” What are the chances for coincidence? The Nighthawks are spoken about by the church with such reverence, they take on a myth like quality. Every question in my mind comes to a screeching halt as I see Lilith’s face. She’s consumed by the circular hawk, her eyes distant, almost to the point where I worry she’s gone comatose. Hours ago I would said I trusted nobody, but I trust her now. I don’t know what it is yet, but Lilith has made this personal. Something about the Nighthawks speaks to her. I’m not sure what it is, but I think we have a similar destiny.

“That’s the last file.”

There is a woman on the screen, another of Sean Carlson’s sketchbook drawings. “Who?”

“Jasmine Gentile,” Lilith speaks as if she spoke a god’s name. She has. “She’s known as the original Paladin. She worked for the military. She received her calling and joined the Nighthawks. She fought by their side to help save the world.” The Paladins were a covert team of Children working for the government, nobody knew how many, or what exactly they did. Mostly they served as celebrities giving the appearance that the military worked side-by-side with Children. I found it suspect.

Pill-R handed me a datapad as the download from the hard drive finished. With a couple clicks I could hear him sighing. “So much data, gone. I wish it didn’t have to be this way, yes.” While I fit the data pad into my backpack, Pill-R snatched at the package I received the day I fled my apartment. His implants saw something I couldn’t. I was about to protest as he unwrapped it. Phantasm goggles, expensive ones by the look of it. He turned them over, inspecting the case, looking for something.

“They are without a serial, yes.” He pointed to the bottom like that made sense. “Somebody has given you an incredibly valuable gift, yes.” He pointed to the side, in hand rendered paint I could make out the “5.” “We watch over you Madison Walker, we do.” He handed them to me with a gleeful and giddy smile. I shove the package into my backpack along with the datapad.

“You will need transport from the city, yes?”

Lilith points at the pocket that held the data chip. “Our friend Madison managed to secure the meetup location. We’ll be leaving tonight.”

That’s when all hell broke loose.

The Veil is Lifted: The Underbelly of Society

/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

Lillith is not an ideal travel companion. She leads and expects me to follow. I ask questions and she rolls her eyes. She is not entertained with my resistance. The woman isn’t hostile, but she is aggressive. She warned me the first night on the street, trust nobody. It seems as if she lives by this creed. Currently I am a nobody.

There are areas of Chicago I’ve never set foot in, I expected to head there, perhaps to the west side. Between the gangs and the obscene crime, even cops are hesitant to enter. However, Lillith leads me into the city, to the Loop, one of the busiest places in the world. I question, she ignores. I’m not playing this game.

“No. I’m not moving another foot until you answer some questions.”

Granted, a dank alley filled with bins of trash wasn’t the most luxurious place to make a stand. I thought she’d punch me, or maybe shout. She struck me as a shouter. She approached until she forced my back against a wall. She didn’t touch me, or even lift a finger, but she knew how to be intimidating. She didn’t scare me. Mostly.

“Where are we going?”

She didn’t speak. I think that’s her thing. Being silent gives you the appearance of being dangerous. I nearly got jumped the night before by a trio of men. I broke into a secure facility and stole classified information. Right now, the only dangerous thing about her were her fashion choices.

“Lillith, first wife of Adam. She flew away when he tried to control her. Is that even your real name?”

“Madison Walker. Graduate student at the University of Chicago, employed by the Archivists. You recently received a promotion and had it taken away. Your father…” she trailed off. She knew something about my father. 

“What about him? What do you know?” I surprised myself when I pushed forward, causing her to take a step back. She wasn’t getting away without answering that. “Tell me, now.”

“We’re called Watchers. We’re raised by the Church of Nostradamus, orphans. Those of us who stay, observe the world for them. We’re part of the Network. Ever wonder how information about the Church remains a secret? The Network.”

One speech shone more light on the Church of Nostradamus than a decade of Visionary School. The casual way she said it, the sheer nonchalant exposure, she believed we were sheep. But, if what she said were true…my mind could hardly plunge into the cascading repercussions this might have.

“My father was part of the Network.”

“Did you question your promotion?”

No. No, I did not. I was a hard worker, I earned a promotion. Though, I did recall being shocked by the division they promoted me to. I had never worked with Children before, and typically that required…

“The Church?” Holy shit. 

“Trust nobody.”

“You keep saying that, but here I am trusting you.”

“Don’t. I could be working for the Church. I could be working for them. You don’t know me, Madison Walker.”

I’ve sat on the hiring committee for a dozen teaching candidates. If she thought her cryptic answers would deter my curiosity, she had another thing coming. No human alive could lie better than a professor when dodging inquiries about questionable material on their curriculum vitae. I’d find the break in her armor, wedge my curious foot in the crack, and then I’d beat her within an inch of her life. Figuratively that is. She’d kill me if I touched her.

“Why are we in the Loop?”

“Union Station.”

I nearly choked. She scouted the opening of the alley like it was a simple stroll through the park. Union Station might not be widely used these days, but the infrequent trains leaving the city required retina scans, facial recognition, and actually purchasing tickets. If her plan was to leave the city by rail, we were already good as caught.

“Lunch rush is in full swing. Keep your eyes low, do not look up.” She reached into a pocket on her leg. I have no idea how, the leather fit her like a glove. Lillith opened the tiny box. Contacts. That’s how she moved through the city undetected. Somehow, these little pieces of plastic disrupted the facial recognition software in the city’s computers. I hate contacts. I nearly gag as I put them in. As I fumble, I debated if it’d be easier to keep my eyes closed and pretend I were blind.

We move through the street. If it wasn’t for the facial recognition system, it’d be impossible to follow somebody during the lunch rush. Those working in the Loop generally had money. They went out for lunch. Those too poor went to the soup kitchens. Everybody moved with a purpose. We blended in. I kept my eyes down, following her boots. Dress shoes, sandals, lots of sneakers, passed by. It only cleared as we approached Union Station. Very few people travel by train. The steps were empty as we walked in. 

She stopped. The interior of the building was from another era. There was marble in every direction, beautiful Art Deco lines blended in with the greek columns. We walked down the stairs toward the massive room that had once been packed with travelers. A quick right put us heading toward the trains. Eventually we’d need to be scanned to enter, faces, eyes, hands, even our tickets. But we turned again, going down stairs toward what might have been the bathrooms. A utility door put us behind the scenes, where workers might travel to avoid the busy crowds. It was when she placed a hand on a scanner to a door I nearly shrieked. 

It’s not really a hallway, more like a passage. It’s another twenty minutes of walking and zigging before zagging. I can tell we’re in the underbelly of Union Station. I can hear people, lots of them. The final door is like a wall of steel. Cameras scan our eyes, and I wonder what shows up on the computer on the other end. The hydraulics shift and slide and the door opens. Men on the other side are holding rifles but she walks through as if she owns the place.

It’s a flea market, except they’re not selling knitted goods or their mother’s literary collection. More than one gang tattoo is visible. More than one gun is resting on the hip of each patron. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of people milling about, inspecting tables and racks of items I can’t even begin to describe. I see guns, computers, even synthetics all haggled for between patrons and proprioters. 

“What is this place?” 

“Haven.” Sure. She says it like that explains everything. I want to slap her. But I don’t want to get slapped back. Somehow I can imagine in a place like this, there is a constant threat of violence. However, it seems peaceable enough. The threat of every man and woman carrying enough fire power to level a police station probably forces a temporary truce.

There are hackers. They wear glasses that cover one eye, allowing them to see their work as they type away on invisible keyboards. I have to wonder if the man who showed up in my Phantasm simulation was somewhere down here? Had he interrupted my feed to have himself a little pervy moment?

A rocket launcher. Cute. I wonder if I have enough change in my pocket to buy one of those. Oh, maybe I’ll buy myself a new face. I’m pretty sure I saw a man having an arm replaced. What was the going rate? Did Watchers come with unlimited funds? 

Ultimately she took me to a man nestled in a side room. He wore high end glasses. By the time I caught up, she was laughing. Up to this point, I thought she had her personality erased. Perhaps in her underworld element, she felt more at ease. 

“Harddrive, yes, please.”

How did she…I’m going to stop asking questions. Apparently she knows everything about me and I’m just a pawn in this. I still haven’t figured out why she’s helping me, or why she scanned me for trackers placed by the Valentine. Was she going rogue? Did free agents truly exist in this day and age?

“It’s geolocked. I can’t access the information before they trace it. It needs…” I realize he’s not amused with my statement. Obviously I’ve insulted some sort of mega hacker. Along the side of his face there is a tattoo, no, more of an old school brand. A giant number “5” covers from his ear down to his neck. 

“He’s one of the 5.”

“You say stuff like that it makes sense.”

“He’s the best.”

He grabs my hard drive plugging it in, it comes to life. At any moment, we’ll be swarmed by police. He makes weird grunts and smiles at whatever he’s seeing in his glasses.

“Accessible, but will require time, yes. There is one file, see.”

His fingers click on a screen we can’t see. He’s fast. He’d make an incredible addition to the archivist team. I wonder if any of my co-workers might be hackers? Some were definitely…

“Art. Sean Carlson, artist of Children.”

Holy shit, a Nighthawk.

 

Nighthawks by Sean Carlson https://www.seancarlsonart.com