The fence stood forty feet tall, towering along the landscape, dividing here from there. I don’t know what I expected to find, but with wires tightly drawn between mammoth pylons, this was not it. I expected solid cement with armed guards roaming along the ground. For a barrier that kept mankind from entering the Outlands, it was less than impressive.
“I expected, more.”
Lilith leaned against the RV, eyeing the fence that made me think there must be something I wasn’t seeing. For the woman to hesitate, there must be synthetics in hiding or perhaps guards in underground bunkers waiting to surprise us. The bold Lilith I had grown accustomed to was almost docile. I never thought I’d miss her aggressive nature.
“They don’t need more. The wall doesn’t intend to keep people out. It’s more of a warning, a strong suggestion that going on the other side could mean the death of you.”
“So, of course, we’re going.”
“You haven’t backed out yet.” I raised my eyebrow at the comment. Had Lilith expected me to beg for my old life? Did she think I would run in tears when the going got tough? I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction, but I surprised myself. Even in the face of death, my thoughts had been about moving forward. I regretted nothing.
“Can we get the RV through?”
She shook her head. “The wires are like my knife. Metal with a honed edge. It’d cut right through the body. And then there’re the lasers.”
Lilith almost chuckled. “You realize they put these into place to keep us here, but more importantly, keep them there. The Free Republic doesn’t want Outlanders coming back into the country.”
“Oh.” I hadn’t thought of it that way. It made sense. But who remained on the other side of the fence other than the Children tucked away in Troy? I didn’t dare ask. I feared she might tell me of another boogeyman.
“We need to get moving. Whoever has been following us isn’t going to be far behind. I want to see—”
“Wait, there’s somebody following us?” This was the first I was hearing of it. Synthetics? The church? The Network? I realized we had far more potential enemies than we did allies. The only person who had come to our aide was Pill-R. Sure Halo and Francis offered us backup, but the way Lilith spoke, I feared they were too close to turning us in. Even if they lived, Lilith was not high on their list of comrades.
“The arms dealers. The pier, even the enforcers in Detroit. Haven’t you wondered how at every turn somebody has been dogging our heels?”
“I hadn’t thought about it.” For days I had been in survival mode. We moved from one disaster to the next, and thinking about the big picture seemed trivial compared to not being shot. But as she spelled it out, somebody seemed to be just behind us at every turn.
“Who do you think it is?”
Lilith shook her head. “Somebody with resources. They sent Marines. They accessed the enforcers. Whoever it is, they’re somebody with influence.”
Lilith gave a slight shrug. Now that she planted the seed, I tried to going through each encounter. I thought cameras or drones had captured my face and a bit of deductive reasoning had them breaking down the doors to capture me. But what if there was somebody driving them? Commanding them to hunt me down? The Valentine of Chicago had made it clear that he wanted me to undertake this mission, even supplied me with Lilith. Why would he want me stopped?
“It’s not the Church,” I said.
“I don’t think so. I think the Valentine will disavow me. But I don’t think he’d want to stop you, at least not yet. You’re on a mission on his behalf. He wants something out of this. I just haven’t been able to sort it out. Not yet.”
If Lilith hadn’t figured out what the Valentine wanted, that had me worried. That left the military and the network. There were too many variables. I didn’t want to dwell on it. We had ground to cover and some part of me wanted to see Troy, that is, if they didn’t kill me on sight.
“Let’s go,” I said. Backpack nestled against the small of my back, I started walking down the broken road. Grass had grown through the cracks, giving away that nobody had been here in years. There was something beautiful about the decay of mankind and the persistence of nature reclaiming what we stole from it. At the rate we were going as a species, the Earth might reclaim more than we suspected.
We walked with a purpose. I noticed that as we went, my feet dragged, heels scrapping on the asphalt. However, Lilith’s feet hardly made a sound. The need for stealth gave away her nerves. I watched her feet, mirroring the way her heels touched the ground. I awkwardly followed, but even she took note, looking back and giving me a slight grin.
“Know where your next foot will go before you place the one before it.” I paused, froze mid step as I tried her tactic. I found that with her guidance, I was moving almost as quietly as she. “Keep your eyes forward, but make note of the pavement in your peripheral.”
Was she transitioning from mentor to protector? Up to this point, she had destroyed every threat we encountered. She fulfilled her role with vicious accuracy. But if I could contribute, even a little, perhaps the burden would shift from her shoulders. I couldn’t match her speed or her strength, but I could make myself less of a target.
“Why a knife? I mean, why not use a gun? It seems a weird choice when everything is shooting at us.”
“How has that done for them?”
“Point made.” Her cockiness had originally irked me. Now I found it well earned. When a single woman with a knife could down some of the most brutish synthetics ever made, she had my respect.
She pulled the knife from her hip and handed it to me. “What do you see?”
I had gripped it multiple times, but I hadn’t taken time in battle to inspect the weapon. The handle was almost as heavy as the blade. The serrated side was difficult to see, as if it were disappearing in and out of sight.
“It’s balanced. It’s also, difficult to see? Am I seeing that correctly? The edges are hard to look at.”
“The edge of the knife is exactly one atom thick. It can slice through just about anything. It was given to me by my mentor.”
“You had a mentor?”
She paused, letting me catch up to her. “I wasn’t born with these skills. Matter of fact, I wasn’t much different from you when I first joined the Network.”
Did she just compliment me? I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. But thinking of Lilith taking orders from somebody older than her was a hard pill to swallow. Her isolation and refusal to speak of herself with only the occasional breadcrumbs made a partnership almost impossible.
“Put a pin in that conversation. The knife, a gun with your skill would be even more dangerous.”
“A gun isn’t a weapon. The bullet, laser, sonic burst, whatever strikes the person is the actual weapon. They’re detached, unpredictable in the heat of a fight. This knife, however,” she took the blade from me, careful to avoid the metal, “it is an extension of my arm. It’s no different than my hand. I control it. I like control.”
“I haven’t noticed,” I made sure the sarcasm dripped from the comment.
“It won’t jam, misfire, or require ammunition. It is a simple tool.”
“I get it.” Okay, so I only kind of understood what she was saying. But I made a note, when in doubt, in the heat of battle, make sure I was in control. Were these moments of education how her mentor bestowed wisdom onto her? Was he as cold and distant as her? I tried to imagine the man who could teach somebody like Lilith. I wanted to meet him, to see if he was like a wayward father or if he was a militant commander.
Lilith held out her arm, stopping me in my tracks. “How fast can you run?”
“I ran track.”
“Good,” she knelt and tightened the laces on her boots. “You’re going to need to run like your life depends on it.”
“What the hell?” On the pylons, I saw them, mounted turrets with double barrels pointed at us. I understood why there were no men manning the fence. “You didn’t say there would be cannons.”
“Did you hear me say it would be easy?”
“Dammit.” I followed her, tightening the laces on my sneakers. It had been a while since I ran like I wanted a scholarship trophy. I kicked my foot behind me, grabbing my toes and stretching my legs. Lilith might slaughter robots or generate shields, but she was about to find that a mere human could smoke her.
“How fast are they?”
She pointed to a tree lying on the ground. “You need to get to there. Once we’re that close, they can’t hit us. I’ll get us through the fence and then we’ll have to run out of range. Do you have the stamina?”
“Try and keep up,” I smiled at her. For once, I knew that I could excel. Lilith might have supernatural abilities, but I had skill.
“You’re more fun when you’re cocky.”
I started. I didn’t care about stealth, I needed speed. I kept the cannons in my sight as I stole glances at the road. I leaned forward, using my entire body. Short steps, sure, toes gripping the asphalt. I tried reaching the zone where the world fell away and all that remained was me, my muscles, my breathing, my feet.
I swerved to the left. The ground behind me to the right exploded in a shower of gravel. The tree was almost a quarter mile away, but for a distance runner, that was child’s play. I leaned to the right as the cannon fired again. Whatever artificial intelligence was being used didn’t seem to have predictive reasoning. How many shots before it calibrated and tried to assume my next steps.
The road tore away in a thunderous bang. I had no idea where Lilith might be following. I trusted she’d survive. Perhaps she’d need a shield to deflect the cannon, but me, all I needed was concentration.
The cannon fired twice, trying to compensate for my speed. I veered further right, a small leap off the road, and I was running in the tall grass. The road blew apart where I had been, and I pushed forward. The tree Lilith had signaled as the limitation of the cannons was within reach. I could make it. I would make it.
A volley of blasts fired. I slowed, turning left and skid. I fought to stay upright as grass and soil flew into the air. I was smarter than a machine. I was random. It couldn’t handle zigs and zags that had no pattern. I turned right and pushed harder than I had in years. My body craved oxygen as I held my breath. The tree was nearly within reach.
The tree exploded. I closed my eyes and jumped through the debris and caught my foot on the edge of the crater. I let my body go limp as I rolled along the ground. I bounced back to my feet and hobbled forward. I had lost my speed and if they tracked me again, I wasn’t sure any amount of fancy footwork would save me.
They fired again. I turned to see Lilith diving through the air. Sailing between two beams of blue light, she tucked and somersaulted. She struck the ground and bounced, rolling onto her back. We both froze, waiting to see if she had been right bout the cannons. Seconds passed, and neither cannon fired.
“I win,” I laughed.
“I let you win.”
“Lilith, you’re such a liar.” I helped her to her feet.
We approached the wall and the smell of burning ozone became overpowering enough my eyes watered. I had thought only the wires separated us from reaching the other side. From one pylon to the next, a field of light shimmered between the wires. It wasn’t obvious at a distance, but the wires served as conductors for a force field.
“We’re not just going to jump through?”
“Yes we are.” I was about to object when Lilith held up her hand. She was about to summon whatever supernatural ability allowed her to generate the shields. I thought it’d be an impressive show, like with the enforcers, but she extended her fingers and the light formed at head height.
“When I say, go.”
It started with a slight hum and quickly turned to a hiss. Lilith’s shield violated the barrier, cutting through it with ease. Ease until I saw the strain on Lilith’s face. I had no idea what it took to summon something that defied the laws of physics. I imagined it was like recalling the ability to play the violin, but as the sweat bead along her forehead, I knew it was a greater struggle.
She shh’d me. I bit my tongue, letting her concentrate. Could she feel the barrier pushing back? Did some part of her brain know that it was doing the unthinkable? I had to wonder if it was more involved than I initially thought. For a moment, I felt thankful for being a mere human.
The shield continued to spread until it created a circle. Once it closed, it hovered in the air, blocking the light from the pylon. I didn’t wait for the okay, I jumped through as if I were a stunt woman in a movie. I hit the ground and spun about as quickly as I could. She opened her eyes, and I nearly gasped. Her iris vanished, replaced by an electric blue. Under different circumstances, I would say it was beautiful.
She carefully slid one leg through the hole, moving with care. One leg through, she ducked her head, careful to keep her thighs from touching the plasma. Once she was through, her hand dropped, and she let out a low moan. The force field collapsed, and the light from the pylon disintegrated her shield. Just like that, we were in the Outlands.
“We made it.”
Lilith dropped to her knees, taking deep breaths. I worried she was about to pass out and we would be out in the open with no way for me to carry her and dodge motion sensing cannons.
“Are you okay? Does it hurt? What can I do?”
“Slight headache. I’ll be okay, I just need a moment to rest.”
“You’re not going to pass out like before?”
I stopped asking questions when she glared at me. “Get thrown against a wall and let me know how you’re doing.”
Okay, I deserved her judgement. “I deserved that. But to be fair, you’re the first Child of Nostradamus that I’ve ever interacted with.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll meet more soon enough.”
Troy. I wondered if it would be a Nirvana, a safe space where Children worked together to build a better society? Or perhaps having all that power at your disposal just mean the problems were nastier? She hadn’t told me anything about her former home. I didn’t need to ask. Her lack of details generally meant it was dreadful news.
I couldn’t handle more dreadful news.
“All right,” she got to her feet. Cracking her neck, she stretched her arms and prepared for another mad dash through the gauntlet. “Do you think you can beat me twice?”
The stars crashed into the atmosphere in a flash of light. It started as one, then two, and now it looked as if angels skipped stones across the sky. Atop the RV, I couldn’t help but feel insignificant in the endless depths of space. In Chicago, the lights at night drowned out all but the brightest stars. Here, parked in the middle of a field away from the road, I tried to imagine the number I’d have to count to account for each one.
I imagined there were thousands if not millions of people staring up at the sky right now. Even knowing I partook in a shared experience, I was alone. No, that wasn’t correct. I had an unconscious Lilith and a cyber stalker. I had Pill-R and perhaps even Halo. My band of misfits grew, but despite having more allies than when I started, I felt nothing more than a temporary partnership. Even Lilith sleeping off her power hangover, I didn’t know if I could trust her.
I wrapped a discarded blanket around my shoulders. It smelled of dust and dampness, but it held the cold of the night at bay. I laughed as I thought of Michael. Since I left Chicago, the man hadn’t crossed my mind. Escaping police, fleeing for my life, and facing off against synthetics changed your priorities. He’d find all of this amusing, not the danger of it, but the fact I was enduring it. I don’t think Michael considered me brave. I don’t know if I considered myself brave.
A light blinked in the sky, moving at a quick pace. It could be a satellite, or even a drone, but I wanted to believe it was the space station. While the Free Republic fell into shambles, the rest of the world took notice and stood up. Overseas the world changed for the better. Russian, China, and Japan had constructed a high orbit station that housed almost two hundred people. They were the last stop before the biospheres on the Moon. Was somebody looking out a window, staring down at the Earth, wishing they could feel the wind again?
Did Nostradamus see this? Did he see me sitting here questioning my existence? Or was he too busy sifting through world altering events? He predicted the end of mankind as they knew it. Eleanor predicted an evil descended upon the planet. I assumed neither psychic had time to see me or my destination.
I lay back on the roof. I hoped a sign would present itself, a flash of light perhaps. I felt her stir inside the vehicle before the door cracked open. She had been out for the last day. I had feared she needed medical treatment. I could perform CPR or bandage a burn, but could a historian and data construction specialist heal a Child of Nostradamus?
Even her voice sounded weak. “Up here.”
Lilith could probably jump this high in a single bound. Did she have any enhancements or was everything I believed wrong? I knew they were strong, tough, and some had extraordinary abilities. Lilith fell into the latter category. What did you call the ability to make shields? I wanted to ask her why she waited until we almost died before she used them? I wanted to think I’d be subtle, but truth be told, I’d be showing off on the corner of the street if I were her.
The RV shook as Lilith climbed the ladder at the back. She paused as her head came level to the roof. “Solar panels, smart girl.” The woman’s snarky attitude couldn’t overcome the fatigue. She sounded as if she closed her eyes sleep would find her again.
“You should be rest. I think.” My bedside manners needed a refresher course. “Honestly, I don’t know what the hell you should be doing.”
Lilith ignored me as she stared at the sky. Her jaw dropped when another barrage of comets struck the Earth’s atmosphere. “Did you see that?” I had never seen a shooting star before, but my father had said they were lucky.
“Make a wish.”
“A wish. When you see a shooting star, you’re supposed to make a wish.”
“Says the woman capable of generating force fields.”
She didn’t reply as she continued taking in the spectacle. It took a moment, but I thought I could see her lips moving. Did she make a wish? What could a woman like Lilith possibly wish for? I was about to ask when she broke the silence.
“Plasma restrained by an electromagnetic field.”
She scooted along the roof until she was close enough to talk low. The way she held her head and even her struggling breaths, I knew she wasn’t at the top of her performance. Wherever we were, it was less likely that synthetics would be patrolling. From here we could run toward the woods and lose them in the trees. At least that’s what I told myself. I prayed I wouldn’t need to run from killer machines for the next twenty-four hours.
“They’re not shields. Plasma is the fourth state of matter. Think of it as liquid fire. The electromagnetic fields hold it in place, making it durable.”
“I just heard you say shield.”
“Fine, I make shields.”
Was I speaking to Lilith the killer? Lilith the assassin? Or was this the Lilith who had a modicum of normalcy about her? I tested my luck.
“Are we going to talk about it?”
She lay down next to me, sharing my vantage point of the sky. People say that the sky is black at night and that the stars are little white dots that break through. However, the trees in the distance were dark, almost black. The sky had a dark blue tint to it, and the stars were all distinct shades of yellow. If I described it, I’d say rich, not black.
“What is there to talk about?”
I propped myself up on my elbows and stared at her. If she had optic enhancements, she’d see the scowl plastered across my face. “The part where you forgot to mention you’re a Child of Nostradamus? That you can make shields, I mean, plasma appear? None of that strikes you as conversation worthy?”
“How’d we get away?”
“I dragged you to a car, taught myself how to drive and outran synthetic patrol cars.”
I laid back for fear of trying to strangle her. “If you don’t want to talk about it, just say so. This cryptic thing you have going, I’m not—”
“They manifested when I was twelve.” Score one for me and my new assertive superpowers. “My parents were devout members of the Church. When the test came back positive, they enrolled me in an academy. At first, I thought my ability was to make electronics go on the fritz. Then one night while showing off, I cut through the bed in my room. I went from an oddity to a danger.”
“It doesn’t sound so bad.”
“For a while, they manifested on their own. My teacher doused me in flame retardant. They were scared of me, and rightfully so. I’m not as strong as some, but I’m faster than most. I couldn’t run track anymore. I couldn’t participate in any sports. The library became my second home. Nobody at puberty wants to be different. I was alone.”
It was the most she had spoken of her childhood. Questions about the Church and how she became involved with the Network came to mind, but I held my tongue. I needed Lilith to be human. I needed to see an actual person so I could establish some amount of faith in her again.
“What happened next?”
“I didn’t finish school before they recruited me to be part of the Network. My parents agreed and I wanted to belong to something.”
There was a lengthy pause before she spoke again. “We should get some rest. Tomorrow I think we can make it to the Outlands.”
“The Outlands? Are you sure?”
I didn’t want to admit it, but it terrified me to travel into the forbidden land. It was inevitable that we would need to enter the Outlands to reach Boston. I just hadn’t imagined it would happen so quickly. I knew almost nothing about it, and I hated being ignorant. Before she could respond, I added, “Have you been there before?”
Lilith’s head turned, eyes staring at me. I knew whatever was about to come out of her mouth would be mind blowing. She had a tendency of dropping bombs.
Great, just great. We were returning to the place Lilith called home. I could only imagine… Troy. I almost spit it out, but swallowed the word. We were returning to Troy, to the homestead of the Children of Nostradamus. Except, if the reports were correct, they’d kill me on sight. I hope she had connections, a family member, anybody who could sneak us through the front door.
Home. Staring up at the stars, I questioned the word. Chicago had been where I grew up, where I lived. But it was never home. Somewhere in Boston, my father hid. I’d find him, and then I’d start thinking about where I might call home.
My knuckles banged against the frame of the car, staying low as if I could hide from from infrared cameras. I didn’t know much about cars. I couldn’t tell you the make or model from any company, or which were considered classy. Four wheels and the ability to go forward, what more did I need to know? I did know that gasoline became useless after sitting stagnant for too long. How? My father was full of useless wisdom. I almost broke into a smile. Did he impart survival knowledge on me for situations just like this?
Moving to the next car, I knocked on the frame. Each had the same sound. I needed an electric car, one that had the reactive paint and frame to absorb sunlight. It was well into the night, but their manufacturers bragged about how long they could retain a charge. Tap tap. The trend hadn’t caught on in Detroit; the car making capital of the Free Republic. I only needed one, one car capable of driving us from this hell hole.
Lining the sides of the street, all the cars looked identical. All except one, a silver chariot with black tinted windows. The previous owner had spent the time to add custom rims and a spoiler to the back of the car. I crossed my fingers as I approached.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Score.
Unlocked and empty, I was wondered if my luck had turned around. I got into the driver’s seat and stared at the controls. My father’s survival tactics hadn’t included a method of hot-wiring a car. The data pad in the middle console had a touch screen, but mashing my fingers against it didn’t turn it on. Technology was supposed to make the world a better place. Right now technology was attempting to chase me down, kill me, and this damned car refused to cooperate. I was ready to screen.
Lights flared to life. The radio pumped music into the car and I smacked against the data pad trying to quiet it. It took a moment, but I found the volume and I now I had the biggest challenge ahead of me. Driving. In Chicago only the wealthiest of people had cars. The rest of us were reduced to staying within our neighborhoods or forced to pay outstanding fees for public transit.
One pedal made the engine roar to life, the other appeared to do nothing. I put my hand on the stick shift and slid it into reverse. It couldn’t be hard, just turn the wheel and go. The car shook as I bounced forward. The car behind me screeched in protest as my bumper smacked it. Okay, maybe driving wasn’t as easy as I thought.
I flipped it into drive and pressed the gas pedal. The car jolted forward, and I scraped against the car in front of me as I spun the wheel. I conquered parallel parking. Now I needed to navigate my way to Lilith, and we’d be ready to make our escape from this vile city.
The speed gauge read ten, then fifteen as I moved down the street. My knuckles had turned white as I gripped the wheel. Turning onto the adjacent street, I found the black van where I had hidden Lilith. Try as I might, I couldn’t wake the woman. I knew nothing about her powers, but I assumed they were the reason for her being unconscious. At least I hoped that was the case, if it was from the impact of killer robots, I had no medical training. I continued saying prayers to Nostradamus that she would survive.
I was out of the car and at the back of the van before I noticed the drone hovering in the air. I growled, giving it the finger. The artificial intelligence would relay my location and after the earlier mess, they’d be sending more synthetics. I didn’t have time to be subtle. I pulled Lilith’s ankles and slid her from the van. She grunted as I dragged her along the road and lifted her into the passenger seat. I slammed the door and got into the passenger seat.
“Where do I go?” I knew we needed out of Detroit, but my sense of direction was bad enough on foot. In a car, there was a good chance I’d take a wrong turn, and I’d pull into the factory that made the robots hunting us.
Every road looked the same. “How the hell do I get out of Detroit?”
The data pad flashed for a moment and the GPS showed a map of the area. Arrows formed, giving me directions out of the city. The smart car acted a bit too smart. I wondered if this was a gift from Pill-R. I hoped the hacker meant it when he said he’d help. Right now I had no way of knowing and I’d take any support I could get. I said a quick thank you to Nostradamus. The psychic would hear from me a lot in the next few hours.
I slammed the gas pedal. The defiant move seemed better in my head than reality. The car went from zero to sixty in a matter of seconds. A blinking arrow demanded I turn right. Spinning the wheel, the car tires squealed as I spun around the corner. The movies had overestimated the maneuverability of a vehicle at high speeds. I hit the other pedal, and the car screeched as it slowed, skidding along the road.
Lilith groaned as I straightened the car. The woman fought with precision, timed strikes against her opponents. I found myself in awe as she predicted and plotted during each confrontation. If Lilith could do it, I could too. Think ahead, predict, plot, plan. I slammed the gas again and the back end of the car waved back and forth as the tires grabbed the pavement.
As the arrow shifted left, I left up off the gas and tapped the breaks. The car slung around the corner, and I returned to the gas. If my father could see me now, a woman fleeing from the law at break neck speeds. I don’t know if he’d be smiling or shaking his head. I’d deal with his mixed feelings later. Right now, I had an army to escape.
Out the window I could see the drone keeping up with the car. Without a need for lanes, I’d have no chance of escaping. I could see the sign up ahead for the freeway ramp. However, the arrow didn’t change. I had to decide, faith in the person navigating me through Detroit, or reliance on the road signs.
“Pill-R,” I swerved around a car abandoned in the middle of the road, “if you get me killed, I’m coming back for you.”
I zipped under the freeway, and the arrow changed. I spun the wheel like I had taken a crash course in evading arrest. Following the freeway, I realized the arrows had me hiding under the major route from the city. The drone vanished. I almost believed we would make it out alive. I wonder if Lilith would believe me. I wish I had a camera to take a photo once we reached safety. She could punch things, big deal, I was warrior behind the wheel.
“Shit,” I cursed. The drone had done its job. Two vehicles flew onto a street running parallel to us and matched our speed. I pushed the pedal down further and found the floor. The car pushed to seventy-nine, but couldn’t seem to reach eighty. One car zigged, flying across the median until it was behind me while the other continued keeping pace to my left. At this rate, it seemed the most I could do was try to stay ahead of them.
Sharp right. I slammed the brakes and spun the wheel. We fishtailed. I thought for a moment I was about to spin around and drive straight into the armored car behind me. Nostradamus must have been watching as we jumped the curb and turn right. Another fast turn left, and we were up to the on-ramp that would lead us to freeway. There was no more worrying about drones, now it was about speed. Speed meant surviving.
I dodged the cars littering the road, having to drop my speed. However the single car still behind me barreled through them. I watched in the rear-view mirror as it hurled them off the road as if they were only a minor inconvenience. If it caught up, it’d do the same. If we were lucky, we wouldn’t be thrown from the street high above the buildings below. That’d mean they’d most likely just shoot us. Neither option seemed preferable.
In the distance, I could see it, a sign broadcasting to the world that they were about to get the hell out of Detroit. I didn’t know where the city line was, but if I was going to die, it wouldn’t be in Detroit. I hated this city.
My foot pressed the gas down but the car behind me smashed against the bumper. I almost lost control of the wheel. One banked to the left, using a line of massive trucks to separate me from the synthetics. We were so close, we just needed to go a little further.
The second vehicle waited for us at the city line. The synthetics were stepping out of the car, and I had no way to protect myself. I reached for the blade attached to Lilith’s leg and realized it’d be foolish to try. Unlike her, I didn’t have super strength or years of combat experience. If anything, I’d die the moment I stepped from the vehicle.
The light on the data pad blinked, and the arrow flashed. Forward. I pushed the gas down as far as it would go and picked up speed. At the last minute I swerved, my car striking the front corner of the armored vehicle. I didn’t have time to inspect the damage. My eyes were closed as the car whipped around, spinning. Lilith pressed against me and I held onto her, praying neither of us flew through the windshield.
It felt like forever, the dizzying spin. In truth it was over in a matter of seconds and we were defenseless, sitting in a car that couldn’t drive another mile. Either adrenaline, desperation or stupidity pushed me on. I pushed her back into the passenger seat and grabbed her knife. The blade almost looked translucent, so thin I finally understood how it penetrated the enforcer’s hide.
“Nostradamus, I need you one more time,” I begged.
I opened the car and spilled out onto the street. The ground felt uneven and my head continued to spin. I could barely get to my knees. I gripped the knife, trying to focus on the leather strap around the handle. The synthetics were charging toward me with their weapons drawn. A knife would not do me any good.
I leaned back against the car and awaited my fate. The machines slowed until they stood still. Their weapons remained drawn, but they didn’t dare cross an imaginary line. I was about to thank Nostradamus when I saw the sign, “Now Entering Detroit.” I had escaped that filthy city, something the synthetics appeared incapable of doing. They were less than ten feet away and their feet rested on the line, but none attempted to cross.
Tonight, my faith in Nostradamus ignited anew. I had no doubts that a higher power smiled down upon me. Now, I needed to make sure I used that gift. It was time to get far away from Detroit and headed to the only destination I knew that might offer us safety. I climbed into the car and pulled the door dented door shut the best I could. Reversing away from the synthetics, I turned the car around and put the city behind us. The GPS flashed, asking for new directions.
Lilith held a cushion from the couch, the corner of it consumed by fire. She wasted no time using it to light the drapes before wedging it into the sofa. In the kitchen she had torn the stove off the wall. I didn’t need to know her plan; I knew we would be blown to pieces if we didn’t get outside.
“It’ll disorient their thermal scanners. Out the back.” She admired her handiwork before nudging me into the kitchen. I didn’t need to be told a second time. I dropped the goggles into my backpack and bolted for the door. The kitchen already smelled of gas, and it was only a matter of time before it ignited.
“Enforcer synthetics. You know what I’m talking about?”
The machines came in a dozen varieties. In Chicago it was difficult to tell one from the next, each of them serving the same purpose. However, I had seen the newspaper clippings featuring the ferocious cousin of the police units. Enforcers were built for destruction, large, armed, but most importantly, they were coated with a rare metal that made them more durable. We might survive a patrol of synthetics, but not even my enhanced sidekick stood a chance against a cluster of enforcers.
“You run. No matter what you hear, you run.” Lilith’s cocky demeanor fell apart, replaced by panic and dare I say it, fear? Seeing the woman scared turned the blood in my veins into ice water.
“Let’s go,” I growled.
Lilith followed me through the backyard. She tucked herself into a ball, hurdling through the wooden fence. I climbed through and then the Earth shook. The heat of the explosion didn’t quite reach us, but bits of wood landed all about. I wanted to turn back and look, but Lilith took my hand, tugging on my arm, urging me to follow.
The alley led between row houses, a place for them to put their trash on collection day. The backyards were massive by Chicago standards, but otherwise small. Even while moving at my top speed, I was surprised to see the Earth had yet to reclaim the houses. Trees, vines, even grass, refused to fill the uninhabited places.
Lilith turned right, jumping over a waist high metal fence. I followed, not as gracefully, but as fast. By the time we reached the stairs, I could hear metal sparking against the pavement. The clack of feet could be one on all fours, or several standing upright. I’ll admit, I was too scared to turn and find out.
They were coming to kill us.
Lilith held the door as I ran into the house. She shut it behind us, and for a moment I thought were going to hide and hope their sensors couldn’t detect us. “Keep running.” The whisper didn’t lessen the command. Through the kitchen, to the living room, the porch and we were back on the street. The door hadn’t shut when the building rumbled as synthetics burst into the back. They were closing.
“The alley.” I trusted her judgement. I ran. Clearing the narrow opening of the alley, synthetics burst from the house. I couldn’t resist, I peaked. Taller than a man, thicker, broad, and faceless, they didn’t need eyes to see. Lilith shoved me and I tried to speed up my pace. They were large, guns mounted on each forearm, all waiting for a target lock to obliterate me. I didn’t want to die, not here, not by a machine. If they killed me, my corpse would be left to rot, and I’d become one of the faceless. I didn’t want to be forgotten, not today.
My muscles started to hurt, but fear pushed adrenaline into my heart. I ran faster than I ever had in track. I wanted to vomit. It would happen eventually, but vomiting meant slowing. Slowing meant death. I leaned into the run, arms pumping, trying to maximize my rhythm.
I could hear them gaining, closer. If I turned, I might be able to squeeze into one of the tighter spaces, perhaps a place they couldn’t reach. A chunk of cement exploded to my left as a bang reverberated through the alley. It missed by inches, and with their ability to learn, the next one would be even closer. I tried to zig, and I found myself launched into the air before I felt the pain of a rolled ankle.
I landed, tumbled and tried to get up, but my Olympic jogging had been reduced to a hobble. Hobbling meant death. “Lilith, I can’t run.”
It was only then that I realized Lilith was no longer behind me. I turned and saw the massive metal creatures already slowing as they found their wounded prey. There was nowhere to crawl, no place I could hide. I could do nothing but stare into the oblivion inside its barrel. “Nostradamus, protect me.” Even as I whispered it, I questioned if he’d reply. No, I would die here, in a dank alley, abandoned and alone.
“What do you want from me?” I yelled. “Leave me alone. This has nothing to do with you.”
Soulless machines offered no answers.
We built synthetics to protect mankind, to offer a respite for our soldiers and police. They were designed to be servants and offer us a better life. But like everything mankind does, there was a dark underlying motive. They perverted innocent machines, corrupted them until they were killers and hunters. Their artificial intelligence made them lethal, but they had stripped any sense of right and wrong while human oversaw to these moral dilemmas. They paused as they chose between a list of predetermined options. Once they scanned my face, and I registered as Madison Walker, criminal, they’d terminate.
They stepped forward as if they didn’t have the ability to make a clean shot. The arm extended and the large caliber gun hovered mere feet from my head. I thought I’d have regrets. I worried I had made a grave error when I stole the drive, but in the face of death, there was freedom.
Synthetics weren’t the only monster hunting tonight.
Lilith jumped from the roof a garage, the knife clutched in both hands high over her head. The night monster had risen, and it wanted artificial blood. Sparks rained down as the knife buried itself in the enforcer’s skull. Its arm pivoted, reaching behind its own back and grabbed Lilith. As it jerked her free, she stabbed at its arm, strategic strikes at the hydraulics.
When it knocked the knife free of her hands, she changed tactics. Gripping its forearm, she kicked off its torso, attempting to tear the arm free. Its companion smacked her across the face, but her enhancements kept her head in place. The arm holding her fell limp, but before she could lunge at the second, it batted her, knocking her between me and the machines.
Their threat assessment happened, and it deemed both of us worthy of termination. The hand lifted, and the bang followed faster than I could register. First Lilith, then me. This marked the end of our journey.
Except it didn’t.
“He sees,” I muttered as the bullet impaled itself on a blue barrier inches in front of Lilith. The lights shimmering from the blue goo were majestic. Its bullet clanked to the ground and Lilith forced her way back to her feet. The vibration of rounds being fired forced my heart to stutter, but each round impaled itself on the blue.
“Run,” she screamed.
But I couldn’t, not while one of Nostradamus’ titans stood between me and death. What I had mistaken for enhancements had been supernatural strength. What I thought were optics and auditory augmentation were gifts from the gods. Lilith, the monster in the night, was a Child of Nostradamus.
The barrier of blue vanished as the enforcer reached for Lilith. She dropped low and lunged, hugging the synthetic’s waist in an attempt to tackle it. It drove its fist down and I feared it’d break her spine. But it stopped short, striking another blue barrier. Shields. I wasn’t sure how she managed, but her abilities had something to do with creating shields. It was the massive robots that were outmatched.
Bringing back her arm, her fist opened until her fingers were straight. She drove her fingertips into the torso, penetrating the metal. I led a silent cheer at the tiny victory. It spun, sending Lilith sailing into the brick of a garage. A pillow of blue glowed surrounded her as she struck the wall. She hit the ground, her feet already moving. The machines might be terrifying, but the ruthlessness Lilith exhibited made her far more frightening.
The closest enforcer fired, but the bullet struck a patch of blue shield. Its companion attempted to lunge at Lilith, but struck a similar aura of blue. Whatever Lilith could create, they were beautifully positioned barriers to stop gunfire or to hold the synthetics in place. As the first fired another round, the blue shifted, and the bullet ricocheted, striking the second in the skull. The blast tore open the metal.
Lilith jumped up onto the first synthetic and placed her hand on its head. I expected her to wrestle it free from the neck, or grind the hydraulics until it was shrapnel. She reached to the back and tore the metal forward, her fingers digging into the hole her knife had made earlier. Popping preceded the one armed synthetic slowing to a halt.
Blue shields kept its partner in place, preventing the arms from snatching her. It resorted to weapons and guns attempted to spew forth massive rounds. Both arms exploded, sending bits of shrapnel skidding along the ground. Lilith growled as the machine leaned against one of her shields, determined to free itself. Like an acrobat, she timed the jump perfectly, the shield vanishing and the synthetic stumbling forward. She brought her fists together, clubbing the machine on the head, once, twice, and then a third time. It reached for her, but shredded limbs couldn’t knock her free. The skull collapsed in on itself as she pounded it a fourth time.
Lilith slipped down the machine, staggering backward until she collapsed on the pavement. It took a moment before my muscles responded. I crawled to Lilith. Her face was cool to the touch and her eyes fluttered as she struggled to keep consciousness. I gave her cheek a light pat, but it was useless as her body relaxed. Looking up to the towering behemoths of metal, I knew it was a matter of time before more came.
“Lilith,” I stood up, grabbed her by the shoulders and started dragging. “We are not dying in Detroit.”
Detroit, an industrial wasteland. We raised walls to bury the mistakes of New York, but I had to wonder if our attention would be better served here. The houses had long since been abandoned as families sought air not filled with cancerous smog. Mankind created this disease, but worse than that, we stood by, benefactors to a limb we’d one day need to amputate. The infection started in the factories and the sludge pushes its way down the streets like a dark spiderweb.
Once a haven for working men and women, Detroit led the way in the auto manufacturing revolution. We made mankind redundant as we taught machines to build more machines. Synthetics were programmed, taught to replicate themselves. Without need for food, water or rest, they became the most efficient workforce in the Free Republic. The very machines we created to help protect us threatened our way of life. The irony was not lost, but it was placed far enough out of view that we could pretend it didn’t exist.
Nothing living remained in Detroit.
The factories stood in the distance, marked by the plumes of black smoke spewing from long chimneys that resembled half burned cigarettes. How many machines inside were operational? Were those destined to be part of our military aware of their existence, or were they still asleep awaiting orders? The idea that thousands of synthetics waited to be activated disturbed me deeply. It was frightening from a philosophical point of view. It was terrifying knowing we were within range to be victims of the infection.
“We will travel at night.”.
With the sky black, it hardly mattered the time of day. Detroit remained covered in a perpetual blanket of darkness. We spent the day driving in a truck that threatened to die every time Lilith stepped on the pedal. We abandoned it, pushing it into a vacant garage before setting out on foot. I stopped questioning her tactics. I believed the curriculum in secret assassin school taught her to remain undetected. Now we waited in a brick house, counting down the minutes until the sun set.
“The brick will mask our thermal signature. Unless they know we’re in Detroit, they’ll assume we’re looters. Nobody cares as long as we avoid the factories.”
“I was just thinking to myself, would it be fun to get a tour inside one of those giant death makers?”
Lilith had returned to her normal stonewall self. I almost believed she had another personality hidden beneath this one, but whenever she discussed survival, this is what I was left with. To this point, she had been right, getting the drive unlocked and finding us safe passage out of the city. Both times ended in death squads trying to kill me. Is this the life Lilith led? Perpetually on the run from people trying to kill her? It made me exhausted thinking about how often she must look over her shoulder.
We had hours to kill, and it appeared Lilith had no desire to open up about her life. I fished around in my backpack and pulled out the Phantasm goggles. On closer inspection, I could see they were more advanced than I expected. The neural interface was subtle and easy to miss. With the ability to tap into my brain directly, it became less about seeing the Phantasm and more about experiencing it. My finger ran over the etching in the side, a single digit, the only clue as to where this might have been made.
“What do you know about the 5?”
Lilith turned away from the window, moving through the living room to the dining room in the center of the house. She extended a hand, and I gave her the goggles. Spinning it about, she inspected the craftsmanship. She slowed as her fingers ran over the carved number.
“They’re hackers, the best at what they do.”
She handed me the goggles. My guardian had a tendency to be short with me, but in her infinite wisdom, she must know more that that. “You know Pill-R, have you met any others?”
“Pill-R came to me. He needed man power to get him access to a mainframe off the grid. Otherwise, he’d only ever be a ghost. The 5 are a group of people who don’t exist. The Corruption wiped out data across the globe. After that, those that controlled information rose in power. They like to liberate that information.”
“So they’re freedom fighters?”
Lilith nodded her head. “Just like the Valentine has no past, no records of who he was, the 5 are similar. Joining means giving up your life. You vanish. You become a ghost. Meanwhile, you become part of a group of people determined to make sure the missing parts of our past come to light. They don’t like the data centers you worked for. Why should one body control our history?”
“There’s more than five of them?”
“Nostradamus is the father of mentalists, they have a founder too. Or…” She gave a slight while she searched for the word. “Not a founder, but a beacon to rally behind.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Pill-R speaks about the man as if he were still alive. He inspired a group of revolutionaries. I don’t think they’ll change the world sitting behind keyboards, but it’s good to know that we’re not alone.”
It was the first time Lilith let slip her allegiance. The Network served the Church of Nostradamus, but she served another group. Her muscles tensed and I was certain she caught the over share. I had to press on.
“Who are you working with?”
“Nobody,” she responded quickly enough I knew it was a lie.
“Watch it,” she said. She stood abruptly, attempting to end the conversation.
“Not this time,” I said as I stood. “Who is this we?”
“Trust no one.” The words were barely a whisper, but they slammed into my chest. I dropped back into my seat under their weight. Lilith left the room, resuming her perch in the living room, watching the front door. I had questioned her, unsure if she could be trusted, and for the first time I realized she had been doing the same. What treachery had she endured that she could suspect me of anything other than an unwilling pawn?
“Keep saying it,” I spoke quietly, “because, trust is all you and I have right now.”
I grabbed the goggles and slipped them on as I got comfortable in the dining room chair. I slipped them over my head and waited for the familiar flashing lights. I tried to relax my muscles and prepare for the tech to distort my sense of reality. The cool wood faded, and the broken slat in the back vanished. I hovered in the emptiness as my muscles got used to their freedom. Each time I journeyed into the Phantasm, I understood more why people would rather be here than spending valuable money on rations.
I dropped several feet, striking the ground and as I did, the room changed beneath my feet. Color spread outward, racing along the imaginary surfaces until I stood on a street, beneath a massive building. The sandy color raced upward until I was staring at the bell tower of a massive church. It was tiny compared to the church in Chicago, but this one looked older, more worn and far more deserted.
“Hello?” I shouted. I expected to see people, the throngs of people speaking gibberish. What architect would send me bouncing from one location to the other. Were the scenes before real? Were they historic events or constructs by whoever gifted me the goggles? If there was a message hidden in the Phantasm, I had yet to figure out the clues.
The light about the church dimmed, making it appear as if it were slowly being consumed by shadows. I backed away, worried it was an omen. I turned around and started a light jog, putting distance between me and the darkness. It matched my pace, chasing me as if I were in a nightmare. No matter how fast I ran, it continued to follow, nipping at my heels.
“Help,” I yelled.
Ahead, the world dimmed, infected by the spreading darkness. Only one building maintained its luster. I steered to the left, running as fast as my legs could carry me. At the last moment I jumped, hurling myself through the massive glass window overlooking the street. I covered my face as I struck the glass, I could feel it scrape along my skin, but thankfully whoever programmed my avatar made it far more durable than a human body.
I smacked against a bar stool, collapsing along the floor. I bounced back to my feet, preparing to keep running when I saw the darkness outside the window held at bay. It was a bar, an old one. The floor had all but worn through and the top of the bar looked as if it had seen more than its fair share of spills. There were a collection of coffee cups stacked neatly, the only sign that somebody had been inside in the last decade.
“Is somebody there?”
It materialized out of nothing, standing only a few feet away. I didn’t need to ask, I knew it was the man from yesterday, the same man who had been stalking me through the Phantasm. I tightened my fist, ready to put my avatar to the test. He reached out, looping his finger through the handle of a coffee cup. He lifted it slowly, studying the chipped corner.
“Did you send me the goggles?”
“I… don’t… I don’t know.”
“Who are you?”
“I… don’t know.” I believed him. I don’t know why, but I did. Even if he programmed this vacant avatar and the trembling voice box, something felt off about the man. As he rotated the coffee cup in his hand like an infant inspecting a new toy, he seemed confused.
“What do you know?”
“Who—“ Before I could finish the question, I was catapulted from the Phantasm. Lilith stood over me, and even in the dark, I could make out the panic on her face.