An Alternative History

/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

The moment the sun set, I found myself shivering. One would think walking one foot in front of the other wouldn’t be a tedious exercise. However, miles had passed, and the sun had assigned itself the role of killer. Even Lilith sweat. But unlike her, I didn’t do in a way that looked warrior-esque. My drenched body appeared more like a wet dog. How long could I blame her being a Child of Nostradamus for the grace in which she endured?

“Here,” she pointed to an empty farmhouse. We had passed dozens up to this point, each of them crumbling as weather beat against their roofs. Lilith had made this trek before, and I wondered if this was the place she stayed each time before.

“Why here?”

“I’ll show you. Follow my exact footsteps.”

She pointed at her tracks as we ventured toward the building. I kept my feet within her prints. The grass had grown tall, but not so tall we couldn’t pass through. Instead, she required me to walk the long way around the farmhouse, until we reached the storm doors leading to the cellar. Like everything else in the wasteland, it speckled them with rust, under-used and barely holding themselves together.

“Doesn’t this violate your one point of egress rule?”

Lilith had many survival rules. Some she kept to herself, but I had started a list of the ones I observed. She kept her back to the wall, made sure she had the ability to see in every direction, and she always made sure there were multiple exits. At some point, I should compile the list. Always the academic, if it was in writing, I could study, memorize, and make use of the information.

Pulling at the doors, it surprised me they didn’t groan in response. We descended into the basement under the mammoth farm house. Lilith pushed at the rickety wooden door, and it opened into a compact room. I strained my eyes, trying to see into the shadows. Then, a red light shone brightly enough I had to squint.

“What the hell?”

The tiny room appeared vacant, except for the hand print authentication pad. Lilith pressed her fingers into the pad. The red light filled the space again, pausing for a moment over her eyes and then proceeding. From the outside, it looked as if the building might fall in upon itself, but whatever lay beyond this door was at least a century newer.

“I told you I had a plan.”

“What is this?”

Hissing filled the air, gears and locks spun, and the far wall opened. I hadn’t even noticed the seams. First sliding back and then to the side, lights flickered to life inside the space under the farm house. Lilith walked in. I shouldn’t be surprised, littered amongst the many secrets, this was just another part of being a rogue Child of Nostradamus.

“We have supply bunkers throughout the area. Most have been deserted for years, but we keep them stocked for just this reason.”

“But no cars?”

“Easier to track a moving vehicle. I don’t particularly care for the trek, but this should at least make it easier for us.”

Lilith ushered me in and then went for the door. “Only runners can open the door. I will go cover our tracks. Give me a couple hours to put a decoy trail in place and I’ll be back. You’ll get an alert, if anybody other than me is standing at that door when it opens, kill them.”

“With my bare hands?”

“Plasma rifles are in the trunk over there.”

It wasn’t the fact we were hiding in a room stockpiled with weapons. No, I expected that from Lilith, but the manner in which she said it. The tone of her voice would be how I’d mention there was an extra beer in the fridge for a guest. Sure, just help yourself to a weapon that can obliterate a human. Would you like a coaster with that?

The door sealed in place. Not locked, but sealed. The seams around the edges vanished, and it was no different than if it were part of the wall. I ran my hand along the surface, nothing. I had never seen technology like this before. Did the Children in Troy have access to equipment light years beyond the rest of society? If that were the case, I can understand why they stood as a nation amongst themselves.

Inventory time.

The room stretched the length of the farm house. One wall held massive industrial sheds with military looking footlockers while the other had cots and tables. I flipped open the first trunk, expecting to find hi-tech weapons, but inside housed rows of cans and plastic packaged meals. Further down were large tanks of half-filled water. There were changes of clothes, jackets ranging from spring to winter and even a section filled with lightly used shoes.

The first section held rational supplies, things any person journeying on foot might need. But after that, in a gap between the shelves, pins on the wall held a variety of knives. I had a sneaking suspicion this is where the weapons started to appear. Peaking into the first footlocker, rows of hand guns sat next to multiple boxes of ammunition. The next held bigger guns, I’m not even sure what to call them. The last box was nothing but grenades.

“What have I gotten myself into?”

Going through them again, I noticed there were rations missing, and the water tanks had been depleted. People had been here since the restock, but the weapons had gone untouched. Did Children rely solely on their own abilities, or were runners less likely to take supplies that might weigh them down? I decided a handgun was as powerful as I could manage.

I took a magazine from the box, a handful of bullets and one of the guns. It took a moment to figure out logically which direction the bullets should go into the magazine. Then only a few more minutes before I got it in the gun. I knew there was another action, something that I needed to do to prep the round. Pulling back the top part, a bullet loaded into the bullet hole.

Mental note, research guns.

Once I was ready to lose a gunfight, it came down to a change of clothes. A shower in the back corner only had a few minutes of water, but it was enough to wash away the soot and grime of the day. More than that, I hoped the shower served its original purpose and washed away the radioactive particles. The media had ensured that the wasteland was deadly to humans. I prayed that Lilith had thought about that before we ventured across the border.

Nourishment. I tore open the plastic of one meal and found inside all the ingredients for a meal. A small tin can with matches suggested I should heat it, but I didn’t dare start a fire in a room I couldn’t escape. I dined on cold meat sludge. It tasted disgusting. I had never experienced a tepid ice cream before. Truth be told, I hardly remembered what it tasted like at all. But as I chomped away the first bite, memories of my childhood came back to me. Father enjoyed his secret treats and now and then, he’d bring one back for me to greedily slurp down. I finished the first pack and decided if this was my only meal for a while, I wouldn’t hesitate on a second.

As I fished around, there were bags of dried vegetables and cans with pictures of animals on it. I didn’t dare check the dates. Had they been there for long? Were they meant to last forever? If they were, what chemicals could they have possibly pumped into the food?

“Finally,” I pulled out bags of sealed hygiene products. Remember when I said tampons were a godsend? A woman must have stocked this safe house. There were soaps and washes, and I almost wished I had found them before showering. I stole a handful of each, shoving them into my bag. I added a few plastic bags of meals and even if we didn’t find another place to rest, I’d be prepared.

Before settling in, I stopped at the knives. Lilith had assured me she’d train me to fight, or at least to be less useless. It only reasoned that I should have something to train with. In a wild land, I imagined military weapons, guns, rockets, maybe some lasers. But so far, her knife had been the most useful tool in her arsenal. I scanned them, looking for something similar. None had the atom thin edge, but several were close. Pulling it from the peg, I inspected the blade, aware of the weight. I didn’t know an excellent knife from a bad one, but the handle fit comfortably in my hand. I slid the holster into my boot and carefully hid the blade.

Sitting on a cot on the far wall, I rummaged through the bottom of my bag, pulling out Pill-R’s data pad. I flipped it and started rummaging through the files. After being a Child of Nostradamus in the phantasm, this two-dimensional searching lacked the same sense of wonder. I reached into the bag and pulled out the goggles, wondering if there was a way to access the data in virtual reality.

“It’s worth a shot.”

I slid them over my eyes. Either because of the basement walls or maybe some hidden security, there was no connection to the outside world. Poking in the air, I navigated the menu until I found an available source of data. I didn’t know if they were compatible. Typically this method accessed downloaded simulations, but it was worth a try. A hacker, I am not.

The goggles attempted to establish a connection. Three dots appeared, the color slowly changing from red to black. It took a moment, but all three blinked green. I disconnected the audio and made sure the pistol was within reach. From here, I could jack into a remote version of the Phantasm and still have access to my senses.

The lobby appeared as a circular room. Transparent screens hung in the air, spinning slowly about, putting files on display. From here I could conjure a variety of small locally stored scenarios, but sitting in an old study with a fire burning as I sorted files felt overkill. There were thousands upon thousands of files. The file structure made little sense. Either the goggles or the creators had been sloppy. I reached out, touching the transparent windows. Newspapers, videos, and photographs filled the screens. Dates, timestamps, the data reconstructionist who cataloged the information was available on every article.

I laughed when I came across one of my own. “Actor Becomes Governor of California.” I laughed at the trivial nature of the information I first recorded when I joined the agency. They gave me trash tabloids, rag magazines, and copious amounts of information unworthy for consumption, and certainly not worthy of recording a second time. But I did my job, and I did it well.

“Children of Nostradamus.”

The three dots appeared, hovering in the air as the goggles synched with the data pad. I didn’t know how much information was on the device. How much fit had surprised even Pill-R.

All the screens blinked at once. There were still thousands of files, but the ones closest to me contained photographs. I knew the Children of Nostradamus were impressive, but I hadn’t been prepared for this.

“Amazing,” I whispered.

There were photographs of city officials shaking hands with Children and even members of the church listening intently as a Child provided a sermon. Somewhere between the rise of powered people and today, they lost their luster. But housed in these files were bits of information that explained why they had become like deities to modern man.

As I spun through the screens, I’d freeze to admire a photograph. There was only one image I wanted to uncover. The hawk, a circular bird nearly biting its tail. I brushed away all the screens when I saw it appear on the far wall of the lobby. Grabbing at the air and pulling it toward me, the single file filled my screen.

“The Nighthawks.”

Something about this band of Children captivated my attention. They had spawned the inspiration for this journey and now I owed it to the historian in me to learn all I could. Tapping the screen, it opened. Inside were the entries of Sean Carlson, artwork commissioned to show the emotion and power behind each of this group’s members.

I scrolled through the images until I saw the man with his lightning. Bald and without eyebrows, he appeared almost inhuman. He wielded lightning as if it was part of nature. I tapped the screen, recalling the destructive way he tackled the synthetics in the simulation. On some level, I envied the man, the confident way he thrust himself into danger. I needed to know more.

I opened his file and delved into the history of the Nighthawks…

He Sees – A Miracle from Nostradamus

/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

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.

We ran.

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.”