By midday the church is busy. I spent the better part of an hour lurking across the plaza, watching the needy go in and out of the doors. It has one of the strongest community programs in the state. From a food kitchen to rehab, to spiritual guidance, they mend bodies and souls. There are moments when I feel in utter awe of how a religion barely two centuries old has managed to root itself in Chicago.
My shirt smells of damp and the hoodie I found in the basement has more holes than it does fabric. I would say I fit in with the homeless. Reality sets in; I am homeless. If I lie to myself and say I’m an adventurer, does that change the lost feeling? Positive mindset, here I come.
The soup kitchen is amazing. I grab a bowl of tomato soup and a half-slice of grilled cheese to keep up appearances. It’s not the hundred people dining that amazes me, it’s the lack of white noise. I would expect it to be filled with sounds of chewing, talking, even parents yelling at their children. Nothing. Silence. This is more unsettling than the fact these people rely on this midday meal to survive. For many, it may be their only meal.
When I sit next to a father and her daughter, neither raise their eyes. I push my sandwich slowly across the way until it’s nearly touching the young girl’s plate. Her father looks up. I’m not sure if it’s worry, or concern, but there is a distrust in his face. With a quiet, “I see you,” he nods and pushes the sandwich onto his kids plate. I scan the room to make sure no eyes are on us and repeat the motion with the soup. He raises an eye and starts to protest. “A daughter needs her father,” I whisper. Maybe because he saw the wisdom in my words, or perhaps because I was about to cry, he swapped bowls with me and lowered his head. A hushed slurping began.
A hand touched my shoulder. I should have jumped, or at least stiffened, but the brothers and sisters of Nostradamus have a way about them. The hand held no judgement, no force, no sense of segregation. His voice wasn’t loud, far from it, but there was a tension. “Please come with me.” I stood slowly and as I prepared to walk away. He pointed at the tray. The father gave me a slight nod as I emptied the tray and put my plastic utensils into the trash.
I wanted to know how I had been identified. If I couldn’t hide within the church, there was little chance I would be capable of hiding from the watchful eye of the police.
“Within these walls, we see all that is and was.” Learn from our past, live in the now, be who the future needs us to be. I’ve heard similar sermons in Visionary School. But knowing the Valentine was a mentalist, I wondered if there was a subtle nuance to the words that meant they literally knew the thoughts and pasts of all within the walls.
“Why did you give that family your meal? You must be hungry?”
Odd question. “I saw a family in need.”
“Madison.” It wasn’t that he knew my name, Preachers always managed to know their subjects. It was the tone. He didn’t accept my answer. He gave me the chance to be honest, to speak my truth.
“A daughter needs her father.”
“And what does a father need?” Do they practice speaking in rhetoric? Is there a college class that teaches the ability to delve into the human soul? He wasn’t asking about the man in the soup kitchen, this was far more personal.
“He needs me to find answers. To finish what he started.”
There was no more speaking. The church is massive. There is no record about how many of the Church actually reside here. Their security is spoken about as if it were secured by some magical…a hacker perhaps? I had to wonder what type of institution would require so many safeguard, what exactly were they protecting against? Is there something illegal happening inside these halls? Or perhaps there is something outside they want to fortify against? For such a staple in the community, I’m shocked by how little we actually know. These are the questions I should have been asking at Visionary school.
“Madison Walker.” The Valentine’s voice is soothing and powerful all at once. Every time he speaks I can feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. He nods to his brother and I’m left with the interpreter of a prophet. He said we’d meet again, but I hadn’t expected it to be so soon and for me to have so many questions, none of them having to do with my faith in Nostradamus.
“Are you scared?”
Yes. More yes.
They do this, he didn’t want me to say the law. He didn’t want me to bring up being thrown in prison. He wanted some deeper self reflection. “It’ll be for nothing.”
“That you won’t find closure?” Seriously, they must take classes.
He walked. I followed. I have been in that church a thousand times, but this only the second time I was granted access into the private chambers of the Valentine. The room was similar to before, a single candle and nothing else. I tried to spot the holographic projectors, but either they were extremely well hidden, or so small I couldn’t make them out with the naked eye. There was something unnerving about a church this old having tech that advanced. Only the wealthy had access to late breaking technology. Did the church deal in silver?
“Madison Walker, are you ready for the arduous road ahead of you?”
“No.” I wasn’t going to lie to a Valentine. “But that’s never stopped me.”
“You will face challenges unlike any before. Despair will enter your heart. Tenacity will course through your body. I fear not for your physical well being, Madison. I fear that you will lose yourself in this quest.”
It had been two days, and already I understood what he meant. I could endure this physically, but mentally? I hadn’t thought it through.
“You will need allies.”
I was about to respond with a disheartening line about being alone. The door opened. She couldn’t be any older than me, but…the amount of leather on her. I could hear her squeak as she walked. My ratty hoodie definitely lacked her sex appeal.
“Lilith, will accompany you.”
Just like that, he gave me a guide to the Outlands? I didn’t know a thing about this woman, and having a companion thrust upon me felt a little awkward. It reminded me of those first dates where you just wish you could be done and over with it.
“We leave now.” I hoped for guidance, for a sign from Nostradamus that I was on the right track. What I got was a leather clad woman who looked like she frequented the rougher parts of town. I couldn’t object, I didn’t have time. The Valentine turned away from me and that was it. The last time I ever saw the man. What happened next was the most unsettling part of all.
Lilith walked down the hall, and grabbed me in close. I tried to fight, but she was incredibly strong. She held up a little black tube and ran it over my body. Whatever she found, she tossed it on the ground and slammed it with her heel. I could see the gold flicks in her eye, Body Shop enhancements. Maybe she had nano tech in her muscles giving her increased strength.
“I said, trust nobody.” I could smell the jasmine.
The sense of adventure vanished quickly. The first night I attempted to stay at a homeless shelter. Despite my clothes being freshly washed and looking well fed, I thought a shelter would be the fastest way to acclimate to my life on the run. In line with nearly a hundred folks much more in need than myself, I noted the woman admitting people had a device in her hand. Hand print scans are required to enter the shelter.
I slept on the street.
A young woman in a shawl stopped and gave me the once over. I thought I was about to get mugged or at least wrestle over my backpack. I could almost smell jasmine on her. “It don’t matter who you’re running from, trust no one. You sleep with your back to a wall and ready to keep running.” She collected herself, pulling the makeshift blanket closer about her body and shuffling off to wherever she called home. Near an old abandoned building, I put my back to the wall and made note of every escape route.
To say I slept is an over statement. I shivered. I cried. I tried to convince myself that I was doing the right thing. Doubt is my enemy, it encroaches on my survival. It nips at my heels and I can feel myself stumbling. I am Madison Walker. I have spent my entire life acting as I was told. For the first time, I am straying from the path, but I believe it’s the correct path. I do what I always do when I’m lost in a sea of uncertainties. I make lists.
Who do I know? I know Michael, but he’s out. I can’t talk to him without jeopardizing him. I know my father’s research assistant. She might be able to provide some missing detail I overlooked in his journals. I know…wait for it. Lists work. The Valentine of Chicago, arguably one of the most powerful people in the capitol. I have my who.
What do I need? I need somebody who can access the files on this hard drive without being detected. I need a master of computers. I need a hacker. How the hell do you find one of those? The moment I go into tech district, their drones are going to identify me. They say they’re not cataloging our retinas, but mine are already on file. I’ve heard there are underground Body Work shops, that’s kind of close right? I’m going from one illegal activity to the next.
Where do I need to be? I need safe passage out of the city. I need to make it from Chicago to Boston. I can’t fly. I can’t rent a car. I can’t hitchhike without being picked up by the police. I could steal a car? How the hell does one steal a car? Their GPS systems would pinpoint me within minutes. An old car? Maybe a junkyard will give me an old car with no tech in it. I might have enough money for that.
An hour before dawn I noticed a group of men approaching. There were another dozen homeless, tents made of cardboard and tarps. They didn’t point at the other people, they pointed at me. Had the woman given away the new person on the street? They tried to be nonchalant about it, but it was growing increasingly evident they wanted something I had. I was about to be mugged, robbed, and with my luck, stabbed.
Three of them, they spread out as the one in the middle approached. I was prepared. He ran. I pushed off the wall. My body slammed into his and he staggered out of the way. I’m not strong, nor am I fast. But I am desperate. When the second man reached for me, he missed, grabbing onto the strap of my backpack. My father would be proud. Heel to his instep. Elbow to the nose. I ran. They chased, but I’ll chalk it up to good nutrition. I was faster.
A woman cheered as I ran. I didn’t look back. I continued down the street to where the condemned buildings out numbered the inhabited. I only slowed as I crept through an alley between two buildings where they once housed the trashcans. I found the boards covering the basement windows were loose enough for me to pull them back. I slid my way inside the basement of an old house and scurried to the corner where bags of old clothes smelled of rot. I didn’t care. I was tired. I was scared.
I have never broken the law. More than that, I have never been in trouble for anything other than childish mischief. My entire life has operated within societal expectations. I’m not sure if I should be proud of this, or disappointed I didn’t push more boundaries as a teenager.
Today I broke the law.
I planned on asking my Edward, my boss, for additional work that would by default grant me higher security clearance. When he called me to his corner office, I had almost mustered the nerve to demand the opportunity. Instead, he wanted to discuss a collection of documents on loan from the University of Chicago. In-between leering and reading me top to bottom, he explained he wanted me to oversee the processing of all the materials. I should be flattered he wanted me to supervise a project with the college, but
Edward would be attractive if every word out of his mouth did not come with innuendo inappropriate for the workplace. I tolerated it because I needed the job. The moment he walked behind my chair and rested his hand on my shoulder, I snapped. I’m a liberated, sexual woman, when and only when I want to be.
I should have spun about and slapped him. I should have threatened to expose him to his superiors and hope they took my side. I should have drove my knee into his groin like they taught in self defense classes. I should have done a lot of things. On the long list of reactions, reaching up and lightly touching his hand, was not one of them. The response startled him, probably surprised after years of rejecting his advances.
When I went to exit, I put on that sexy and seductive expression no woman ever uses in reality. I leaned in close, the smell of cheap shampoo and the man’s lunch making my stomach turn. There isn’t enough mouthwash to remove the vile taste of the man from my mouth. Kissing shouldn’t be disgusting. I’m thankful his libido robbed his brain of common sense. He never noticed as my hand grazed his slacks, liberating his keycard.
Crime one, theft.
I could swear every co-worker I encountered on the way to my cubicle knew. I sat at my desk and stared at the man’s identification card. With a piece of tape, I secured it behind my own keycard. It wouldn’t be long before he retraced his steps. I grabbed my tablet and tried to casually walk toward the elevator. I’m certain I moved too quickly, guilt oozing from my eyes. I didn’t need long, but I needed to make it to the secure floor and out of the building before they confiscated my tablet, his badge and secured me in prison.
Each area of the processing division was fitted with motion trackers and cameras. Sensitive materials were brought into the building and each person could be accounted for at any minute. Thankfully, weeks prior I had been given a promotion, I hoped me accessing the secure floor wasn’t enough of a red flag to send security storming. The card reader in the elevator accepted my boss’s badge, and I punched in his access code, “1111.” How the man got the job I’ll never understand. I can only hope it’s due to nepotism.
Crime two, impersonation.
The door opened and I walked down the hall, reminding myself not to run. On this floor, there are only glass walls, allowing any supervisor to watch their employees work diligently. I counted three people, carefully inspecting computer screens and verifying the data being imported into their tablets. Hilda waved. I liked her, a hard worker and quizzical woman who helped me brainstorm thesis topics. When her head tilted and she pointed at me, I gave a thumbs up and a huge smile. She clapped at my imaginary promotion.
The last door in the hallway lead to the classified information. I’d be able to access any records we converted related to the Outlands and the Children of Nostradamus. These were deemed too sensitive and required the highest security clearance. I can’t believe Edward had access to this data. Does that dolt understand the power he wields with this type of information? From here alone, I’m sure I could write a compelling and articulate thesis, but even that wasn’t enough. I needed to find what compelled my father to leave.
My tablet synched with the server in the room. I identified government files, personnel records and a long list of other things I didn’t understand. I nearly cursed when I saw the directory of Outland files. Three files. Three whole damned files. Either we kept these records off the server, or there was another data center processing these files. The Children of Nostradamus however, contained hundreds of documents to be had. I downloaded them all.
Crime three, break and entering.
Crime four…oh hell, at this point I’m just a criminal.
Once I had downloaded the info and made it to the lobby, I realized there was no ‘next step’ to this plan. If I went home, eventually my boss would check the cameras and come to find me. If I accessed the tablet from outside of the building, it’d log my ID and location. I powered down the tablet. I texted Michael that I’d be out of reach for a while and to not worry. Ever notice when you tell somebody not to worry, the first thing they reply with, “What’s wrong?” The police would question him. I couldn’t say anything more.
What do you pack when you’re running from the law? A change of clothes? Rations? I emptied my bank account. I took my father’s journal mentioning the Outlands. I didn’t want them to figure out where I was heading. As I packed my father’s notes into my backpack, it dawned on me for the first time. I was about to literally follow in his footsteps. The perfect storm of anger and desperation had me acting out. I thought I would cry, or at least have a panic attack, but I felt exhilarated? Free?
I almost died when somebody knocked on my door. I’ve never stood so perfectly still in my life. If it was the police, synthetics would have busted my door off the hinges. If it was Edward, he’d be yelling I’m sure. The camera showed a man holding a small package. Usually the courier left it at the door to be stolen by neighbors before I returned home. I tried to act normal as I opened the door and signed for the small box. In reality, I think I smiled and slammed the door in the man’s face. I forgot to tip the courier. Sorry.
I almost forgot the package on the counter. I hoped it was more food, perhaps something I could sell at the market. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be returning to my apartment. Finally, I packed a photograph of father and I.
In one afternoon I went from a nobody college student to a felon. I didn’t have time to process what that would mean. I was out the door and into the street as fast as possible. Pulling the hood of my jacket over my head, I headed toward the congested part of the city to try and hide while I figured out my next destination, my step, my next crime.
Starvation is only avoided by graciousness of the government.
Long ago, the east coast fell victim to radiation, leaving large chunks of land incapable of producing crops. As displaced citizens relocated to the midwest, food distribution became problematic. For those like me, government jobs provide a steady stream of rations when they were available. However, many Americans are not nearly as lucky. Even when they have credit for rations, many distribution centers run dry from the demand. I am perpetually confused as to why the government or even private industries like Genesis Division continue to sidestep the people’s number one concern.
I was returning from store with fresh oranges and the distribution center was the same as always. A line thirty people deep waited outside while nearly three times that many protested the unjust practices. Signs read, “Feed, Not Greed,” and “Death for Dinner.” I’d seen the same group for weeks, continuing to grow until the distribution center guarded by synthetics. Two machines hovered at the doors while the other two walked through the crowd, careful to avoid physical contact. I feared for the protestor’s safety, one-act of aggression potentially leading to an all out fight. I felt guilty as I clutched my bag of oranges.
It happened. When a woman stepped outside the doors of the center claiming there were no more rations, the agitation turned violent. A man rushed the door. The obscenities stopped as the synthetic grabbed the protestor by the throat, not advancing, simply holding him at bay. Had it stopped there, it might have returned to peaceful demonstration. Signs transformed into weapons. Swinging and jabbing, the synthetics hardly flinched. They only responded when a gun fired. A man in the crowd held a projectile gun, smoke streaming from the archaic device.
The synthetics reacted.
From across the street, myself and an elderly couple watched in disbelief. The man tugged at my jacket, “Get home, child.” His wife pulled him along, seeking shelter from the disturbance. The synthetics weren’t as aggressive as I expected. They didn’t attack with reckless abandon. Each movement was careful and deliberate. Their weapons remained locked to their hips, instead touching protestors, stunning them with non-lethal force. I’ll admit, I was terrified with how easy they worked through the crowd.
Some ran, others tried to resist, but when the gunman started to run, the two robots on patrol grabbed their weapons and fired. I expected to see blood. I yelped, even jumped a little. The man fell to the ground but quickly rolled over, attempting to scurry to his feet. Whatever the synthetics used to shoot the man, it hadn’t been lethal. I hated that the protestors were a necessity, or that men and women were going hungry, but I was pleased to see the reports of synthetics slaughtering innocents was greatly over exaggerated.
I froze as the man rushed past. Both synthetics had guns drawn, pointed directly at me. I couldn’t move. I was terrified. Even if the force was non lethal, I’m not exactly accustomed to being shot. They holstered their weapons and ran in my direction. I closed my eyes and tried to shrink. I could feel the wind whoosh on either side of me. Their feet hit the pavement with a weird clack and scratch. I only opened my eyes when something tugged on my jacket again. The elderly man held out his hand, “This is no place for a young lady.”
It was. I lived less than a block away. This was the neighborhood I had been raised in. At one point, I had stood in the same distribution line, praying to be fed. The man fleeing could have been a childhood friend for all I knew. It might not be a place for a young lady, but it was the only place I knew. I walked along with him, thanking him and his extremely annoyed wife.
“Warren, good deeds, they’ll get you killed.” She wasn’t wrong, but I appreciated the man acting as my guardian angel. I offered them a couple of oranges but he scrunched up his nose and shook his head. “You need them more than us.”
I thought the excitement for the day was over. I walked up the stairs inside my building and found a man huffing and puffing. It was him, the man with the gun. He was hiding in the doorway of an adjacent apartment. If it had been any other door, I might have believed he lived there, but Margret had moved in over a year ago after getting a job nearby.
He continued muttering, “I just want to feed my kids.” At any moment, synthetics may burst in the boarded up window at the end of the hall or traipse up the steps to apprehend the criminal. He had drawn a gun, but I could understand why. I started to walk past and slide my keys in my door, thinking if I could make it in I’d be safe. I had enough locks on the door that even a synthetic couldn’t burst through.
I don’t know what possessed me. Warren’s wife would have rolled her eyes or cursed at me. “If you go to the roof, there’s another building you can get down the fire escape.” The man’s eyes focused on me. He didn’t have the gun anymore, but I held my keys in my palm, ready to stab him if he got too close. He eyed the stairs going up and gave a slight nod.
I set the oranges down on the floor and gave them a light kick in his direction. “You need them more than me.” I don’t know why I did it. Perhaps I was paying Warren’s good deed forward. Or perhaps I’m just tired of seeing so much hurt in the world. If I could ease a man’s suffering, or better yet his kids, I should. Warren might be proud. My dad might be proud. I was raised to perform acts of kindness.
“Thank you.” I nearly choked up as he started sobbing. He took the oranges and bolted for the stairs leading up. I slid inside my door and turned every lock. I slid down the door. I don’t know why, but I cried.
I should be sleeping, curled under the covers in nervous anticipation for what work holds for me tomorrow. A phone call this afternoon stated I had been cleared for work and apologized for a mix up in my credentials. I will be returning to work, but not as part of the Children of Nostradamus specialty division. I really don’t care, my rent is coming and I’m already dipping into my savings. Michael will say it was brought on by stress, which normally I’d believe, but not this dream.
When I was little I’d wake in the cold of night, shivering, my blankets tossed to the floor. My father would barge into my room, convinced an intruder had snuck in my window. He wielded the metal bat like he’d know what to do if a stranger loomed over my bed. Each night he’d set it down near the door and drag the blankets back onto my bed and curl up next to me until I fell back asleep. With him nearby I’d have normal dreams, the zoo, being naked on the first day of school, kid stuff. Weeks might go by before I’d have another night terror and it’d begin anew.
This one started like any other. I’m standing in a city I’ve never seen before, nearly choking on the smog. A gray haze covers the sky and it could be any city. As I walk toward the towering skyscrapers, I realize there are no people. The city takes on an eerie quality after that as if it’s been robbed of its soul. Even in the middle of the night, Chicago has a voice, whispers of people with the occasional screeching of sirens. But this, it’s as if people vacated in the dark of night and the city awoke a hollow shell.
It feels like hours as I wander the streets. Each time, I wander into new stores and down different alleys. This evening I found myself in a pizzeria. The warmth of a brick oven fireplace is almost as real as the smell of marinara sauce. I can see the steam rising off food placed in boxes but yet to have their lids shut. Not only is it vacated, but each location I stop is the same, it’s as if the denizens of this world blinked out of existence.
It feels like days as I search through buildings. Unlike my normal dreams, I can recall the feeling of brick under my fingers or the scratch of a chainlink fence along my back as I crawl through. It might not be real, but it’s close enough to play tricks on my brain. And like every other terror, I find myself on the top of the parking garage. Sometimes I don’t remember what comes next, last night, the whistling sound jogged a memory. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t muster my voice.
In the distance, miles beyond the city skyline the sky flashes a red, orange, and grows until a white light sears my eyes and I have to look away. It’s twenty seconds later when I hear the boom. The concussive force behind it washes over the city, shaking buildings as the tallest crumble under their own weight. Wind brings the heat and moments later the temperature starts to burn. The blast of whatever bomb is detonated pushes through the city and I watch as the skin on my hands flake and peel away. Moments later, I am nothing.
I’m not there, but I am. I can’t explain it. The city is in ruins. The people who fled were the fortunate ones, me, I’m nothing more than vaporized dust on the wind. The creepiest part of it was the figure from the Phantasm, I could swear I saw them. Not while it was happening, but as I started to drag my frightened ass out of the dream, they were standing on the rooftop where I had been.
I’ve never been scared of a foreign power destroying the city, at least I don’t think so. I bet I snuck into my father’s office while he was working and he was studying footage of an old world nuclear disaster. Perhaps the other day in the Phantasm gave my brain a jostle and me being me decided to conjure up the one thing that terrified me as a child. It figures.
I think instead of hiding in my apartment for the next three hours, I might go to the coffee shop until work. At least there, I can be around people. I’ll admit, I’m missing my father and that damned baseball bat right now.
When you open the door and synthetic greets you, your first reaction is always fear. The hollow husks of law enforcement have a reputation of conducting themselves in a way that, let’s just say, seems extreme to the flesh-and-blood population. But there it stood, its white and silver chassis. Even without eyes, you get the feeling it’s staring at you, or more like, it’s staring through you. Alone it almost didn’t seem as threatening, until it raised the rifle and a computerized voice said, “Madison Walker, you are needed for questioning.”
I almost died.
The machine wasn’t as aggressive as I’d seen on the news feeds. Granted, most of those were trying to stop rioters, looters, and gang violence. This one gave me a moment to grab my phone and let me lock the door to my apartment. It held the door open for me as we exited the building and even helped me into the back of the police transport. There were humans driving and the synthetic stayed in the back with me. The machine had been sent into a potentially dangerous situation while the humans sat safely inside their vehicle. Did the police think I was dangerous? I have a taser for emergencies, but beyond that, the most dangerous thing about me is my singing voice.
At the police station they put me in a small room. Everybody was civil and polite even if they were a bit stand offish. When Detective Chen sat me down and started asking about my experiences with Children I got my first clue as to why I was brought in. I answered honestly, other than seeing them in videos, I don’t think I ever met one in person. He asked me about the Church of Nostradamus. There was a small branch of the church a block over from my apartment, but other than tossing loose change into the donation bin for the homeless, I’d never set food inside. Then he slid the photo across the desk. I expected it to be the man with the dark eyes, but it was the circular hawk. My job has lot of gag orders, but I was able to tell him I had seen it thanks to work.
Now I had questions. What is the hawk? How did it tie into the Children? What did the Church have to do with it? The man gave me little to nothing. Just said it was a symbol pre-corruption used by the Children of Nostradamus. When he leaned forward to grab the photo, he made his one and only slip. The pen in his pocket, the one cops infamously use to jot notes in their archaic notebooks had a company name in thin letters, “Genesis Division.” He tapped a finger on my cell phone and loaded his cell and work number and said, “If you come across this symbol again, I’d appreciate a phone call.”
He offered me a ride home, but I opted to walk. I hadn’t heard back from work yet, and seriously, I needed some time outside away from my thesis (which was going nowhere.) Something about work, about that hawk had pinged the largest conglomerate in the world and landed me without a job. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but it was the first time I need to use the word “conspiracy.” There weren’t many pieces to the puzzle yet, but I had a long walk ahead of me to figure it out.