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.
I hurled the last bit of food from my stomach. Choppy waters mixed with a permanent knot in my stomach proved I would never be a pirate, or in this case an international smuggler. Lilith sat in the captain’s chair, staring forward, unfazed by the turbulence. I sat up, pulling my hair into a poofy ponytail and wiped my face clean, making sure I hadn’t wretched all over my clothes.
“Do you think they’re alive?”
She didn’t turn around as she spoke, a trait that was steadily growing on my fragile nerves. “Possibly. If I were in control of the synthetics, I’d want both of them secured. If they didn’t reveal other members of the Network, I’d tear apart their enhancements looking for stored feeds, geotags, even a manufacturing mark. I’d want every bit of information about the Network I could scavenge.”
“How did you know Halo?”
The pause was long enough I worried she didn’t hear the question. I opened my mouth to repeat it when she broke the silence. “They sent me to kill her.” It wasn’t the killing part, horrible yes, but her emotionless delivery made it even more frightful. She could see me about to ask a follow-up. “Her name wasn’t Halo then. She was a member of a covert military operation locating and extracting mentalists. The Valentine felt this went against their doctrine. My job was simple enough, search, gain intel, terminate.” Lilith’s face softened as her eyes drifted, staring at nothing.
“I found her. We fought. I won. She didn’t have nearly as many enhancements then. She refused to give me any information about her commanding officer or who they were using as informants. I tortured her.”
“You’re the reason she has the enhancements?” I said it before I processed what that meant. Had Lilith carved the woman’s face? And severed her arm? I didn’t know much about my protector, but that seemed cruel even for her.
“Some.” Lilith stood and walked over to where I I sat, my hands clasping the railing with a vice-like grip. “Things were different then. I was young and needed to belong to something bigger than myself. I took orders without questions.”
“The Valentine wants something from you. I suspect it’s your father. His legacy means enough for the Church of Nostradamus to get involved. It has the synthetic’s controller’s interested. You’re a pawn in this.”
“A smuggler nursed Halo back to health. Ironic, it was the same telepath who she had been tracking. People change if they’re given reason. I’m not a young girl blindly following orders. Do you know the lore behind Lilith?”
I knew it had something to do with Christianity. It had all but faded away, consumed by the growing Church of Nostradamus. Lilith had been mentioned early in their sacred texts. I had taken comparative religions as a freshman, but I’ll admit, I was too young to do more than the minimum necessary to get high marks. I shook my head.
“Lilith is the first wife of Adam, made from the same clay by God. When she refused to submit to him, he cast her out of Eden. Her name literally means monster of night.” The woman standing before me struck me as many things, but subservient was not one of them. “I am the thing the monsters fear.”
“And who are the monsters?”
“In this day and age, it’s easier to name those who aren’t monsters.” There was a sadness to the speech. The sun had faded and I couldn’t make out her face, but the tone held a bit of remorse, perhaps even longing. Lilith had proven to be a ferocious protector, but this was the first time I had seen through her thick exterior. I almost believed there was another human drifting in the lake with me. Perhaps the sacrifice of Halo and Francis softened that dense hide. I didn’t push, instead putting away further questions until she was in better shape.
“Get some rest. We’re heading to Detroit.”
“They’ll know that was our destination. We’re cutting through Detroit and heading south in New York. I have associates that can help us.”
Detroit. The city that manufactured most of the synthetic army. I tried not to dwell on how close we would come to thousands of metallic killing machines. It had been simple, take the hard drive and find my father. Now there was literally an entire fleet of killers between us and him.
I rummaged through my backpack and pulled out the Phantasm glasses. I needed a burst of sunshine and the sensation of my feet firmly planted on stable ground. The moment I slid them on, the tiny directional speakers muted the tumbling waves and the visor blocked out the stars hanging in the sky. Lights flashed as it calibrated, synching to my anatomy and infiltrating my brainwaves. They might not be as good as the suspension pod, but this was far more hi-tech than I expected. The sensation of the waxed wood under my hand grew distant as the glasses altered my brains perception of reality. Even shroud in absolute black, the real world faded away and for the first time in over an hour, my stomach thanked me.
Consumer model glasses come with a handful of manufactured scenarios. I wanted to be on a beach, the tiny grains of sand wedged between my toes. The hair on my arms would stand on end as I basked in the sun’s warmth. But the menu screen never loaded. Instead, I stood in the middle of cement buildings, on a grassy area in the middle of what appeared to be a college campus. I spotted the sign. New York University. It was an unusual destination for the Phantasm, but I let the scene play itself out.
It was cold, almost enough to need a jacket. I could see my breath and a shiver worked its way up my spine. I caught sight of my hands and realized they were my own and not a generic avatar. Whoever had sent me the glasses had custom made me a replica of myself.
A light flashed in the sky and everybody in the quad looked upward. A rolling wave of light flashed overhead again. It reminded me of heat lightning in the summer as the ground and air temperature waged war. The chill made it unlikely, but I was standing in a world where I could be a sword wielding dragon slayer.
“They’re coming,” said a nearby student. I was about to ask the teenager who when I noticed everybody on campus was staring at me. “They’re coming,” they all whispered. They were no longer looking to the sky. Now they stared at me, unblinking, whispering, terrifying.
“The future.” The single voice cut through the others and I spun about, expecting a person to be standing behind me. As I turned, the world shifted, transforming under my feet. The Phantasm obeyed no law of physics, no more coherent than the imagination. Whoever programmed this scenario had a disturbing sense of humor.
I stood in the streets of New York, looking toward the Twin Towers. I had seen photographs from a century ago, but standing within the Isolation gave me hope that I was on the right path. Would I see these monoliths of mankind’s ingenuity soon? Would I be standing in a landscape made of brick and mortar? The avatars filling the streets were human, but they moved in animalistic ways, jerky, as if on the prowl. Were these people the reason we had erected the perimeter? Were they what was left of mankind? I couldn’t recall the dates, but it must have been closer to the 21st century than the 23rd. What was the Phantasm attempting to show me? How did the two timelines link together?
Fire burst from the streets, rising into the sky like a massive wall. I had seen the city burn before. Whoever programmed this scene for me had attempted to reach out before. As the fire approached, the people were consumed, incinerated until nothing remained. The hair on my arms stood on end, bracing for the rush of heat. I threw my arms up to protect my face. A lukewarm sensation flooded my skin and vanished.
The street was replaced with a high school gym. There were tables covered in computers, except I was hovering above them, floating on nothing. Below I watched as two men argued and a third man shot one of the others. I did not understand what any of it meant. I couldn’t make out who was the good guy and who was the bad. All three, including the corpse, whispered again. “They’re coming.”
On the opposite side of the gym, hovering in the shadows, I saw him. The man from my last encounter in the Phantasm. I couldn’t make out his face or any of his features. He merely watched, an observer to another scene of death. I tried to force myself forward, but I remained suspended in the air, levitating against my will.
The screen went blank. I could suddenly feel the rocking of the boat and the hum of the motor pushing us through the waves. There was somebody else out there, trying to reach me. Could it be my father? Was the man trying to make contact in the Phantasm my father? There were too many coincidences happening at once. I couldn’t explain it, but Lilith had said it, I was a pawn in a bigger game. I believed her. There were more players than I could sort out, each of them tugging me in a direction. I had no idea who was friend or foe or which direction would lead me to safety. I pondered telling Lilith, but even she had made it clear, “Trust no one.” This felt like a secret worth keeping.
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.