Chicago’s Chronicle of Blood

I once asked my father where babies come from. It’s a question every kid asks, and for some reason, every parent lies. He responded with, “The stork of course.” Most kids would have accepted the answer and moved along, but I had more questions. How much weight could a stork carry? What if the child was large? Where was the magical land of pre-diapered babies that these birds stole? And how did the storks know which people wanted babies from? The response didn’t make sense, and I’ve never been one to accept the easy answer.

The Outlands.

I’ve been digging for more than a week, and so far my effort have been fruitless. How can this place only several hundred miles away exist but almost no documentation. The University has records about the Battle of Chicago, even about President Cecilia Joyce’s assassination, but nothing on this radioactive waste land. I’ve been given enough information that I should stop. But I need to know, where do storks get their babies from?

If the university library doesn’t have any answers, I only have a handful of options left. I can go back to the church and hope that the Valentine will speak with me. But knowing I will only ever see him once more, I don’t want to waste the encounter, not yet. I work at a data center, and there is a chance that we have something stored digitally, but but the files I want are beyond my clearance level. Seducing my boss isn’t exactly on my to do list, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it. He’s gross.

That leaves me with my father’s journals, hundreds of them. I appreciated that the image the Valentine conjured revealed some clues as to which. I knew the binding, and the color. My father had a weird habit of color coding his journals. I’m sure he had a reason, some sort of secret code I’ve yet to decipher, but I’ll take a small victory.

I did indeed find the correct journal, even the exact page shown in the vision. Was it a vision? Once this all gets sorted out, once I finish my thesis, I need to go back to visionary school for a refresher course. The entry spoke of the Outlands. My father’s searches weren’t a whole lot better than mine. He believed the government was redacting files to keep information about the Children and the Outlands from reaching the public. He had no idea why, especially with the church more than happy to spread gospel about the Children. In the margins he asked himself if he was missing something, some big picture mysteriousness. 

Only a few pages later, I found the spot where he vowed to enter the Outlands. That hurt more than I expected. He decided to pursue something, something he didn’t quite understand, and leave me behind. There’s some trauma that never truly heals, the wounds linger below the surface, ready to rear their ugly head. Apparently abandonment is mine.

I feel like a sheep admitting it, but I decided to have another go in the Phantasm. The idea of sitting by the lake and listening to the wind blow through the trees sounded majestic. People are starving, and here I am spending money on virtual reality like I’m made of money. I’m not sure if I could confess to Michael that I had a genuine desire to detach from the real world. He’d say good for me, but in that way that says he’s really judging you.

I didn’t know what I wanted to experience, so I asked the tech if I could browse the catalog of options. Here I am, prepared to dip my feet in a babbling brook and feel the sun beat down on my shoulders and I discover they have historical archives. There weren’t many options, and I could tell that many of them were liberal interpretations of historical events. As I scrolled through, I found myself faced with a conundrum, relax, or be the uptight workaholic Michael claimed. 

Battle of Chicago it was.

I had the option of being integrated into the scene as a civilian, a soldier, even a Child. I didn’t want to partake in the madness, I wanted to watch. A sniper was the best they could do. I was positioned in a building nearby with the ability to watch the conflict. The history books don’t speak of the specifics, instead falling back on general stats of soldiers lost and the damage to the synthetic army. Seeing the numbers gathered in the park, it was hard to believe a conflict this large had unfolded only blocks from my apartment.

I stood as a lone figure in my Corps uniform. Through the rifle’s scope, I could see a woman with her enhanced arm lifted in the air. My walkie talkie roared. She called for the soldiers to advance. It was a like waves of water barreling into one another. I have seen mechs up close and personal patrolling the streets, but seeing them in action, I couldn’t imagine how human soldiers could possibly stand against these juggernauts. 

I had to pull away from the scope as something on the battlefield flashed white. I thought it might be an explosive, but then one of the mechs fell backward. I had to squint, but the bursts of white came from a person on the front line of the Corps. It was a Child of Nostradamus, somebody who could wield lightning. He hurled it like a god. He was a god. I should have been firing, assisting in the battle, but the historian in me wanted to observe the display. I couldn’t tell who else might be a Child, only this one man showed power beyond my averageness.

The warning chime had signaled and I almost considered telling the operator to give me another hour in the Phantasm. I hadn’t brought enough money for more. It’s a good choice, if I had more, I’d have spent it. I started to understand how this virtual world could become addictive. I had no desire to speak to a man in France looking for me to take off my shirt, but this? Being part of one of the greatest moments in history? I would give up a day’s rations for this.

Then the man was there again. It was like before, he appeared just in the corner of my eye. I wasn’t sure I saw him. When I turned, he didn’t vanish like they do in the horror movies. The man’s avatar wasn’t one of those high quality custom jobs you can buy, a simple digitized human male. He didn’t come at me, or acknowledge my existence. He focused on the fighting down below with the same curiosity I had. This time I’d ask the operator how somebody was hijacking my feed, maybe if I was lucky they’d discount my visit. Had it been once, I could over look the intrusion, but for a second time, this man violated my space. I was about to question him when the simulation ended. I wanted answers, but the operator was convinced it was my mind being overwhelmed by the stimuli. 

Nope, no refund.

Peace & Quiet in the Phantasm

I have spent years scoffing at the idea of the Phantasm. Mankind is struggling to put food on their tables. People are being murdered in ghettos while gangs divide cities. Chicago police are renowned around the globe for not tolerating injustice within their borders. I’m lucky to live here, but the rest of the country doesn’t have that luxury. So while all of this is going wrong, Genesis Division, the largest conglomerate in the states spends their time investing in escapism instead of addressing real issues.

My thesis adviser caught me at school burning the midnight oil. He dropped a credit on my phone for the local Phantasm cafe. I argued with him and all I got was, “You need to get away from it for a bit. Go for a walk in the country.” I might have taken him too literally when I selected the Canadian wilderness.

There have been numerous studies regarding how the Phantasm pods circumvent the body’s senses. There are many places where people can congregate and interact with avatars from around the world. Home units are so common that the cafe pods are seen as a decadent item. I’m not a prude, but stripping down in a room with a technician watching left me uneasy. I laid down in the pod and the technician walked through the process and then initiated the simulation.

How do I describe it? I could taste a richness in the air, a mix of fresh air and moisture so thick each breath is like a drink of water. The tiny pebbles along the water are smoothed and massage the feet. Caribou are snacking just beyond the tree line, watching me with curiosity as I calibrate my virtual body. I want to touch the water, but the chill in the air assures me it would be even colder. An eagle dives along the lake catching a fish, and for a moment my brain tricks me into thinking I’m as free as the winged predator.

My brain knew I was in a metal coffin. Logic told me all of it was fake, a construct by a talented coder. However, my body didn’t care. Once I stopped trying to dissect the experience, I found myself surrounded by a beautiful landscape. I spent the hour walking along the lake, contemplating life. It might have been the first time in my life I didn’t feel the stress of success crushing me. I didn’t think about my dissertation once. Chicago was a world away.

A doorway appeared signaling my departure, and I’ll admit, my animosity toward the Phantasm was replaced with bit of empathy with the people seeking to escape. I paused to take one last glimpse of nature’s beauty. I could swear, a man stood at the water’s edge watching me. I asked the technician and he assured me as the mind detached from the simulation echoes of our memories could surface. He babbled something about neural something. It was only an hour, but I feel energized. I have some research to do, but I think I might have a grasp on this thesis. Now, back to work.