Lillith is not an ideal travel companion. She leads and expects me to follow. I ask questions and she rolls her eyes. She is not entertained with my resistance. The woman isn’t hostile, but she is aggressive. She warned me the first night on the street, trust nobody. It seems as if she lives by this creed. Currently I am a nobody.
There are areas of Chicago I’ve never set foot in, I expected to head there, perhaps to the west side. Between the gangs and the obscene crime, even cops are hesitant to enter. However, Lillith leads me into the city, to the Loop, one of the busiest places in the world. I question, she ignores. I’m not playing this game.
“No. I’m not moving another foot until you answer some questions.”
Granted, a dank alley filled with bins of trash wasn’t the most luxurious place to make a stand. I thought she’d punch me, or maybe shout. She struck me as a shouter. She approached until she forced my back against a wall. She didn’t touch me, or even lift a finger, but she knew how to be intimidating. She didn’t scare me. Mostly.
“Where are we going?”
She didn’t speak. I think that’s her thing. Being silent gives you the appearance of being dangerous. I nearly got jumped the night before by a trio of men. I broke into a secure facility and stole classified information. Right now, the only dangerous thing about her were her fashion choices.
“Lillith, first wife of Adam. She flew away when he tried to control her. Is that even your real name?”
“Madison Walker. Graduate student at the University of Chicago, employed by the Archivists. You recently received a promotion and had it taken away. Your father…” she trailed off. She knew something about my father.
“What about him? What do you know?” I surprised myself when I pushed forward, causing her to take a step back. She wasn’t getting away without answering that. “Tell me, now.”
“We’re called Watchers. We’re raised by the Church of Nostradamus, orphans. Those of us who stay, observe the world for them. We’re part of the Network. Ever wonder how information about the Church remains a secret? The Network.”
One speech shone more light on the Church of Nostradamus than a decade of Visionary School. The casual way she said it, the sheer nonchalant exposure, she believed we were sheep. But, if what she said were true…my mind could hardly plunge into the cascading repercussions this might have.
“My father was part of the Network.”
“Did you question your promotion?”
No. No, I did not. I was a hard worker, I earned a promotion. Though, I did recall being shocked by the division they promoted me to. I had never worked with Children before, and typically that required…
“The Church?” Holy shit.
“You keep saying that, but here I am trusting you.”
“Don’t. I could be working for the Church. I could be working for them. You don’t know me, Madison Walker.”
I’ve sat on the hiring committee for a dozen teaching candidates. If she thought her cryptic answers would deter my curiosity, she had another thing coming. No human alive could lie better than a professor when dodging inquiries about questionable material on their curriculum vitae. I’d find the break in her armor, wedge my curious foot in the crack, and then I’d beat her within an inch of her life. Figuratively that is. She’d kill me if I touched her.
“Why are we in the Loop?”
I nearly choked. She scouted the opening of the alley like it was a simple stroll through the park. Union Station might not be widely used these days, but the infrequent trains leaving the city required retina scans, facial recognition, and actually purchasing tickets. If her plan was to leave the city by rail, we were already good as caught.
“Lunch rush is in full swing. Keep your eyes low, do not look up.” She reached into a pocket on her leg. I have no idea how, the leather fit her like a glove. Lillith opened the tiny box. Contacts. That’s how she moved through the city undetected. Somehow, these little pieces of plastic disrupted the facial recognition software in the city’s computers. I hate contacts. I nearly gag as I put them in. As I fumble, I debated if it’d be easier to keep my eyes closed and pretend I were blind.
We move through the street. If it wasn’t for the facial recognition system, it’d be impossible to follow somebody during the lunch rush. Those working in the Loop generally had money. They went out for lunch. Those too poor went to the soup kitchens. Everybody moved with a purpose. We blended in. I kept my eyes down, following her boots. Dress shoes, sandals, lots of sneakers, passed by. It only cleared as we approached Union Station. Very few people travel by train. The steps were empty as we walked in.
She stopped. The interior of the building was from another era. There was marble in every direction, beautiful Art Deco lines blended in with the greek columns. We walked down the stairs toward the massive room that had once been packed with travelers. A quick right put us heading toward the trains. Eventually we’d need to be scanned to enter, faces, eyes, hands, even our tickets. But we turned again, going down stairs toward what might have been the bathrooms. A utility door put us behind the scenes, where workers might travel to avoid the busy crowds. It was when she placed a hand on a scanner to a door I nearly shrieked.
It’s not really a hallway, more like a passage. It’s another twenty minutes of walking and zigging before zagging. I can tell we’re in the underbelly of Union Station. I can hear people, lots of them. The final door is like a wall of steel. Cameras scan our eyes, and I wonder what shows up on the computer on the other end. The hydraulics shift and slide and the door opens. Men on the other side are holding rifles but she walks through as if she owns the place.
It’s a flea market, except they’re not selling knitted goods or their mother’s literary collection. More than one gang tattoo is visible. More than one gun is resting on the hip of each patron. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of people milling about, inspecting tables and racks of items I can’t even begin to describe. I see guns, computers, even synthetics all haggled for between patrons and proprioters.
“What is this place?”
“Haven.” Sure. She says it like that explains everything. I want to slap her. But I don’t want to get slapped back. Somehow I can imagine in a place like this, there is a constant threat of violence. However, it seems peaceable enough. The threat of every man and woman carrying enough fire power to level a police station probably forces a temporary truce.
There are hackers. They wear glasses that cover one eye, allowing them to see their work as they type away on invisible keyboards. I have to wonder if the man who showed up in my Phantasm simulation was somewhere down here? Had he interrupted my feed to have himself a little pervy moment?
A rocket launcher. Cute. I wonder if I have enough change in my pocket to buy one of those. Oh, maybe I’ll buy myself a new face. I’m pretty sure I saw a man having an arm replaced. What was the going rate? Did Watchers come with unlimited funds?
Ultimately she took me to a man nestled in a side room. He wore high end glasses. By the time I caught up, she was laughing. Up to this point, I thought she had her personality erased. Perhaps in her underworld element, she felt more at ease.
“Harddrive, yes, please.”
How did she…I’m going to stop asking questions. Apparently she knows everything about me and I’m just a pawn in this. I still haven’t figured out why she’s helping me, or why she scanned me for trackers placed by the Valentine. Was she going rogue? Did free agents truly exist in this day and age?
“It’s geolocked. I can’t access the information before they trace it. It needs…” I realize he’s not amused with my statement. Obviously I’ve insulted some sort of mega hacker. Along the side of his face there is a tattoo, no, more of an old school brand. A giant number “5” covers from his ear down to his neck.
“He’s one of the 5.”
“You say stuff like that it makes sense.”
“He’s the best.”
He grabs my hard drive plugging it in, it comes to life. At any moment, we’ll be swarmed by police. He makes weird grunts and smiles at whatever he’s seeing in his glasses.
“Accessible, but will require time, yes. There is one file, see.”
His fingers click on a screen we can’t see. He’s fast. He’d make an incredible addition to the archivist team. I wonder if any of my co-workers might be hackers? Some were definitely…
“Art. Sean Carlson, artist of Children.”
Holy shit, a Nighthawk.
Nighthawks by Sean Carlson https://www.seancarlsonart.com
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.
I froze at the boom of his voice, afraid of what awaited me on the other side of the massive wooden door. The preacher kindly opened it, gesturing for me to step inside. At first, I wasn’t sure if the darkness was my eyes adjusting from the light pouring through the hallway windows. But as the preacher shut the door, I could hardly tell if my eyes were open or close.
I could hear him breathing, a steady in and out. I could only assume it was minutes before I started to feel awkward? No, vulnerable. He knew my name, but other than referring to him as a Valentine, I knew almost nothing about him. For a moment, I swore I could hear the steady rhythm of my heart, I wondered if he could as well?
“Madison.” He whispered my name. I didn’t know if I should respond? He said it like I was a curiosity, not an invitation to speak. Did he know my life story? Did he know about my thesis? I had seen him once as a child, kindly greeting the kids as they headed into the church for Visionary School. Other than the crooked smile, I hardly recalled anything about the man. Who was he? Why Nostradamus? What journey brought him to this moment? I had questions about this man, about this human and his chosen path.
“I see you.” I barely whispered the words. It is a mantra used by the Church of Nostradamus. I said those words often as I stared into the chipped bathroom mirror. The affirmation always started with those words, reminding myself to see the entirety of who I am. I am a black woman, a bold and curious person with hopes, dreams and both rifled with fear. I am as Nostradamus predicted and so much more.
The single candle rested on a pedestal. I didn’t hear the match strike or the torch ignite, all of a sudden there was a flickering light. He was younger than I remembered, the white only beginning to creep into his beard. Based on the robes, I almost expected to see stone walls like you find in the ancient churches. It had been so long since Visionary School, I didn’t know if I should bow. I couldn’t recall his title, it was all quite humbling, and embarrassing. Mostly embarrassing.
“Your eyes ask the questions you fear to speak.” I’m not embellishing. If I was to say those words aloud, you’d think I got hit in the head. But coming from him, it was insightful. I had so many questions, I had them written down on my phone, but it seemed foolish to take it out. I hadn’t prioritized them and there were at least a hundred, some easy, some certainly requiring stories.
“Any of our order can provide you scholarly wisdom. I believe there is something more pressing.”
I was seven again. Visionary School we listened to the tales of Nostradamus and how he foresaw all that we know today. Children drew the man’s likeness, taking extra care to color in his all-seeing eyes. The church elders spoke of a time Nostradamus sent an angel to protect the Children to ward away evil. My father’s work referenced the angel and I always wondered if she had curly hair like my own. My father assured me that any angel would be lucky to have my tight curls.
My eyes were close to watering. “Can you see my father?” I tried to prepare myself to talk about my father and his work without getting emotional. I hardly made it five words and I thought I might burst into tears. Nostradamus teaches to embrace our hearts as much as our minds. The moment I said it, I realized that had been my burning question.
“No.” He closed his eyes and held his arms out wide. “But, you can.”
The room transformed in front of my eyes. We were in my apartment, except my father was pouring over his journals scribbling notes on a pad of paper. I hadn’t seen him in forever. I didn’t care that it was a memory. The lines across his brow were scrunched up while he pounded away at the paper. It remembered that day. I came running into the room and insisted he get away from work for a while. I lured him away from his work so we could take a stroll in the park. I cried when I reached for his hand and my hand passed through the illusion.
“How are you…”
“Do you remember why we call ourselves Valentines?”
“The founder was named Valentine.”
“A slight lie. Eleanor Valentine was a psychic from the 20th century. Like Nostradamus, she predicted the future and helped to right the wrongs of mankind. Much of what we know of the woman are stories handed down from elder to initiate. Valentines have sworn to use their gifts to do the same.”
I could hardly believe it. I thought he was a Child of Nostradamus, but a mentalist? A real living mentalist? I thought that was a legend, or perhaps a Child masquerading as a mentalist. I didn’t care about my thesis in that moment, I wanted to hear this man’s stories. It was a gift, him revealing the inner workings of the church. Thankfully the revelation didn’t quite pertain to my thesis. I’m not entirely sure I’d be allowed to reveal this information.
“I can not predict the future as the Daughter of Nostradamus could. But I can see into the mind of a single person. Thanks to the technology developed by the church I am able to share these visions with those in need. Your mind seeks answers, but your heart, your heart keeps you here, in this moment. There is a reason you’ve yet to discover.”
The Valentine moved through the illusion, standing next to the desk. He beckoned me forward and pointed at the pad of paper as my father continued scribbling. I hovered over him and he was circling a single word.
I had been spinning my wheels with this thesis I hadn’t considered aligning my work with my father might actually send me walking in his footsteps. The rest of my questions seemed trivial, but I had to ask to distract me from my father. From there we discussed the Children of Nostradamus. My recorder eventually ran out and the man ended the conversation with, “We shall meet only once more, Madeline Walker.” The door opened as if by magic and I took my leave, giving a slight bow, because how do you show gratitude to the man who just rifled through your memories?
I often feel invisible. I’m sure I’m not the only one. In the bigger picture of the universe, I’m a nobody. Average at best. Hopefully I’ll leave the world a better place than when I entered it. But overall, there are more important people, things, and events than me. I’m not even unique in having this point of view. I’m sure many people feel their significance is barely noticeable.
“I see you.”
The Church of Nostradamus offers people the opportunity to define themselves, but more so, be seen. In a world where our history is fractured, the difference between reality and conspiracy can be a simple lost newspaper article. The church offers its parishioners the chance to be seen. More than that, it preaches about the “titans who walk amongst us.” In other religions, they pray to an unseen deity. In the Church of Nostradamus, the deities being worshipped could be sitting next to you. The Church refers to them as titans, careful to not call them gods (there are radical branches who believe this) and that they are not our superiors, but our equals and we should advance the world in unity.
“We will support them, and in return, they will support us.”
I wish I could have taped the sermon, but Michael has yet to fix the camera on my phone. I hoped that boy would attend church with me, but his family raised him a devout atheist. The idea of setting foot inside the church causes him to scrunch up his nose. His flare for the dramatic knows no bounds. It had been so long since my father had taken me, I worried I would come back to something unfamiliar, but it was as uplifting as I remembered. I never knew why my father stopped taking me, I assumed he was too busy. Perhaps he suffered a crisis of faith?
At the beginning of the sermon a nearby woman attending church alone, rested her hand on my shoulder. Had it been at work or on the street, hell, even in my own apartment, it’d have made me uncomfortable. She had the most beautiful brown eyes, a rich color that exuded warmth. “I see you,” she said with a smile. In our chaotic world, that simple statement carries a force that eases the burden resting on our individual shoulders. “And I, you.” She opened her arms and I couldn’t resist the hug. For a moment, neither of us were alone. There is a beauty in the solidarity of two lone women. As we listened, I watched her nodding her head, the conviction of faith exuding from every pore. That woman reminded me of a happier time with my father.
My purpose in attending wasn’t to rekindle my faith. I guess had I thought about it, my faith has never waned. Each church has a group of preachers who speak the message of Nostradamus. However, Chicago is one of the homes of the “Valentines,” men who are said to commune with Nostradamus himself. Many have speculated that the Valentines are Children capable of psychometry, the ability to see past events. I am not sure if this has ever been confirmed, but I have a feeling there is a slightly more rational explanation and the mythos surrounding their role is greater than the reality. However, I feel my research will begin with meeting the Chicago Valentine.
Before I could reach the apex, a preacher approached me. He moved through the crowd of onlookers as if he needed to speak with me. Preachers are intuitive as hell, and it is easy to understand how people believe them harbingers. He approached me, a much older man whose deep inset eyes and winkled face spoke of a full life. Eye contact. He held out his hand until I set my hand in his massive palms. The man’s smile was unsettling at first, like he knew a joke about me but wouldn’t say. His face was pure joy. I smiled which caused him to show a toothy grin. “You have questions, young one. These are not the questions you need answered. See me again when we can sit and enjoy one another’s company. I will help you discover the questions that fuel your heart. Remember, I see you.”
I left smiling. I’m Madison Walker, I don’t smile. First, how did he do that, and second, what are the questions that fuel my heart? I guess I’ll know soon.