Alarms traveled through the upgrades in Chicago’s underworld. Alerts appeared in the eyes of the patrons and sirens must have sounded in the auditory enhancements. Lilith grabbed me by the hand, her grip far stronger than I anticipated. Pill-R gave her a nod and pointed to a metal hatch near the back of his vendor space. Later, Lilith explained he paid extra to be close to an escape. As we cleared tables filled with junk, he pulled a wire from one of his servers and slid it into a port just behind his right ear. Pill-R didn’t computers. He was living tech.
I’m a college student at a respected university. I shouldn’t know what gunfire sounds like. I shouldn’t have empirical proof that a bullet entering the forehead causes the rear of the skull to explode. I shouldn’t know any of this, but I do.
I have witnessed the very definition of a massacre. Even as the black market dealers returned fire, synthetics tore their way through the entrance. Their bodies lit up as bullets ricocheted. They fired into the crowd with frightening accuracy. Those unfortunate to be within arms reach were eviscerated. Sword-like fingers punched into a man as a forearm mounted gun blew through his body. These weren’t peacekeepers, these were the boogeymen people feared.
I found myself rooting for the gang members. The killers and drug dealers, I wanted them to fight back and win. I didn’t approve of them destroying my city or poisoning our kids, but I didn’t want them to die. If it was going to be imperfect humans or soulless machines, I would always cheer on those with a heart.
I had to shield my eyes as a something struck one of the synthetics causing an explosion. The air in the room vibrated. Whatever they fired, it sent the two robots into the stone, shredding them into scrap metal. The pressure in my ears made it difficult to hear and nearly impossible to stand. As quickly as those two fell, they were replaced by two more, and then another two. Everybody in that room was going to die.
“Hurry,” Pill-R skipped formalities as he yanked on my arm, pulling me through the small hatch. Lilith braced her foot against the wall and tugged on the door. The woman was only an inch or two taller than me and perhaps ten pounds heavier. Her muscles strained as she pulled at the circular door. Whoever had performed Lilith’s upgrades had been careful to hide their work, nowhere on her body could I find the familiar scars.
With a grunt, she jerked the door shut and our world went dark. The barrier didn’t stop the yelling or the screams of dying of humans. There’s was a second explosion. With so many men and women infused with technology, I prayed they’d have a fighting chance. They deserved life in prison, not being eradicated under a train terminal.
I grabbed a small flashlight from my backpack. By the time I flipped it on, Lilith and Pill-R were already down the tunnel. I was glad to know my protector and her weird hacker friend were concerned about my safety. I get it, we’re all trying to survive, but they could do it without being assholes.
We spend the next ten minutes coming to splits and small rooms with half a dozen exits. Pill-R continues leading us and I wondered if he’s done this before or if he’s somehow seeing a map of the tunnels in his ocular enhancement. I kept pausing to look over my shoulder, but at that point, it didn’t sound like we’re being followed. I was thankful, Pill-R may be a world renowned hacker, but I think too much time in an office chair rendered him useless to fight. While Lilith might fair better, I couldn’t imagine she’d…
They both froze and I barrelled into them. The large chamber joined multiple tunnels. We were far enough away from the action I couldn’t hear the screams, but I still didn’t feel safe.
“Shh,” Lilith said as she pressed the button on my flashlight. It went dark. I’ve always heard when one sense is useless, the others step up their game. I can assure you, standing in a pitch black room did not give me super hearing. Other than Pill-R dragging his heels on the floor, I couldn’t hear a thing. He took my hand, backing me against a wall, I can’t make up or down. I had no idea what he could see that my human eyes couldn’t make out. Reaching out, Lilith had deserted us.
My blood turned to ice as red dots appeared down one of the corridors. Synthetics. I couldn’t tell how many there were. Metal scraped along the cement and the thin beams of light moved until one centered on me We’re about to die and all I could focus on is that the hacker’s hand isn’t reciprocating my death grip. I assumed in his line of work he’d be used to the safety of his home office, but perhaps he had more than a passing familiarity with life or death encounters.
The red dot zipped up my body, catching my left eye before it vanished entirely. Metal grinding against metal. I heard the servos in the machines wheezing as they attempted to react. A gun fired and in a burst of light I made out Lilith, weaving between two robots. I reached for the flashlight flipping it on.
The head of one synthetic rolled off its body. While I shone the light terrified, Lilith moved as if the synthetics should fear her presence. Spinning out of the way, she dropped and knocked one robot off its legs. Whatever she is held in her hand sliced through its arm, sending it and the gun on its forearm clanking against the ground.
I started to walk forward. I couldn’t let her fight those god-damn robots on her own. Pill-R grabbed me, stopping me in my tracks. The machine kicked Lilith in the torso, knocking her against the tunnel wall. Even with enhancements, she’d be bruised, a perfectly shaped footprint on her stomach.
The machines refused to surrender.
Lilith pushed off the wall, launching herself at the machine. A blade flashed. The tip of the knife sunk into the synthetic’s skull while she caught its hand. She relinquished the blade, slamming her palm against the inside of its elbow, snapping the arm in half. A synthetic could lift me off my feet without effort, and here Lilith tore its limbs free. This wasn’t her first time dealing with Chicago’s enforcers.
The headless synthetic grappled with her leg. With a stomp of her heel, it flattened on the stone. Several more kicks and the power source surged and a blinding orange light filled the cavern. She didn’t slow, pulling her knife free and sheathing it in a well-rehearsed motion. She hurled the standing synthetic against the wall. Two blows from the palm of her hand its chest cavity collapsed inward.
The light caught her eyes, tiny silver orbs. Ocular enhancements. Lilith might be closer to machine than human, but at that moment, I was grateful. She dispatched two synthetics without effort. She has a story, a complicated one. Lilith might not be the person I wanted, but she was the person I needed.
“That was amazing.”
“I hate machines.” Irony. I’d let it slide.
“We are near the exit. We can go now, yes?”
Pill-R, was an awkward little man, but between the two of them, they were all I had. I didn’t think stealing a hard drive would put me under Chicago, fighting for my life. I didn’t think I’d be a fugitive hiding with a hacker and an agent of the church. But there we were.
“Are you ready for what’s next?”
Lilith asked as if being part of a police raid and watching dozens of people be slaughtered was only the opening act. Did my father experience this? When he claimed to be at the university working late, was he partaking in this world? Every step further led to more questions. I was starting to wonder if I truly knew my father.
I nod. “We have a rendezvous to make.”
Lilith asked if I was ready, but nothing prepared me for what came next.
Haven has a set of rules unlike anything in the surface world. There are guns on the hip of every patron, and while hands hover close by, sometimes even on the stock, they are never drawn. I would assume that money would reign supreme, but more often than not, I can hear the patrons discussing trade. Food serves as a currency in the city beneath Chicago. The rocket launcher from early is nearly a month worth of rations. I have to wonder if Haven exists to fill a need by the surface dwellers? How many people above us even know Haven exists?
Pill-R, our world renowned hacker has been inspecting my hard drive for nearly six hours. He mumbles to himself and every time he says, “Do you know who I am?” I roll my eyes. Before Lilith ventured into Haven, she gave me a simple command, “Stay.” Of course, my first instinct is to wander away. I’ll show her who’s boss, even if I am shot in the process.
What I find even more shocking than the guy next to me with a three fingered metallic arm and shotgun strapped to his leg, my father knew about Haven. Lilith returned to her strong silent demeanor when I asked her for more information. Who comes up with these names, Watchers? The Network? The Five? My father is part of the Network, people cultivated by the church for some ominous reason, and somehow I’m a pawn in their plan. Was the promotion a a recruitment ploy? Or were they using me to gain access to the Children of Nostradamus? And if they were, why did I lose the position so quickly? Was there somebody out there trying to stop them?
I find Lilith bartering with a man over a table near the center of the vendor area. The man is nearly twice her size. His broad shoulders and bulging muscles are the product of hard work, not the gym. His exposed shoulder had a collection of tattoos, the faces of a woman and two children. Whatever they were discussing she didn’t find the terms agreeable and he stood upright with a smug look and folded his arms. Lilith holds up more fingers, raising her offer and he continues shaking his head. Whatever he wants in trade, money won’t suffice. As I approach, she’s giving the man the finger, prepared to walk away. I reach into my bag and pull out a dehydrated meal.
“That’ll cover her.”
Will it? I mean, I’m not exactly sure of the exchange rates down here. His demeanor changes as his eyes widen ever so slightly. Lilith’s face is stark, cold, and I can see she’s playing the barter game. I raise my eyebrow and start reaching for the meal. The man puts his hand on it. “Lilith, you should have told me you have a new benefactor. I like her far better than the priests.” Really? Does everybody know about the Watchers but me?
He starts to hand a data chip to Lilith but his arm swings about and presents me with the chip. “It’s a pleasure doing business with you.” Lilith is irked. I take it with a smile. I like her irked.
As we walk toward her hacker’s station, she leans in close. “That meal was worth twice as much as the chip. He would have eventually caved.” At least from behind, she can’t see me smiling. We got what we wanted and his kids will eat today. Lilith is proving a lack of humanity, or at least a very self centered view of the world. While she sees compassion as a sign of weakness, I know better. Perhaps during one of our bonding sessions she’ll reveal who made her such a frigid bitch?
Pill-R waves us over. He’s found something. There is a smug sense of satisfaction on his face. It seems as if Lilith only associates with people with egos large enough to fill the room. I’m not overly impressed, but as I see the screen filling with images and page after page of data, I can see that his confidence is well founded. I can see flashes, a repeating image. “Can you adjust the speed of the display? Slow it just a bit.” My lack of complimenting makes him grunt, but he does what I ask. There is a repeating image and as he adjusts the image, it flashes in perfect time, the circular hawk.
“The Nighthawks.” What are the chances for coincidence? The Nighthawks are spoken about by the church with such reverence, they take on a myth like quality. Every question in my mind comes to a screeching halt as I see Lilith’s face. She’s consumed by the circular hawk, her eyes distant, almost to the point where I worry she’s gone comatose. Hours ago I would said I trusted nobody, but I trust her now. I don’t know what it is yet, but Lilith has made this personal. Something about the Nighthawks speaks to her. I’m not sure what it is, but I think we have a similar destiny.
“That’s the last file.”
There is a woman on the screen, another of Sean Carlson’s sketchbook drawings. “Who?”
“Jasmine Gentile,” Lilith speaks as if she spoke a god’s name. She has. “She’s known as the original Paladin. She worked for the military. She received her calling and joined the Nighthawks. She fought by their side to help save the world.” The Paladins were a covert team of Children working for the government, nobody knew how many, or what exactly they did. Mostly they served as celebrities giving the appearance that the military worked side-by-side with Children. I found it suspect.
Pill-R handed me a datapad as the download from the hard drive finished. With a couple clicks I could hear him sighing. “So much data, gone. I wish it didn’t have to be this way, yes.” While I fit the data pad into my backpack, Pill-R snatched at the package I received the day I fled my apartment. His implants saw something I couldn’t. I was about to protest as he unwrapped it. Phantasm goggles, expensive ones by the look of it. He turned them over, inspecting the case, looking for something.
“They are without a serial, yes.” He pointed to the bottom like that made sense. “Somebody has given you an incredibly valuable gift, yes.” He pointed to the side, in hand rendered paint I could make out the “5.” “We watch over you Madison Walker, we do.” He handed them to me with a gleeful and giddy smile. I shove the package into my backpack along with the datapad.
“You will need transport from the city, yes?”
Lilith points at the pocket that held the data chip. “Our friend Madison managed to secure the meetup location. We’ll be leaving tonight.”
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