Whispers in the Dark

/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

I shouldn’t have complained about the walking. The pain in my feet had been annoying, but it was nothing compared to the agony of waiting. I continued touching the inhibitor, ensuring it hadn’t somehow slipped off. In a bunker underneath a farmhouse, it was impossible to tell the passage of time. Despite the clock giving away the minutes passing by, I believed it lied. As hours seemed to pass, only a quarter of an hour.

Lilith didn’t speak. For the casual onlooker, it’d almost appear as if she were meditating. She moved one crate to sit opposite of the door. There was enough firepower in the room to start a small war, but she hadn’t bothered looking at the containers. She might appear calm and collected, but her right hand held the knife, her knuckles occasionally turning white as she gripped the handle. To anybody else, she bided her time, but to me, she fought against anxiety. I didn’t like this version of Lilith.

I paced. Reading had been fruitless. Even going into the Phantasm to distract me instilled a fear I couldn’t react fast enough should I need to fight. The only thing worse than walking through a wasteland was walking the same twenty feet repeatedly. Death. Maybe that would be worse than waiting. I pushed the debate aside as I tried to focus on the positive.

The lights dimmed and returned red. I knelt down, pulling the blade from my ankle. The notion of Tracers had frightened Lilith. She stated they couldn’t infiltrate her mind. But me, I’m a liability. Would I know if a telepath was influencing my mind? Had I just grabbed the knife because somebody told me to? My heart raced, and I nearly yelped as I spun in circles, trying to decide if I was thinking clearly.

“If they’re efficient, you’ll never know they’re in your head.” Lilith had looked over her shoulder, watching my downward spiral. Her eyes followed my arm to the blade. I couldn’t tell if she approved or found it sad I was attempting to be like her.

“So, I shouldn’t worry?”

“You should worry. But there’s nothing you can do. There’s no point in dwelling on things outside your control.”

“Says the woman staring at a door.”

“If that door opens, then I’ll worry.” She lied. I didn’t out her deceit, but I it was obvious after traveling with her for days. Even Lilith’s facade of bravery had its limitations.

“I’m past worried. I’m trying not to have a heart attack.”

The lights flickered again. She held up her finger. “They’re on the property. The best you can do, sit down and breathe. Try to quiet your mind.”

If they were on the property, did that mean they had tracked us here? I wanted to believe that Lilith had attempted to lead them astray while hiding our footsteps. I put all my faith in this woman and I struggled to believe. With death lingering nearby, any assurances I had in her abilities as a runner vanished.

I sat down on a cot. Shoving the knife back into its sheath, I tried to quiet my frantic mind. I wanted to be transported to my happy place. For years that had been my father’s office, but with him gone… Even my apartment or work were now dangerous. There were so few places I could go without the fear of somebody hovering over my shoulder.

The Church of Nostradamus.

In Chicago, the cathedral had been purchased from the Catholic Church and converted. It maintained its history. Inside were stones carved with the passing of time and the rise and decline of a religion. The new owners wanted to preserve the history, and I found something about that endearing. The stained glass windows were massive and the colored light reaching the pews had captivated me on the days Visionary School attended.

I imagined myself strolling through the center aisle, fingers grazing each of the pews as I passed. The only thing that had changed was the altar. Religious artifact had been returned to the church. The symbols of the cross had been set aside and replaced with the symbol of a man kneeling. Each time I joined a thousand other parishioners for service, I wanted to believe sprinkled throughout church were Children. Was the lady with pink hair capable of flying? Or did the man in a business suit have the ability to lift a car? I’m sure we all wondered if they hid among us.

Sitting in the pews when there was no service was my favorite. The room was quiet enough you could almost hear the building breathe. My father would leave me in one of the first few pews as he met with the priest. In hindsight, they were probably talking about some secret matter he wanted to keep from me. But sitting there, I had time to stare at the giant pictures around the mezzanine and wonder where the artists got their inspiration.

The doors between the main gathering hall the lobby opened. The light pouring in from the outside made it impossible to make out the figures. Standing from the pew, I started walking backward, trying to imagine what could be happening. I tried opening my eyes, to find myself trapped. I couldn’t recall where I had been before, just that it was dark.

A man stepped forward, walking down aisle as he reached to a holster on his hip. I recognized the insignia, a Paladin. He was fit, rugged even, but the red light in his eyes gave away his ocular implants. He didn’t quite move like a normal person, almost jerky like the synthetics. Despite my fascination, I stepped backward as he attempted to close the distance.

Around his feet, two things moved about, bathed in ominous shadows. I thought of the Tracers, but how did I know that term? I couldn’t place my finger on it. When one of them reared up on their hind legs, I could see the chain from the Paladin’s waist swinging until it met the collar around the Tracer’s neck.

“This isn’t real,” I said. I wasn’t here. I knew that, but I couldn’t tell why. I touched my eyes, thinking perhaps I was wearing the goggles. Had I gone into the Phantasm? I had heard of people being unable to tell the difference between reality and virtual reality. I wanted to believe I was too smart for that to happen.

“Madison Walker.” The Paladin’s voice was deep. In the church, it echoed off the walls, making him sound as if he were forty feet tall. “You are accused of crimes against the Free Republic. Punishment is death.”

The Tracers jerked forward, pulling at their chains. I yelped, backing up. Weathered and bald, they foamed at the mouth. Their hands reached out, snarling as they clawed at the air. Smaller than an adult, I thought they might be children. Their eyes lacked any humanity. I couldn’t fathom what would make such a vile creature, but I didn’t want them to come close to me.

The Paladin dropped to one knee, yanking the chain. The Tracers didn’t seem concerned with him. They wanted me. He stroked the head of the one on the left, rubbing its skull as you would a dog. Then he reached for the collar. The clasp came off one and then the other.

“Fetch.”

I turned and ran. Moving down the aisle, I swerved left, moving through the narrow row of pews. I didn’t have any place I could go. There were doors near the altar, but if they were locked, those things would catch me. My heart beat rapidly, like at any moment it’d seize and stop working.

I reached the end of the row and spun right. The front of the church would have something, anything I could use to fight the Tracers. I had a moment to see one of them scurrying along the pews, jumping almost like a cat. The awkward way they ran, their chest low to the ground, made them even more frightful. They were like dogs. If they caught me, I didn’t think they’d stop and wait for the Paladin.

I reached the front and center stairs leading to the nave. I was going to keep running when one of the flags hanging with a metal pole caught my eye. Climbing the stairs two at a time, I jumped for the flag. Pulling it down, I slid the pole free and prepared for the Tracers. Having a weapon didn’t make me any more certain I’d survive. Even if I tackled these mutts, I still had a Paladin standing in the aisle, getting his jollies like a sadistic voyeur.

The first man-dog reached the stairs, slowing as it climbed the stairs on all fours. I was going to die in a Church of Nostradamus. Killed by creatures manufactured to hunt Children, the irony was not loss. For a moment, I glimpsed a woman standing in the aisle between me and the Paladin. Before I could call out for help, the Tracer lunged.

I poked with the curtain rod, hitting it in the chest. Drawing the pole back, I prepared to smash it over the thing’s head when I caught the other fiend trying to climb up the side of the nave. I bashed its head and then spun in time to be knocked to the ground. I held the pole at its neck, pushing it back as its jaws snapped. Drool splashed across my face.

Its teeth were crooked and discolored. It pulled back for a moment and then tried to lurch forward, gaining inches. Its hands pressed against my chest. The sunken eyes and emaciated cheeks were the least terrifying part. Its hands, placed just below my breasts, sank through the fabric, vanishing into my torso.

I screamed.

Beneath the surface of my skin, its fingers moved through my body. Slowly, it’s hand continued to sink until it reached the elbow. No matter how hard I pushed, I couldn’t stop it. Then its companion joined, standing by my head. There was no way to stop, no way to win against the two of them.

She stood on the stage. Tight braids made it easy to see the displeasure on her face. My heart raced, and I tried to call out for her help, but I couldn’t form words. The hand in my chest reached for my heart and steadily it slowed, then stopped. I was dying.

The woman shook her head, her mouth forming words. There was an eerie silence falling over the church as the room turned black.

“Madison.”

The woman stood in front of me, kneeling, her hand resting on my face. She gave me another light jostle, and I backed away, pressed against the wall. I looked for the man-dogs, certain they were hiding in the shadows. I inspected the corners of the room and caught sight of the crate sitting in front of the door. Lilith had been guarding…

“Oh gods,” I tried not to cry, but it was inevitable, “it was horrible.”

Lilith put a hand on each side of my face and stood close, her eyes locking with mine. “You’re here with me. Focus on me. Listen to my voice, Madison. They’re not real.”

“It reached inside me—“

“They’re not real.” Stern, calm, forceful, Lilith tried to connect. The only thing I could see was the snarling face and the hand snaking its way through my chest cavity. “Think about the book. Think about the hard drive. Think about why we’re out here.”

“My—“ I froze as the words caught in my mouth. She shook me again. “My father.”

I leaned forward, my arms wrapped around her. I didn’t care if I violated her personal space. I needed to feel the warmth of another person, a real sane human being. Lilith wrapped her arms around me, squeezing me.

“They’re gone,” she said, “they’ve left. We’re safe.”

“No,” I whispered, “we’re not.”

One Soul – The Cost of Surviving

/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

One hundred and forty miles. I couldn’t fathom walking that distance. But staring at the sign for Route 20, I knew I had to keep moving. Lilith estimated it’d take five days, four if we pushed ourselves. I didn’t want to speak up, but I think she overestimated my abilities. In Chicago, I considered walking more than a few blocks, a perilous journey. I never thought I’d reach a day where I missed public transportation. What I wouldn’t give for the L right now.

The day seemed to go on forever.

Walking along the road might have been tedious on its own, but without clouds in the sky, the pounding of the sun became relentless. By lunch I had soaked through my shirt. Lilith forced me to drink from my canteen despite the water tasting like dirt. When we stopped to break, I discovered we were nearly out of food. Five days with nothing but two packs of beef jerky and a package of crackers.

“Eat,” Lilith commanded.

“What about you?” She took a package of jerky and devoured a piece. She handed me the plastic wrapper. Here I was concerned about rationing, and she made it seem as if my rucksack had a pouch concealing lasagna. I really wanted lasagna.

“Eat,” she said again. “I’ll make sure we restock when we stop tonight.”

“Because you can make food magically appear.”

Lilith’s smile was one part cocky and one part confidence. I had no idea what she had in mind. As we sat in the shade of the gas station canopy, I realized this wasn’t her first time making this trek. While I appreciated a spirit guide in the Outlands, I continued to find her secretive streak somewhat annoying.

I chomped down on the rest of the package. While normally I would be thrilled to enjoy the salty taste of dried meat bathed in teriyaki, the fact it was the salt helping me retain water diminished the enjoyment. Why did I even know about salt and water and the human body? My degree in history steadily became more useless as we ventured into the wilds beyond the fence.

“Are you ready to go?”

If it hadn’t been for me, I think Lilith would have continued without stopping. While she continued to put up with dead weight, I grew increasingly agitated with my inability to contribute to this duo. I stood and dropped the rucksack. It was time I found a way to be less than helpless.

“Show me how to fight.”

“We don’t have time for that,” Lilith said getting to her feet.

“I didn’t ask. I’m tired of feeling useless.”

I had a flash back to the Phantasm the night before. In the course of a single night, I learned to shoot a rifle and how to destroy synthetics and even take on a mech. Granted, I didn’t have metallic skin, but I had to start somewhere.

“Show me.”

“No.”

I shoved Lilith. She rolled her eyes as she held up her hands. Considering I had seen her go toe-to-toe with enforcers, I knew at any moment she could hurl me against one of the gas meters. She walked away, I grew more and more angry. I might not have super human strength or the ability to generate shields, but I wasn’t completely helpless.

I stomped toward her and froze as she spun about, her hand balled into a fist. I leaned out of reach. Lilith raised her other hand, as if she prepared for a boxing match. I had taken unarmed self defense during my undergrad. Being a black woman in Chicago meant being ready for the unpredictable. The man who taught the class had never prepared me to square off against a Child of Nostradamus.

“You will get bruised,” she said.

“I was thinking more—“

She jabbed. I pushed her hand out wide. Lilith didn’t follow it up with her other fist. I blocked one, but I left myself open. She could easily have clocked me square in the face. As the humor drained from her face, I raised both fists. This was going to hurt.

“Okay, let’s—“

“Stop talking.”

I kept my mouth shut. “You’re looking at my hands. Stop. Focus on my legs. Look at the heel and ball of my foot. If you know where I’m going to move my body, you’ll be able to predict what is happening with my fists.”

Lilith punched me in the shoulder. Even restraining herself, the jab hurt.

“You said look at your feet.”

“Did I? Look at my hands too.”

I kept my fists up, but made sure I could see her feet. She lifted her rear heel, putting weight on the ball of her foot. There was only one way she could move forward. Feigning with her hand, I prepared to slap her fist away. Her knee came up, and I rocked back, while getting my hand ready to stop her from kicking.

Lilith stepped in close enough to punch. She lunged with the hand closest to me. Even if she hit, it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful as her rear fist. Putting her weight into it, the back fist came forward. I blocked it with my forearm, and stepped in close, jabbing her in the torso. The woman took the blow. I hadn’t seen it, but she knew where I’d strike. Wrapping her arm about mine, she had control of my upper body.

“Then I’d drive my fingers into your throat and we’d be done.”

“No.”

“No?”

Lilith raised her arm, the pressure threatening to pop my shoulder out of joint. I refused to let her see me wince. In self defense, the most important lesson had been to resist at all costs. Once you gave up, they won, and often in the dark alleys of Chicago, that could mean death. I’d apologize when she cursed at me later.

I kicked, my shin slamming into Lilith’s side. Startled, she let go of my arm. I knew she was taking it easy on me. But taking it easy meant I had an advantage. I pulled her arm, bring her in close and smacked my forehead against her face. I didn’t quite hit her nose, but it gave me enough slack to step back from her. Raising my fists again, I readied for another bout with the woman.

“Christ,” she swore, “if you broke my nose I’m going to be pissed.”

Without so much as a warning, she put all her weight on one foot. The other came flying at my face. I tried to block, but there was no stopping the blow. I nearly squealed out loud as her toe touched my nose. With hardly any pressure, she held the position. Lilith wanted me to know she could have easily dispatched me and there was nothing I could do to stop her.

When she dropped her foot, she grabbed my rucksack and threw it at me. I caught it and feared the woman was mad, upset that I had taken a cheap blow. Putting on the bag, we silently ventured from under the gas station canopy. I might not have won a fight with Lilith, but at least I had landed a blow. I blocked her fist a couple times. For a first round against a Child of Nostradamus, I felt proud.

After the first fifteen minutes, I couldn’t bear the silence any longer. “Sorry about your face.”

Lilith froze. She turned around, and I thought she was going to slap me across the face. She pointed, her finger driving into my chest. “In a fight, there is only one thing to remember.”

“Don’t give up?” Had she taken the same class? Was it a universal piece of advice when learning to kick butt.

“No,” she leaned in close. “Win.”

“Isn’t that obvious?”

“No.” She said poking me hard in the sternum. “There are no rules. When you fight, you win. You fight to put the other person down at all costs. You take cheap shots. You cheat. You do whatever you must. But at all costs, you win.”

Our friendly competition delved into a darker tone. I hadn’t thought about killing Lilith. But perhaps that was the missing ingredient. Is that why she treated me with kid gloves? Had I not reached a place where I understood, it’s me or them?

I nodded.

“What just happened was child’s play. You want to learn how to defend yourself?”

I nodded again.

“Do you really? Can you make the tough decisions?”

I hesitated. Without saying it, Lilith wanted to know if I’d be willing to kill. I wouldn’t go out of my way to hurt another person. But if it came down to killing or being killed. I thought about it for a moment, and I didn’t have an answer for her. Watching the light in somebody’s eyes simply vanish, I shrugged.

“I don’t know.”

“When you know for certain, then I’ll teach you.”

We had another six hours of walking ahead of us until we made camp. As Lilith turned around, weaving her way between abandoned cars, I knew time would move quickly. In the back of my head I had to sort through a mix of emotions. What was I doing here? Could I become part of this world? Would I lose myself to the Outlands?

I didn’t say it out loud, but I suddenly felt as if I was playing a game. Those around me were suffering consequences while I stayed safe inside my little bubble. Lilith assumed the brunt, protecting me from the dangerous things that continued beating against us day after day. Would I let Lilith die for me?

“Yes,” I shouted.

Lilith turned around. Without a word, she nodded.

I didn’t know what I agreed to, what demons I might have to face. But I couldn’t let her assume responsibility on my behalf. Imagining myself beating somebody to a pulp, I clenched my fist. I hope it never came to that, but this wasn’t Chicago. I had transitioned into a ruthless world, and I had to play by their rules.

Had I just signed away a piece of my soul?

It no longer felt like a game of cat and mouse. I would find my father, I would discover what happened with the Isolation. And somewhere, buried in the hard drive in my rucksack, I’d unlock the secrets to the Corruption.