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 pocked 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
It’s been a rough couple of weeks. The night terrors have persisted longer than ever. I’m sleeping roughly four hours a night, which might be a blessing in disguise. After taking seven minute shower, the hot water turned chilly and somewhere between yelping and lunging for a towel, I found my topic. “The Emergence of Gods: A Study of the Church of Nostradamus’ and its Incorporation of Dieties on a Corporal Plane.” I sent the email and it couldn’t have been more than a minute that my adviser mailed back with, “Tell me more…”
My office isn’t large, and truthfully, it’s used for storage of dad’s files more than it is my own work. I decided to rummage through my his files to see what inspired him to enter the Isolation. I’m deviating from his research, but the Church itself has strong roots in New York City. I hoped he’d already touched on the subject, at least enough to give me a lead that allowed me to skip awkward introductions with the local church. He wrote in code, a lot of it. We played this game as a child, swap this letter for that, this number means this, and it seems he used it to encrypt physical documents. I’m not sure if it’s part of the paranoia that slowly came over him, or perhaps this is the legacy he left to me. I’d trade research for a real father, but somewhere in those dusty papers, his mind lives.
Michael is going to come by and help me sift through the mess and try to make heads or tails of it. This is where we begin those hour long conversations about our research. Lately it’s mostly been me helping him lay out the groundwork for his research. I know almost nothing about sustainable food sources in a crowded and drained ecosystem, but I find it fascinating that his work is attempting to save mankind. If it goes well for him, he’ll be picked up as a research assistant for a corporation like Genesis Division and be able to work in their environmental department. I laugh every time he starts to explain science. I’m smart, but I’m nowhere near his level when it comes to his research. I serve as his ethics soundboard. I’m excited for the first time, I’ll be able to bounce ideas off him as well. Finally, I feel there is some momentum.
He’ll open the door and the first words will be, “Madison, you look like bloody hell.” The lingering British accent from his parents is why I really keep him around. I’m hoping he can help make sense of my father’s papers. I know my dad would be proud of my topic, and he’d promptly launch into a discussion of scholarly proportions asking me to considering the most minuscule detail. This is going to happen. First this paper, then my degree.
I should be sleeping, curled under the covers in nervous anticipation for what work holds for me tomorrow. A phone call this afternoon stated I had been cleared for work and apologized for a mix up in my credentials. I will be returning to work, but not as part of the Children of Nostradamus specialty division. I really don’t care, my rent is coming and I’m already dipping into my savings. Michael will say it was brought on by stress, which normally I’d believe, but not this dream.
When I was little I’d wake in the cold of night, shivering, my blankets tossed to the floor. My father would barge into my room, convinced an intruder had snuck in my window. He wielded the metal bat like he’d know what to do if a stranger loomed over my bed. Each night he’d set it down near the door and drag the blankets back onto my bed and curl up next to me until I fell back asleep. With him nearby I’d have normal dreams, the zoo, being naked on the first day of school, kid stuff. Weeks might go by before I’d have another night terror and it’d begin anew.
This one started like any other. I’m standing in a city I’ve never seen before, nearly choking on the smog. A gray haze covers the sky and it could be any city. As I walk toward the towering skyscrapers, I realize there are no people. The city takes on an eerie quality after that as if it’s been robbed of its soul. Even in the middle of the night, Chicago has a voice, whispers of people with the occasional screeching of sirens. But this, it’s as if people vacated in the dark of night and the city awoke a hollow shell.
It feels like hours as I wander the streets. Each time, I wander into new stores and down different alleys. This evening I found myself in a pizzeria. The warmth of a brick oven fireplace is almost as real as the smell of marinara sauce. I can see the steam rising off food placed in boxes but yet to have their lids shut. Not only is it vacated, but each location I stop is the same, it’s as if the denizens of this world blinked out of existence.
It feels like days as I search through buildings. Unlike my normal dreams, I can recall the feeling of brick under my fingers or the scratch of a chainlink fence along my back as I crawl through. It might not be real, but it’s close enough to play tricks on my brain. And like every other terror, I find myself on the top of the parking garage. Sometimes I don’t remember what comes next, last night, the whistling sound jogged a memory. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t muster my voice.
In the distance, miles beyond the city skyline the sky flashes a red, orange, and grows until a white light sears my eyes and I have to look away. It’s twenty seconds later when I hear the boom. The concussive force behind it washes over the city, shaking buildings as the tallest crumble under their own weight. Wind brings the heat and moments later the temperature starts to burn. The blast of whatever bomb is detonated pushes through the city and I watch as the skin on my hands flake and peel away. Moments later, I am nothing.
I’m not there, but I am. I can’t explain it. The city is in ruins. The people who fled were the fortunate ones, me, I’m nothing more than vaporized dust on the wind. The creepiest part of it was the figure from the Phantasm, I could swear I saw them. Not while it was happening, but as I started to drag my frightened ass out of the dream, they were standing on the rooftop where I had been.
I’ve never been scared of a foreign power destroying the city, at least I don’t think so. I bet I snuck into my father’s office while he was working and he was studying footage of an old world nuclear disaster. Perhaps the other day in the Phantasm gave my brain a jostle and me being me decided to conjure up the one thing that terrified me as a child. It figures.
I think instead of hiding in my apartment for the next three hours, I might go to the coffee shop until work. At least there, I can be around people. I’ll admit, I’m missing my father and that damned baseball bat right now.
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.
When you open the door and synthetic greets you, your first reaction is always fear. The hollow husks of law enforcement have a reputation of conducting themselves in a way that, let’s just say, seems extreme to the flesh-and-blood population. But there it stood, its white and silver chassis. Even without eyes, you get the feeling it’s staring at you, or more like, it’s staring through you. Alone it almost didn’t seem as threatening, until it raised the rifle and a computerized voice said, “Madison Walker, you are needed for questioning.”
I almost died.
The machine wasn’t as aggressive as I’d seen on the news feeds. Granted, most of those were trying to stop rioters, looters, and gang violence. This one gave me a moment to grab my phone and let me lock the door to my apartment. It held the door open for me as we exited the building and even helped me into the back of the police transport. There were humans driving and the synthetic stayed in the back with me. The machine had been sent into a potentially dangerous situation while the humans sat safely inside their vehicle. Did the police think I was dangerous? I have a taser for emergencies, but beyond that, the most dangerous thing about me is my singing voice.
At the police station they put me in a small room. Everybody was civil and polite even if they were a bit stand offish. When Detective Chen sat me down and started asking about my experiences with Children I got my first clue as to why I was brought in. I answered honestly, other than seeing them in videos, I don’t think I ever met one in person. He asked me about the Church of Nostradamus. There was a small branch of the church a block over from my apartment, but other than tossing loose change into the donation bin for the homeless, I’d never set food inside. Then he slid the photo across the desk. I expected it to be the man with the dark eyes, but it was the circular hawk. My job has lot of gag orders, but I was able to tell him I had seen it thanks to work.
Now I had questions. What is the hawk? How did it tie into the Children? What did the Church have to do with it? The man gave me little to nothing. Just said it was a symbol pre-corruption used by the Children of Nostradamus. When he leaned forward to grab the photo, he made his one and only slip. The pen in his pocket, the one cops infamously use to jot notes in their archaic notebooks had a company name in thin letters, “Genesis Division.” He tapped a finger on my cell phone and loaded his cell and work number and said, “If you come across this symbol again, I’d appreciate a phone call.”
He offered me a ride home, but I opted to walk. I hadn’t heard back from work yet, and seriously, I needed some time outside away from my thesis (which was going nowhere.) Something about work, about that hawk had pinged the largest conglomerate in the world and landed me without a job. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but it was the first time I need to use the word “conspiracy.” There weren’t many pieces to the puzzle yet, but I had a long walk ahead of me to figure it out.
My power went out again. The rolling black outs for low priority residents in the Free Republic persist and it doesn’t appear there is any end in sight. I wish I could afford a generator, but eating and paying for text books remain a priority. So for now, I’m holed up in a Phantasm Hub paying for electricity while watching people partake in their virtual reality fixation. I spend my days scanning newspapers and cataloging photographs to put history back together, and Genesis Division believes the answer to our problems exist in a make-believe universe. Mankind has issues.
Today at work my promotion went sideways. I was part of a Specialist team and while looking through a delivery from our Chicago acquisitions department, I stumbled upon a photograph of a man with black eyes. I couldn’t make out what the Child’s ability might be, perhaps the black eyes were the extent of it? When I submitted the entry, no alarms went off. When I went back and added the circular bird tattoo on his neck, the head of Data Entry had me called to his office. He commended me on my work and wished me well, but made it clear he wanted me to take the rest of the day off. They never “urge” us to take time off. Something about the man with black eyes and the tattoo triggered an internal alarm. When I returned to my office, the photograph was missing. Right now, I don’t know if I have a job or if this is their subtle way of terminating my position. I lasted a week.
The week of horrible doesn’t end there. I met with my thesis advisor and pitched my topic. I’m not even going to say what it was, the man simply said, “Derivative. He suggested I dig deeper, claiming that my topic is “surface level thinking.” I appreciate the candid feedback, but can I catch a break? So world, here I am, potentially unemployed, not-yet-graduated, and hanging out with people incapable of coping with reality. What’s next? I fully expect to go home this evening to find an eviction notice on my door. For now, back to brainstorming, maybe I can do research on the Phantasm and the necessity of escapism in a catastrophic society? Or maybe I can bang my head against this table. Till next time.