Compassion is a Warrior’s Trait

/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

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 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 flashing 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 trust 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 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.”

That’s when all hell broke loose.

The Veil is Lifted: The Underbelly of Society

/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

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. 

“Trust nobody.”

“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?”

“Union Station.”

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

Trust No One, Except Her

/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

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.

“About what?”

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. 

“But I…”

“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. 

Oh shit. It was her.

Hiding Amongst the Damned

/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

I can’t stop thinking I should go home. 

The sense of adventure vanished quickly. The first night I attempted to stay at a homeless shelter. Despite my clothes being freshly washed and looking well fed, I thought a shelter would be the fastest way to acclimate to my life on the run. In line with nearly a hundred folks much more in need than myself, I noted the woman admitting people had a device in her hand. Hand print scans are required to enter the shelter. 

I slept on the street.

A young woman in a shawl stopped and gave me the once over. I thought I was about to get mugged or at least wrestle over my backpack. I could almost smell jasmine on her. “It don’t matter who you’re running from, trust no one. You sleep with your back to a wall and ready to keep running.” She collected herself, pulling the makeshift blanket closer about her body and shuffling off to wherever she called home. Near an old abandoned building, I put my back to the wall and made note of every escape route. 

To say I slept is an over statement. I shivered. I cried. I tried to convince myself that I was doing the right thing. Doubt is my enemy, it encroaches on my survival. It nips at my heels and I can feel myself stumbling. I am Madison Walker. I have spent my entire life acting as I was told. For the first time, I am straying from the path, but I believe it’s the correct path. I do what I always do when I’m lost in a sea of uncertainties. I make lists.

Who do I know? I know Michael, but he’s out. I can’t talk to him without jeopardizing him. I know my father’s research assistant. She might be able to provide some missing detail I overlooked in his journals. I know…wait for it. Lists work. The Valentine of Chicago, arguably one of the most powerful people in the capitol. I have my who.

What do I need? I need somebody who can access the files on this hard drive without being detected. I need a master of computers. I need a hacker. How the hell do you find one of those? The moment I go into tech district, their drones are going to identify me. They say they’re not cataloging our retinas, but mine are already on file. I’ve heard there are underground Body Work shops, that’s kind of close right? I’m going from one illegal activity to the next. 

Where do I need to be? I need safe passage out of the city. I need to make it from Chicago to Boston. I can’t fly. I can’t rent a car. I can’t hitchhike without being picked up by the police. I could steal a car? How the hell does one steal a car? Their GPS systems would pinpoint me within minutes. An old car? Maybe a junkyard will give me an old car with no tech in it. I might have enough money for that. 

An hour before dawn I noticed a group of men approaching. There were another dozen homeless, tents made of cardboard and tarps. They didn’t point at the other people, they pointed at me. Had the woman given away the new person on the street? They tried to be nonchalant about it, but it was growing increasingly evident they wanted something I had. I was about to be mugged, robbed, and with my luck, stabbed.

Three of them, they spread out as the one in the middle approached. I was prepared. He ran. I pushed off the wall. My body slammed into his and he staggered out of the way. I’m not strong, nor am I fast. But I am desperate. When the second man reached for me, he missed, grabbing onto the strap of my backpack. My father would be proud. Heel to his instep. Elbow to the nose. I ran. They chased, but I’ll chalk it up to good nutrition. I was faster.

A woman cheered as I ran. I didn’t look back. I continued down the street to where the condemned buildings out numbered the inhabited. I only slowed as I crept through an alley between two buildings where they once housed the trashcans. I found the boards covering the basement windows were loose enough for me to pull them back. I slid my way inside the basement of an old house and scurried to the corner where bags of old clothes smelled of rot. I didn’t care. I was tired. I was scared. 

I needed to close my eyes. If only for a moment…

A Fugitive on the Fringes

/*/Entry Encrypted/*/

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 packed 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.

This is my life now.

Chicago’s Chronicle of Blood

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

The Outlands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of Chicago it was.

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

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

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

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

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

Nope, no refund.

In the Presence of Nostradamus

“Be seen, Madison Walker.”

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.

Outlands.

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? 

Outlands.

Digesting A Broken & Uncaring System

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. 

The worst part, it’s just another day in Chicago.

The Embrace of Nostradamus

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.

Thesis Approved / Running on Empty

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’ll make him proud.