I shouldn’t have complained about the walking. The pain in my feet had been annoying, but it was nothing compared to the agony of waiting. I continued touching the inhibitor, ensuring it hadn’t somehow slipped off. In a bunker underneath a farmhouse, it was impossible to tell the passage of time. Despite the clock giving away the minutes passing by, I believed it lied. As hours seemed to pass, only a quarter of an hour.
Lilith didn’t speak. For the casual onlooker, it’d almost appear as if she were meditating. She moved one crate to sit opposite of the door. There was enough firepower in the room to start a small war, but she hadn’t bothered looking at the containers. She might appear calm and collected, but her right hand held the knife, her knuckles occasionally turning white as she gripped the handle. To anybody else, she bided her time, but to me, she fought against anxiety. I didn’t like this version of Lilith.
I paced. Reading had been fruitless. Even going into the Phantasm to distract me instilled a fear I couldn’t react fast enough should I need to fight. The only thing worse than walking through a wasteland was walking the same twenty feet repeatedly. Death. Maybe that would be worse than waiting. I pushed the debate aside as I tried to focus on the positive.
The lights dimmed and returned red. I knelt down, pulling the blade from my ankle. The notion of Tracers had frightened Lilith. She stated they couldn’t infiltrate her mind. But me, I’m a liability. Would I know if a telepath was influencing my mind? Had I just grabbed the knife because somebody told me to? My heart raced, and I nearly yelped as I spun in circles, trying to decide if I was thinking clearly.
“If they’re efficient, you’ll never know they’re in your head.” Lilith had looked over her shoulder, watching my downward spiral. Her eyes followed my arm to the blade. I couldn’t tell if she approved or found it sad I was attempting to be like her.
“So, I shouldn’t worry?”
“You should worry. But there’s nothing you can do. There’s no point in dwelling on things outside your control.”
“Says the woman staring at a door.”
“If that door opens, then I’ll worry.” She lied. I didn’t out her deceit, but I it was obvious after traveling with her for days. Even Lilith’s facade of bravery had its limitations.
“I’m past worried. I’m trying not to have a heart attack.”
The lights flickered again. She held up her finger. “They’re on the property. The best you can do, sit down and breathe. Try to quiet your mind.”
If they were on the property, did that mean they had tracked us here? I wanted to believe that Lilith had attempted to lead them astray while hiding our footsteps. I put all my faith in this woman and I struggled to believe. With death lingering nearby, any assurances I had in her abilities as a runner vanished.
I sat down on a cot. Shoving the knife back into its sheath, I tried to quiet my frantic mind. I wanted to be transported to my happy place. For years that had been my father’s office, but with him gone… Even my apartment or work were now dangerous. There were so few places I could go without the fear of somebody hovering over my shoulder.
The Church of Nostradamus.
In Chicago, the cathedral had been purchased from the Catholic Church and converted. It maintained its history. Inside were stones carved with the passing of time and the rise and decline of a religion. The new owners wanted to preserve the history, and I found something about that endearing. The stained glass windows were massive and the colored light reaching the pews had captivated me on the days Visionary School attended.
I imagined myself strolling through the center aisle, fingers grazing each of the pews as I passed. The only thing that had changed was the altar. Religious artifact had been returned to the church. The symbols of the cross had been set aside and replaced with the symbol of a man kneeling. Each time I joined a thousand other parishioners for service, I wanted to believe sprinkled throughout church were Children. Was the lady with pink hair capable of flying? Or did the man in a business suit have the ability to lift a car? I’m sure we all wondered if they hid among us.
Sitting in the pews when there was no service was my favorite. The room was quiet enough you could almost hear the building breathe. My father would leave me in one of the first few pews as he met with the priest. In hindsight, they were probably talking about some secret matter he wanted to keep from me. But sitting there, I had time to stare at the giant pictures around the mezzanine and wonder where the artists got their inspiration.
The doors between the main gathering hall the lobby opened. The light pouring in from the outside made it impossible to make out the figures. Standing from the pew, I started walking backward, trying to imagine what could be happening. I tried opening my eyes, to find myself trapped. I couldn’t recall where I had been before, just that it was dark.
A man stepped forward, walking down aisle as he reached to a holster on his hip. I recognized the insignia, a Paladin. He was fit, rugged even, but the red light in his eyes gave away his ocular implants. He didn’t quite move like a normal person, almost jerky like the synthetics. Despite my fascination, I stepped backward as he attempted to close the distance.
Around his feet, two things moved about, bathed in ominous shadows. I thought of the Tracers, but how did I know that term? I couldn’t place my finger on it. When one of them reared up on their hind legs, I could see the chain from the Paladin’s waist swinging until it met the collar around the Tracer’s neck.
“This isn’t real,” I said. I wasn’t here. I knew that, but I couldn’t tell why. I touched my eyes, thinking perhaps I was wearing the goggles. Had I gone into the Phantasm? I had heard of people being unable to tell the difference between reality and virtual reality. I wanted to believe I was too smart for that to happen.
“Madison Walker.” The Paladin’s voice was deep. In the church, it echoed off the walls, making him sound as if he were forty feet tall. “You are accused of crimes against the Free Republic. Punishment is death.”
The Tracers jerked forward, pulling at their chains. I yelped, backing up. Weathered and bald, they foamed at the mouth. Their hands reached out, snarling as they clawed at the air. Smaller than an adult, I thought they might be children. Their eyes lacked any humanity. I couldn’t fathom what would make such a vile creature, but I didn’t want them to come close to me.
The Paladin dropped to one knee, yanking the chain. The Tracers didn’t seem concerned with him. They wanted me. He stroked the head of the one on the left, rubbing its skull as you would a dog. Then he reached for the collar. The clasp came off one and then the other.
I turned and ran. Moving down the aisle, I swerved left, moving through the narrow row of pews. I didn’t have any place I could go. There were doors near the altar, but if they were locked, those things would catch me. My heart beat rapidly, like at any moment it’d seize and stop working.
I reached the end of the row and spun right. The front of the church would have something, anything I could use to fight the Tracers. I had a moment to see one of them scurrying along the pews, jumping almost like a cat. The awkward way they ran, their chest low to the ground, made them even more frightful. They were like dogs. If they caught me, I didn’t think they’d stop and wait for the Paladin.
I reached the front and center stairs leading to the nave. I was going to keep running when one of the flags hanging with a metal pole caught my eye. Climbing the stairs two at a time, I jumped for the flag. Pulling it down, I slid the pole free and prepared for the Tracers. Having a weapon didn’t make me any more certain I’d survive. Even if I tackled these mutts, I still had a Paladin standing in the aisle, getting his jollies like a sadistic voyeur.
The first man-dog reached the stairs, slowing as it climbed the stairs on all fours. I was going to die in a Church of Nostradamus. Killed by creatures manufactured to hunt Children, the irony was not loss. For a moment, I glimpsed a woman standing in the aisle between me and the Paladin. Before I could call out for help, the Tracer lunged.
I poked with the curtain rod, hitting it in the chest. Drawing the pole back, I prepared to smash it over the thing’s head when I caught the other fiend trying to climb up the side of the nave. I bashed its head and then spun in time to be knocked to the ground. I held the pole at its neck, pushing it back as its jaws snapped. Drool splashed across my face.
Its teeth were crooked and discolored. It pulled back for a moment and then tried to lurch forward, gaining inches. Its hands pressed against my chest. The sunken eyes and emaciated cheeks were the least terrifying part. Its hands, placed just below my breasts, sank through the fabric, vanishing into my torso.
Beneath the surface of my skin, its fingers moved through my body. Slowly, it’s hand continued to sink until it reached the elbow. No matter how hard I pushed, I couldn’t stop it. Then its companion joined, standing by my head. There was no way to stop, no way to win against the two of them.
She stood on the stage. Tight braids made it easy to see the displeasure on her face. My heart raced, and I tried to call out for her help, but I couldn’t form words. The hand in my chest reached for my heart and steadily it slowed, then stopped. I was dying.
The woman shook her head, her mouth forming words. There was an eerie silence falling over the church as the room turned black.
The woman stood in front of me, kneeling, her hand resting on my face. She gave me another light jostle, and I backed away, pressed against the wall. I looked for the man-dogs, certain they were hiding in the shadows. I inspected the corners of the room and caught sight of the crate sitting in front of the door. Lilith had been guarding…
“Oh gods,” I tried not to cry, but it was inevitable, “it was horrible.”
Lilith put a hand on each side of my face and stood close, her eyes locking with mine. “You’re here with me. Focus on me. Listen to my voice, Madison. They’re not real.”
“It reached inside me—“
“They’re not real.” Stern, calm, forceful, Lilith tried to connect. The only thing I could see was the snarling face and the hand snaking its way through my chest cavity. “Think about the book. Think about the hard drive. Think about why we’re out here.”
“My—“ I froze as the words caught in my mouth. She shook me again. “My father.”
I leaned forward, my arms wrapped around her. I didn’t care if I violated her personal space. I needed to feel the warmth of another person, a real sane human being. Lilith wrapped her arms around me, squeezing me.
“They’re gone,” she said, “they’ve left. We’re safe.”
The moment the sun set, I found myself shivering. One would think walking one foot in front of the other wouldn’t be a tedious exercise. However, miles had passed, and the sun had assigned itself the role of killer. Even Lilith sweat. But unlike her, I didn’t do in a way that looked warrior-esque. My drenched body appeared more like a wet dog. How long could I blame her being a Child of Nostradamus for the grace in which she endured?
“Here,” she pointed to an empty farmhouse. We had passed dozens up to this point, each of them crumbling as weather beat against their roofs. Lilith had made this trek before, and I wondered if this was the place she stayed each time before.
“I’ll show you. Follow my exact footsteps.”
She pointed at her tracks as we ventured toward the building. I kept my feet within her prints. The grass had grown tall, but not so tall we couldn’t pass through. Instead, she required me to walk the long way around the farmhouse, until we reached the storm doors leading to the cellar. Like everything else in the wasteland, it speckled them with rust, under-used and barely holding themselves together.
“Doesn’t this violate your one point of egress rule?”
Lilith had many survival rules. Some she kept to herself, but I had started a list of the ones I observed. She kept her back to the wall, made sure she had the ability to see in every direction, and she always made sure there were multiple exits. At some point, I should compile the list. Always the academic, if it was in writing, I could study, memorize, and make use of the information.
Pulling at the doors, it surprised me they didn’t groan in response. We descended into the basement under the mammoth farm house. Lilith pushed at the rickety wooden door, and it opened into a compact room. I strained my eyes, trying to see into the shadows. Then, a red light shone brightly enough I had to squint.
“What the hell?”
The tiny room appeared vacant, except for the hand print authentication pad. Lilith pressed her fingers into the pad. The red light filled the space again, pausing for a moment over her eyes and then proceeding. From the outside, it looked as if the building might fall in upon itself, but whatever lay beyond this door was at least a century newer.
“I told you I had a plan.”
“What is this?”
Hissing filled the air, gears and locks spun, and the far wall opened. I hadn’t even noticed the seams. First sliding back and then to the side, lights flickered to life inside the space under the farm house. Lilith walked in. I shouldn’t be surprised, littered amongst the many secrets, this was just another part of being a rogue Child of Nostradamus.
“We have supply bunkers throughout the area. Most have been deserted for years, but we keep them stocked for just this reason.”
“But no cars?”
“Easier to track a moving vehicle. I don’t particularly care for the trek, but this should at least make it easier for us.”
Lilith ushered me in and then went for the door. “Only runners can open the door. I will go cover our tracks. Give me a couple hours to put a decoy trail in place and I’ll be back. You’ll get an alert, if anybody other than me is standing at that door when it opens, kill them.”
“With my bare hands?”
“Plasma rifles are in the trunk over there.”
It wasn’t the fact we were hiding in a room stockpiled with weapons. No, I expected that from Lilith, but the manner in which she said it. The tone of her voice would be how I’d mention there was an extra beer in the fridge for a guest. Sure, just help yourself to a weapon that can obliterate a human. Would you like a coaster with that?
The door sealed in place. Not locked, but sealed. The seams around the edges vanished, and it was no different than if it were part of the wall. I ran my hand along the surface, nothing. I had never seen technology like this before. Did the Children in Troy have access to equipment light years beyond the rest of society? If that were the case, I can understand why they stood as a nation amongst themselves.
The room stretched the length of the farm house. One wall held massive industrial sheds with military looking footlockers while the other had cots and tables. I flipped open the first trunk, expecting to find hi-tech weapons, but inside housed rows of cans and plastic packaged meals. Further down were large tanks of half-filled water. There were changes of clothes, jackets ranging from spring to winter and even a section filled with lightly used shoes.
The first section held rational supplies, things any person journeying on foot might need. But after that, in a gap between the shelves, pins on the wall held a variety of knives. I had a sneaking suspicion this is where the weapons started to appear. Peaking into the first footlocker, rows of hand guns sat next to multiple boxes of ammunition. The next held bigger guns, I’m not even sure what to call them. The last box was nothing but grenades.
“What have I gotten myself into?”
Going through them again, I noticed there were rations missing, and the water tanks had been depleted. People had been here since the restock, but the weapons had gone untouched. Did Children rely solely on their own abilities, or were runners less likely to take supplies that might weigh them down? I decided a handgun was as powerful as I could manage.
I took a magazine from the box, a handful of bullets and one of the guns. It took a moment to figure out logically which direction the bullets should go into the magazine. Then only a few more minutes before I got it in the gun. I knew there was another action, something that I needed to do to prep the round. Pulling back the top part, a bullet loaded into the bullet hole.
Mental note, research guns.
Once I was ready to lose a gunfight, it came down to a change of clothes. A shower in the back corner only had a few minutes of water, but it was enough to wash away the soot and grime of the day. More than that, I hoped the shower served its original purpose and washed away the radioactive particles. The media had ensured that the wasteland was deadly to humans. I prayed that Lilith had thought about that before we ventured across the border.
Nourishment. I tore open the plastic of one meal and found inside all the ingredients for a meal. A small tin can with matches suggested I should heat it, but I didn’t dare start a fire in a room I couldn’t escape. I dined on cold meat sludge. It tasted disgusting. I had never experienced a tepid ice cream before. Truth be told, I hardly remembered what it tasted like at all. But as I chomped away the first bite, memories of my childhood came back to me. Father enjoyed his secret treats and now and then, he’d bring one back for me to greedily slurp down. I finished the first pack and decided if this was my only meal for a while, I wouldn’t hesitate on a second.
As I fished around, there were bags of dried vegetables and cans with pictures of animals on it. I didn’t dare check the dates. Had they been there for long? Were they meant to last forever? If they were, what chemicals could they have possibly pumped into the food?
“Finally,” I pulled out bags of sealed hygiene products. Remember when I said tampons were a godsend? A woman must have stocked this safe house. There were soaps and washes, and I almost wished I had found them before showering. I stole a handful of each, shoving them into my bag. I added a few plastic bags of meals and even if we didn’t find another place to rest, I’d be prepared.
Before settling in, I stopped at the knives. Lilith had assured me she’d train me to fight, or at least to be less useless. It only reasoned that I should have something to train with. In a wild land, I imagined military weapons, guns, rockets, maybe some lasers. But so far, her knife had been the most useful tool in her arsenal. I scanned them, looking for something similar. None had the atom thin edge, but several were close. Pulling it from the peg, I inspected the blade, aware of the weight. I didn’t know an excellent knife from a bad one, but the handle fit comfortably in my hand. I slid the holster into my boot and carefully hid the blade.
Sitting on a cot on the far wall, I rummaged through the bottom of my bag, pulling out Pill-R’s data pad. I flipped it and started rummaging through the files. After being a Child of Nostradamus in the phantasm, this two-dimensional searching lacked the same sense of wonder. I reached into the bag and pulled out the goggles, wondering if there was a way to access the data in virtual reality.
“It’s worth a shot.”
I slid them over my eyes. Either because of the basement walls or maybe some hidden security, there was no connection to the outside world. Poking in the air, I navigated the menu until I found an available source of data. I didn’t know if they were compatible. Typically this method accessed downloaded simulations, but it was worth a try. A hacker, I am not.
The goggles attempted to establish a connection. Three dots appeared, the color slowly changing from red to black. It took a moment, but all three blinked green. I disconnected the audio and made sure the pistol was within reach. From here, I could jack into a remote version of the Phantasm and still have access to my senses.
The lobby appeared as a circular room. Transparent screens hung in the air, spinning slowly about, putting files on display. From here I could conjure a variety of small locally stored scenarios, but sitting in an old study with a fire burning as I sorted files felt overkill. There were thousands upon thousands of files. The file structure made little sense. Either the goggles or the creators had been sloppy. I reached out, touching the transparent windows. Newspapers, videos, and photographs filled the screens. Dates, timestamps, the data reconstructionist who cataloged the information was available on every article.
I laughed when I came across one of my own. “Actor Becomes Governor of California.” I laughed at the trivial nature of the information I first recorded when I joined the agency. They gave me trash tabloids, rag magazines, and copious amounts of information unworthy for consumption, and certainly not worthy of recording a second time. But I did my job, and I did it well.
“Children of Nostradamus.”
The three dots appeared, hovering in the air as the goggles synched with the data pad. I didn’t know how much information was on the device. How much fit had surprised even Pill-R.
All the screens blinked at once. There were still thousands of files, but the ones closest to me contained photographs. I knew the Children of Nostradamus were impressive, but I hadn’t been prepared for this.
“Amazing,” I whispered.
There were photographs of city officials shaking hands with Children and even members of the church listening intently as a Child provided a sermon. Somewhere between the rise of powered people and today, they lost their luster. But housed in these files were bits of information that explained why they had become like deities to modern man.
As I spun through the screens, I’d freeze to admire a photograph. There was only one image I wanted to uncover. The hawk, a circular bird nearly biting its tail. I brushed away all the screens when I saw it appear on the far wall of the lobby. Grabbing at the air and pulling it toward me, the single file filled my screen.
Something about this band of Children captivated my attention. They had spawned the inspiration for this journey and now I owed it to the historian in me to learn all I could. Tapping the screen, it opened. Inside were the entries of Sean Carlson, artwork commissioned to show the emotion and power behind each of this group’s members.
I scrolled through the images until I saw the man with his lightning. Bald and without eyebrows, he appeared almost inhuman. He wielded lightning as if it was part of nature. I tapped the screen, recalling the destructive way he tackled the synthetics in the simulation. On some level, I envied the man, the confident way he thrust himself into danger. I needed to know more.
I opened his file and delved into the history of the Nighthawks…
One hundred and forty miles. I couldn’t fathom walking that distance. But staring at the sign for Route 20, I knew I had to keep moving. Lilith estimated it’d take five days, four if we pushed ourselves. I didn’t want to speak up, but I think she overestimated my abilities. In Chicago, I considered walking more than a few blocks, a perilous journey. I never thought I’d reach a day where I missed public transportation. What I wouldn’t give for the L right now.
The day seemed to go on forever.
Walking along the road might have been tedious on its own, but without clouds in the sky, the pounding of the sun became relentless. By lunch I had soaked through my shirt. Lilith forced me to drink from my canteen despite the water tasting like dirt. When we stopped to break, I discovered we were nearly out of food. Five days with nothing but two packs of beef jerky and a package of crackers.
“Eat,” Lilith commanded.
“What about you?” She took a package of jerky and devoured a piece. She handed me the plastic wrapper. Here I was concerned about rationing, and she made it seem as if my rucksack had a pouch concealing lasagna. I really wanted lasagna.
“Eat,” she said again. “I’ll make sure we restock when we stop tonight.”
“Because you can make food magically appear.”
Lilith’s smile was one part cocky and one part confidence. I had no idea what she had in mind. As we sat in the shade of the gas station canopy, I realized this wasn’t her first time making this trek. While I appreciated a spirit guide in the Outlands, I continued to find her secretive streak somewhat annoying.
I chomped down on the rest of the package. While normally I would be thrilled to enjoy the salty taste of dried meat bathed in teriyaki, the fact it was the salt helping me retain water diminished the enjoyment. Why did I even know about salt and water and the human body? My degree in history steadily became more useless as we ventured into the wilds beyond the fence.
“Are you ready to go?”
If it hadn’t been for me, I think Lilith would have continued without stopping. While she continued to put up with dead weight, I grew increasingly agitated with my inability to contribute to this duo. I stood and dropped the rucksack. It was time I found a way to be less than helpless.
“Show me how to fight.”
“We don’t have time for that,” Lilith said getting to her feet.
“I didn’t ask. I’m tired of feeling useless.”
I had a flash back to the Phantasm the night before. In the course of a single night, I learned to shoot a rifle and how to destroy synthetics and even take on a mech. Granted, I didn’t have metallic skin, but I had to start somewhere.
I shoved Lilith. She rolled her eyes as she held up her hands. Considering I had seen her go toe-to-toe with enforcers, I knew at any moment she could hurl me against one of the gas meters. She walked away, I grew more and more angry. I might not have super human strength or the ability to generate shields, but I wasn’t completely helpless.
I stomped toward her and froze as she spun about, her hand balled into a fist. I leaned out of reach. Lilith raised her other hand, as if she prepared for a boxing match. I had taken unarmed self defense during my undergrad. Being a black woman in Chicago meant being ready for the unpredictable. The man who taught the class had never prepared me to square off against a Child of Nostradamus.
“You will get bruised,” she said.
“I was thinking more—“
She jabbed. I pushed her hand out wide. Lilith didn’t follow it up with her other fist. I blocked one, but I left myself open. She could easily have clocked me square in the face. As the humor drained from her face, I raised both fists. This was going to hurt.
I kept my mouth shut. “You’re looking at my hands. Stop. Focus on my legs. Look at the heel and ball of my foot. If you know where I’m going to move my body, you’ll be able to predict what is happening with my fists.”
Lilith punched me in the shoulder. Even restraining herself, the jab hurt.
“You said look at your feet.”
“Did I? Look at my hands too.”
I kept my fists up, but made sure I could see her feet. She lifted her rear heel, putting weight on the ball of her foot. There was only one way she could move forward. Feigning with her hand, I prepared to slap her fist away. Her knee came up, and I rocked back, while getting my hand ready to stop her from kicking.
Lilith stepped in close enough to punch. She lunged with the hand closest to me. Even if she hit, it wouldn’t be nearly as powerful as her rear fist. Putting her weight into it, the back fist came forward. I blocked it with my forearm, and stepped in close, jabbing her in the torso. The woman took the blow. I hadn’t seen it, but she knew where I’d strike. Wrapping her arm about mine, she had control of my upper body.
“Then I’d drive my fingers into your throat and we’d be done.”
Lilith raised her arm, the pressure threatening to pop my shoulder out of joint. I refused to let her see me wince. In self defense, the most important lesson had been to resist at all costs. Once you gave up, they won, and often in the dark alleys of Chicago, that could mean death. I’d apologize when she cursed at me later.
I kicked, my shin slamming into Lilith’s side. Startled, she let go of my arm. I knew she was taking it easy on me. But taking it easy meant I had an advantage. I pulled her arm, bring her in close and smacked my forehead against her face. I didn’t quite hit her nose, but it gave me enough slack to step back from her. Raising my fists again, I readied for another bout with the woman.
“Christ,” she swore, “if you broke my nose I’m going to be pissed.”
Without so much as a warning, she put all her weight on one foot. The other came flying at my face. I tried to block, but there was no stopping the blow. I nearly squealed out loud as her toe touched my nose. With hardly any pressure, she held the position. Lilith wanted me to know she could have easily dispatched me and there was nothing I could do to stop her.
When she dropped her foot, she grabbed my rucksack and threw it at me. I caught it and feared the woman was mad, upset that I had taken a cheap blow. Putting on the bag, we silently ventured from under the gas station canopy. I might not have won a fight with Lilith, but at least I had landed a blow. I blocked her fist a couple times. For a first round against a Child of Nostradamus, I felt proud.
After the first fifteen minutes, I couldn’t bear the silence any longer. “Sorry about your face.”
Lilith froze. She turned around, and I thought she was going to slap me across the face. She pointed, her finger driving into my chest. “In a fight, there is only one thing to remember.”
“Don’t give up?” Had she taken the same class? Was it a universal piece of advice when learning to kick butt.
“No,” she leaned in close. “Win.”
“Isn’t that obvious?”
“No.” She said poking me hard in the sternum. “There are no rules. When you fight, you win. You fight to put the other person down at all costs. You take cheap shots. You cheat. You do whatever you must. But at all costs, you win.”
Our friendly competition delved into a darker tone. I hadn’t thought about killing Lilith. But perhaps that was the missing ingredient. Is that why she treated me with kid gloves? Had I not reached a place where I understood, it’s me or them?
“What just happened was child’s play. You want to learn how to defend yourself?”
I nodded again.
“Do you really? Can you make the tough decisions?”
I hesitated. Without saying it, Lilith wanted to know if I’d be willing to kill. I wouldn’t go out of my way to hurt another person. But if it came down to killing or being killed. I thought about it for a moment, and I didn’t have an answer for her. Watching the light in somebody’s eyes simply vanish, I shrugged.
“I don’t know.”
“When you know for certain, then I’ll teach you.”
We had another six hours of walking ahead of us until we made camp. As Lilith turned around, weaving her way between abandoned cars, I knew time would move quickly. In the back of my head I had to sort through a mix of emotions. What was I doing here? Could I become part of this world? Would I lose myself to the Outlands?
I didn’t say it out loud, but I suddenly felt as if I was playing a game. Those around me were suffering consequences while I stayed safe inside my little bubble. Lilith assumed the brunt, protecting me from the dangerous things that continued beating against us day after day. Would I let Lilith die for me?
“Yes,” I shouted.
Lilith turned around. Without a word, she nodded.
I didn’t know what I agreed to, what demons I might have to face. But I couldn’t let her assume responsibility on my behalf. Imagining myself beating somebody to a pulp, I clenched my fist. I hope it never came to that, but this wasn’t Chicago. I had transitioned into a ruthless world, and I had to play by their rules.
Had I just signed away a piece of my soul?
It no longer felt like a game of cat and mouse. I would find my father, I would discover what happened with the Isolation. And somewhere, buried in the hard drive in my rucksack, I’d unlock the secrets to the Corruption.
Tampons. I know historians reading this journal will think, “Why does she feel the need to discuss hygiene products?” But let’s be honest, nobody discusses the minutia when on the run. The shower worked, even if the water ran a delightful red color from the rust. But the real score had been tampons. Going on the run might be fighting for survival from killer robots or breaking into uncharted lands, but the actual struggles are in the details.
At no point in my brilliant plan did I think I’d be standing naked in the bathroom, trying to figure out how to clog the sink so I could wash my underwear and bra. I considered it a victory that I washed my hair, but at the rate we were going, my afro would be start getting twisted and turn to dreadlocks before this adventure had ended.
I found myself lucky to see the woman of the house had a full-stocked closet. The fashion wasn’t my taste, but let’s discuss my excitement to find out she must have been a woman insistent on working out. Here I am combing through a woman’s underwear drawer, delighted to find a bra that can manage my chest. Right now, I had to focus on the victories or I might lose my mind. Band t-shirt, sure, pair of musty leggings, I’ll take them. Hell, even century old sneakers were looking good at this point.
When in a wasteland, it’s the minor things that matter. Tampons and bras. It might as well have been my birthday.
Lilith insisted I remain on the ground floor in case we had to run. She refused to let me be one of those women who found themselves trapped upstairs as a killer stalked their prey. I had pulled the cushions off the couch onto the floor. I got comfortable as I pulled the goggles from my backpack.
The moment I tapped the side of the goggles, they did their thing and the real world grew distant. I stood in a room filled with floating menus. I hadn’t expected to be put into the menu selection room. Each time I had used the Phantasm before, it thrust me into a virtual world of its choosing. I wondered if the person behind those screens had vanished.
Each set of goggles came loaded with a custom set of experiences. The more expensive goggles had the ability to contact the server and pull from thousands of experiences. For a headset like this, there should be a couple dozen generic screens to choose from. It impressed me to find there were more than a hundred rotating on the screens.
Right now, I wanted something to distract me. While the Phantasm had the ability to put you somewhere peaceful, new locations a world away, it also came equipped with plenty of games for patrons to play. Right now, I wanted to be the one in charge, the powerful one. Scrolling through the game, I found a simulation of the Corps in battle. I figured why not learn how to fire a gun while saving the day? With a tap of the screen, the room fell alway.
Madison Walker, leader of a Corps special ops unit. The gun materialized in my hands, a standard issue pulse rifle. I reached down to my belt to find various grenades and additional clips of ammunition. My avatar had ocular enhancements, giving me readouts of the enemy in the distance. The scene looked very much like a war zone, buildings collapsing all around us. I couldn’t identify any of them, but I had a suspicion this was one a city within the Outlands.
“You need to stop them from acquiring central processing. It could be the last uncorrupted data storage unit in the world.”
I patted my chest, surprised I wasn’t wearing a standard issue uniform. More than that, my lower arms were encased in large metal bracelets. I found it surprising that in a generic simulation, I was anything but generic. After my last jaunt into the Phantasm, I had a suspicion that something about this was unusual.
“I’m on it.”
I charged through the street of broken rubble. The map in my left eye had a path laid out, taking me down the street. Once I reached the intersection, I found myself behind two synthetics with weapons in hand. This is what I wanted. Blowing apart metal robots was the experience I wanted.
I inspected the weapon in my hand. The implant displayed the weapon, standard issue, explosive rounds, short rapid bursts. I had never used a gun like this before, but I looked forward to learning how to wield the weapon.
I raised the gun, bracing it against my shoulder. The simulation helped course correct, making sure I tucked it tight and leaning my head in for me. The program’s suggestions almost felt like a somebody stood behind me, correcting my bad posture. Ocular enhancements locked in on the synthetics, displaying their model numbers and showing me the weapons at their disposal. I always believed the robots had a lengthy list of supplies, lasers, cannons, and who knows what else. The fact they only had guns, shoulder mounted lasers and forearm weapons struck me as odd.
I eased my finger back on the trigger. Three shots fired. The first struck the robot in the shoulder, tearing away the metal. The second struck its neck, obliterating the structure holding its head. My last shot flew off, missing the mark. The weapon shook my entire body.
Its companion turned, lifting its gun. I pulled the trigger again, trying to beat it to the punch. All three shots struck its torso. Tiny explosions erupted as the bullets penetrated the metal, striking the power core. The ocular enhancement marked them both off with x’s, letting me know I had defeated them.
Something slammed into my back, throwing me against a smashed car. I hit the passenger door, surprised that the Phantasm tapped into the pain receptors. It hurt. Not as much as if it really happened, but enough that I knew there were consequences in this virtual space.
Metal scraped against the pavement, and I knew another one of the synthetics had snuck up behind me. I rolled over, raising the gun and firing before my enhancements locked on. Two synthetics, and my spray and pray only landed a shot on one of their arms. Three arms from synthetics were just as terrifying as four.
“We’re taking heavy fire. Be careful out there.”
“I’m almost there,” I shouted.
I steadied my weapon, holding my breath as I eased my finger over the trigger. Three bursts, then three more. They were only twenty feet away and I couldn’t land a shot without the air of my enhancement. Slow to lock on, I finally acquired the target. Pressing down on the trigger again, no vibration, no triple bursts.
“Dammit,” I said. I threw the gun to the side, inspecting my belt. I pulled one grenade. Pulled the pin, threw and prayed.
The grenade hit the ground just in front of the machines. I ducked down, plugging my ears as the asphalt erupted in a shower of rock. The two machines were scattered along the road. One continued crawling, dragging itself by its remaining arm. It wasn’t going to do any harm in its current state.
I pulled the pistol from my shoulder holster and continued running down the street. I had nine bullets, explosive rounds. It wasn’t much, but I hoped it’d be enough. I wondered if the simulation pulled the idea of the data storage from my mind, using that as the end game as it had been on my mind for days.
“You’re the closest to the target.”
“I’m on it.”
Synthetics crawled from behind cars, hiding, waiting for their prey. I ran close, skidding to a stop to raise my gun. Three shots and I downed another synthetic. If they had linked me to other people, if I’d have more members of the Corp with me or if there’d be more enemies. I could see a band of teenagers cleaning up in this simulation.
Riffle in hand, I gunned down three more synthetics before I reached the next intersection. I had a single bullet remaining and between me and the building containing the rally flag sat a large mech. I wasn’t military, and even I knew that a single bullet would do nothing to slow the machine.
Sitting on inverted legs, its arms were replaced with enormous guns with multiple barrels. It already detected me, pivoting to fire. I panicked, looking for cover to regroup and consider which grenade might do the most damage.
My arms were on fire, and I wanted to pull off the bracelets to itch at the skin. Seemless, neither bond had the ability to be pulled off. The skin underneath burned, and the pain reached my brain as if it were really happening. I tried to summon the exit menu to escape, but the goggles refused to initiate the termination protocols.
The mech’s guns spun, and at any moment, it’d begin firing. If I could feel the burning on my arm, I feared that I’d be capable of feeling the bullets as they tore through my flesh.
The pain spread along my skin, and I fell to my knees screaming. It consumed my entire body. My skin felt as if it were rippling, growing faster than my body could handle. I buckled over, too heavy to even stay upright on my knees. My limbs were sluggish, unable to move. My entire body felt like it were encased in concrete and I struggled to fight free.
The mech fired. The bullets spit up bits of road, growing closer and closer. I closed my eyes, prepared to scream. The bullets struck my shoulder, and the top of my head. I expected pain to scream as I found myself slaughtered in the simulation.
The bullets ricocheted off my body, striking a nearby car. They were no different from somebody poking me with their pointer finger. The bullets were a mild inconvenience, almost void of any pain. However, inside my body, I could feel something moving, growing. The weight of my limbs eased, and I found myself able to stand.
“What the hell?”
The bullets struck my chest, and I watched as the uniform tore apart. Had the simulation initiated some sort of safe mode? I jumped as two synthetics jumped from a nearby window. They struck the ground, not missing a beat as they powered toward me.
I couldn’t explain the sensation. Somewhere in the simulation, it provided me a sense of confidence, an almost uncanny power. I leaned forward and charged toward the two machines. The mech halted firing, waiting for its tiny breathren to terminate me.
They fired. The bullets did nothing. I grabbed the first one by the arm, spinning around, whipping it into its companion. The machines flew through the air as if they were rag dolls. Slamming into the building, they regrouped. The lasers on their shoulders flipped into action. Red beams struck my chest, and I hissed out loud. It didn’t hurt as much as it stung.
“I’m invulnerable.” I assumed the easy mode had been enacted. For those not capable of playing the game, it allowed them the ability to storm through the streets without consequence.
“Incoming,” a voice barked in my ear.
The light nearly blinded me. Something beat against the building behind the robots, breaking enormous chunks of concrete free. It was like watching lightning strike. It pounded against the building until rubble fell below, crushing the two synthetics. I looked for the source, still squinting.
“I’m tapped,” said the man, “it’s up to you.”
Steam rose off a shirtless man. Glancing back at the building, I expected him to have some sort of large weapon strapped to his shoulder. I stared, trying to make sense of what was happening. Then it dawned on me. He didn’t need a weapon.
He was the weapon.
I raised my hands, suddenly aware of why the pain had been distant at the start of the simulation. I wasn’t a member of the Corps, my avatar was a Child of Nostradamus. Naturally strong, I assumed the role of my avatar.
I had read the file. I knew the woman, the member of the Corps, with the ability to make her skin so dense she couldn’t be hurt. This wasn’t a random gaming simulation, I was reliving a piece of history. I owned the body of the legendary Child who worked for the government.
“Holy shit,” I said.
“It’s up to you,” he shouted.
I turned to the large mech, aware that there was nothing stopping me from reaching my goal. I ran into danger. The mech continued firing, the bullets doing nothing to slow my approach. As I reached it, I thrust my arms out, striking the leg. The mech stumbled backward, trying to get its footing. I no longer fought with human strength, I had been granted the limitations of a Child.
I reached for the foot and lifted. The mech was heavy, forcing a growl from my lips as I pulled up. It tried to shake me, but my fingers pressed into the metal, refusing to let go. It groaned as it lost its balance, falling onto its back.
I stepped between its flailing legs, reaching the undercarriage. Punching at the metal, it dented, then tore open. I peeled back its skin as if it were a ripped sheet of paper. Reaching in, I started pulling at its interior. Wires broke, and fluid sprayed across my face. With one last thrust, I disconnected something important, and the robot stopped moving.
“You’re almost there,” said the voice.
I climbed on top of the machine, turning around to see the man joined by two smaller women. I jumped down and ran into the building. The lone synthetic at the door tried to punch me in the face. I let it. Almost nothing, no pain, no reaction.
I grabbed it by the neck and chest. Stretching my arms apart, the synthetic tried to jab at me and then reach for its weapon. Its head pulled loose, flying onto the tile. The husk stopped moving, dead. I threw it toward the door and waited for my enhancement to tell me where to go.
A red flag blinked into existence, standing in the middle of the room. I sauntered closer, almost hoping there were more synthetics to tear apart. I took the flag, raising it high into the air.
The game melted away, and I stood inside the Phantasm lobby. I inspected my hands, hoping I had the bracelets gripping my arms. Only my hands remained. I had stepped out of the Child’s avatar and returned to my own.
The Outlands were no different than the Free Republic. I don’t know why, but I imagined that the barrier separating them would mark the change in foliage, roads, or something. But here we were, inspecting cars, looking for something that might still have enough juice to go.
“We’re not going to find a solar car on this side,” I said. “The barrier went up before they built the photocells into the frame. We might find one that uses electricity, but I can’t imagine that the batteries last for hundreds of years.”
She slammed the car door shut, irritated. We had gone for almost miles with little more than a whisper. She had reverted to her silent self, wallowing in her own thoughts. I spent the time practicing my walking, seeing how quietly I could make my shoes touch the ground. I had gotten good at it, or at least I thought.
“This will be a long walk.”
“Is there any way to reach the people in Troy?”
“Telepathy isn’t welcome amongst the Children.”
She had a point. “Have you ever asked why? I mean, telepathy is kind of a supernatural gift, the same goes for people who can move stuff with their minds.”
“Right. So they can do stuff with their minds. It’s not so different. I would think you’d—“
“Invite them? No. Mentalists and Children do not associate.”
“You’re the historian, you know all about the Battle for Chicago. Who was that between?”
“Children and the President.”
“Who was…” She paused, raising her eyebrow. I honestly didn’t know where she was going with the statement. The President had waged war against the Free Republic while the military had attempted to stage a coup. The general of the Corps himself attempted to murder the President. A great civil war devided the country, with the battles raging in the Midwest. The tide turned in Chicago.
“I don’t know what you’re getting at.” The historian in me grew aggravated that she poked holes in my knowledge.
“President Jacob Griffin killed Cecilia Joyce to wrestle the presidency from her. Jacob Griffin only held on to the position because he,” she waved her arms, attempting to guide me to the conclusion.
“Was a mentalist?” I laughed. “No. There’s no way the government could cover up something that massive.”
Lilith continued walking, letting me dwell on the information. Could she be right? President Griffin, could he have been a mentalist? I tried to recall every text book I had ever read. There were gaps, sure. The victor writes the history, but in this case, the Free Republic had won. Why would they have skirted around such an important fact?
“It can’t be.”
I chased after Lilith, struggling to keep up while I lost myself in a world of lies. The text books had been written post Corruption. Had the computer virus been a way to bury the truth? If that was a lie, what else had been false? I understood why my father journeyed into the unknown. On one side of the fence we deemed one set of facts true, could the missing parts of the puzzle be here.
“If the President was a mentalist, then…”
“President Griffin stole the presidency. This is where youwill lose your shit. He was the head of the largest corporation in the world. Him and a small cabal of mentalist.”
“Genesis Division? No.”
“Yes. Mentalists have been around for hundreds of years. Long before Children appeared, they were manipulating the world from behind the scenes. It was the Nighthawks who finally put an end to the madman.”
We walked along the road in silence. It felt like minutes, but I’m sure we had walked miles before my brain attempted to digest the magnitude of this. What alarmed me most was that the history we accepted as fact was rather one-sided. Did Troy hold more answers? Did they keep records that preceded the Corruption? I had so many questions it was difficult to find a starting point.
“A corporate mentalist attempted to seize the power of the entire government? Is that everything?”
“He was being controlled by a disembodied mentalist from Russia who wanted to watch the world burn. But, a mentalist is a mentalist.”
What? I had to stop walking to let that one sink in. “Can you stop saying these things as if they’re no big deal? I get it, you’re part of some inner circle who knows the hidden truths of the universe. But really? One mentalist living in another mentalist? Russian conspiracy? Next you’ll say Nostradamus himself got involved.”
“Not Nostradamus, his daughter however, she had her hand in it all.”
Valentine. She held the title, Daughter of Nostradamus. We learned about her in visionary school, but I wondered if everything we learned was also lies. My entire life, all the years of schooling had been shattered in a five-mile walk. Did Lilith take some sadistic pleasure in stabbing me in the proverbial heart? I had to wonder.
“Start at the beginning.”
She glanced over her shoulder at me. “Are you sure? This will contradict so much of what you know. I—“
“Tell me. My life has been pursuing knowledge. I’m here because of the secrets my father chased. The more I know, the better equipped I’ll be.”
She started. From the Nostradamus Effect, she delved into Eleanor’s role with the President and a failed assassination attempt. She explained about a mentalist researcher rising to power. The Culling, the nuclear explosions. It went contrary too much of the texts I read. I noticed as she talked about the Battle for Chicago, she mentioned a group of Children, but she refrained from explaining why the group had gotten involved.
Lilith nodded. “Eleanor Valentine manipulated the future. She believed that they were the only way to stop a disembodied Ivan Volkov.”
“Who were they?”
“We refer to them as the Founders in Troy. They were nobodies before Eleanor brought them together. She changed the course of destiny. Putting them together, she created the best plausible outcome.”
“It sounds like she wasn’t one of the mentalist you’re fond of hating.”
“She robbed them of free will. Her actions forced them into the situation. I’m not sure about you, but being controlled by some dead woman isn’t my idea of fun.”
“If you’re against mentalists, why do you help the Valentine?”
Lilith gave me a smile. “You’ve finally asked the important question.”
The landscape had gone from rural grasses to sparse houses. Once upon a time, it might have been a remote location to raise your family. The houses were spread out, massive yards and plenty of enormous trees to support swings. I had always lived within the city of Chicago, but part of me wanted something like this. Distance, space, and the ability to breathe without bumping shoulders with neighbors.
We reached an intersection with a faded white sign. The massive letters that would have welcomed us to this town or directed us to the next city had long since warn off. Now, it appeared as if our only destination was a patch of rust.
“Wewill be approaching Syracuse soon. It’s the only big city between us and Troy. We should camp out now.”
“I thought you were worried about being followed?”
“I am. But I wouldn’t attack here. I’d wait until the city served as a backdrop. We do not want to be trapped in the city at night.”
I supposed the good thing about being followed by a potential killer, I had one with me to delve into their psyche. How many times had Lilith been the one doing the tailing, waiting in the city for unsuspecting victims.
“You never answered my question.”
“Why do I help the Valentine?”
Lilith pointed at a nearby house. She walked along the stone walkway until we reached the porch. Scanning the surrounding area, I had to assume she was making sure we had a strong vantage point for anybody who dared follow us. If we were being tailed, could Lilith take them? Were they like Lilith? I believed she knew who followed us, or at least that she had a clue.
“The Valentine raised me to infiltrate Troy. I was to be their spy and give them insight into the Children they worshipped. What would it do to their religion to find out the Gods they beseech had turned their backs on them?”
“You’re double crossing them.”
“I suppose I am.”
“Then why help me?”
“Troy wants you.”
My head spun. Why did the largest settlement of Children want me? It dawned on me that perhaps it wasn’t me they wanted, but the data I kept in my backpack. But how did they know I’d take it? The mystery continued to deepen, and I spiraled down a rabbit hole of theories.
“We’ll camp here tonight.”
I stood on the porch while Lilith went inside. Storm clouds had rolled in from the north, threatening to bring a torrential downpour. The strip of darkness in the sky appeared far more ominous than they should. I knew I projected my own insecurities, but I could feel the storm coming.
The closest house across the street had wooden shudders that had long since withered and fallen into the tall grass. This part of the world seemed desaturated, as if a painter had removed the rich tones from their palette. Nobody had lived here for decades, but the buildings resisted crumbling to the ground. It was a testament to their architects or the stubbornness of the builders.
Lightning flashed in the clouds and a low rumble erupted all around. The rain fell in the distance, and at any time it’d be upon us. Would this make it more difficult for Lilith to detect the person following us? Or did it mean they’d take refuge from the rain and wait out the storm?
I needed a break, from the traveling, from the walking, from the deconstructing of everything I knew to be true. If she didn’t put me to work, I’d be able to escape into the Phantasm before calling it a night.
I pulled off my backpack, fishing around for my canteen. Holding it above my mouth, the last bit of water wet my tongue. I hoped the house had plumbing, or at least water pipes that hadn’t fallen apart from disuse. It’d be fantastic to take a shower, wash my clothes, or hell, just wet my hair and pull at the knots.
First, I attempt to make myself feel human again. Then, I return to the Phantasm to see what new secrets my digital companion wanted to hurl in my direction.
Secrets begot secrets, and truth had shone a light on the lies of my youth. This was my life. It wasn’t much, but it was mine.
The fence stood forty feet tall, towering along the landscape, dividing here from there. I don’t know what I expected to find, but with wires tightly drawn between mammoth pylons, this was not it. I expected solid cement with armed guards roaming along the ground. For a barrier that kept mankind from entering the Outlands, it was less than impressive.
“I expected, more.”
Lilith leaned against the RV, eyeing the fence that made me think there must be something I wasn’t seeing. For the woman to hesitate, there must be synthetics in hiding or perhaps guards in underground bunkers waiting to surprise us. The bold Lilith I had grown accustomed to was almost docile. I never thought I’d miss her aggressive nature.
“They don’t need more. The wall doesn’t intend to keep people out. It’s more of a warning, a strong suggestion that going on the other side could mean the death of you.”
“So, of course, we’re going.”
“You haven’t backed out yet.” I raised my eyebrow at the comment. Had Lilith expected me to beg for my old life? Did she think I would run in tears when the going got tough? I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction, but I surprised myself. Even in the face of death, my thoughts had been about moving forward. I regretted nothing.
“Can we get the RV through?”
She shook her head. “The wires are like my knife. Metal with a honed edge. It’d cut right through the body. And then there’re the lasers.”
Lilith almost chuckled. “You realize they put these into place to keep us here, but more importantly, keep them there. The Free Republic doesn’t want Outlanders coming back into the country.”
“Oh.” I hadn’t thought of it that way. It made sense. But who remained on the other side of the fence other than the Children tucked away in Troy? I didn’t dare ask. I feared she might tell me of another boogeyman.
“We need to get moving. Whoever has been following us isn’t going to be far behind. I want to see—”
“Wait, there’s somebody following us?” This was the first I was hearing of it. Synthetics? The church? The Network? I realized we had far more potential enemies than we did allies. The only person who had come to our aide was Pill-R. Sure Halo and Francis offered us backup, but the way Lilith spoke, I feared they were too close to turning us in. Even if they lived, Lilith was not high on their list of comrades.
“The arms dealers. The pier, even the enforcers in Detroit. Haven’t you wondered how at every turn somebody has been dogging our heels?”
“I hadn’t thought about it.” For days I had been in survival mode. We moved from one disaster to the next, and thinking about the big picture seemed trivial compared to not being shot. But as she spelled it out, somebody seemed to be just behind us at every turn.
“Who do you think it is?”
Lilith shook her head. “Somebody with resources. They sent Marines. They accessed the enforcers. Whoever it is, they’re somebody with influence.”
Lilith gave a slight shrug. Now that she planted the seed, I tried to going through each encounter. I thought cameras or drones had captured my face and a bit of deductive reasoning had them breaking down the doors to capture me. But what if there was somebody driving them? Commanding them to hunt me down? The Valentine of Chicago had made it clear that he wanted me to undertake this mission, even supplied me with Lilith. Why would he want me stopped?
“It’s not the Church,” I said.
“I don’t think so. I think the Valentine will disavow me. But I don’t think he’d want to stop you, at least not yet. You’re on a mission on his behalf. He wants something out of this. I just haven’t been able to sort it out. Not yet.”
If Lilith hadn’t figured out what the Valentine wanted, that had me worried. That left the military and the network. There were too many variables. I didn’t want to dwell on it. We had ground to cover and some part of me wanted to see Troy, that is, if they didn’t kill me on sight.
“Let’s go,” I said. Backpack nestled against the small of my back, I started walking down the broken road. Grass had grown through the cracks, giving away that nobody had been here in years. There was something beautiful about the decay of mankind and the persistence of nature reclaiming what we stole from it. At the rate we were going as a species, the Earth might reclaim more than we suspected.
We walked with a purpose. I noticed that as we went, my feet dragged, heels scrapping on the asphalt. However, Lilith’s feet hardly made a sound. The need for stealth gave away her nerves. I watched her feet, mirroring the way her heels touched the ground. I awkwardly followed, but even she took note, looking back and giving me a slight grin.
“Know where your next foot will go before you place the one before it.” I paused, froze mid step as I tried her tactic. I found that with her guidance, I was moving almost as quietly as she. “Keep your eyes forward, but make note of the pavement in your peripheral.”
Was she transitioning from mentor to protector? Up to this point, she had destroyed every threat we encountered. She fulfilled her role with vicious accuracy. But if I could contribute, even a little, perhaps the burden would shift from her shoulders. I couldn’t match her speed or her strength, but I could make myself less of a target.
“Why a knife? I mean, why not use a gun? It seems a weird choice when everything is shooting at us.”
“How has that done for them?”
“Point made.” Her cockiness had originally irked me. Now I found it well earned. When a single woman with a knife could down some of the most brutish synthetics ever made, she had my respect.
She pulled the knife from her hip and handed it to me. “What do you see?”
I had gripped it multiple times, but I hadn’t taken time in battle to inspect the weapon. The handle was almost as heavy as the blade. The serrated side was difficult to see, as if it were disappearing in and out of sight.
“It’s balanced. It’s also, difficult to see? Am I seeing that correctly? The edges are hard to look at.”
“The edge of the knife is exactly one atom thick. It can slice through just about anything. It was given to me by my mentor.”
“You had a mentor?”
She paused, letting me catch up to her. “I wasn’t born with these skills. Matter of fact, I wasn’t much different from you when I first joined the Network.”
Did she just compliment me? I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. But thinking of Lilith taking orders from somebody older than her was a hard pill to swallow. Her isolation and refusal to speak of herself with only the occasional breadcrumbs made a partnership almost impossible.
“Put a pin in that conversation. The knife, a gun with your skill would be even more dangerous.”
“A gun isn’t a weapon. The bullet, laser, sonic burst, whatever strikes the person is the actual weapon. They’re detached, unpredictable in the heat of a fight. This knife, however,” she took the blade from me, careful to avoid the metal, “it is an extension of my arm. It’s no different than my hand. I control it. I like control.”
“I haven’t noticed,” I made sure the sarcasm dripped from the comment.
“It won’t jam, misfire, or require ammunition. It is a simple tool.”
“I get it.” Okay, so I only kind of understood what she was saying. But I made a note, when in doubt, in the heat of battle, make sure I was in control. Were these moments of education how her mentor bestowed wisdom onto her? Was he as cold and distant as her? I tried to imagine the man who could teach somebody like Lilith. I wanted to meet him, to see if he was like a wayward father or if he was a militant commander.
Lilith held out her arm, stopping me in my tracks. “How fast can you run?”
“I ran track.”
“Good,” she knelt and tightened the laces on her boots. “You’re going to need to run like your life depends on it.”
“What the hell?” On the pylons, I saw them, mounted turrets with double barrels pointed at us. I understood why there were no men manning the fence. “You didn’t say there would be cannons.”
“Did you hear me say it would be easy?”
“Dammit.” I followed her, tightening the laces on my sneakers. It had been a while since I ran like I wanted a scholarship trophy. I kicked my foot behind me, grabbing my toes and stretching my legs. Lilith might slaughter robots or generate shields, but she was about to find that a mere human could smoke her.
“How fast are they?”
She pointed to a tree lying on the ground. “You need to get to there. Once we’re that close, they can’t hit us. I’ll get us through the fence and then we’ll have to run out of range. Do you have the stamina?”
“Try and keep up,” I smiled at her. For once, I knew that I could excel. Lilith might have supernatural abilities, but I had skill.
“You’re more fun when you’re cocky.”
I started. I didn’t care about stealth, I needed speed. I kept the cannons in my sight as I stole glances at the road. I leaned forward, using my entire body. Short steps, sure, toes gripping the asphalt. I tried reaching the zone where the world fell away and all that remained was me, my muscles, my breathing, my feet.
I swerved to the left. The ground behind me to the right exploded in a shower of gravel. The tree was almost a quarter mile away, but for a distance runner, that was child’s play. I leaned to the right as the cannon fired again. Whatever artificial intelligence was being used didn’t seem to have predictive reasoning. How many shots before it calibrated and tried to assume my next steps.
The road tore away in a thunderous bang. I had no idea where Lilith might be following. I trusted she’d survive. Perhaps she’d need a shield to deflect the cannon, but me, all I needed was concentration.
The cannon fired twice, trying to compensate for my speed. I veered further right, a small leap off the road, and I was running in the tall grass. The road blew apart where I had been, and I pushed forward. The tree Lilith had signaled as the limitation of the cannons was within reach. I could make it. I would make it.
A volley of blasts fired. I slowed, turning left and skid. I fought to stay upright as grass and soil flew into the air. I was smarter than a machine. I was random. It couldn’t handle zigs and zags that had no pattern. I turned right and pushed harder than I had in years. My body craved oxygen as I held my breath. The tree was nearly within reach.
The tree exploded. I closed my eyes and jumped through the debris and caught my foot on the edge of the crater. I let my body go limp as I rolled along the ground. I bounced back to my feet and hobbled forward. I had lost my speed and if they tracked me again, I wasn’t sure any amount of fancy footwork would save me.
They fired again. I turned to see Lilith diving through the air. Sailing between two beams of blue light, she tucked and somersaulted. She struck the ground and bounced, rolling onto her back. We both froze, waiting to see if she had been right bout the cannons. Seconds passed, and neither cannon fired.
“I win,” I laughed.
“I let you win.”
“Lilith, you’re such a liar.” I helped her to her feet.
We approached the wall and the smell of burning ozone became overpowering enough my eyes watered. I had thought only the wires separated us from reaching the other side. From one pylon to the next, a field of light shimmered between the wires. It wasn’t obvious at a distance, but the wires served as conductors for a force field.
“We’re not just going to jump through?”
“Yes we are.” I was about to object when Lilith held up her hand. She was about to summon whatever supernatural ability allowed her to generate the shields. I thought it’d be an impressive show, like with the enforcers, but she extended her fingers and the light formed at head height.
“When I say, go.”
It started with a slight hum and quickly turned to a hiss. Lilith’s shield violated the barrier, cutting through it with ease. Ease until I saw the strain on Lilith’s face. I had no idea what it took to summon something that defied the laws of physics. I imagined it was like recalling the ability to play the violin, but as the sweat bead along her forehead, I knew it was a greater struggle.
She shh’d me. I bit my tongue, letting her concentrate. Could she feel the barrier pushing back? Did some part of her brain know that it was doing the unthinkable? I had to wonder if it was more involved than I initially thought. For a moment, I felt thankful for being a mere human.
The shield continued to spread until it created a circle. Once it closed, it hovered in the air, blocking the light from the pylon. I didn’t wait for the okay, I jumped through as if I were a stunt woman in a movie. I hit the ground and spun about as quickly as I could. She opened her eyes, and I nearly gasped. Her iris vanished, replaced by an electric blue. Under different circumstances, I would say it was beautiful.
She carefully slid one leg through the hole, moving with care. One leg through, she ducked her head, careful to keep her thighs from touching the plasma. Once she was through, her hand dropped, and she let out a low moan. The force field collapsed, and the light from the pylon disintegrated her shield. Just like that, we were in the Outlands.
“We made it.”
Lilith dropped to her knees, taking deep breaths. I worried she was about to pass out and we would be out in the open with no way for me to carry her and dodge motion sensing cannons.
“Are you okay? Does it hurt? What can I do?”
“Slight headache. I’ll be okay, I just need a moment to rest.”
“You’re not going to pass out like before?”
I stopped asking questions when she glared at me. “Get thrown against a wall and let me know how you’re doing.”
Okay, I deserved her judgement. “I deserved that. But to be fair, you’re the first Child of Nostradamus that I’ve ever interacted with.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll meet more soon enough.”
Troy. I wondered if it would be a Nirvana, a safe space where Children worked together to build a better society? Or perhaps having all that power at your disposal just mean the problems were nastier? She hadn’t told me anything about her former home. I didn’t need to ask. Her lack of details generally meant it was dreadful news.
I couldn’t handle more dreadful news.
“All right,” she got to her feet. Cracking her neck, she stretched her arms and prepared for another mad dash through the gauntlet. “Do you think you can beat me twice?”
The stars crashed into the atmosphere in a flash of light. It started as one, then two, and now it looked as if angels skipped stones across the sky. Atop the RV, I couldn’t help but feel insignificant in the endless depths of space. In Chicago, the lights at night drowned out all but the brightest stars. Here, parked in the middle of a field away from the road, I tried to imagine the number I’d have to count to account for each one.
I imagined there were thousands if not millions of people staring up at the sky right now. Even knowing I partook in a shared experience, I was alone. No, that wasn’t correct. I had an unconscious Lilith and a cyber stalker. I had Pill-R and perhaps even Halo. My band of misfits grew, but despite having more allies than when I started, I felt nothing more than a temporary partnership. Even Lilith sleeping off her power hangover, I didn’t know if I could trust her.
I wrapped a discarded blanket around my shoulders. It smelled of dust and dampness, but it held the cold of the night at bay. I laughed as I thought of Michael. Since I left Chicago, the man hadn’t crossed my mind. Escaping police, fleeing for my life, and facing off against synthetics changed your priorities. He’d find all of this amusing, not the danger of it, but the fact I was enduring it. I don’t think Michael considered me brave. I don’t know if I considered myself brave.
A light blinked in the sky, moving at a quick pace. It could be a satellite, or even a drone, but I wanted to believe it was the space station. While the Free Republic fell into shambles, the rest of the world took notice and stood up. Overseas the world changed for the better. Russian, China, and Japan had constructed a high orbit station that housed almost two hundred people. They were the last stop before the biospheres on the Moon. Was somebody looking out a window, staring down at the Earth, wishing they could feel the wind again?
Did Nostradamus see this? Did he see me sitting here questioning my existence? Or was he too busy sifting through world altering events? He predicted the end of mankind as they knew it. Eleanor predicted an evil descended upon the planet. I assumed neither psychic had time to see me or my destination.
I lay back on the roof. I hoped a sign would present itself, a flash of light perhaps. I felt her stir inside the vehicle before the door cracked open. She had been out for the last day. I had feared she needed medical treatment. I could perform CPR or bandage a burn, but could a historian and data construction specialist heal a Child of Nostradamus?
Even her voice sounded weak. “Up here.”
Lilith could probably jump this high in a single bound. Did she have any enhancements or was everything I believed wrong? I knew they were strong, tough, and some had extraordinary abilities. Lilith fell into the latter category. What did you call the ability to make shields? I wanted to ask her why she waited until we almost died before she used them? I wanted to think I’d be subtle, but truth be told, I’d be showing off on the corner of the street if I were her.
The RV shook as Lilith climbed the ladder at the back. She paused as her head came level to the roof. “Solar panels, smart girl.” The woman’s snarky attitude couldn’t overcome the fatigue. She sounded as if she closed her eyes sleep would find her again.
“You should be rest. I think.” My bedside manners needed a refresher course. “Honestly, I don’t know what the hell you should be doing.”
Lilith ignored me as she stared at the sky. Her jaw dropped when another barrage of comets struck the Earth’s atmosphere. “Did you see that?” I had never seen a shooting star before, but my father had said they were lucky.
“Make a wish.”
“A wish. When you see a shooting star, you’re supposed to make a wish.”
“Says the woman capable of generating force fields.”
She didn’t reply as she continued taking in the spectacle. It took a moment, but I thought I could see her lips moving. Did she make a wish? What could a woman like Lilith possibly wish for? I was about to ask when she broke the silence.
“Plasma restrained by an electromagnetic field.”
She scooted along the roof until she was close enough to talk low. The way she held her head and even her struggling breaths, I knew she wasn’t at the top of her performance. Wherever we were, it was less likely that synthetics would be patrolling. From here we could run toward the woods and lose them in the trees. At least that’s what I told myself. I prayed I wouldn’t need to run from killer machines for the next twenty-four hours.
“They’re not shields. Plasma is the fourth state of matter. Think of it as liquid fire. The electromagnetic fields hold it in place, making it durable.”
“I just heard you say shield.”
“Fine, I make shields.”
Was I speaking to Lilith the killer? Lilith the assassin? Or was this the Lilith who had a modicum of normalcy about her? I tested my luck.
“Are we going to talk about it?”
She lay down next to me, sharing my vantage point of the sky. People say that the sky is black at night and that the stars are little white dots that break through. However, the trees in the distance were dark, almost black. The sky had a dark blue tint to it, and the stars were all distinct shades of yellow. If I described it, I’d say rich, not black.
“What is there to talk about?”
I propped myself up on my elbows and stared at her. If she had optic enhancements, she’d see the scowl plastered across my face. “The part where you forgot to mention you’re a Child of Nostradamus? That you can make shields, I mean, plasma appear? None of that strikes you as conversation worthy?”
“How’d we get away?”
“I dragged you to a car, taught myself how to drive and outran synthetic patrol cars.”
I laid back for fear of trying to strangle her. “If you don’t want to talk about it, just say so. This cryptic thing you have going, I’m not—”
“They manifested when I was twelve.” Score one for me and my new assertive superpowers. “My parents were devout members of the Church. When the test came back positive, they enrolled me in an academy. At first, I thought my ability was to make electronics go on the fritz. Then one night while showing off, I cut through the bed in my room. I went from an oddity to a danger.”
“It doesn’t sound so bad.”
“For a while, they manifested on their own. My teacher doused me in flame retardant. They were scared of me, and rightfully so. I’m not as strong as some, but I’m faster than most. I couldn’t run track anymore. I couldn’t participate in any sports. The library became my second home. Nobody at puberty wants to be different. I was alone.”
It was the most she had spoken of her childhood. Questions about the Church and how she became involved with the Network came to mind, but I held my tongue. I needed Lilith to be human. I needed to see an actual person so I could establish some amount of faith in her again.
“What happened next?”
“I didn’t finish school before they recruited me to be part of the Network. My parents agreed and I wanted to belong to something.”
There was a lengthy pause before she spoke again. “We should get some rest. Tomorrow I think we can make it to the Outlands.”
“The Outlands? Are you sure?”
I didn’t want to admit it, but it terrified me to travel into the forbidden land. It was inevitable that we would need to enter the Outlands to reach Boston. I just hadn’t imagined it would happen so quickly. I knew almost nothing about it, and I hated being ignorant. Before she could respond, I added, “Have you been there before?”
Lilith’s head turned, eyes staring at me. I knew whatever was about to come out of her mouth would be mind blowing. She had a tendency of dropping bombs.
Great, just great. We were returning to the place Lilith called home. I could only imagine… Troy. I almost spit it out, but swallowed the word. We were returning to Troy, to the homestead of the Children of Nostradamus. Except, if the reports were correct, they’d kill me on sight. I hope she had connections, a family member, anybody who could sneak us through the front door.
Home. Staring up at the stars, I questioned the word. Chicago had been where I grew up, where I lived. But it was never home. Somewhere in Boston, my father hid. I’d find him, and then I’d start thinking about where I might call home.
My knuckles banged against the frame of the car, staying low as if I could hide from from infrared cameras. I didn’t know much about cars. I couldn’t tell you the make or model from any company, or which were considered classy. Four wheels and the ability to go forward, what more did I need to know? I did know that gasoline became useless after sitting stagnant for too long. How? My father was full of useless wisdom. I almost broke into a smile. Did he impart survival knowledge on me for situations just like this?
Moving to the next car, I knocked on the frame. Each had the same sound. I needed an electric car, one that had the reactive paint and frame to absorb sunlight. It was well into the night, but their manufacturers bragged about how long they could retain a charge. Tap tap. The trend hadn’t caught on in Detroit; the car making capital of the Free Republic. I only needed one, one car capable of driving us from this hell hole.
Lining the sides of the street, all the cars looked identical. All except one, a silver chariot with black tinted windows. The previous owner had spent the time to add custom rims and a spoiler to the back of the car. I crossed my fingers as I approached.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Score.
Unlocked and empty, I was wondered if my luck had turned around. I got into the driver’s seat and stared at the controls. My father’s survival tactics hadn’t included a method of hot-wiring a car. The data pad in the middle console had a touch screen, but mashing my fingers against it didn’t turn it on. Technology was supposed to make the world a better place. Right now technology was attempting to chase me down, kill me, and this damned car refused to cooperate. I was ready to screen.
Lights flared to life. The radio pumped music into the car and I smacked against the data pad trying to quiet it. It took a moment, but I found the volume and I now I had the biggest challenge ahead of me. Driving. In Chicago only the wealthiest of people had cars. The rest of us were reduced to staying within our neighborhoods or forced to pay outstanding fees for public transit.
One pedal made the engine roar to life, the other appeared to do nothing. I put my hand on the stick shift and slid it into reverse. It couldn’t be hard, just turn the wheel and go. The car shook as I bounced forward. The car behind me screeched in protest as my bumper smacked it. Okay, maybe driving wasn’t as easy as I thought.
I flipped it into drive and pressed the gas pedal. The car jolted forward, and I scraped against the car in front of me as I spun the wheel. I conquered parallel parking. Now I needed to navigate my way to Lilith, and we’d be ready to make our escape from this vile city.
The speed gauge read ten, then fifteen as I moved down the street. My knuckles had turned white as I gripped the wheel. Turning onto the adjacent street, I found the black van where I had hidden Lilith. Try as I might, I couldn’t wake the woman. I knew nothing about her powers, but I assumed they were the reason for her being unconscious. At least I hoped that was the case, if it was from the impact of killer robots, I had no medical training. I continued saying prayers to Nostradamus that she would survive.
I was out of the car and at the back of the van before I noticed the drone hovering in the air. I growled, giving it the finger. The artificial intelligence would relay my location and after the earlier mess, they’d be sending more synthetics. I didn’t have time to be subtle. I pulled Lilith’s ankles and slid her from the van. She grunted as I dragged her along the road and lifted her into the passenger seat. I slammed the door and got into the passenger seat.
“Where do I go?” I knew we needed out of Detroit, but my sense of direction was bad enough on foot. In a car, there was a good chance I’d take a wrong turn, and I’d pull into the factory that made the robots hunting us.
Every road looked the same. “How the hell do I get out of Detroit?”
The data pad flashed for a moment and the GPS showed a map of the area. Arrows formed, giving me directions out of the city. The smart car acted a bit too smart. I wondered if this was a gift from Pill-R. I hoped the hacker meant it when he said he’d help. Right now I had no way of knowing and I’d take any support I could get. I said a quick thank you to Nostradamus. The psychic would hear from me a lot in the next few hours.
I slammed the gas pedal. The defiant move seemed better in my head than reality. The car went from zero to sixty in a matter of seconds. A blinking arrow demanded I turn right. Spinning the wheel, the car tires squealed as I spun around the corner. The movies had overestimated the maneuverability of a vehicle at high speeds. I hit the other pedal, and the car screeched as it slowed, skidding along the road.
Lilith groaned as I straightened the car. The woman fought with precision, timed strikes against her opponents. I found myself in awe as she predicted and plotted during each confrontation. If Lilith could do it, I could too. Think ahead, predict, plot, plan. I slammed the gas again and the back end of the car waved back and forth as the tires grabbed the pavement.
As the arrow shifted left, I left up off the gas and tapped the breaks. The car slung around the corner, and I returned to the gas. If my father could see me now, a woman fleeing from the law at break neck speeds. I don’t know if he’d be smiling or shaking his head. I’d deal with his mixed feelings later. Right now, I had an army to escape.
Out the window I could see the drone keeping up with the car. Without a need for lanes, I’d have no chance of escaping. I could see the sign up ahead for the freeway ramp. However, the arrow didn’t change. I had to decide, faith in the person navigating me through Detroit, or reliance on the road signs.
“Pill-R,” I swerved around a car abandoned in the middle of the road, “if you get me killed, I’m coming back for you.”
I zipped under the freeway, and the arrow changed. I spun the wheel like I had taken a crash course in evading arrest. Following the freeway, I realized the arrows had me hiding under the major route from the city. The drone vanished. I almost believed we would make it out alive. I wonder if Lilith would believe me. I wish I had a camera to take a photo once we reached safety. She could punch things, big deal, I was warrior behind the wheel.
“Shit,” I cursed. The drone had done its job. Two vehicles flew onto a street running parallel to us and matched our speed. I pushed the pedal down further and found the floor. The car pushed to seventy-nine, but couldn’t seem to reach eighty. One car zigged, flying across the median until it was behind me while the other continued keeping pace to my left. At this rate, it seemed the most I could do was try to stay ahead of them.
Sharp right. I slammed the brakes and spun the wheel. We fishtailed. I thought for a moment I was about to spin around and drive straight into the armored car behind me. Nostradamus must have been watching as we jumped the curb and turn right. Another fast turn left, and we were up to the on-ramp that would lead us to freeway. There was no more worrying about drones, now it was about speed. Speed meant surviving.
I dodged the cars littering the road, having to drop my speed. However the single car still behind me barreled through them. I watched in the rear-view mirror as it hurled them off the road as if they were only a minor inconvenience. If it caught up, it’d do the same. If we were lucky, we wouldn’t be thrown from the street high above the buildings below. That’d mean they’d most likely just shoot us. Neither option seemed preferable.
In the distance, I could see it, a sign broadcasting to the world that they were about to get the hell out of Detroit. I didn’t know where the city line was, but if I was going to die, it wouldn’t be in Detroit. I hated this city.
My foot pressed the gas down but the car behind me smashed against the bumper. I almost lost control of the wheel. One banked to the left, using a line of massive trucks to separate me from the synthetics. We were so close, we just needed to go a little further.
The second vehicle waited for us at the city line. The synthetics were stepping out of the car, and I had no way to protect myself. I reached for the blade attached to Lilith’s leg and realized it’d be foolish to try. Unlike her, I didn’t have super strength or years of combat experience. If anything, I’d die the moment I stepped from the vehicle.
The light on the data pad blinked, and the arrow flashed. Forward. I pushed the gas down as far as it would go and picked up speed. At the last minute I swerved, my car striking the front corner of the armored vehicle. I didn’t have time to inspect the damage. My eyes were closed as the car whipped around, spinning. Lilith pressed against me and I held onto her, praying neither of us flew through the windshield.
It felt like forever, the dizzying spin. In truth it was over in a matter of seconds and we were defenseless, sitting in a car that couldn’t drive another mile. Either adrenaline, desperation or stupidity pushed me on. I pushed her back into the passenger seat and grabbed her knife. The blade almost looked translucent, so thin I finally understood how it penetrated the enforcer’s hide.
“Nostradamus, I need you one more time,” I begged.
I opened the car and spilled out onto the street. The ground felt uneven and my head continued to spin. I could barely get to my knees. I gripped the knife, trying to focus on the leather strap around the handle. The synthetics were charging toward me with their weapons drawn. A knife would not do me any good.
I leaned back against the car and awaited my fate. The machines slowed until they stood still. Their weapons remained drawn, but they didn’t dare cross an imaginary line. I was about to thank Nostradamus when I saw the sign, “Now Entering Detroit.” I had escaped that filthy city, something the synthetics appeared incapable of doing. They were less than ten feet away and their feet rested on the line, but none attempted to cross.
Tonight, my faith in Nostradamus ignited anew. I had no doubts that a higher power smiled down upon me. Now, I needed to make sure I used that gift. It was time to get far away from Detroit and headed to the only destination I knew that might offer us safety. I climbed into the car and pulled the door dented door shut the best I could. Reversing away from the synthetics, I turned the car around and put the city behind us. The GPS flashed, asking for new directions.
Lilith held a cushion from the couch, the corner of it consumed by fire. She wasted no time using it to light the drapes before wedging it into the sofa. In the kitchen she had torn the stove off the wall. I didn’t need to know her plan; I knew we would be blown to pieces if we didn’t get outside.
“It’ll disorient their thermal scanners. Out the back.” She admired her handiwork before nudging me into the kitchen. I didn’t need to be told a second time. I dropped the goggles into my backpack and bolted for the door. The kitchen already smelled of gas, and it was only a matter of time before it ignited.
“Enforcer synthetics. You know what I’m talking about?”
The machines came in a dozen varieties. In Chicago it was difficult to tell one from the next, each of them serving the same purpose. However, I had seen the newspaper clippings featuring the ferocious cousin of the police units. Enforcers were built for destruction, large, armed, but most importantly, they were coated with a rare metal that made them more durable. We might survive a patrol of synthetics, but not even my enhanced sidekick stood a chance against a cluster of enforcers.
“You run. No matter what you hear, you run.” Lilith’s cocky demeanor fell apart, replaced by panic and dare I say it, fear? Seeing the woman scared turned the blood in my veins into ice water.
“Let’s go,” I growled.
Lilith followed me through the backyard. She tucked herself into a ball, hurdling through the wooden fence. I climbed through and then the Earth shook. The heat of the explosion didn’t quite reach us, but bits of wood landed all about. I wanted to turn back and look, but Lilith took my hand, tugging on my arm, urging me to follow.
The alley led between row houses, a place for them to put their trash on collection day. The backyards were massive by Chicago standards, but otherwise small. Even while moving at my top speed, I was surprised to see the Earth had yet to reclaim the houses. Trees, vines, even grass, refused to fill the uninhabited places.
Lilith turned right, jumping over a waist high metal fence. I followed, not as gracefully, but as fast. By the time we reached the stairs, I could hear metal sparking against the pavement. The clack of feet could be one on all fours, or several standing upright. I’ll admit, I was too scared to turn and find out.
They were coming to kill us.
Lilith held the door as I ran into the house. She shut it behind us, and for a moment I thought were going to hide and hope their sensors couldn’t detect us. “Keep running.” The whisper didn’t lessen the command. Through the kitchen, to the living room, the porch and we were back on the street. The door hadn’t shut when the building rumbled as synthetics burst into the back. They were closing.
“The alley.” I trusted her judgement. I ran. Clearing the narrow opening of the alley, synthetics burst from the house. I couldn’t resist, I peaked. Taller than a man, thicker, broad, and faceless, they didn’t need eyes to see. Lilith shoved me and I tried to speed up my pace. They were large, guns mounted on each forearm, all waiting for a target lock to obliterate me. I didn’t want to die, not here, not by a machine. If they killed me, my corpse would be left to rot, and I’d become one of the faceless. I didn’t want to be forgotten, not today.
My muscles started to hurt, but fear pushed adrenaline into my heart. I ran faster than I ever had in track. I wanted to vomit. It would happen eventually, but vomiting meant slowing. Slowing meant death. I leaned into the run, arms pumping, trying to maximize my rhythm.
I could hear them gaining, closer. If I turned, I might be able to squeeze into one of the tighter spaces, perhaps a place they couldn’t reach. A chunk of cement exploded to my left as a bang reverberated through the alley. It missed by inches, and with their ability to learn, the next one would be even closer. I tried to zig, and I found myself launched into the air before I felt the pain of a rolled ankle.
I landed, tumbled and tried to get up, but my Olympic jogging had been reduced to a hobble. Hobbling meant death. “Lilith, I can’t run.”
It was only then that I realized Lilith was no longer behind me. I turned and saw the massive metal creatures already slowing as they found their wounded prey. There was nowhere to crawl, no place I could hide. I could do nothing but stare into the oblivion inside its barrel. “Nostradamus, protect me.” Even as I whispered it, I questioned if he’d reply. No, I would die here, in a dank alley, abandoned and alone.
“What do you want from me?” I yelled. “Leave me alone. This has nothing to do with you.”
Soulless machines offered no answers.
We built synthetics to protect mankind, to offer a respite for our soldiers and police. They were designed to be servants and offer us a better life. But like everything mankind does, there was a dark underlying motive. They perverted innocent machines, corrupted them until they were killers and hunters. Their artificial intelligence made them lethal, but they had stripped any sense of right and wrong while human oversaw to these moral dilemmas. They paused as they chose between a list of predetermined options. Once they scanned my face, and I registered as Madison Walker, criminal, they’d terminate.
They stepped forward as if they didn’t have the ability to make a clean shot. The arm extended and the large caliber gun hovered mere feet from my head. I thought I’d have regrets. I worried I had made a grave error when I stole the drive, but in the face of death, there was freedom.
Synthetics weren’t the only monster hunting tonight.
Lilith jumped from the roof a garage, the knife clutched in both hands high over her head. The night monster had risen, and it wanted artificial blood. Sparks rained down as the knife buried itself in the enforcer’s skull. Its arm pivoted, reaching behind its own back and grabbed Lilith. As it jerked her free, she stabbed at its arm, strategic strikes at the hydraulics.
When it knocked the knife free of her hands, she changed tactics. Gripping its forearm, she kicked off its torso, attempting to tear the arm free. Its companion smacked her across the face, but her enhancements kept her head in place. The arm holding her fell limp, but before she could lunge at the second, it batted her, knocking her between me and the machines.
Their threat assessment happened, and it deemed both of us worthy of termination. The hand lifted, and the bang followed faster than I could register. First Lilith, then me. This marked the end of our journey.
Except it didn’t.
“He sees,” I muttered as the bullet impaled itself on a blue barrier inches in front of Lilith. The lights shimmering from the blue goo were majestic. Its bullet clanked to the ground and Lilith forced her way back to her feet. The vibration of rounds being fired forced my heart to stutter, but each round impaled itself on the blue.
“Run,” she screamed.
But I couldn’t, not while one of Nostradamus’ titans stood between me and death. What I had mistaken for enhancements had been supernatural strength. What I thought were optics and auditory augmentation were gifts from the gods. Lilith, the monster in the night, was a Child of Nostradamus.
The barrier of blue vanished as the enforcer reached for Lilith. She dropped low and lunged, hugging the synthetic’s waist in an attempt to tackle it. It drove its fist down and I feared it’d break her spine. But it stopped short, striking another blue barrier. Shields. I wasn’t sure how she managed, but her abilities had something to do with creating shields. It was the massive robots that were outmatched.
Bringing back her arm, her fist opened until her fingers were straight. She drove her fingertips into the torso, penetrating the metal. I led a silent cheer at the tiny victory. It spun, sending Lilith sailing into the brick of a garage. A pillow of blue glowed surrounded her as she struck the wall. She hit the ground, her feet already moving. The machines might be terrifying, but the ruthlessness Lilith exhibited made her far more frightening.
The closest enforcer fired, but the bullet struck a patch of blue shield. Its companion attempted to lunge at Lilith, but struck a similar aura of blue. Whatever Lilith could create, they were beautifully positioned barriers to stop gunfire or to hold the synthetics in place. As the first fired another round, the blue shifted, and the bullet ricocheted, striking the second in the skull. The blast tore open the metal.
Lilith jumped up onto the first synthetic and placed her hand on its head. I expected her to wrestle it free from the neck, or grind the hydraulics until it was shrapnel. She reached to the back and tore the metal forward, her fingers digging into the hole her knife had made earlier. Popping preceded the one armed synthetic slowing to a halt.
Blue shields kept its partner in place, preventing the arms from snatching her. It resorted to weapons and guns attempted to spew forth massive rounds. Both arms exploded, sending bits of shrapnel skidding along the ground. Lilith growled as the machine leaned against one of her shields, determined to free itself. Like an acrobat, she timed the jump perfectly, the shield vanishing and the synthetic stumbling forward. She brought her fists together, clubbing the machine on the head, once, twice, and then a third time. It reached for her, but shredded limbs couldn’t knock her free. The skull collapsed in on itself as she pounded it a fourth time.
Lilith slipped down the machine, staggering backward until she collapsed on the pavement. It took a moment before my muscles responded. I crawled to Lilith. Her face was cool to the touch and her eyes fluttered as she struggled to keep consciousness. I gave her cheek a light pat, but it was useless as her body relaxed. Looking up to the towering behemoths of metal, I knew it was a matter of time before more came.
“Lilith,” I stood up, grabbed her by the shoulders and started dragging. “We are not dying in Detroit.”
Detroit, an industrial wasteland. We raised walls to bury the mistakes of New York, but I had to wonder if our attention would be better served here. The houses had long since been abandoned as families sought air not filled with cancerous smog. Mankind created this disease, but worse than that, we stood by, benefactors to a limb we’d one day need to amputate. The infection started in the factories and the sludge pushes its way down the streets like a dark spiderweb.
Once a haven for working men and women, Detroit led the way in the auto manufacturing revolution. We made mankind redundant as we taught machines to build more machines. Synthetics were programmed, taught to replicate themselves. Without need for food, water or rest, they became the most efficient workforce in the Free Republic. The very machines we created to help protect us threatened our way of life. The irony was not lost, but it was placed far enough out of view that we could pretend it didn’t exist.
Nothing living remained in Detroit.
The factories stood in the distance, marked by the plumes of black smoke spewing from long chimneys that resembled half burned cigarettes. How many machines inside were operational? Were those destined to be part of our military aware of their existence, or were they still asleep awaiting orders? The idea that thousands of synthetics waited to be activated disturbed me deeply. It was frightening from a philosophical point of view. It was terrifying knowing we were within range to be victims of the infection.
“We will travel at night.”.
With the sky black, it hardly mattered the time of day. Detroit remained covered in a perpetual blanket of darkness. We spent the day driving in a truck that threatened to die every time Lilith stepped on the pedal. We abandoned it, pushing it into a vacant garage before setting out on foot. I stopped questioning her tactics. I believed the curriculum in secret assassin school taught her to remain undetected. Now we waited in a brick house, counting down the minutes until the sun set.
“The brick will mask our thermal signature. Unless they know we’re in Detroit, they’ll assume we’re looters. Nobody cares as long as we avoid the factories.”
“I was just thinking to myself, would it be fun to get a tour inside one of those giant death makers?”
Lilith had returned to her normal stonewall self. I almost believed she had another personality hidden beneath this one, but whenever she discussed survival, this is what I was left with. To this point, she had been right, getting the drive unlocked and finding us safe passage out of the city. Both times ended in death squads trying to kill me. Is this the life Lilith led? Perpetually on the run from people trying to kill her? It made me exhausted thinking about how often she must look over her shoulder.
We had hours to kill, and it appeared Lilith had no desire to open up about her life. I fished around in my backpack and pulled out the Phantasm goggles. On closer inspection, I could see they were more advanced than I expected. The neural interface was subtle and easy to miss. With the ability to tap into my brain directly, it became less about seeing the Phantasm and more about experiencing it. My finger ran over the etching in the side, a single digit, the only clue as to where this might have been made.
“What do you know about the 5?”
Lilith turned away from the window, moving through the living room to the dining room in the center of the house. She extended a hand, and I gave her the goggles. Spinning it about, she inspected the craftsmanship. She slowed as her fingers ran over the carved number.
“They’re hackers, the best at what they do.”
She handed me the goggles. My guardian had a tendency to be short with me, but in her infinite wisdom, she must know more that that. “You know Pill-R, have you met any others?”
“Pill-R came to me. He needed man power to get him access to a mainframe off the grid. Otherwise, he’d only ever be a ghost. The 5 are a group of people who don’t exist. The Corruption wiped out data across the globe. After that, those that controlled information rose in power. They like to liberate that information.”
“So they’re freedom fighters?”
Lilith nodded her head. “Just like the Valentine has no past, no records of who he was, the 5 are similar. Joining means giving up your life. You vanish. You become a ghost. Meanwhile, you become part of a group of people determined to make sure the missing parts of our past come to light. They don’t like the data centers you worked for. Why should one body control our history?”
“There’s more than five of them?”
“Nostradamus is the father of mentalists, they have a founder too. Or…” She gave a slight while she searched for the word. “Not a founder, but a beacon to rally behind.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Pill-R speaks about the man as if he were still alive. He inspired a group of revolutionaries. I don’t think they’ll change the world sitting behind keyboards, but it’s good to know that we’re not alone.”
It was the first time Lilith let slip her allegiance. The Network served the Church of Nostradamus, but she served another group. Her muscles tensed and I was certain she caught the over share. I had to press on.
“Who are you working with?”
“Nobody,” she responded quickly enough I knew it was a lie.
“Watch it,” she said. She stood abruptly, attempting to end the conversation.
“Not this time,” I said as I stood. “Who is this we?”
“Trust no one.” The words were barely a whisper, but they slammed into my chest. I dropped back into my seat under their weight. Lilith left the room, resuming her perch in the living room, watching the front door. I had questioned her, unsure if she could be trusted, and for the first time I realized she had been doing the same. What treachery had she endured that she could suspect me of anything other than an unwilling pawn?
“Keep saying it,” I spoke quietly, “because, trust is all you and I have right now.”
I grabbed the goggles and slipped them on as I got comfortable in the dining room chair. I slipped them over my head and waited for the familiar flashing lights. I tried to relax my muscles and prepare for the tech to distort my sense of reality. The cool wood faded, and the broken slat in the back vanished. I hovered in the emptiness as my muscles got used to their freedom. Each time I journeyed into the Phantasm, I understood more why people would rather be here than spending valuable money on rations.
I dropped several feet, striking the ground and as I did, the room changed beneath my feet. Color spread outward, racing along the imaginary surfaces until I stood on a street, beneath a massive building. The sandy color raced upward until I was staring at the bell tower of a massive church. It was tiny compared to the church in Chicago, but this one looked older, more worn and far more deserted.
“Hello?” I shouted. I expected to see people, the throngs of people speaking gibberish. What architect would send me bouncing from one location to the other. Were the scenes before real? Were they historic events or constructs by whoever gifted me the goggles? If there was a message hidden in the Phantasm, I had yet to figure out the clues.
The light about the church dimmed, making it appear as if it were slowly being consumed by shadows. I backed away, worried it was an omen. I turned around and started a light jog, putting distance between me and the darkness. It matched my pace, chasing me as if I were in a nightmare. No matter how fast I ran, it continued to follow, nipping at my heels.
“Help,” I yelled.
Ahead, the world dimmed, infected by the spreading darkness. Only one building maintained its luster. I steered to the left, running as fast as my legs could carry me. At the last moment I jumped, hurling myself through the massive glass window overlooking the street. I covered my face as I struck the glass, I could feel it scrape along my skin, but thankfully whoever programmed my avatar made it far more durable than a human body.
I smacked against a bar stool, collapsing along the floor. I bounced back to my feet, preparing to keep running when I saw the darkness outside the window held at bay. It was a bar, an old one. The floor had all but worn through and the top of the bar looked as if it had seen more than its fair share of spills. There were a collection of coffee cups stacked neatly, the only sign that somebody had been inside in the last decade.
“Is somebody there?”
It materialized out of nothing, standing only a few feet away. I didn’t need to ask, I knew it was the man from yesterday, the same man who had been stalking me through the Phantasm. I tightened my fist, ready to put my avatar to the test. He reached out, looping his finger through the handle of a coffee cup. He lifted it slowly, studying the chipped corner.
“Did you send me the goggles?”
“I… don’t… I don’t know.”
“Who are you?”
“I… don’t know.” I believed him. I don’t know why, but I did. Even if he programmed this vacant avatar and the trembling voice box, something felt off about the man. As he rotated the coffee cup in his hand like an infant inspecting a new toy, he seemed confused.
“What do you know?”
“Who—“ Before I could finish the question, I was catapulted from the Phantasm. Lilith stood over me, and even in the dark, I could make out the panic on her face.