Fire consumed the boat. Tiny cracks and pops sounded until the flame caught the canister of gas. The explosion lit up the sky for a brief moment before water consumed the sinking ship. Lilith wanted our tracks covered, no proof that we ever made it to shore. She worried about those following us; I worried about those that lay ahead of us. No matter what direction we looked, we were being chased.
We walked until morning, sticking to the side of the road. I watched the stars as we walked. My father had insisted on teaching me to use his telescope, a family heirloom handed down through the generations. Thanks to him, I could name most of the constellations and a hundred different stars. As I learned the name of a new constellation, he’d share the lore from Greek legends. I wished for the might of Orion as we followed the road.
“The sun will be up soon.”
I had maintained my speed, but more often than not, Lilith had to pause and wait for me to catch up. For a woman my size, she moved with a purpose and a speed I couldn’t match. If I wasn’t there to slow her down, would she be jogging down the road, trying to put as much distance between her and the boat?
“If I wasn’t here, would you already be in Detroit?”
She stopped, her feet rustling in the gravel next to the road. I didn’t expect an actual answer, not one that stopped her dead in her tracks. I was about to press the button on my light when she grabbed me by the straps and dragged me into the weeds. She pulled me down, lying flat in the tall grass.
An engine. In the distance I could hear an old car or truck, the motor rattling as it drew closer. The bend in the road made it almost impossible to see the light, but I could feel the vibration through my hands on the ground. Lilith covered my head, forcing it down as she dipped her face against the grass.
For a moment I could swear the truck slowed, and I thought my heart jumped from my chest. I had faith that any person foolish enough to stop and get out would face the wrath of Lilith. For their sake, I hoped they continued on their merry way, speeding toward whatever job had them out before daybreak.
The truck passed, moving at a brisk pace. I could barely see the headlights with my face pressed against the ground. We waited for more than a minute before lifting our heads. She remained quiet, and I could only assume she allowed her auditory enhancements to follow the vehicle, making sure it had left. She stood, offering a hand and pulling me up as if I weighed nothing.
“If you weren’t here, I’d still be in Chicago, running errands for the Valentine.”
I hadn’t thought about it before. If she had never taken this assignment, she’d still be in Chicago, a slave to the church. It wasn’t exactly my doing, but I took a bit of pride in being able to pull her away from the Valentine. I only feared that I dragged her into a conspiracy never meant for her. Thanking her seemed minuscule, far too small for how much I owed her already.
“Tell me about the Valentine.” I couldn’t continue walking in silence. Perhaps if she was busy speaking, I’d be able to keep up with her.
“The Chicago Valentine? Or the Valentine in general?”
I hadn’t thought about it before. Living in Chicago, we treated our Valentine as if he was the one and only. There were four in the Free Republic, Chicago, the Flatlands, the Southeast States, and San Francisco. I knew about his role from Visionary School, but I suspected that they fed us half truths.
“Whatever is more interesting.”
Lilith slowed, letting me catch up enough that we almost walked side by side. The woman confused me, and just when I thought I might have her figured out, she switched gears. If I didn’t know better, I might start believing she did it to keep me guessing. She couldn’t be that sinister, could she?
“The rumor is that all the Valentine are mentalists. However, nobody can confirm that, not even within the Network. Some believe their abilities are a myth perpetuated by the church to help elevate them in the eyes of the priests. I suspect they all have abilities of some sort, but I know for a fact our Valentine does.”
“I saw that. He can see memories by touching an object.”
“Psychometry. Every object carries memories, psychic echoes. He can see those echoes. Sometimes they’re faint and he can barely see pictures, but other times, it’s almost as if he’s lived through the memories. It’s not flashy, but you can imagine that touching something that belongs to you can give him plenty of information to convert the staunchest unbeliever.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound holy at all.”
Lilith gave a slight laugh. “It’s not. The Church of Nostradamus wasn’t always the religion of the masses. Even now it competes with a growing atheistic population. The Valentine will turn up the showmanship if necessary. Other religions anointed saints for the miracles they performed before their death. The Church of Nostradamus? They perform miracles on cue.”
“They left this out of Visionary School.”
I reached into my bag and pulled out a piece of dehydrated meat. I tore it in half and handed Lilith a piece. She held up her hand in protest and I shoved it into her palm. We walked quietly as we sucked on the hard bits of nourishment. It tasted of salt and little else. The thin strips wouldn’t fill either of our stomachs, but it’d stop them rumbling for the evening. Hopefully, at some point along this trek, we’d be able to stop and buy something with more substance.
“His name is William,” she said between gnawing on the jerky.
“William? You mean the Valentine?”
“It’s impossible to snoop in his chambers. There are cameras, I’m sure. But even if I possessed tech capable of sidestepping them, there is no way to hide from his abilities. He summoned me to his chambers for another of his errands. I only got a brief glance, but I believed his journal was open. He signed the passage with his name. William.”
“It seems mundane if I’m being honest.”
“One of the most powerful men in the world, the leader of a church filled with devout followers, and his name is William. Bill.”
I snorted at the thought. It was the closest Lilith had come to making a joke. Was I the first person she told? Something some important, so close to the heart of the church, did she dare share it with anybody else? I wanted to believe that it was a secret we shared between only the two of us.
“And there is no record of who he was before becoming a Valentine?”
“None,” she said. “There are no records of him as a man before he found Nostradamus. There are no records of his time as a priest or a member of the parishioners. It’s as if one day he simply appeared.”
“I’m sure that helps support the miracles.”
“I see you,” she jested. I had said that exact phrase more times than I could count. My father and I had been devout followers of Nostradamus. Now, as the mystery behind the church came unraveled, I found it did little to affect my faith. I did not worship the Valentine or hold them on a pedestal as many did. I believed that at one point there was a man, a prophet, and he foresaw the future where man and gods coexisted.
“I still believe,” I admitted.
“In the church?”
I shook my head despite her not being able to see it. “No, not the church. I believe in Nostradamus. I still believe that he foresaw the rise of the Children.”
“And his daughter?”
“Nostradamus had six children.”
“Not his children by blood. Eleanor, the great daughter of Nostradamus.”
Since Nostradamus, there had only been one other person with the ability to see the future. Eleanor, the patron saint of hardship and lost causes. There were entire sects of the Church of Nostradamus dedicated to her worship.
“I suppose. But I’ll be honest, Visionary School never mentioned her.”
“Your futures will be a struggle to illuminate a darkness that will fall on future days.”
“What is that from?”
“Eleanor’s scripture. She wrote it to her chosen.”
“Her chosen?” Either I had spent far too much of Visionary School ignoring my elders, or Lilith had insight to bestow on the common worshipper. When this was over, perhaps I’d dedicate myself to studying the origins of the Church and those who founded it. There was solace in knowing I belonged to something greater than myself. The historian in me wanted to know how that belonging came into existence.
“Eleanor saw an impending evil, so she gathered her chosen,” Lilith said. “Children of Nostradamus capable of stopping this darkness, her Nighthawks.”
Nighthawks? The information on the drive grew more important.
I hurled the last bit of food from my stomach. Choppy waters mixed with a permanent knot in my stomach proved I would never be a pirate, or in this case an international smuggler. Lilith sat in the captain’s chair, staring forward, unfazed by the turbulence. I sat up, pulling my hair into a poofy ponytail and wiped my face clean, making sure I hadn’t wretched all over my clothes.
“Do you think they’re alive?”
She didn’t turn around as she spoke, a trait that was steadily growing on my fragile nerves. “Possibly. If I were in control of the synthetics, I’d want both of them secured. If they didn’t reveal other members of the Network, I’d tear apart their enhancements looking for stored feeds, geotags, even a manufacturing mark. I’d want every bit of information about the Network I could scavenge.”
“How did you know Halo?”
The pause was long enough I worried she didn’t hear the question. I opened my mouth to repeat it when she broke the silence. “They sent me to kill her.” It wasn’t the killing part, horrible yes, but her emotionless delivery made it even more frightful. She could see me about to ask a follow-up. “Her name wasn’t Halo then. She was a member of a covert military operation locating and extracting mentalists. The Valentine felt this went against their doctrine. My job was simple enough, search, gain intel, terminate.” Lilith’s face softened as her eyes drifted, staring at nothing.
“I found her. We fought. I won. She didn’t have nearly as many enhancements then. She refused to give me any information about her commanding officer or who they were using as informants. I tortured her.”
“You’re the reason she has the enhancements?” I said it before I processed what that meant. Had Lilith carved the woman’s face? And severed her arm? I didn’t know much about my protector, but that seemed cruel even for her.
“Some.” Lilith stood and walked over to where I I sat, my hands clasping the railing with a vice-like grip. “Things were different then. I was young and needed to belong to something bigger than myself. I took orders without questions.”
“The Valentine wants something from you. I suspect it’s your father. His legacy means enough for the Church of Nostradamus to get involved. It has the synthetic’s controller’s interested. You’re a pawn in this.”
“A smuggler nursed Halo back to health. Ironic, it was the same telepath who she had been tracking. People change if they’re given reason. I’m not a young girl blindly following orders. Do you know the lore behind Lilith?”
I knew it had something to do with Christianity. It had all but faded away, consumed by the growing Church of Nostradamus. Lilith had been mentioned early in their sacred texts. I had taken comparative religions as a freshman, but I’ll admit, I was too young to do more than the minimum necessary to get high marks. I shook my head.
“Lilith is the first wife of Adam, made from the same clay by God. When she refused to submit to him, he cast her out of Eden. Her name literally means monster of night.” The woman standing before me struck me as many things, but subservient was not one of them. “I am the thing the monsters fear.”
“And who are the monsters?”
“In this day and age, it’s easier to name those who aren’t monsters.” There was a sadness to the speech. The sun had faded and I couldn’t make out her face, but the tone held a bit of remorse, perhaps even longing. Lilith had proven to be a ferocious protector, but this was the first time I had seen through her thick exterior. I almost believed there was another human drifting in the lake with me. Perhaps the sacrifice of Halo and Francis softened that dense hide. I didn’t push, instead putting away further questions until she was in better shape.
“Get some rest. We’re heading to Detroit.”
“They’ll know that was our destination. We’re cutting through Detroit and heading south in New York. I have associates that can help us.”
Detroit. The city that manufactured most of the synthetic army. I tried not to dwell on how close we would come to thousands of metallic killing machines. It had been simple, take the hard drive and find my father. Now there was literally an entire fleet of killers between us and him.
I rummaged through my backpack and pulled out the Phantasm glasses. I needed a burst of sunshine and the sensation of my feet firmly planted on stable ground. The moment I slid them on, the tiny directional speakers muted the tumbling waves and the visor blocked out the stars hanging in the sky. Lights flashed as it calibrated, synching to my anatomy and infiltrating my brainwaves. They might not be as good as the suspension pod, but this was far more hi-tech than I expected. The sensation of the waxed wood under my hand grew distant as the glasses altered my brains perception of reality. Even shroud in absolute black, the real world faded away and for the first time in over an hour, my stomach thanked me.
Consumer model glasses come with a handful of manufactured scenarios. I wanted to be on a beach, the tiny grains of sand wedged between my toes. The hair on my arms would stand on end as I basked in the sun’s warmth. But the menu screen never loaded. Instead, I stood in the middle of cement buildings, on a grassy area in the middle of what appeared to be a college campus. I spotted the sign. New York University. It was an unusual destination for the Phantasm, but I let the scene play itself out.
It was cold, almost enough to need a jacket. I could see my breath and a shiver worked its way up my spine. I caught sight of my hands and realized they were my own and not a generic avatar. Whoever had sent me the glasses had custom made me a replica of myself.
A light flashed in the sky and everybody in the quad looked upward. A rolling wave of light flashed overhead again. It reminded me of heat lightning in the summer as the ground and air temperature waged war. The chill made it unlikely, but I was standing in a world where I could be a sword wielding dragon slayer.
“They’re coming,” said a nearby student. I was about to ask the teenager who when I noticed everybody on campus was staring at me. “They’re coming,” they all whispered. They were no longer looking to the sky. Now they stared at me, unblinking, whispering, terrifying.
“The future.” The single voice cut through the others and I spun about, expecting a person to be standing behind me. As I turned, the world shifted, transforming under my feet. The Phantasm obeyed no law of physics, no more coherent than the imagination. Whoever programmed this scenario had a disturbing sense of humor.
I stood in the streets of New York, looking toward the Twin Towers. I had seen photographs from a century ago, but standing within the Isolation gave me hope that I was on the right path. Would I see these monoliths of mankind’s ingenuity soon? Would I be standing in a landscape made of brick and mortar? The avatars filling the streets were human, but they moved in animalistic ways, jerky, as if on the prowl. Were these people the reason we had erected the perimeter? Were they what was left of mankind? I couldn’t recall the dates, but it must have been closer to the 21st century than the 23rd. What was the Phantasm attempting to show me? How did the two timelines link together?
Fire burst from the streets, rising into the sky like a massive wall. I had seen the city burn before. Whoever programmed this scene for me had attempted to reach out before. As the fire approached, the people were consumed, incinerated until nothing remained. The hair on my arms stood on end, bracing for the rush of heat. I threw my arms up to protect my face. A lukewarm sensation flooded my skin and vanished.
The street was replaced with a high school gym. There were tables covered in computers, except I was hovering above them, floating on nothing. Below I watched as two men argued and a third man shot one of the others. I did not understand what any of it meant. I couldn’t make out who was the good guy and who was the bad. All three, including the corpse, whispered again. “They’re coming.”
On the opposite side of the gym, hovering in the shadows, I saw him. The man from my last encounter in the Phantasm. I couldn’t make out his face or any of his features. He merely watched, an observer to another scene of death. I tried to force myself forward, but I remained suspended in the air, levitating against my will.
The screen went blank. I could suddenly feel the rocking of the boat and the hum of the motor pushing us through the waves. There was somebody else out there, trying to reach me. Could it be my father? Was the man trying to make contact in the Phantasm my father? There were too many coincidences happening at once. I couldn’t explain it, but Lilith had said it, I was a pawn in a bigger game. I believed her. There were more players than I could sort out, each of them tugging me in a direction. I had no idea who was friend or foe or which direction would lead me to safety. I pondered telling Lilith, but even she had made it clear, “Trust no one.” This felt like a secret worth keeping.
Ask me debate corporate intrusion into Free Republic politics and I can fight like a champ. But ask me to make a stand against death machines sent to capture me, my feet turn to lead and fleeing becomes difficult. I can do nothing but gawk and pray to Nostradamus for divine intervention. There were no more angels left to protect mankind. Instead, we turned to monsters lurking in the night.
“Francis, light ‘em up.” Did I hear Halo correctly? The cyborg meant to save my life had a proper English name? I barely had time to imagine him as a child in attending Visionary school. A burst of light projected from his raised arm. Four lasers spun about his arm fast enough the light appeared to to criss-cross in an elegant pattern. The beautiful lights hit a synthetic and bore a hole through its chest before he pointed at the next machine.
The synthetics jumped out of the way like scattering insects. Crawling on all fours, their shoulder pointed in our direction. Lilith jumped behind the woman and I dropped to the floor. Both cyborgs held up their arms, the metal flipping open to create shields to protect their faces and torsos. Bullets pelted the metal and even a laser pulsed, striking their bodies but doing no harm.
“Those are new,” Lilith said. She had the knife drawn. It seemed smaller than before, or perhaps it appeared smaller because of the size of the situation. I didn’t want Lilith to be holding a knife, I wanted her to be wielding a rocket launcher. No, I wanted her driving a tank and mowing down—
Halo reached into an opening in her thigh and produced a long rope. Lilith took the moment to pivot around the woman and hurled her knife at an oncoming synthetic. The blade sunk into the cranium, a precision hit from almost thirty feet away. The synthetic didn’t fall down like the others, but it staggered as it tried to assess the situation. I had been wrong; she didn’t need a bigger weapon, just more of them.
The rope hanging at Halo’s side glowed a vibrant blue and as a cat-like synthetic lunged; she brought it back and snapped it forward. It wasn’t a rope. It was a whip and as the blue end wrapped around the synthetic, the blue flared. A yank and the rope seared through the metal of the machine. The moment it was free, she repeated the action, snaring it around the wrist of another machine.
Francis ran toward the remaining four, his arms shielding his head and heart. The synthetic sat upright, grabbing his arm and struggling to expose his body. I swore the man’s muscles thickened as he grappled with the machine. The lights in his right arm pulsed, burning away part of the machine’s skull while removing its entire left arm. Grabbing onto the thing’s face, he jerked backward, ripping away part of the skull. The synthetic tried to grab at Francis’s hands. Overpowered and refusing to submit, a second pulse from Francis’s arm penetrated the exposed skull.
“Lilith,” he yelled, “help us.” Lilith appeared to be the underdog. There were no flashy limbs or storage compartments filled with high-tech weapons. But what she lacked in bulk she made up for in an elegant prowess. She ran, jumped, and somersaulted around a barrage of bullets from a synthetic on all fours. It leapt into the air, determined to throw her to the ground, but she slid underneath it. Had she fought enough of them to know their tactics? Or was she just that skilled? If we won, I’d ask.
She reached the staggering synthetic and pulled her knife free. Another jab and twist of the blade left it in rubble. Lilith chucked the blade. A synthetic grabbed her leg and pulled her down while the blade sank into the skull of a synthetic getting dangerously close to me. Her aim was deadly, as was her confidence in knowing she’d strike the machine and not me. It continued crawling toward me, it’s body smacking against the ground attempting to carry out its mission. I scurried to my feet, looking for a place to hide in the open room.
“Dammit,” I cursed. I inched closer to the machine, taking care to watch the gun mounted on its back. It could shoot and still kill me, it had a clear shot. But it didn’t. Whoever sent the synthetics didn’t want me dead. I had more questions. But for now, I grabbed Lilith’s knife and twisted it as I pulled. I had to put my weight into it. Leaning back, it jerked free and the synthetic’s limbs froze. I had just gone from completely useless to mostly useless.
The pressure suddenly dropped, and the floor wobbled under my feet. I had the sudden urge to hurl as if I had been drinking a bit too much wine. One synthetic stood upright, its back to me. I couldn’t be sure, but it appeared if its chest compartment had opened. The deep bass pulsing sent the other three to the ground. Lilith tried to crawl, but the synthetic pointed its palm in her direction and the pulse undulated until she collapsed. Their lethal arsenal was impressive, but the real sight was a synthetic’s ability for non-lethal crowd control. I had witnessed the bursts of sound before in a food riot. Even the cyborgs curled into tight balls, unable to resist.
Even though the tactic wasn’t directed at me, the fluid in my ear vibrated to where I could hardly stand. I willed myself upright, certain I’d hurl from the rumblings in my stomach. One foot in front of the other, two steps turned to three. For the moment, they wanted us alive. It was my time to shine, to show I was more than useless.
I clenched the knife tighter, focusing on the textured black handle. The sound was both loud and oddly quiet. My associates had dispatched five synthetics, but it only took one. The artificial intelligence had declared Halo and Francis as expendable, but they wanted Lilith and me. It was a mistake. I shoved the knife into the back of its skull, the nearly invisible blade penetrated the metal. I pushed as hard as I could and slammed the heel of my other hand on the butt of the blade. It slipped through. I refused to be useless. I was on a mission and a tin bucket would not stop me.
It turned, batting me with its arm. Without effort it flung me from its back. The knife pulled free and as I collapsed onto my butt; the machine froze in place. I had done it. I had made myself useful. I killed a synthetic.
The victory didn’t last as Lilith ran over to me, took her knife and pulled me to my feet. Even Halo and Francis were checking their weapons. I thought we had won, but the speed in which they moved suggested otherwise. Lilith must have seen the confusion on my face. “That was the scouting party. More are coming.” And as if on cue, I could hear the vibration of vehicles crashing through the front of the pier.
“You need to run,” Halo shouted.
“We’ll buy you as much time as we can,” Francis added.
“Thank you.” It was the first time I heard Lilith offer any amount of civility. It didn’t surprise me that in the heat of the battle, that was when she was most human. A scary human, yes, but a human none-the-less.
“Not for you,” Halo said, “for Walker.”
“Tell him we say, hello,” Francis said. I had so many questions. I didn’t want to leave them behind. They knew something about my father, answers about who he really was. But as glints of metal started to show, synthetics poured into the pier, climbing walls and running along the floors, I knew they were willing to sacrifice themselves for a debt owed to my father. I took pride in whatever he had done for them.
Lilith grabbed my hand and tugged at me. We ran from the building toward the end of the pier. They had tied a single boat to the dock. It was less of a helping hand and more of a shove as she hurled me into the back of the boat. With a cut of the rope, we were free. I turned to watch as the building lit up. There was gunfire and the bright red of lasers. I tried to ignore Halo’s screams cutting through the air. A moment later there was nothing but the splash of water against the boat. The engine roared to life as Lilith took command and we sped away from the pier, another near death experience tacked on to an already busy day.
Four drones overhead followed, but the synthetics were contained on land. The only benefit of being in a boat, we were watched, but not chased. At the moment, it didn’t seem we were a big enough catch to pull out the airships, not yet at least. Lilith pulled out a rifle, even with the choppy water six shots, four destroyed drones.
For the moment, we were safe, if drifting aimlessly in Lake Michigan could be considered safe. The Valentine encouraged this mission, but Lilith said he couldn’t be trusted. My father was part of the network and the cyborgs owed him a debt. I eyed my bag. What was on the hard drive that was so important? And how did my father and the Children of Nostradamus tie together?
I stared at the bruising on my hand, the indents of Lilith’s knife leaving tiny welts. Things were changing, and it was obvious few of them would be good. But even if tonight was categorized as a defeat, I had one small victory.
Lilith hadn’t spoken since we left the tunnels. I wanted to ask her if she needed medical attention, but the moment I tried to gain ground and catch up, Pill-R stopped me by grabbing onto my hand. The short man shook his head, his unfortunate facial hair blowing up into his nose and mouth. She had just risked her life to save us, I could give her space for the moment. She’d earned it.
The pier. Once a spectacle for tourists, filled with restaurants, arcades and even an amusement park, now deserted and considered part of the slums. The pier reached into Lake Michigan, one of the largest supplies of drinking water and now a protected resource. Few boats traveled its waters and nearly all the beaches were closed. It remained beautiful, but it was beautiful to see, not to touch. A little slip of paper won in an auction said it was our destination. The rendezvous fast approached and somewhere on the pier we’d find transportation from Chicago into the Corruption.
“Do you know how we’re leaving the city?”
“Smugglers.” Pill-R’s single word answer provided about as much information as I expected. The sun was setting, and we were meandering through a section of Chicago known for its rowdy population. We had seen several pairs of synthetic patrols, but so far no human police. The lack of human officers made the situation that much more worrisome. I was less worried about being shot by a synthetic, and more so being mugged and robbed at gunpoint. It would be the perfect end to a horrific day.
“There.” Lilith paused at the mouth of the alley. We had to cross at least a dozen lanes of roads and over tufts of patchy grass in a park and we’d be at the pier. Between, there was almost no coverage. A drone would easily spot us and it’d only be a matter of time before synthetics descended on the structure and we’d be without an escape.
“No way to hide. Must be a fast transaction, yes.” Even Pill-R saw the dilemma in front of us.
“This is where we say goodbye. I owe the 5.”
“We will watch, Lilith. We always watch.” That sounded more ominous than I expected from the hacker. I didn’t know if this was a hugging situation or a be on our merry way. The hacker reached into his pocket and pulled out a thin strip of plastic. “The 5 seek to expose all information. We will support you, yes. Keep this with you and we will find you in the Phantasm.” I had seen the piece of plastic before, a phone of sorts, a way to speed dial your contacts. I placed it behind my left ear, pressing it against my skin until the adhesive bonded.
“Thank you, Pill-R. I hope we won’t need more of your help.”
“We know that is false. Safe journeys, yes.”
And like that, he walked into the alley and vanished around a turn. If I had access to my tablet, I’d research more about this infamous, “5.” But for now, the propaganda about their destructive espionage didn’t seem as truthful, at least I hoped it wasn’t.
“Eyes down and stay close. Drunken lovers for a stroll, you read me?”
“You’re not really my type, but sure.” She didn’t see the humor. I couldn’t imagine what made this woman laugh. She didn’t strike me as the puppies and rainbows kind of girl. So far the black market had been where she shined the most, that and destroying two synthetics with her bare hands. I imagined she was the type of woman who would throw flowers in the garbage but would swoon over a new pistol. No, rifle, definitely a big rifle, with lasers.
Her acting was uncanny. I assumed she spent more than her share of nights intoxicated on cheap booze and hanging off the shoulder of a man she was about to take home. She held my hand tightly, occasionally staggering, making us veer from one direction to the next. I nearly froze when the whirring sound of a drone approached. She didn’t miss a beat, turning to me and grabbing my face. As it slowed overhead, she pulled me close, her lips smashed against mine. I had given little thought to my first girl-on-girl kiss, but she wasn’t half bad, if not intense. She wrapped her arms around me and we fell into the grass. She kept the back of her head covering my face. Her lusty advances were skilled subterfuge, and I wondered how many times she had used this trick before.
Her body stiffened as the drone continued off toward the financial district. I couldn’t tell what was more unnerving, nearly being spotted by authorities or how soft her lips were. “Despite what you think, your idea of a first date sucks.” The corner of her lip curled, and I thought I nearly broke through. Would she smile?
”My first dates involve more punching.” I shook my head. Nope, not surprised, not even in the slightest.
She pulled me to my feet, and we drunkenly worked our way to the pier. The massive building that stood in the middle had seen better days. Most of the roof had collapsed and the side of the building seemed held up by reinforcement columns fighting a losing battle. At its height, I imagined this building had been beautiful, a beacon of joy. Now, it stood as a testament to a better time long gone. I was about to ask why they hadn’t torn it down when I spotted the massive GD on the front of the building. Genesis Division owned a hefty portion of Chicago. They bought every decaying structure. Chicago needed hope, the moments of joy inspired by the museums, concert halls and even the parks. Hope was almost as rare as food.
Lilith inspected the seems and when satisfied there was no security, pulled a piece of metal grating blocking the door to the side. Down the rabbit hole we went.
Graffiti artists had claimed the interior as their personal canvas. Every inch, crumbling or not was covered in beautiful designs, some new, some years or decades old. We walked past empty spaces where stores once stood. We could have been outside, walking along the pier, but I had to imagine Genesis Division would keep a watchful eye over their assets.
”Do you know who we’re meeting?”
”I know of them. They’re smugglers, taking a very select clientele north through the wall into Canada.” The Canadians had erected a perimeter fence to prevent an onslaught migration from the Free Republic. They were demonized in our history books, hoarders of wealth and resources. My father insisted they were anything but. Now I knew why.
”We’re going to Canada? Isn’t that the long way around?”
”Into Canada, then we’ll travel east and slip through the wall in Maine. Nobody goes into the Outlands, it’ll be easy to sneak in.”
“How long will it take?” I don’t know why, but this adventure felt timely, and her insistence on taking the scenic route didn’t sit well with me. I wanted to be in the Outlands as quickly as possible.
”A month unless we can find reliable transportation. We have a better chance of finding an unregistered car in Canada than here.”
I didn’t like it at all. The longer I evaded the authorities, the more chance there was for them to send additional resources. If Genesis Division took an interest in one of their employees stealing information about Children, we’d be screwed. Synthetics would come for us, police would come for us, bounty hunters would come for us.
The building opened up as we neared the end. The two story structure had once been floor to roof windows overlooking the water. It was depressing to see so much grandeur reduced to rubble. If it hadn’t been built to withstand the waters, I feared Genesis Division would let it wash away entirely, another monument of our past lost forever.
”Stop. Right. There.” Shit.
I froze. Lilithhowever took a slight step forward, her hand reaching behind her back slowly. Her fingers were inches from the knife. “Touch the blade and lose your arm.”
”We’re here for the rendezvous,” I blurted out. “We need passage.”
Lilith could yell at me later when we were safely stowed away. Did she always resort to violence first? If talking got us somewhere, it’d save us the effort of fighting to the death again. I mean, Lilith fighting to the death, I would hide and pray she survived.
”I need help. The police—“
”We don’t care your reasons.” I gasped loud enough everybody in the room could hear. I joked about Lilith being more machine than woman, but the man stepping out of the shadows was just that. There were plenty of enhanced people, but few reached the level of being seen as a cyborg. With silver arms and half his face made of metal, there was no doubt he’d spent an uncanny time in a Body Shop. A sign of money was to have enhancements but look as if you were nothing but original parts. He didn’t seem bothered by appearances.
”Lilith?” A woman jumped from a perch in the rafters. Her feet splintered the flooring. Like her male counterpart, she wore her synthetic limbs with pride. The left side of her body from neck down was metallic as was her left leg from the knee down.
“Halo,” Lilith’s hand inched closer to the blade. “Still running?”
”No thanks to you.” Oh great, another one of Lilith’s friends who might kill us. She seemed to have as many enemies in her contact list as she did friends.
“We need passage to Canada,” Lilith stated.
”Why?” Asked the man.
”I thought reasons didn’t matter?” I replied.
“They do when you’re traveling with her.” He didn’t like her anymore than Halo. Great.
The man and woman paused, looking toward the ceiling. I stared up, half expecting another person to drop from the rafters. “They’re here.” She said. I didn’t know who they were, but I know I didn’t want to be here when they arrived.
”My name is Madison Walker. I’m trying to find my father. I need to get to the Out—“
”Walker?” Halo turned to the man. The fading light outside reflected off the metal. They both appeared almost statuesque. I could tell by the expression on their faces they had heard the name before.
“You know my father?”
They might have replied, perhaps told me something about my father that would have explained his involvement in the Network. They might have, except for the synthetics dropping through the rotted ceiling. Two, four, six, they started to descend. It was like before, except fewer people to stop slow their approach. Had I known stealing the hard drive would have led to this… No. I would have still done it. I needed to know.
”Run,” I yelled. Running meant a chance. Running meant survival. Running meant fighting another day. But neither smuggler ran. Even Lilith turned around as we passed them. What came next was terrifying, not the killing machines, those were programmed to be scary.
The scariest thing in that room were three humans unwilling to run.
Alarms traveled through the upgrades in Chicago’s underworld. Alerts appeared in the eyes of the patrons and sirens must have sounded in the auditory enhancements. Lilith grabbed me by the hand, her grip far stronger than I anticipated. Pill-R gave her a nod and pointed to a metal hatch near the back of his vendor space. Later, Lilith explained he paid extra to be close to an escape. As we cleared tables filled with junk, he pulled a wire from one of his servers and slid it into a port just behind his right ear. Pill-R didn’t computers. He was living tech.
I’m a college student at a respected university. I shouldn’t know what gunfire sounds like. I shouldn’t have empirical proof that a bullet entering the forehead causes the rear of the skull to explode. I shouldn’t know any of this, but I do.
I have witnessed the very definition of a massacre. Even as the black market dealers returned fire, synthetics tore their way through the entrance. Their bodies lit up as bullets ricocheted. They fired into the crowd with frightening accuracy. Those unfortunate to be within arms reach were eviscerated. Sword-like fingers punched into a man as a forearm mounted gun blew through his body. These weren’t peacekeepers, these were the boogeymen people feared.
I found myself rooting for the gang members. The killers and drug dealers, I wanted them to fight back and win. I didn’t approve of them destroying my city or poisoning our kids, but I didn’t want them to die. If it was going to be imperfect humans or soulless machines, I would always cheer on those with a heart.
I had to shield my eyes as a something struck one of the synthetics causing an explosion. The air in the room vibrated. Whatever they fired, it sent the two robots into the stone, shredding them into scrap metal. The pressure in my ears made it difficult to hear and nearly impossible to stand. As quickly as those two fell, they were replaced by two more, and then another two. Everybody in that room was going to die.
“Hurry,” Pill-R skipped formalities as he yanked on my arm, pulling me through the small hatch. Lilith braced her foot against the wall and tugged on the door. The woman was only an inch or two taller than me and perhaps ten pounds heavier. Her muscles strained as she pulled at the circular door. Whoever had performed Lilith’s upgrades had been careful to hide their work, nowhere on her body could I find the familiar scars.
With a grunt, she jerked the door shut and our world went dark. The barrier didn’t stop the yelling or the screams of dying of humans. There’s was a second explosion. With so many men and women infused with technology, I prayed they’d have a fighting chance. They deserved life in prison, not being eradicated under a train terminal.
I grabbed a small flashlight from my backpack. By the time I flipped it on, Lilith and Pill-R were already down the tunnel. I was glad to know my protector and her weird hacker friend were concerned about my safety. I get it, we’re all trying to survive, but they could do it without being assholes.
We spend the next ten minutes coming to splits and small rooms with half a dozen exits. Pill-R continues leading us and I wondered if he’s done this before or if he’s somehow seeing a map of the tunnels in his ocular enhancement. I kept pausing to look over my shoulder, but at that point, it didn’t sound like we’re being followed. I was thankful, Pill-R may be a world renowned hacker, but I think too much time in an office chair rendered him useless to fight. While Lilith might fair better, I couldn’t imagine she’d…
They both froze and I barrelled into them. The large chamber joined multiple tunnels. We were far enough away from the action I couldn’t hear the screams, but I still didn’t feel safe.
“Shh,” Lilith said as she pressed the button on my flashlight. It went dark. I’ve always heard when one sense is useless, the others step up their game. I can assure you, standing in a pitch black room did not give me super hearing. Other than Pill-R dragging his heels on the floor, I couldn’t hear a thing. He took my hand, backing me against a wall, I can’t make up or down. I had no idea what he could see that my human eyes couldn’t make out. Reaching out, Lilith had deserted us.
My blood turned to ice as red dots appeared down one of the corridors. Synthetics. I couldn’t tell how many there were. Metal scraped along the cement and the thin beams of light moved until one centered on me We’re about to die and all I could focus on is that the hacker’s hand isn’t reciprocating my death grip. I assumed in his line of work he’d be used to the safety of his home office, but perhaps he had more than a passing familiarity with life or death encounters.
The red dot zipped up my body, catching my left eye before it vanished entirely. Metal grinding against metal. I heard the servos in the machines wheezing as they attempted to react. A gun fired and in a burst of light I made out Lilith, weaving between two robots. I reached for the flashlight flipping it on.
The head of one synthetic rolled off its body. While I shone the light terrified, Lilith moved as if the synthetics should fear her presence. Spinning out of the way, she dropped and knocked one robot off its legs. Whatever she is held in her hand sliced through its arm, sending it and the gun on its forearm clanking against the ground.
I started to walk forward. I couldn’t let her fight those god-damn robots on her own. Pill-R grabbed me, stopping me in my tracks. The machine kicked Lilith in the torso, knocking her against the tunnel wall. Even with enhancements, she’d be bruised, a perfectly shaped footprint on her stomach.
The machines refused to surrender.
Lilith pushed off the wall, launching herself at the machine. A blade flashed. The tip of the knife sunk into the synthetic’s skull while she caught its hand. She relinquished the blade, slamming her palm against the inside of its elbow, snapping the arm in half. A synthetic could lift me off my feet without effort, and here Lilith tore its limbs free. This wasn’t her first time dealing with Chicago’s enforcers.
The headless synthetic grappled with her leg. With a stomp of her heel, it flattened on the stone. Several more kicks and the power source surged and a blinding orange light filled the cavern. She didn’t slow, pulling her knife free and sheathing it in a well-rehearsed motion. She hurled the standing synthetic against the wall. Two blows from the palm of her hand its chest cavity collapsed inward.
The light caught her eyes, tiny silver orbs. Ocular enhancements. Lilith might be closer to machine than human, but at that moment, I was grateful. She dispatched two synthetics without effort. She has a story, a complicated one. Lilith might not be the person I wanted, but she was the person I needed.
“That was amazing.”
“I hate machines.” Irony. I’d let it slide.
“We are near the exit. We can go now, yes?”
Pill-R, was an awkward little man, but between the two of them, they were all I had. I didn’t think stealing a hard drive would put me under Chicago, fighting for my life. I didn’t think I’d be a fugitive hiding with a hacker and an agent of the church. But there we were.
“Are you ready for what’s next?”
Lilith asked as if being part of a police raid and watching dozens of people be slaughtered was only the opening act. Did my father experience this? When he claimed to be at the university working late, was he partaking in this world? Every step further led to more questions. I was starting to wonder if I truly knew my father.
I nod. “We have a rendezvous to make.”
Lilith asked if I was ready, but nothing prepared me for what came next.
Haven has a set of rules unlike anything in the surface world. There are guns on the hip of every patron, and while hands hover close by, sometimes even on the stock, they are never drawn. I would assume that money would reign supreme, but more often than not, I can hear the patrons discussing trade. Food serves as a currency in the city beneath Chicago. The rocket launcher from early is nearly a month worth of rations. I have to wonder if Haven exists to fill a need by the surface dwellers? How many people above us even know Haven exists?
Pill-R, our world renowned hacker has been inspecting my hard drive for nearly six hours. He mumbles to himself and every time he says, “Do you know who I am?” I roll my eyes. Before Lilith ventured into Haven, she gave me a simple command, “Stay.” Of course, my first instinct is to wander away. I’ll show her who’s boss, even if I am shot in the process.
What I find even more shocking than the guy next to me with a three fingered metallic arm and shotgun strapped to his leg, my father knew about Haven. Lilith returned to her strong silent demeanor when I asked her for more information. Who comes up with these names, Watchers? The Network? The Five? My father is part of the Network, people cultivated by the church for some ominous reason, and somehow I’m a pawn in their plan. Was the promotion a a recruitment ploy? Or were they using me to gain access to the Children of Nostradamus? And if they were, why did I lose the position so quickly? Was there somebody out there trying to stop them?
I find Lilith bartering with a man over a table near the center of the vendor area. The man is nearly twice her size. His broad shoulders and bulging muscles are the product of hard work, not the gym. His exposed shoulder had a collection of tattoos, the faces of a woman and two children. Whatever they were discussing she didn’t find the terms agreeable and he stood upright with a smug look and folded his arms. Lilith holds up more fingers, raising her offer and he continues shaking his head. Whatever he wants in trade, money won’t suffice. As I approach, she’s giving the man the finger, prepared to walk away. I reach into my bag and pull out a dehydrated meal.
“That’ll cover her.”
Will it? I mean, I’m not exactly sure of the exchange rates down here. His demeanor changes as his eyes widen ever so slightly. Lilith’s face is stark, cold, and I can see she’s playing the barter game. I raise my eyebrow and start reaching for the meal. The man puts his hand on it. “Lilith, you should have told me you have a new benefactor. I like her far better than the priests.” Really? Does everybody know about the Watchers but me?
He starts to hand a data chip to Lilith but his arm swings about and presents me with the chip. “It’s a pleasure doing business with you.” Lilith is irked. I take it with a smile. I like her irked.
As we walk toward her hacker’s station, she leans in close. “That meal was worth twice as much as the chip. He would have eventually caved.” At least from behind, she can’t see me smiling. We got what we wanted and his kids will eat today. Lilith is proving a lack of humanity, or at least a very self centered view of the world. While she sees compassion as a sign of weakness, I know better. Perhaps during one of our bonding sessions she’ll reveal who made her such a frigid bitch?
Pill-R waves us over. He’s found something. There is a smug sense of satisfaction on his face. It seems as if Lilith only associates with people with egos large enough to fill the room. I’m not overly impressed, but as I see the screen filling with images and page after page of data, I can see that his confidence is well founded. I can see flashes, a repeating image. “Can you adjust the speed of the display? Slow it just a bit.” My lack of complimenting makes him grunt, but he does what I ask. There is a repeating image and as he adjusts the image, it flashes in perfect time, the circular hawk.
“The Nighthawks.” What are the chances for coincidence? The Nighthawks are spoken about by the church with such reverence, they take on a myth like quality. Every question in my mind comes to a screeching halt as I see Lilith’s face. She’s consumed by the circular hawk, her eyes distant, almost to the point where I worry she’s gone comatose. Hours ago I would said I trusted nobody, but I trust her now. I don’t know what it is yet, but Lilith has made this personal. Something about the Nighthawks speaks to her. I’m not sure what it is, but I think we have a similar destiny.
“That’s the last file.”
There is a woman on the screen, another of Sean Carlson’s sketchbook drawings. “Who?”
“Jasmine Gentile,” Lilith speaks as if she spoke a god’s name. She has. “She’s known as the original Paladin. She worked for the military. She received her calling and joined the Nighthawks. She fought by their side to help save the world.” The Paladins were a covert team of Children working for the government, nobody knew how many, or what exactly they did. Mostly they served as celebrities giving the appearance that the military worked side-by-side with Children. I found it suspect.
Pill-R handed me a datapad as the download from the hard drive finished. With a couple clicks I could hear him sighing. “So much data, gone. I wish it didn’t have to be this way, yes.” While I fit the data pad into my backpack, Pill-R snatched at the package I received the day I fled my apartment. His implants saw something I couldn’t. I was about to protest as he unwrapped it. Phantasm goggles, expensive ones by the look of it. He turned them over, inspecting the case, looking for something.
“They are without a serial, yes.” He pointed to the bottom like that made sense. “Somebody has given you an incredibly valuable gift, yes.” He pointed to the side, in hand rendered paint I could make out the “5.” “We watch over you Madison Walker, we do.” He handed them to me with a gleeful and giddy smile. I shove the package into my backpack along with the datapad.
“You will need transport from the city, yes?”
Lilith points at the pocket that held the data chip. “Our friend Madison managed to secure the meetup location. We’ll be leaving tonight.”
Lillith is not an ideal travel companion. She leads and expects me to follow. I ask questions and she rolls her eyes. She is not entertained with my resistance. The woman isn’t hostile, but she is aggressive. She warned me the first night on the street, trust nobody. It seems as if she lives by this creed. Currently I am a nobody.
There are areas of Chicago I’ve never set foot in, I expected to head there, perhaps to the west side. Between the gangs and the obscene crime, even cops are hesitant to enter. However, Lillith leads me into the city, to the Loop, one of the busiest places in the world. I question, she ignores. I’m not playing this game.
“No. I’m not moving another foot until you answer some questions.”
Granted, a dank alley filled with bins of trash wasn’t the most luxurious place to make a stand. I thought she’d punch me, or maybe shout. She struck me as a shouter. She approached until she forced my back against a wall. She didn’t touch me, or even lift a finger, but she knew how to be intimidating. She didn’t scare me. Mostly.
“Where are we going?”
She didn’t speak. I think that’s her thing. Being silent gives you the appearance of being dangerous. I nearly got jumped the night before by a trio of men. I broke into a secure facility and stole classified information. Right now, the only dangerous thing about her were her fashion choices.
“Lillith, first wife of Adam. She flew away when he tried to control her. Is that even your real name?”
“Madison Walker. Graduate student at the University of Chicago, employed by the Archivists. You recently received a promotion and had it taken away. Your father…” she trailed off. She knew something about my father.
“What about him? What do you know?” I surprised myself when I pushed forward, causing her to take a step back. She wasn’t getting away without answering that. “Tell me, now.”
“We’re called Watchers. We’re raised by the Church of Nostradamus, orphans. Those of us who stay, observe the world for them. We’re part of the Network. Ever wonder how information about the Church remains a secret? The Network.”
One speech shone more light on the Church of Nostradamus than a decade of Visionary School. The casual way she said it, the sheer nonchalant exposure, she believed we were sheep. But, if what she said were true…my mind could hardly plunge into the cascading repercussions this might have.
“My father was part of the Network.”
“Did you question your promotion?”
No. No, I did not. I was a hard worker, I earned a promotion. Though, I did recall being shocked by the division they promoted me to. I had never worked with Children before, and typically that required…
“The Church?” Holy shit.
“You keep saying that, but here I am trusting you.”
“Don’t. I could be working for the Church. I could be working for them. You don’t know me, Madison Walker.”
I’ve sat on the hiring committee for a dozen teaching candidates. If she thought her cryptic answers would deter my curiosity, she had another thing coming. No human alive could lie better than a professor when dodging inquiries about questionable material on their curriculum vitae. I’d find the break in her armor, wedge my curious foot in the crack, and then I’d beat her within an inch of her life. Figuratively that is. She’d kill me if I touched her.
“Why are we in the Loop?”
I nearly choked. She scouted the opening of the alley like it was a simple stroll through the park. Union Station might not be widely used these days, but the infrequent trains leaving the city required retina scans, facial recognition, and actually purchasing tickets. If her plan was to leave the city by rail, we were already good as caught.
“Lunch rush is in full swing. Keep your eyes low, do not look up.” She reached into a pocket on her leg. I have no idea how, the leather fit her like a glove. Lillith opened the tiny box. Contacts. That’s how she moved through the city undetected. Somehow, these little pieces of plastic disrupted the facial recognition software in the city’s computers. I hate contacts. I nearly gag as I put them in. As I fumble, I debated if it’d be easier to keep my eyes closed and pretend I were blind.
We move through the street. If it wasn’t for the facial recognition system, it’d be impossible to follow somebody during the lunch rush. Those working in the Loop generally had money. They went out for lunch. Those too poor went to the soup kitchens. Everybody moved with a purpose. We blended in. I kept my eyes down, following her boots. Dress shoes, sandals, lots of sneakers, passed by. It only cleared as we approached Union Station. Very few people travel by train. The steps were empty as we walked in.
She stopped. The interior of the building was from another era. There was marble in every direction, beautiful Art Deco lines blended in with the greek columns. We walked down the stairs toward the massive room that had once been packed with travelers. A quick right put us heading toward the trains. Eventually we’d need to be scanned to enter, faces, eyes, hands, even our tickets. But we turned again, going down stairs toward what might have been the bathrooms. A utility door put us behind the scenes, where workers might travel to avoid the busy crowds. It was when she placed a hand on a scanner to a door I nearly shrieked.
It’s not really a hallway, more like a passage. It’s another twenty minutes of walking and zigging before zagging. I can tell we’re in the underbelly of Union Station. I can hear people, lots of them. The final door is like a wall of steel. Cameras scan our eyes, and I wonder what shows up on the computer on the other end. The hydraulics shift and slide and the door opens. Men on the other side are holding rifles but she walks through as if she owns the place.
It’s a flea market, except they’re not selling knitted goods or their mother’s literary collection. More than one gang tattoo is visible. More than one gun is resting on the hip of each patron. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of people milling about, inspecting tables and racks of items I can’t even begin to describe. I see guns, computers, even synthetics all haggled for between patrons and proprioters.
“What is this place?”
“Haven.” Sure. She says it like that explains everything. I want to slap her. But I don’t want to get slapped back. Somehow I can imagine in a place like this, there is a constant threat of violence. However, it seems peaceable enough. The threat of every man and woman carrying enough fire power to level a police station probably forces a temporary truce.
There are hackers. They wear glasses that cover one eye, allowing them to see their work as they type away on invisible keyboards. I have to wonder if the man who showed up in my Phantasm simulation was somewhere down here? Had he interrupted my feed to have himself a little pervy moment?
A rocket launcher. Cute. I wonder if I have enough change in my pocket to buy one of those. Oh, maybe I’ll buy myself a new face. I’m pretty sure I saw a man having an arm replaced. What was the going rate? Did Watchers come with unlimited funds?
Ultimately she took me to a man nestled in a side room. He wore high end glasses. By the time I caught up, she was laughing. Up to this point, I thought she had her personality erased. Perhaps in her underworld element, she felt more at ease.
“Harddrive, yes, please.”
How did she…I’m going to stop asking questions. Apparently she knows everything about me and I’m just a pawn in this. I still haven’t figured out why she’s helping me, or why she scanned me for trackers placed by the Valentine. Was she going rogue? Did free agents truly exist in this day and age?
“It’s geolocked. I can’t access the information before they trace it. It needs…” I realize he’s not amused with my statement. Obviously I’ve insulted some sort of mega hacker. Along the side of his face there is a tattoo, no, more of an old school brand. A giant number “5” covers from his ear down to his neck.
“He’s one of the 5.”
“You say stuff like that it makes sense.”
“He’s the best.”
He grabs my hard drive plugging it in, it comes to life. At any moment, we’ll be swarmed by police. He makes weird grunts and smiles at whatever he’s seeing in his glasses.
“Accessible, but will require time, yes. There is one file, see.”
His fingers click on a screen we can’t see. He’s fast. He’d make an incredible addition to the archivist team. I wonder if any of my co-workers might be hackers? Some were definitely…
“Art. Sean Carlson, artist of Children.”
Holy shit, a Nighthawk.
Nighthawks by Sean Carlson https://www.seancarlsonart.com
By midday the church is busy. I spent the better part of an hour lurking across the plaza, watching the needy go in and out of the doors. It has one of the strongest community programs in the state. From a food kitchen to rehab, to spiritual guidance, they mend bodies and souls. There are moments when I feel in utter awe of how a religion barely two centuries old has managed to root itself in Chicago.
My shirt smells of damp and the hoodie I found in the basement has more holes than it does fabric. I would say I fit in with the homeless. Reality sets in; I am homeless. If I lie to myself and say I’m an adventurer, does that change the lost feeling? Positive mindset, here I come.
The soup kitchen is amazing. I grab a bowl of tomato soup and a half-slice of grilled cheese to keep up appearances. It’s not the hundred people dining that amazes me, it’s the lack of white noise. I would expect it to be filled with sounds of chewing, talking, even parents yelling at their children. Nothing. Silence. This is more unsettling than the fact these people rely on this midday meal to survive. For many, it may be their only meal.
When I sit next to a father and her daughter, neither raise their eyes. I push my sandwich slowly across the way until it’s nearly touching the young girl’s plate. Her father looks up. I’m not sure if it’s worry, or concern, but there is a distrust in his face. With a quiet, “I see you,” he nods and pushes the sandwich onto his kids plate. I scan the room to make sure no eyes are on us and repeat the motion with the soup. He raises an eye and starts to protest. “A daughter needs her father,” I whisper. Maybe because he saw the wisdom in my words, or perhaps because I was about to cry, he swapped bowls with me and lowered his head. A hushed slurping began.
A hand touched my shoulder. I should have jumped, or at least stiffened, but the brothers and sisters of Nostradamus have a way about them. The hand held no judgement, no force, no sense of segregation. His voice wasn’t loud, far from it, but there was a tension. “Please come with me.” I stood slowly and as I prepared to walk away. He pointed at the tray. The father gave me a slight nod as I emptied the tray and put my plastic utensils into the trash.
I wanted to know how I had been identified. If I couldn’t hide within the church, there was little chance I would be capable of hiding from the watchful eye of the police.
“Within these walls, we see all that is and was.” Learn from our past, live in the now, be who the future needs us to be. I’ve heard similar sermons in Visionary School. But knowing the Valentine was a mentalist, I wondered if there was a subtle nuance to the words that meant they literally knew the thoughts and pasts of all within the walls.
“Why did you give that family your meal? You must be hungry?”
Odd question. “I saw a family in need.”
“Madison.” It wasn’t that he knew my name, Preachers always managed to know their subjects. It was the tone. He didn’t accept my answer. He gave me the chance to be honest, to speak my truth.
“A daughter needs her father.”
“And what does a father need?” Do they practice speaking in rhetoric? Is there a college class that teaches the ability to delve into the human soul? He wasn’t asking about the man in the soup kitchen, this was far more personal.
“He needs me to find answers. To finish what he started.”
There was no more speaking. The church is massive. There is no record about how many of the Church actually reside here. Their security is spoken about as if it were secured by some magical…a hacker perhaps? I had to wonder what type of institution would require so many safeguard, what exactly were they protecting against? Is there something illegal happening inside these halls? Or perhaps there is something outside they want to fortify against? For such a staple in the community, I’m shocked by how little we actually know. These are the questions I should have been asking at Visionary school.
“Madison Walker.” The Valentine’s voice is soothing and powerful all at once. Every time he speaks I can feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. He nods to his brother and I’m left with the interpreter of a prophet. He said we’d meet again, but I hadn’t expected it to be so soon and for me to have so many questions, none of them having to do with my faith in Nostradamus.
“Are you scared?”
Yes. More yes.
They do this, he didn’t want me to say the law. He didn’t want me to bring up being thrown in prison. He wanted some deeper self reflection. “It’ll be for nothing.”
“That you won’t find closure?” Seriously, they must take classes.
He walked. I followed. I have been in that church a thousand times, but this only the second time I was granted access into the private chambers of the Valentine. The room was similar to before, a single candle and nothing else. I tried to spot the holographic projectors, but either they were extremely well hidden, or so small I couldn’t make them out with the naked eye. There was something unnerving about a church this old having tech that advanced. Only the wealthy had access to late breaking technology. Did the church deal in silver?
“Madison Walker, are you ready for the arduous road ahead of you?”
“No.” I wasn’t going to lie to a Valentine. “But that’s never stopped me.”
“You will face challenges unlike any before. Despair will enter your heart. Tenacity will course through your body. I fear not for your physical well being, Madison. I fear that you will lose yourself in this quest.”
It had been two days, and already I understood what he meant. I could endure this physically, but mentally? I hadn’t thought it through.
“You will need allies.”
I was about to respond with a disheartening line about being alone. The door opened. She couldn’t be any older than me, but…the amount of leather on her. I could hear her squeak as she walked. My ratty hoodie definitely lacked her sex appeal.
“Lilith, will accompany you.”
Just like that, he gave me a guide to the Outlands? I didn’t know a thing about this woman, and having a companion thrust upon me felt a little awkward. It reminded me of those first dates where you just wish you could be done and over with it.
“We leave now.” I hoped for guidance, for a sign from Nostradamus that I was on the right track. What I got was a leather clad woman who looked like she frequented the rougher parts of town. I couldn’t object, I didn’t have time. The Valentine turned away from me and that was it. The last time I ever saw the man. What happened next was the most unsettling part of all.
Lilith walked down the hall, and grabbed me in close. I tried to fight, but she was incredibly strong. She held up a little black tube and ran it over my body. Whatever she found, she tossed it on the ground and slammed it with her heel. I could see the gold flicks in her eye, Body Shop enhancements. Maybe she had nano tech in her muscles giving her increased strength.
“I said, trust nobody.” I could smell the jasmine.
The sense of adventure vanished quickly. The first night I attempted to stay at a homeless shelter. Despite my clothes being freshly washed and looking well fed, I thought a shelter would be the fastest way to acclimate to my life on the run. In line with nearly a hundred folks much more in need than myself, I noted the woman admitting people had a device in her hand. Hand print scans are required to enter the shelter.
I slept on the street.
A young woman in a shawl stopped and gave me the once over. I thought I was about to get mugged or at least wrestle over my backpack. I could almost smell jasmine on her. “It don’t matter who you’re running from, trust no one. You sleep with your back to a wall and ready to keep running.” She collected herself, pulling the makeshift blanket closer about her body and shuffling off to wherever she called home. Near an old abandoned building, I put my back to the wall and made note of every escape route.
To say I slept is an over statement. I shivered. I cried. I tried to convince myself that I was doing the right thing. Doubt is my enemy, it encroaches on my survival. It nips at my heels and I can feel myself stumbling. I am Madison Walker. I have spent my entire life acting as I was told. For the first time, I am straying from the path, but I believe it’s the correct path. I do what I always do when I’m lost in a sea of uncertainties. I make lists.
Who do I know? I know Michael, but he’s out. I can’t talk to him without jeopardizing him. I know my father’s research assistant. She might be able to provide some missing detail I overlooked in his journals. I know…wait for it. Lists work. The Valentine of Chicago, arguably one of the most powerful people in the capitol. I have my who.
What do I need? I need somebody who can access the files on this hard drive without being detected. I need a master of computers. I need a hacker. How the hell do you find one of those? The moment I go into tech district, their drones are going to identify me. They say they’re not cataloging our retinas, but mine are already on file. I’ve heard there are underground Body Work shops, that’s kind of close right? I’m going from one illegal activity to the next.
Where do I need to be? I need safe passage out of the city. I need to make it from Chicago to Boston. I can’t fly. I can’t rent a car. I can’t hitchhike without being picked up by the police. I could steal a car? How the hell does one steal a car? Their GPS systems would pinpoint me within minutes. An old car? Maybe a junkyard will give me an old car with no tech in it. I might have enough money for that.
An hour before dawn I noticed a group of men approaching. There were another dozen homeless, tents made of cardboard and tarps. They didn’t point at the other people, they pointed at me. Had the woman given away the new person on the street? They tried to be nonchalant about it, but it was growing increasingly evident they wanted something I had. I was about to be mugged, robbed, and with my luck, stabbed.
Three of them, they spread out as the one in the middle approached. I was prepared. He ran. I pushed off the wall. My body slammed into his and he staggered out of the way. I’m not strong, nor am I fast. But I am desperate. When the second man reached for me, he missed, grabbing onto the strap of my backpack. My father would be proud. Heel to his instep. Elbow to the nose. I ran. They chased, but I’ll chalk it up to good nutrition. I was faster.
A woman cheered as I ran. I didn’t look back. I continued down the street to where the condemned buildings out numbered the inhabited. I only slowed as I crept through an alley between two buildings where they once housed the trashcans. I found the boards covering the basement windows were loose enough for me to pull them back. I slid my way inside the basement of an old house and scurried to the corner where bags of old clothes smelled of rot. I didn’t care. I was tired. I was scared.
I have never broken the law. More than that, I have never been in trouble for anything other than childish mischief. My entire life has operated within societal expectations. I’m not sure if I should be proud of this, or disappointed I didn’t push more boundaries as a teenager.
Today I broke the law.
I planned on asking my Edward, my boss, for additional work that would by default grant me higher security clearance. When he called me to his corner office, I had almost mustered the nerve to demand the opportunity. Instead, he wanted to discuss a collection of documents on loan from the University of Chicago. In-between leering and reading me top to bottom, he explained he wanted me to oversee the processing of all the materials. I should be flattered he wanted me to supervise a project with the college, but
Edward would be attractive if every word out of his mouth did not come with innuendo inappropriate for the workplace. I tolerated it because I needed the job. The moment he walked behind my chair and rested his hand on my shoulder, I snapped. I’m a liberated, sexual woman, when and only when I want to be.
I should have spun about and slapped him. I should have threatened to expose him to his superiors and hope they took my side. I should have drove my knee into his groin like they taught in self defense classes. I should have done a lot of things. On the long list of reactions, reaching up and lightly touching his hand, was not one of them. The response startled him, probably surprised after years of rejecting his advances.
When I went to exit, I put on that sexy and seductive expression no woman ever uses in reality. I leaned in close, the smell of cheap shampoo and the man’s lunch making my stomach turn. There isn’t enough mouthwash to remove the vile taste of the man from my mouth. Kissing shouldn’t be disgusting. I’m thankful his libido robbed his brain of common sense. He never noticed as my hand grazed his slacks, liberating his keycard.
Crime one, theft.
I could swear every co-worker I encountered on the way to my cubicle knew. I sat at my desk and stared at the man’s identification card. With a piece of tape, I secured it behind my own keycard. It wouldn’t be long before he retraced his steps. I grabbed my tablet and tried to casually walk toward the elevator. I’m certain I moved too quickly, guilt oozing from my eyes. I didn’t need long, but I needed to make it to the secure floor and out of the building before they confiscated my tablet, his badge and secured me in prison.
Each area of the processing division was fitted with motion trackers and cameras. Sensitive materials were brought into the building and each person could be accounted for at any minute. Thankfully, weeks prior I had been given a promotion, I hoped me accessing the secure floor wasn’t enough of a red flag to send security storming. The card reader in the elevator accepted my boss’s badge, and I punched in his access code, “1111.” How the man got the job I’ll never understand. I can only hope it’s due to nepotism.
Crime two, impersonation.
The door opened and I walked down the hall, reminding myself not to run. On this floor, there are only glass walls, allowing any supervisor to watch their employees work diligently. I counted three people, carefully inspecting computer screens and verifying the data being imported into their tablets. Hilda waved. I liked her, a hard worker and quizzical woman who helped me brainstorm thesis topics. When her head tilted and she pointed at me, I gave a thumbs up and a huge smile. She clapped at my imaginary promotion.
The last door in the hallway lead to the classified information. I’d be able to access any records we converted related to the Outlands and the Children of Nostradamus. These were deemed too sensitive and required the highest security clearance. I can’t believe Edward had access to this data. Does that dolt understand the power he wields with this type of information? From here alone, I’m sure I could write a compelling and articulate thesis, but even that wasn’t enough. I needed to find what compelled my father to leave.
My tablet synched with the server in the room. I identified government files, personnel records and a long list of other things I didn’t understand. I nearly cursed when I saw the directory of Outland files. Three files. Three whole damned files. Either we kept these records off the server, or there was another data center processing these files. The Children of Nostradamus however, contained hundreds of documents to be had. I downloaded them all.
Crime three, break and entering.
Crime four…oh hell, at this point I’m just a criminal.
Once I had downloaded the info and made it to the lobby, I realized there was no ‘next step’ to this plan. If I went home, eventually my boss would check the cameras and come to find me. If I accessed the tablet from outside of the building, it’d log my ID and location. I powered down the tablet. I texted Michael that I’d be out of reach for a while and to not worry. Ever notice when you tell somebody not to worry, the first thing they reply with, “What’s wrong?” The police would question him. I couldn’t say anything more.
What do you pack when you’re running from the law? A change of clothes? Rations? I emptied my bank account. I took my father’s journal mentioning the Outlands. I didn’t want them to figure out where I was heading. As I packed my father’s notes into my backpack, it dawned on me for the first time. I was about to literally follow in his footsteps. The perfect storm of anger and desperation had me acting out. I thought I would cry, or at least have a panic attack, but I felt exhilarated? Free?
I almost died when somebody knocked on my door. I’ve never stood so perfectly still in my life. If it was the police, synthetics would have busted my door off the hinges. If it was Edward, he’d be yelling I’m sure. The camera showed a man holding a small package. Usually the courier left it at the door to be stolen by neighbors before I returned home. I tried to act normal as I opened the door and signed for the small box. In reality, I think I smiled and slammed the door in the man’s face. I forgot to tip the courier. Sorry.
I almost forgot the package on the counter. I hoped it was more food, perhaps something I could sell at the market. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be returning to my apartment. Finally, I packed a photograph of father and I.
In one afternoon I went from a nobody college student to a felon. I didn’t have time to process what that would mean. I was out the door and into the street as fast as possible. Pulling the hood of my jacket over my head, I headed toward the congested part of the city to try and hide while I figured out my next destination, my step, my next crime.