“There.” Theo points farther down the wall, where my parents huddle together. Mom slumps against Dad when she sees us, as if she’s weak with relief. But this air raid hasn’t ended, so I don’t know what she’s so relieved about.
Just that I got in, I guess. That I have a chance.
I expect instructions on what to do, but in this situation there’s only one thing we can do: wait.
We all huddle together, catching our breath; a few people are still crying, and others are attempting to hush upset children. One man nearby is whispering a prayer. The outdoor chill of early-spring air has vanished in the heat of hundreds of bodies pressed too closely together. Theo still has his arm around my waist. I wonder if he’s trying to comfort me, or taking comfort himself.
I’ve been afraid for my own life before. It’s terrible—a cold knot in your gut, your heart hammering at your ribs. Movies show people panicking and screaming like idiots. In reality, it’s nothing like that. When you fear for your life, you’re overcome by this ghastly clarity. You calculate your odds every instant. You invent options and see possibilities you wouldn’t have considered at any other time. You realize as never before that your life is the only thing that is absolutely, truly yours. There is strength within us that we can’t even comprehend until it’s called upon. We are, at our core, built to survive.
Worse by far is being afraid for someone else. We can face our own risks with an unbelievable calmness. Risks to the people we love? They turn us stupid. Drive us mad. Fear and hope take turns telling us lies, each more improbable than the last. Our imagination kills the one we love in our mind, over and over again, and we have to witness. Yet somehow even that isn’t as unbearable as the foolishness of hope. It’s hope that makes us believe in miracles that haven’t come to pass. Hope that crushes us with the unbearable truth.
No danger I’ve faced torments me as much as knowing the people I love are in danger. Mom, Dad, Josie, and Theo—any one of them could be blown to shreds in front of me and there’s nothing I can do. And Paul, wherever he is in this world, is in the greatest danger of all.
Standing here, waiting to find out if we’ll get blown to bits, is the most helpless, frustrating, frightening feeling in the world. Theo’s presence is my lone comfort, but even that only helps so much. After a couple of minutes, I can’t bear it anymore. Okay, so, use the time. Look around, and see what you can learn about this world.
Observing the people around me doesn’t help much, because everyone’s upset, and nobody’s dressed normally. But I notice one old woman wearing a military jacket too big for her, something she must have grabbed on her way out the door. The flag stitched on the sleeve isn’t the American stars and stripes, or any other nation’s flag I’ve ever seen before. Apparently the geopolitical situation in this universe is dramatically different. I make a mental note to find a history book.
I light up as I see that a man near me has tucked a newspaper into the pocket of his bathrobe. “May I look at that?” I ask him, pointing at the rolled newspaper. A few people stare; no doubt they think a bombing raid is a weird time to catch up on current events. But the guy hands me the paper, hardly even glancing away from the ceiling.
“Good thinking,” Theo murmurs as I open it. “Let’s see what we’re dealing with here.”
The front page reads SAN DIEGO STANDS STRONG: SOUTHERN ALLIANCE REPELLED AT SAN YSIDRO MOUNTAINS. A grainy monochrome photograph shows the SoCal shoreline—but instead of the usual parasailers and beach umbrellas, dead soldiers lie on the sand. It’s so graphic that I can’t believe they would run it in a newspaper, period.
But I’m in a world where virtually every person is caught up in this war. Images like this have lost their power to shock.
What the hell is the “Southern Alliance”? Theo gives me a look; I know he’s wondering just as much as I am, but that’s not the kind of question we can ask out loud without immediately tipping off everyone around us that something’s up. Flipping through pages turns up no answers. Of course not. Everyone here knows about the Southern Alliance. It’s too obvious a fact to print in newspapers; it would be like going onto the CNN home page to find a big article explaining what France is.
This newspaper is a lot more . . . news-focused than most of the ones I’ve seen. No sports section; no horoscopes. They do print movie listings, though, and I smile as I see an ad for some big melodramatic romance starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Keira Knightley. People tend to find their destiny, no matter what world they’re in.
That means Paul has to be a physicist, at least a scientist of some kind. Mom and Dad must have heard of him—or they’re going to. Maybe I could ask them to find out about him. What excuse can I come up with for that? I’ll think of something.
Weirdly, there are articles about technology, about how the military is expanding its use of wireless internet, building drones for combat, and improving satellite navigation to better direct the troops. All of that sounds totally modern.
Theo, reading the article over my shoulder, whispers, “So how come their phones are still connected to the wall?”
The same reason they have to grow their own vegetables, I suspect. The same reason eggs are rationed and paper is too thin. This war must require every person, every resource. They’ve made many of the same advances we have, but that technology is reserved for military use.
My parents have access to that; they’re doing Firebird research. Which means that in this world, my parents are doing the exact same thing Wyatt Conley is doing in ours: trying to find technology that will allow them to dominate. To control. To win.
Conley’s only doing it for profit, I think. My parents are probably just trying to keep their country from being destroyed. Big difference in motives.
A deep boom shudders through the room, and several people moan in dismay. It wasn’t much of a shake, though—more like one of those earthquakes you hardly notice until it’s over. The planes aren’t too close to us. Yet.
I try to imagine what’s happening out there. All the pictures in my mind come from bad movies or old World War II newsreels; none of them help me wrap my head around it. I only realize I’m shivering when Theo hugs me more tightly. Closing my eyes, I lean my forehead against his shoulder and take slow, deep breaths.
Another boom, louder and deeper. Cement dust falls from the ceiling and cinderblocks, and the impact jars us so much that some people fall down. Theo keeps us on our feet, but barely.
Where is Paul right now? What if he’s not a scientist? The Paul in this world might have to be a soldier, too. He could be in this same battle—his life in danger, even now.
If he’s killed with part of my Paul’s soul inside him, that splinter will be forever lost. I could never re-create his soul, reawaken him. It would be like he died too—
It’s less like I hear the explosion, more like the sound takes over the whole world. The floor convulses beneath our feet. I’m horizontal before I know it, one in a tangle of frantic, disoriented people. As I struggle to get up, towing Theo after me, water flows over my foot. A main must have broken. I imagine the entire room filling up, all of us struggling to swim and breathe the last inch of air.
But the water isn’t flowing that fast. Even though much of the crowd is still crying or screeching, I can tell the shelter remains more or less intact. That was a close one, but we’re okay for the moment.