At the stairwell, Nora waited and listened, but the sound was gone.
She turned and made her way back to the gift store. The glow of the ChemLight grew brighter by the second until she came upon Maria sitting beside Matthews, her eyes staring into the darkness as if mesmerized.
Matthews was still unconscious, and Nora thought his breathing was getting shallower. He needed proper medical facilities, and soon.
She sat down beside Maria and wrapped an arm around the younger woman, who gave no reaction to her presence. Nora was dead tired, but stress and fear fought away the fatigue.
Nora had never worn a watch, and they had taken her cell phone. Without something to mark the passage of time, she felt a bit adrift. And for that reason, she was unsure how much time had passed when the ground began rumbling beneath her feet.
A glass display case in the gift store rattled. A figurine of the giant elephant in the rotunda tipped forward, falling off one shelf, part of it catching the edge of the one below, shattering it, the sound adding a startling clang to the shaking.
At first, Nora thought it was an earthquake, but then she realized that the vibrations were directional—they were from bombs exploding nearby. And they were getting closer. A blast must have hit the mall because a crack opened in the marble floor, and above, she heard pieces of the building falling into the rotunda.
Nora felt Maria’s arms reach around her, and she embraced her in return. They sat, holding each other, shivering from fear, as though they were trying to stay warm through a winter storm.
When the rumbling stopped, the quiet that followed was periodically interrupted by the sound of debris falling above and around them. The air
was filled with dust that glowed in the ChemLight like a slow-motion sandstorm.
Beyond the dust cloud, from the entrance on Constitution Avenue, Nora heard the sound of boots pounding the marble floor. She wasn’t imagining it this time. It was real.
Her pulse quickened as Maria squeezed her tight.
Nora knew Matthews was in bad shape now—he had barely stirred during the bombing.
The footfalls were approaching. Was it Ty and Kato? Or the person she had heard before—if there actually had been a person there.
She clicked the flashlight off and gripped the handle.
The boots pressed into the broken glass at the edge of the gift shop, grinding the shards.
“Nora!” Ty called out.
She exhaled and yelled to him, “We’re over here!”
He switched on his flashlight and zeroed in on her voice.
When he emerged from the dust cloud, Ty peered down at Nora, a relieved smile forming on his face. “You okay?”
“Fine. Just… shaken up.”
Ty pointed the flashlight up and toward the mall. “We think the bombs were destroying the plane. The Covenant probably doesn’t want the Pax to get the technology.”
“It’s a long story…”
For the next thirty minutes, Ty shared what he and Kato had learned in the National Museum of American History with Nora and Maria.
Next, Nora related what Commander Matthews had said, including the fact that she—or the version of her in this world—had been part of a mission to destroy the Covenant’s new ballistic missile, the A21.
Ty studied the sleeping pilot, and Nora knew he was turning the pieces of the puzzle over in that enormous mind of his. “The thing that haunts me the most,” he said, “is the sheer number of coincidences. Us getting here right now. This pilot crash-landing at our feet. The fact that you, Nora, your counterpart in this world, seems to be at the center of an operation that might change this world’s history… it all means something.”
“What exactly?” Kato asked.
“I’m not certain yet. But I’m starting to see the shape of it.”
“I’ll know more soon.”
“Well,” Kato said, “I know one thing for certain. We need to establish a chain of command.”
The statement was met with blank stares from the other three. “When that plane crashed, we were paralyzed,” Kato said.
“I think we were all in shock,” Nora said quietly.
“True. But the next time something like that happens, we need to be ready to act more decisively. In life-or-death situations where we’re in danger—or someone else is in danger—we need to be able to make decisions quickly.”
“So you want to be in charge?” Maria said flatly.
Kato cocked his head. “I’m not saying that. I’m saying someone should be in charge. For all of our sakes.”
Nora took a deep breath. “It should be Ty. He knows more about what’s happening than any of us. And he’s the smartest person I have ever met. We need our best mind making the calls for whatever is coming.”
“First,” Ty said, “you flatter me.”
“You know it’s true,” Nora insisted.
“Even assuming it’s true, being smart is not enough—not for what we’re dealing with here. The person calling the shots needs experience. Knowledge.” He motioned to Kato. “There are going to be tough calls, like what to do in the tunnels before we got here and when that pilot crashed. We need someone with military experience for that. Kato should be making those calls. He’s spent his entire career training for and handling situations like that.”
Ty pointed to the pilot lying on the floor, unmoving. “And when it’s a medical situation, Nora should decide what to do.”
Ty paused. “For the rest—for the big picture stuff, for research, for developing plans, I’m happy to contribute whatever I can.”
“Not good enough,” Kato said, shaking his head. “Someone has to be in charge. This is not a democracy.”
“It’s also not the military,” Nora said.
“True. But we need to start operating that way,” Kato said. “We’re behind enemy lines. Alone. Cut off from support. With an undefined mission.”
Maria shrugged. “Why does everything have to be a mission?”
“Necessity. Survival,” Kato shot back. “We need a clearly defined objective to evaluate our tactical options at any given moment. If we don’t know what we’re trying to achieve, it’s impossible to know what to do next.”
“On that point,” Nora said, “I have to agree. We’ve been running for our lives—or trying to get answers—since we got here. I think it’s time to start being proactive. To set our own course here.”
Kato nodded. “It’s very simple. Our objective should be to get home. As quickly as possible.” He exhaled. “I want to get back to my family. I have unfinished business there.”
“Finally,” Maria said, “something I agree on. I need…” She glanced up at Nora. “I need access to health care.”
“We don’t belong here,” Kato said. “We should go back.” He nodded to Ty. “I’m assuming you know how to do that?”
Ty hesitated. “Not exactly.”
“You punched a code before,” Kato said. “Enter it again.” “I don’t think it’s going to work,” Ty said.
“I think it’s worth a try.”
“We don’t know how this thing—this quantum radio—works. We don’t know that dialing the same sequence will take us home. Yes, it may well take us back to our home world, but it could also transport us to another world where Earth doesn’t even exist. We could be adrift in space. Or on an Earth orbiting closer to the Sun—an Earth with a boiling hot surface and no breathable atmosphere. Or an ice-ball Earth where our blood freezes in minutes, and we die of cardiac arrest.”
Nora held up a hand. “We get it. It could go bad.”
“Dialing a wrong number has never been this dangerous.”
Nora couldn’t help but laugh. Ty’s borderline lame joke landed flat on Kato and Maria, but they had always seemed to have an effect on her—even when she didn’t want to admit it, like that very moment. “Good one,” she muttered, suppressing a smile.
Ty shrugged. “Multiverse humor. By the laws of the many-worlds theory, there’s a universe where that joke works.”
Nora closed her eyes. “Yeah, but it’s not quite this one.” “No,” Ty said, mock sorrow in his tone. “No, it’s not.”
“Dad joke aside,” Kato said, “I think we should at least try dialing the same code.”
In the distance, another bomb exploded. It wasn’t powerful enough to shake the floor or rattle dust from the ceiling, but its timing made Kato’s point.
“The next missile could hit us,” he said. “Do we really want to take that chance? We should dial right now.”
Ty closed his eyes and rubbed the backs of his eyelids. “We don’t know how it works. Period. I mean, do we need to be in the same place as before for it to work correctly? Does the dial code vary depending on what world you’re dialing from? I mean, it’s a particle accelerator under the hood—and the laws of physics may be different in this universe. They’re very finely tuned in ours.”
“I agree with everything you’re saying,” Kato said. “My point is that those risks are acceptable given that there are bombs actually falling over our heads and we’re in a ruined world—one that seems to be in a perpetual war and that we know nothing about.”
“I’m with GI Joe on this one,” Maria said. “Let’s just dial and see what happens.”
“I see your points,” Nora said. “But I think we should wait.” “Why?” Kato asked.
Nora motioned to the unconscious pilot. “This man is in our care. He’s hurt. He’s dying. He needs help, and I consider it our responsibility, as human beings, to try to get him some help. If we dial and it works—if we leave—we may well be leaving him to die.”
After a long silence, Kato spoke, his voice more reflective. “Thank you for saying that. I didn’t even consider it.” He paused. “Before yesterday, I hadn’t seen my family in a long time. And… there’s been some issues there
—things I want to resolve. I want to get back there and do that, and I admit, that is bearing on my thinking.” To Nora, he said, “You’re right. This man is our responsibility. We can’t abandon him.”
“Same here,” Maria said. “I’m not really cut out for any of this, but I don’t feel right leaving the guy. Didn’t think about that before. I’m not used to spontaneously disappearing.” She shrugged. “It’s an adjustment in your thinking.”
“All of this is,” Ty said. “But how do we get help for him?”
“I don’t think we should move him,” Nora said. “Not without a facility to take him to. We probably shouldn’t have moved him to begin with.”
“I’ll leave at first light on a scouting mission,” Kato said. “We need food, and we need to make contact with the Pax government—or whoever is out there.”
“I’ll go with you,” Ty said.
Kato nodded. “I still think we need to assign roles here. A chain of command.”
“I don’t think we’re that kind of team,” Nora said.
When Kato frowned, she held out her hands. “What I propose is… authority based on areas of expertise. We’re all specialists in different fields. We have different backgrounds and knowledge. For example, I believe I should make any medical decisions for the group. Kato clearly has the military expertise to make those calls.”
Nora motioned to Ty. “When we face issues rooted in science and complex problems, like whether we should dial the radio, I think Ty should make the call. His instincts have kept us alive, and I think if any of us can figure out these big, mind-bending problems we’re going to face, it would be Ty. I, for one, want him making those calls.”
In her mind, Nora reviewed what she knew about Maria, struggling to find a role she might play, an area of authority to assign to her.
Before she could speak, Maria said what she had been thinking.
“That leaves me.” Everyone turned to her. “The odd man out—odd woman out, I guess. I’ll say what we’re thinking: I don’t bring anything to this team. I’m dead weight. I’m a washed-up singer who used to be a decent makeup artist until I got tired of dolling up starlets and decided I wanted to be one myself. I grew up covering my mom’s black eyes and bruises. I bet none of you ever did.”
An awkward silence stretched out. Ty spoke first.
“There are a lot of questions here. Why us? Why this world? What are we doing here? But there’s one thing I am certain of. There are too many coincidences here for this to be random. As a scientist, I’m skeptical of randomness. I want to see order. A reason for effects, cause behind it. I believe there’s a reason we are here—each and every one of us, including you, Maria. I think we’re the four corners of something, a process or an event that we don’t yet understand. And I think that’s life. I think sometimes we have to put one foot in front of the other, not knowing what
the right path is but trudging ahead because, frankly, we don’t have a choice, and because, optimistically, I choose to believe where we’re going will be worth whatever we’re about to go through.”
Maria tilted her head, as if examining what Ty had said. “What are you thinking?” Nora asked her.
“I’m thinking there’s a song there, in that long, wordy diatribe of his.” Nora couldn’t help but laugh, and Maria joined her.
“I’m glad I could be your inspiration,” Ty said.
Kato brought them back to the task at hand, a role Nora sensed he was made for.
“So,” he said. “We’re agreed on these roles?”
When the others nodded, Kato continued. “We should set up a watch for the night—in shifts. We all take one. Sleep is imperative in survival scenarios.”
For Nora, hearing Kato describe their situation as a “survival scenario” brought home the reality of it.
“I’ll take first shift,” Kato said. “Ty will be next. We’ll be leaving at first light to look for supplies and help. We need to rest before that. Maria will follow Ty’s shift, and finally Nora. Assuming the time here is the same as our home world, that shift will overlap our departure.”
With that, they set about making pallets on the floor from sweatshirts and T-shirts from the two gift stores in the museum.
Instead of making three beds on the floor, they made one long pallet, laying the garments down in overlapping layers like a quilt made of the decaying clothes.
Less than a minute after she lay down, Maria was snoring softly. Nora found it hard to focus on sleep, but she wasn’t surprised Maria had dozed so easily. Drowsiness was a known side effect of methadone.
Ty, it seemed, was struggling to sleep as well, based on his breathing. He lay in front of her, on his side, facing Matthews, Nora behind him.
“What are you thinking about?” she whispered, soft enough that Kato couldn’t hear. He had begun at the stairwell and was now making a wide loop, stepping carefully so as not to crush the glass and debris, inspecting every inch of the ruined museum.
Ty twisted onto his back, his face moving closer to Nora’s. “I was thinking… about the last time we were here in the mall.”
“It was a good day.”
For a moment, she was back there with him, sitting in the sea of grass on the quilt—an expanse of cloth that felt like the one beneath them—eating and reading and talking and watching the sun cross the sky.
Looking back, that was the last calm before the storm in her life. She had returned home, and everything had changed.
The front door stood open. Inside, drawers were pulled out of the cabinets and dressers, their contents splayed across the floor. Mattresses had been cut open, the stuffing ripped out like the contents of a piñata.
And her father was gone. No note.
No trace of him.
An hour later, two officers and two detectives from the DC Metro Police were standing in their kitchen asking her mother questions as she sat at the island, staring straight ahead, putting on a brave face that Nora knew was for her and her brother Dylan.
Her father’s disappearance had torn Nora’s life apart. It had also driven her and Ty apart. They were on the verge of going off to college then, which would have been a test of their relationship—the distance and the influx of new friends and influences. But the abyss that was her missing father had drawn Nora in, causing her to withdraw. She knew she had been unreachable then, but there was nothing she could do about it.
Ty seemed to know what she was thinking about. Even after all this time, it was amazing to Nora how in sync they were.
“You thinking about him?” “Yeah.”
“Losing a parent is tough,” he said. “I know. Especially when you spend endless hours wondering what happened. Almost as jarring as having them return.”
Nora didn’t know what to say to that. She simply put her arm across Ty and gripped his side with her fingers, holding him.
He reached up with his left arm, placing it next to hers. Inexplicably, unexpectedly, sleep came to her then.
Nora woke to the soft sound of tapping on the marble. At first, she thought it was rain. Perhaps the ceiling was open to the rotunda above in places.
But as her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she realized it wasn’t rain. It was the tapping of tiny metal feet on the marble. Metal feet attached to a small robot with a rectangular silver body and six legs that tap-tap-tapped forward, creeping toward her.