In the stateroom, Nora felt the airship touch down with a thud. A few minutes later, a uniformed Pax soldier pushed the hatch open and beckoned her and Maria forward, out into the hall and past the med bay, where Matthews’s body was draped in a white cloth.
In the cargo bay, the ramp extended to the ground.
The midday sun was blinding, and it took a few moments for Nora’s eyes to adjust. When they did, what lay beyond the ship took her breath away.
They had landed on a small ridge above what appeared to be a village with narrow thoroughfares. Shacks and small shops lined the dusty streets, a scene that reminded Nora of America two hundred years ago—a settlement on the frontier of a new land.
Three soldiers escorted Nora, Maria, and her father down the ridge, into the town and past the shops, where merchants were haggling over crates of fruits and vegetables and cured meat wrapped up tight. Their clothes were simple and nondescript, as though they had been resewn from other clothes
—a patchwork of remnants. And indeed, that was what this civilization was.
In the street, the group stood aside as two tall horses trotted through town pulling a hollowed-out car whose roof had been sawed off, one driver holding the steering wheel, the other grasping the reins to the horses.
A large water wheel loomed at the banks of what Nora thought was the Potomac River.
As she took in the scene, Nora realized her father was watching her. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You look like you’ve never seen Camp Shenandoah before.” “It’s… been a long trip.”
“You sure you’re feeling okay?”
After that, Nora made an effort to keep her expression neutral. Soon, it became obvious to her why the village seemed so impermanent. It was. The homes and shops were made of panels bolted together with tents and canopies between them. Large wagons lay empty behind them, conceivably waiting to be loaded again and moved.
As the small group ventured deeper into the camp, the merchants and settlers turned and stared. Children stopped playing, their soccer balls rolling into the street and behind the shops. People held their baskets full of fruit and bread and gawked.
At first, Nora thought it was the sight of the soldiers. But their gaze didn’t rest there. It was on Maria. And of course it was—she was a global superstar in this world. She must look completely out of place here.
Maria seemed to notice too. She brushed her hair in front of her face and hung her head slightly.
At a hobbled-together shanty at the center of town, Nora’s father opened the front door and told the soldiers escorting them to wait outside.
The home was as modest inside as outside. Two folding tables butted together served as a dining table. Canvas folding chairs, like one might see around a campfire, were arranged around a wood-burning stove with a pipe that snaked up and out of the back wall.
Through an opening, Nora caught sight of a makeshift kitchen with a portable grill on a table beside a cistern that appeared to be connected to a rain barrel outside and a pot for boiling water inside. Even the homes here were built to be moved.
A door opened and Nora’s brother ventured out, arms outstretched. “You’re back!”
His face was the same as she had known, but it was more worn, the worry lines deeper, the tan darker, gray spreading out at his temples.
She hugged him awkwardly as two young children ran out and joined the hug. The boy was about four, and the girl was slightly older.
“Aunt Nora!” they yelled out of sync.
The feel of their tiny hands pressing into her was surreal. She peered down, taking them in, studying their faces, marveling at how truly different and beautiful and heartbreaking this world was.
At the dining table, they sat down to a lunch of venison, carrots, and navy beans in a light coating of molasses and dotted with pieces of cured pork.
Nora didn’t realize how famished she was until the first bite of food reached her mouth. She ate with barely contained control.
Her niece, who was named Allie and wore taped-together glasses, was more curious than her brother, Wyatt. She lobbed questions at Nora between mouthfuls of her lunch.
“Where did you go, Aunt Nora?” “Oh, I was on a trip.”
“Where to?” “Far away.”
“To the Covenant?”
Nora’s father held up a hand. “That’s enough.”
Allie took another bite of beans, her feet hanging off the metal folding chair, swinging beneath her. “Daddy says you’re doing important work to end the war.”
Nora felt her father watching her.
“I think we’re all doing important work,” Nora said carefully. “Was your trip dangerous?” Allie asked, raising her eyebrows.
“That’s enough,” Nora’s father snapped. “No more talk of work.”
Allie didn’t even flinch. “When I grow up, I want to do the same work as you, Aunt Nora. Just like Mom did.”
Nora’s brother had been raising a fork full of venison to his mouth. His hand stopped in midair. He stared ahead, frozen for a long moment, then let the utensil fall back to the plate, his gaze following it.
The silent act told a story, one that stabbed deep into Nora’s heart.
She smiled at the niece she had never known, who reminded her so much of herself at that age. “I hope you don’t, Allie. I hope you grow up in a world without war, where you can do something you love.”
The girl cocked her head as if that didn’t make any sense. Nora didn’t think much could have been worse than the reaction her brother just had. But what she saw now was indeed worse—a child who couldn’t imagine a world without war.
Nora’s brother broke the silence, mercifully changing the subject. “So, look, I’ve just got to ask. How in the world do you two know each other?” He glanced between Nora and Maria, holding up his hands. “No offense, but we don’t get many celebrities around here.”
“We’re…” Nora began, mind grasping for the right words. “Working together,” Maria finished.
Dylan smiled, a laugh starting. “On what?” “Can’t say yet,” Nora said quietly.
He studied her, somewhere between amused and, Nora thought, unconvinced. “All right then,” he said simply, as he rose and began to clear the table.
After the meal, Nora said goodbye to her brother and her niece and nephew and followed her father out of the rickety home and down the lane. Maria followed, taking in more of the town, the soldiers forming a small circle around them as they walked, rifles held at the ready.
At a blacksmith shop, Robert ducked through the doorway and, with a slight nod, walked past a hulking man who was hammering what looked like a car fender over an anvil. There was a small office beyond the working area out front and a windowless tool room beyond that.
In the tool room, a soldier closed the door behind them and quickly pushed a cart to the far wall. He pulled up a ratty braided rug from the floor, revealing a trapdoor in the wooden planks. He twisted the handle and lifted it. Below was a round metal shaft with a wooden ladder inside. It reminded Nora of a manhole.
She was stunned to see it here. The entire town had seemed transitory. This had the look of something permanent, something buried. Perhaps they covered it when the camp moved on?
Her father was the first to mount the ladder. The guards simply stood by, and so did Nora and Maria.
When he had descended a few rungs, he called up to her, “Come on.
We’ll be late.”
Before she could ask what for, he was descending the ladder faster, nearly out of sight.
She followed him down and so did Maria, and soon she saw the glow of a ChemLight looming at the bottom, lying on a metal floor in a small room. When she reached it, she realized there was a single exit from the space: an oblong metal hatch that reminded Nora of the doors on the airship. It was the last thing she’d expected to see here.
There was a combination lock by the handle with seven rotating disks that had both numbers and letters—a total of thirty-six possibilities for each position in the sequence.
Quickly, her father rolled the disks and pulled the handle, and the door popped open. Beyond, two uniformed soldiers were waiting, guns in hand, goggles positioned on top of their helmets.
Nora’s father marched past them without a word, leading her and Maria through a network of metal corridors, their footsteps echoing as they went. The walls were gunmetal gray, the ceiling was low, and the pathways were narrow. ChemLights lit their way.
It again reminded Nora of the airship, though this place was more cramped.
Abruptly, her father stopped and pushed against the wall in a spot where there seemed to be no door, only a seam in the metal. It swung in, revealing a landing to a curving staircase.
The steps were wide and metal, and after descending for a while, Nora felt disoriented, as though she were a marble in an endless corkscrew, constantly going around in circles.
Finally, the sound of their clanging steps on the metal changed, and the staircase came to an end at another hatch with a combination lock similar to the last one.
Robert spun the disks until the handle clicked and he pulled the hatch open. The room beyond was some sort of airlock. Nora felt the pressure on her ears as they adjusted, and the airlock on the opposite side popped open.
This section of the underground facility was far different. The walls were painted white, not gunmetal gray as the corridors had been before, and it seemed cleaner, newer, the ceilings higher.
And there were people here. Not many, just a few individuals in gray wool tunics and pants passing by, carrying clipboards and talking, like it was a very natural thing to be down here.
At that moment, the thing that occurred to Nora was that if she and Maria were discovered to be impostors, she would never escape this place. This bizarre, labyrinthine bunker would be the last thing she ever saw.
Her father ventured deeper into the space, to a rail that looked out over a circular opening about fifty feet wide. The chasm extended down four floors, reminding Nora of something she might see in the promenade of an enclosed shopping mall. The ceiling above hung perhaps fifteen feet away.
Nora wondered if her counterpart had been here before. Was this new to the Nora from this world? Or a frequent event?
Her father eyed her, as if studying her reactions. She gave no reaction.
She felt that was safest.
He led them away from the overlook to a wide window that ran nearly from the floor to the ceiling and displayed a massive fish tank so expansive it seemed to have no end. As Nora watched, a school of fish swam by and then cut away from the glass.
Staring between Nora and Maria, her father said, “What do you think of it?”
“It’s incredible,” Nora whispered without even thinking. Robert cocked his head.
“What is this place?” Maria asked.
“The future,” he replied. “And it starts now.”