The recording has ended. It ended with Ivory shouting and a cry that was probably the moment she finally had enough presence of mind to actually bite her cheek.
Now, here in Adam’s back room, the four of us are silent and Ivory has paced away from the rest of us. Her arms are crossed tightly over her chest. Matthew is watching her. I’m clinging to the back of Adam’s chair to keep my feet. Adam is frozen, staring at the display of sound waves on the screen that have stopped moving, his hands hovering over the keypad.
Matthew is the first one to spell it out. “So it’s...not just Ivory,” he says slowly. “It’s all of us, really.”
“Apparently,” Ivory says tightly.
Adam shuts the whole screen off and spins around in his chair, which pushes me back. He catches me from his seat, grabbing at me with an arm that I latch onto to get my balance. I’m thinking my shoes were a bad choice, but then I remember I didn’t have a choice. My clothes were covered in dust and dirt. I’m wearing the boots I had on yesterday and the only dress from Ivory’s closet—the only complete outfit that would fit me because she’s so much taller.
It’s a black and gray thing she keeps for funerals. I try not to think about the morbid appropriateness.
I focus instead on Adam’s hand in mine. He hasn’t let go, and I squeeze it as he stands. “It sounded like more than just us,” I say. It comes out sounding so much like the voice on the recording I’m suddenly very, very afraid.
“She said she didn’t know when they were,” Ivory says then. I appreciate the fact that she doesn’t remind anyone the she was me. “How could she not know when?”
“If something went horribly wrong with the time calling technology,” Adam sighs. “To be honest, it doesn’t surprise me as much as it probably should. I’ve been suspecting TempCo bit off more than they could chew, the way they’ve been using the Anomaly, and I imagine the answer lies in whatever we’re supposed to find.”
“You said you could get us into the building, before what happened,” I remind him. I let go of his hand; I thought I already had. “How were you going to do that?”
Ivory paces back to the rest of us. “If he knew what you say he knew then, he probably found codes for their security when he hacked into their database. Or whatever he did.” She looks at him. “Didn’t you?”
“Something like that,” he hedges. “But it won’t do any good now; the place is crawling with emergency workers. And if something weird or wrong is in there, they’ll be guarding the place. We need a different plan.”
He’s right. When I think about why, I know what we have to do.
“So the plan is we go now,” I say. They all stare at me. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. Sort of. But TempCo’s made Cunningham Industries one of the richest companies in the world; they can get as much manpower here to keep an eye on that site as they want, and they can do it quickly. If we’re not already too late, our only chance is to get in there before the cleanup is done and it’s a bunch of men with guns standing around.”
Matthew’s staring at me like he doesn’t know who I am. Ivory grins.
“Easier to impersonate and/or confuse a cleanup crew than soldiers or something, yeah?”
“I hope so.”
We all look at each other, and Ivory shrugs. “So what kind of plan are we talking about here?” She looks at me, but I have to admit to myself I hadn’t really thought that far. I turn to Adam, and he grins.
“Anyone here a good actor?”
The Louisiana backroad is getting dimmer around us as we make our way to the call center from Adam’s. We took two cars, just in case, so it’s just him and me in his. His autodrive actually works, so no one has to drive. I’m sitting in the driver’s seat though, just in case, because he asked if I minded doing it. The quiet as he works between a tablet and a holo band’s projected screen beside me has given me too much time to think already.
“Can I ask you something?” I say finally.
“Yeah?” he asks, not looking up.
“Will we be them? Do we have to be? They wouldn’t have bothered calling if we had to be, right? But all of the research...I mean, what if the policies on future calls really are just to keep people from taking unfair advantage and things like that? What if it doesn’t matter?”
Now he pauses to look at me. “Of course it matters. You said it yourself—it was us. Why would we do it if it wouldn’t change anything?”
I take a breath. “So...you don’t think they were us. Not this us.”
“No. I don’t think they got a call in their version of the past.”
I notice we’re still not bringing up that it was the two of us. Together. In the future. It doesn’t necessarily mean they were together together or anything, but the way the other Adam was shouting at the end...
I swallow and blink out into the beams of orange light cutting through the trees from the setting sun, trying not think either about the way backing into him in the doorway when Ivory and Matthew showed up made me feel. When he touched my arm and I thought I could feel every skin cell.
“But the records released from the initial study of the Anomaly,” I protest. “I’ve read everything that’s out there half a dozen times. They only discovered it could send signals through time because they received a radio signal from themselves, the next day. The next day they made that call, and it happened exactly the same way. That kind of indicates it’s just one timeline, that we’re...passing notes through, I guess.”
Adam raises an eyebrow at me. “That’s the prevailing theory right now, yeah, but if you and your friends believe it, why did Ivory rig her implant to record like that? Why did you come to me so determined to find out what she heard so you could keep her safe?”
“Because I want to be wrong!” My fingers tighten on the steering wheel I’m not using. It feel better to have something to hold onto. “No one’s ever confirmed anything one way or the other. Like they won’t, or something. Maybe...I thought you might know more.”
He grimaces and looks out the window for a moment. “I wish I did. Truth is, and I hate to tell you this, but they may not even have known. The other us. If they could change anything. If we could.”
“But you just said—”
“I know. I said it because I hope we can.”
He goes back to his computers and I shake my head and focus on the road again. “What are you doing here?” I ask. “In the middle of nowhere in Louisiana.” I almost roll my eyes. “British.”
I see his shoulders go up and down from the corner of my eye. “I like the middle of nowhere,” he says. “It’s the closest I could get and still have nice physics labs.” Another beat, and then his head comes up briefly. “Did you just call me by my nationality? I feel like I should be offended.”
“It sounded better in my head than Shouting Guy.”
“Never mind. And the physics? What’s that about? Is it about your mother? And St. Louis?” I don’t know why I’m still asking questions. Maybe because I’m just anxious, and maybe because I realize I might be about to put myself in danger with this guy, again—not that the first time was on purpose—and I still hardly know anything about him.
We talked for three hours, and the most personal thing we got to after our dead parents was that I’m a music major and he “plays the piano a little,” whatever that means.
“Of course it is.” He’s suddenly so serious, and I don’t know what to make of it. He stops everything and leans closer, like he wants to make sure I’m listening. “If we let the world as a whole continue to muck about with time, where will we end up? We’ll break it.”
“You’re saying it like I’ll disagree. I don’t. Junior PACTT, remember?”
“And I still think people like that are getting us nowhere.”
“Well what are you doing besides sitting in a lab or something?” I answer hotly.
My comm beeps in my ear, and it’s Ivory.
“We’re already too late,” she says. “I’ve got the security feeds from across the street pulled up. There are men stationed around the whole site.”
“What? How?” But really, I shouldn’t be surprised. “Adam—”
“I’ve got it. She’s sharing. Look…”
I glance at the projected screen from his holo band. I don’t have time to see much, but I get the idea. “No big...vehicles or anything though. Just people.”
“With guns,” Adam points out.
“Fantastic. What now?”
He pulls the ID chips he’d been working on before we left out of the pocket of his jacket and plugs them into the side of his tablet, and then taps his comm. We all hear him, through the private comm loop he made between the four of us. “We just have to be more careful, but I think we can still do this; we have a plan now. If you’re all up for it.”
Matthew speaks up first. “If it’s as serious as everything sounded on that recording we don’t have a choice, do we?”
“You do,” Adam says.
“Then I’m making the right one, I guess. At least I hope so.”
“Yeah,” Ivory says. “Getting there before the cavalry was a good idea while it lasted, but I’m still game. Let’s bust this open. I don’t take kindly to people dying and buildings falling down around me.”
Adam nods and looks at me. I just shrug, and he smiles a little and goes back to his tablet.
“What are you doing?” I ask, when the comms have fallen back into silence.
“Just...double-checking these chips. Making sure they’re airtight.” Adam squints up at me. “Put your hair up. You’ll look older.”
I snort. “Like you look much older.” He doesn’t take the bait. When I glance at him his face is tighter than before, reflected in the light from his screens.
Now I’m thinking about the guns.
“They wouldn’t really shoot us or anything, right? I mean they’re just CI security people or something, yeah?” He doesn’t answer right away, and I’ve already learned that’s not a good sign from him. “Adam?”
“I don’t know,” he admits.
“I really hate it when you say that, you know. Last time you said that things exploded.”
He makes a face—a grimace, and one that tells me that really, actually hurt—and his fingers freeze for a moment over his tablet.
“Sorry,” I amend. “Didn’t mean it that way.” He shrugs a bit, and I move on as quickly as I can. “What do you think is in there?” I ask. “What could they possibly need that much manpower to protect? Well...besides the equipment. I don’t guess any of that needs to get into the wrong hands.”
“Definitely not,” Adam agrees.
I wait, but he doesn’t go on to answer the question. “Hey,” I say.
“You don’t really want me to answer that. Let’s hope it’s not as bad as it could be.”
The program Adam set in the car’s navigation panel takes us through backroads, and then off them onto a gravel road that takes us closer to where I think the call center is, if I’m not turned around. The gravel dead-ends in the woods.
I climb out of the car after our de facto leader, swinging my green bag over my shoulder. He motions us into the trees as I’m digging for something to put my hair up with.
“We’re behind the center,” Adam explains briefly.
“Been snooping much?” I tease.
We don’t have to pick through the trees for very long before we’re out the other side. Or we would be if Adam’s hadn’t swung an arm out to keep the rest of us back.
“They can’t hear us from this far, but I’m sure they’ve got magnification; they could see us if they had an inclination to look this way. Stay behind the trees.”
They are a ring of black uniformed security officers looped around the perimeter of the call center property. A tighter ring surrounds what’s left the building itself, and others roam the grounds. They all have guns—big black ones, held across their chests. I don’t know enough to know what they are. Most of the heavy machinery is gone—the cranes and bulldozers. Two or three industrial-sized dumpsters of debris sit full near the building.
“I know what I said,” I whisper, “but how can they really have gotten that much done in a day?”
Ivory shrugs. “Lots of money and something to hide.”
“Yeah. That’s what scares me,” Matthew says.
“It’s not like they had to clean up the entire area,” Adam points out. “The job doesn’t look perfect, and they left what’s still standing of the building. That would have saved time, certainly. How many machines were out here?”
“A lot,” I say. Not much on the detail, I know, but I’m trying to keep my brain from overload.
Adam heads back for the cars, and we follow him. “They have implants,” he says as we go. “The entire force out there. It must be a requirement for them.”
“I’m thinking that could be useful,” I say.
Ivory bounds up beside us excitedly. “Ooo! Are you in?”
He smirks a little. “Of course.” He turns his holo-band back on as we come out of the trees again back at the vehicles. He toggles through a few views of the call center grounds behind us that I gather are coming from the security force’s implants.
“Does this mean we don’t have to impersonate anyone anymore?” I ask hopefully.
“Unfortunately, no. Being into their implants can only do so much for us. We still have to get in on our own. This is should help in making sure they don’t see us doing anything we’re aren’t supposed to be doing, though.”
I huff and start raking my hair back to put it up with the band I found in my bag. “I can’t believe I agreed to this…”
But watching Adam hand the controls he hacked into over to Ivory, watching her light up at the prospect of something new to play with—some new trouble she can into—and I can’t help smiling.
I know why I’m doing this.