“I have a call,” Ivory says.
My stomach cramps and my knuckles go white around the steering wheel. “You can’t take it,” I say. “You know that, right? You can’t be thinking of taking it.”
“I have to.”
My air is gone. “What?”
She won’t look at me. I’m not sure she’s really looking at anything. Her head is bent, thinking. “Think about it, Rora. What if it’s you? Or Matthew, or—?”
I’m already shaking my head. “I wouldn’t. He wouldn’t. You know that. We always agreed we wouldn’t. We would never do that.”
Ivory blinks and looks at me, sees me shaking my head, and the way she’s looking at me, the way she sounds, I think she’s trying to rationalize it to herself as much as to me. “What if there’s a reason? Anyone who cares about me enough to call me would know that. They’d know I wouldn’t want them to. They wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t a reason.”
“But we wouldn’t,” I protest again.
No no no.
“This is stupid,” I say. “You probably just forgot where you put something.”
She pushes out a long stream of air and leans back in her seat. “If it’s something that stupid then why shouldn’t I just take it? It’s not like I’ll remember anyway.”
Now I’m old enough to know it’s probably not the common good Temporal Communications really cares about. They wipe you of a future call because they can’t risk the liability of people using any knowledge of the future to contaminate the timeline. Whoever calls pays for it—the service is really for the people calling back, after all; not for those taking the calls—so it doesn’t matter anyway. You don’t have to take a call, of course, but the caller pays for it whether you pick up or not.
If you do, TempCo doesn’t care whether something you heard during a call could save your life.
I don’t realize I’m shaking until I pull my hands down from the steering wheel and squeeze my arms around myself.
“Don’t take it.”
“I have to,” she says again. It’s apologetic this time. “You get that, right? If it was you, and someday there’s a reason important enough, you’d want me to pick up. I’d want you to pick up. And...hey, you know, maybe it is just something stupid. It doesn’t matter.”
I look out the windshield and nod a little. There’s silence in the car for a while after that. Our food is getting cold.
“Will you know if it’s not? If it’s not something stupid?” I ask eventually.
“Yeah,” she admits, wincing a little. “Matt and I worked out a few facial tells.”
How they wipe you is relatively simple—for the person taking the call, anyway. While you’re taking a future call, inaudible tones are emitted in the booth at the Call Center that not only ensure you won’t remember anything when the call ends, but also “temporarily and safely” paralyze your extremities. You can talk, but you can’t move. You can’t take notes.
Facial tells are what everyone knows about but no one really talks about. Mostly because I suppose it’s illegal, since interfering with time is illegal.
Tells are thing like biting your tongue before the call ends, letting out a breath or holding one—things that people work out with themselves or people they care about so they’ll know something when the call is over, if it’s important.
“You agreed to take calls, didn’t you? You and Matt.”
She’s fidgeting. “Of course we did. We had to know we could get to each other if there was something we thought we could do about it—if something did come up.”
“How could you do that without telling me?”
Ivory turns to me and braces herself on the dashboard and back of the seat. “We have our own lives outside of you, you know! We don’t have to tell you everything!”
“I…” I stare at her and shake my head, and a few incomplete sounds come out of my mouth before I’m able to answer that. “I know that. I just mean...”
She’s already sitting back against the door, crossing her arms over her chest, deflated as quickly as she got upset. I’d been ready to defend myself, but I trail off when it seems now I won’t have to.
“No. Nevermind. I’m sorry,” she says, waving a hand. She takes a breath and lets it out slowly. “We just...thought you wouldn’t want to hear about it. Really.”
“Good point,” I say weakly.
Ivory clears her throat, sits straight in her seat again, and picks up her drink to take a noisy sip. “Anyway, let’s just, you know, go see this house of yours.”
“What about the—”
“I don’t have to go right now. They’ll hold it for a week.”
It’s not the actual call that’s come in to the center, but a message from whatever point in time the call will be coming from. The voice connection will be made when she goes to take the call. That way, no matter when she makes it to the center and gets into a booth, whoever is on the other end of the line will have only been waiting a few rings.
“Do you want to go now?”
“Sort of. Maybe. I wouldn’t be opposed to getting it over with.”
I look out at the road, and when it starts to spin I have to take a few measured breaths to make it stop. “Neither would I.” I shake my head to clear it and turn back to the wheel. “I’ll take you. If you’re doing this you’re not doing it alone.”
It takes far too long to get the car going again and turned around, just because I’m only giving the vehicle half my attention. Ivory doesn’t say anything as I get us going in the right direction, but silence is often how she says thank you.
“This is one of those days I really wish your Autodrive worked,” she jokes, once we’re back on the main road.
I laugh once, and then we’re both laughing for a few short seconds.
“But we’ll know,” I say when we’ve stopped at a light. “If it’s nothing, that’s it.”
“That’s it. And it’s probably nothing. Nine times out of ten, it’s nothing. So they say. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, or something like that.”
“That’s kind of a big difference, actually.”
“Nooo you don’t,” Ivory scoffs. “I don’t think so. I am the math person. I will make the comments about math. You will correct everyone’s grammar. Keep up, Chandler. It’s only been a year and you’ve forgotten how this works.” She motions between the two of us with a hand, and I grab at it and only manage to slap it away.
“We need to call Matthew,” I tell her.
“No, we don’t. We don’t need to worry him until we know something.”
“Wait, really? You don’t want to call him?”
“NO,” she answers again more forcefully.
I open my mouth to ask her what’s going on, but nothing comes out. I can’t ask her that. Not now. When we get through this and it’s nothing and we can forget about this call nonsense I can ask her that.
“Fine,” I sigh.
The Temporal Communications Call Center is a glass and steel dome-like building on a well-kept plot of land at the edge of town. Flowerbeds and trees mark the entrance and the shape of the grounds, and wide paths wind lazily through the minimalistic but professional gardens. There are benches and water fountains along the paths, and I can’t help but think maybe the grounds are there to fool people into thinking nothing horrible happens here.
I have the time to think about it because the parking lot is packed. We have to drive around twice to find a spot, and someone leaving gives me one. There are already a few people parked on the grass.
“Is it always like this?” I ask.
Ivory studies the lot and shakes her head slowly. “No, actually. I mean it’s never seemed like a quiet place, for sure, but I’ve never seen it like this.”
That makes me quiet as we get out of the car. We meet in front of it and her hand finds mine and squeezes briefly.
I squeeze back, “I’m fine. You?”
“I’m fantastic,” she answers wryly.
Just inside the bright, natural-light lit entrance is a wide lobby and waiting area, and the front desk is ahead across from the doors. Screens above the desk direct the incoming traffic right for booths in which to make outgoing calls, and left for receiving calls. Behind the desk the main rotunda of the building is an open floor plan, with lines cordoned off by holo-guide tape leading to the door of each booth. There is almost no one in the right half of the building, but the lines are twisting out into the lobby to receive.
We stop. Around us people are walking in, taking one look at the lines, and leaving again.
“You still want to do this now?” I ask.
She steps into the back of the nearest line.
While we’re still in the lobby I stand with her, but when we reach the actual line I can’t go on with her. She has to scan her identification to pass the holographic security barrier and enter the queue without alarms going off. They would go off if I tried to enter a receiving line, because I don’t have a call waiting and the system knows it.
Ivory waves at me before the sea of people in the receiving half of the rotunda swallows her, and then I’m alone. There are no seats left in the lobby, so I find a nice patch of wall by a fake potted tree and sit on the ground with my legs folded under me to one side, because of my skirt. Ivory would be right here on the floor beside me if she were here, but sitting crossed-legged in her jeans instead. We’re floor people, and we see no shame in that.
I watch people while I’m there on the floor. Mostly I watch the people leaving, and wonder if any of them have any idea what they’ve been told.
I don’t know I’ve zoned out until I’m abruptly snapped back by shouting from across the lobby.
“Does the sudden drastic increase of incoming calls not bother you? This is exactly what happened before St. Louis!”
The shouting is coming from the desk. A tall, wild-haired young guy who can’t be much older than me is leaning intently over the desk grilling the receptionist, and two security personnel are already closing in on him from behind. The way everyone in the lobby is staring at him or pointedly not staring must mean I’ve missed quite a bit.
I get to my feet, and I can’t hear what the woman at the desk says as she tries to calm him down. Her hands are out, placating, but it has no effect. He’s waving his arms around when the security guards grab him and drag him backward.
He’s barely fazed. “Something could happen! Just look at the patterns. Your own data. You’ve got to get people out of here!”
This is what happened before St. Louis? What does that even mean?
I take a halting step forward and tell myself to breathe and gather my inner Ivory.
Then I’m moving again. By now, thankfully, most of the lobby has written off the spectacle as over. The crazy guy is going to be thrown out or held and handed over to the police and they’ve gone back to their tablets and conversations and thumb-twiddling and wall-staring. Mostly unnoticed, I bound up to the group before they’ve reached the lobby side-door that must lead to the security office.
The younger of the two security guys stops and looks at me curiously, and the other reluctantly stops as well.
“Wait, don’t…” Being out of breath is not acting, and I have to stop for air. “Wait, I’m...sorry, look, it’s my brother...here. He just...he’s been off his meds. I’m really sorry.” I push my voice into the higher part of its normal range, and use my lack of height to my advantage and talk as quickly as I think they could understand. “We were waiting on our mom. I just went to the bathroom and he...you know. Look, I’m really sorry. Can I just take him? We’ll just go. We’ll go wait outside, or in the car or something. Is that okay?”
It’s not completely inconceivable we could be siblings. He may be even taller than Ivory by a couple of inches, but he’s thin and brown-haired and brown-eyed like me. While I have dark hair and lighter eyes, he has deep brown eyes and lighter hair. But it’s all the same to most people.
The younger guard looks to the older one and shrugs. The guy between them who did the shouting, after looking at me like I was crazy while I was talking, turns on them with a perfect embarrassed smirk.
“Please?” I say. “I promise we’ll just go outside. He won’t bother anybody.”
The older guard rolls his eyes and lets out a heavy breath. He holds his hands up as if to say ‘fine, out of my hands,’ and the younger one smiles at me and nudges the guy they were holding in my direction. I grab his arm and drag him away before I can think again, and I’m pretty sure the younger guard winks at me before I turn away.
I drag my new charge out the front entrance and around to a relatively deserted stretch of path in the side yard, in the shadow of the building.
“Look, thank you, but I’ve got to—”
“What do you mean this is what happened before St. Louis?” I stop and spin to face him, and he nearly runs into me even though I’ve let go of him. He falls back a step and drags his fingers through his hair.
“The much greater than usual influx of calls,” he answers quickly. Now that we’re face to face, I notice the accent and realize he’s British. “Someone should have realized it could mean something. The same thing has been happening here. For nearly a week. This isn’t the first day it’s been like this.”
“Then why are you only here now?”
He pulls a small tablet out of his back pocket and scrolls through data that I can’t quite make out. “Been trying to make sense of the patterns. Then I realized this morning the bulk of the calls stopped yesterday and most of this,” he said, sweeping an arm at the full parking lot, “must be people who were contacted before today, who haven’t been able to get in to take their calls yet.”
I cross my arms and study him. “You obviously don’t work here. How do you even have access to their call logs, or whatever you’re looking at?”
“That’s not important! What’s important is that something could happen here. Today.”
“If something like St. Louis was going to happen getting people out of that building wouldn’t make a difference.”
“Of course not, but I never said it was something like that. The thing is it’s not even just here.”
“I don’t have time for this,” he says. He twists back toward the entrance and tries to leave, but I grab his elbow and pull him back.
“I was from St. Louis! I lost family when it disappeared, and I have a friend inside that building right now! Tell me what is going on!”
I’m going for a loud whisper, so as not to draw attention, but it comes out louder. He glances quickly around us and turns back to me, leaning in closer than before.
“I don’t know, okay? I’m sorry. I don’t. I’m working with quite a few ifs here.” He straightens and makes a visible effort to calm down. “Thank you. For the help, I mean. That was quite good, actually.”
“It was more my friend than me.”
“Nothing.” I shift on my feet anxiously. “Are you serious? Something could happen here? People could be in danger?”
“Yes,” he sighs. “Or I could be wrong and the influx could be for another reason entirely. Or there is some sort of danger, but it’s not here and now. I don’t know.”
It’s always about what we don’t know.
“What can we do?” I ask.
“No more bright ideas?”
“I told you—never mind. Hold on.”
I take a few steps away and tell my comm to call Ivory. She doesn’t answer, which I hope only means she’s in a booth.
“Your friend inside?” the shouting guy asks.
“I tried, but she’s not picking up…” I cross my arms and a finger starts tap, tapping away against my sleeve. I start to pace the concrete path and he follows me.
“Let’s go round the back then,” he says. “I may be able to get us in the building. If we can shut everything down, or—”
“How? How would you get us in? Who are you?”
He smiles at me for the first time, and it’s more than a little disarming. “Who are you?”
I shake my head at him in frustration and reach up to tap my comm again, which automatically redials my last attempted connection. There’s still no answer. I don’t know what else to do, and I probably shouldn’t let anyone from security see me back inside, so I follow the strange British guy around the side of the building toward the back.Moving farther away from the entrance is probably the only thing that saves us, when the ground rocks and the front of the dome shatters outward in flames.