I can’t breathe. I’m on my back on the ground, in grass and dirt, and something is smothering me, and my ears are ringing and that’s all I can hear and I don’t know what happened. Everything hurts and I need air.
Heat. That’s the other thing. Heat and noise that I still can’t make out because of the ringing. Why can’t I see?
The darkness lifts away and there’s a face. I drag in a breath that burns and hurts my chest and I’m coughing, and there’s a hand behind my head now instead of the grass.
“—you okay? Hey!”
The voice sounds faint to me, but I know it’s shouting.
Shouting. Shouting Guy. British.
While I’m trying to stop coughing and blinking—dust?—out of my eyes, some part of my brain decides British sounds better in my head than Shouting Guy. The weight on me is him, protecting me from the glass still scattering around us. I now vaguely remember being knocked backward, the air going out of me when he knocked us off the path and we hit the ground.
“Hey! Are you all right?”
“I’m…” I cough one last time and clear my throat. “What happened?” It comes out rough, sticking in my dry throat.
British doesn’t answer. He rolls off me and stares back toward the call center entrance we just came from. It isn’t there anymore.
We’re both catching our breath, gulping dusty air that smells of smoke. The glass of the dome is shattered around the building, around us. Metal beams that supported the glass jut out into the air, bent and broken. The sounds around me solidify into screaming and crying and the faint flickering of flames.
A hand drops in front of my face, fingers outstretched. I glance up and British is on his feet and offering me help. I take his hand and let him pull me up, careful not to touch too much of the grass around me. Glass is scattered everywhere but right where we were lying. Stinging sensations on my neck and legs tell me I didn’t come away unscathed, but I don’t have time to take stock right now.
I open my mouth and only a gasp comes out at first. I’m trying to tell him she’s in there, she was in there, help me, but I don’t get the chance. Another deep percussion assaults my eardrums, and British is pulling me behind a tree and smothering me against his chest again. I’m screaming. Most of it comes out against his shirt.
We don’t feel much from the second blast. Just the heat, and the sound. We look up and the flames are coming from the back of the center, on the other side—from the administrative building behind the dome, where I assume any offices and equipment are.
I break from British and I’m running, but I’m running back for the front of the building because I don’t know how else to get in. I’ve forgotten about him, or asking for help, or anything else at all.
“Ivory! Ivory!” I hear myself screaming. I know its useless because I can’t be close enough for her to hear me. Not yet. Probably. But I can’t make myself stop, either.
British grabs my arm. “You can’t go that way!”
I yank myself away and keep going, the motion probably more violent than was called for. “I have to find her!”
Strong arms catch me from behind. It’s like running into a bar, and I’m kicking and scratching.
“That’s the direction the first blast went! It won’t be pretty. The lobby and parking lot will be a minefield.”
“So’s the back, now!”
“On the other side, yes. We can get in on this side. Look up, the power’s all out. No locks. Calm down.” I stop struggling. He’s letting me go, but I pull away angrily anyway. “You don’t want to go up there right now,” he says when I turn back to him.
“We have to find her,” I say again.
He swallows. “Ivory, you said. Ivory James?”
“You know her?”
His head cocks to the side, neither a yes or a no. “She’s a student worker in my lab.”
“You’re a student?”
“I know what she looks like. I can help you find her.”
I’m still leaning toward the rubble that used to be the front doors when he lifts a hand from his side just enough to offer it to me again.
I need to find Ivory. I need to find her so badly it’s an ache in my chest, and it’s still hard to breathe. All I can do is nod as I take his hand.
The look on his face when I take it reminds me I’m not the only one here. I remember he was here to stop this, to stop something. Something happened anyway, and I wonder if he needs someone now, in this moment, as much as I do.
I only get a glimpse. Then he’s turning, pulling me with him, and we’re running the path around the building, dodging particularly large pieces of glass and bits of metal and concrete. I wave my free hand around my head, but it doesn’t help to clear the smoky air.
“And this isn’t a minefield?”
“I wasn’t talking about the rubble,” he snaps.
I pull my fingers free and cross my arms tightly as we go on. I take deep breaths so I won’t be short again, so I’ll calm down, but now that he’s reminded me I can’t see anything but the woman at the front desk and the young guard who winked at me.
What if they’re dead? Surely people are dead.
“Why?” I’m asking then. “Who would do this? It can’t be PACTT…”
People Against Calling Through Time is the only public organization created expressly for the purpose of fighting time calling, but they’ve never been known for violence.
“Of course not. PACTT is nothing but a bunch of rabble-rousers with pickets,” British snorts.
“I was Junior PACTT in high school…”
“I’m sorry,” he says. But it’s sarcastic, and I growl at him and brush past. We find a side door, and it’s just as unlocked as he supposed it would be. The center’s power and computer system are out. The scanner on the door makes a dull error sound with what emergency power is making it into its circuits and lets us in without any verification.
“What?” British asks, when I give him a look.
Inside the corridors are lit only by emergency lighting, but at least here in a dim red hallway, once the door closes behind us, I can hear myself think. My head clears enough that it occurs to me to try my comm again, but all I get is static when I tap it.
“Is your comm working?” I ask.
British taps behind his ear and shakes his head. “Interference from the blast, I’m guessing. Come on,” he says. “We don’t know how stable the rest of the structure is. We’re looking for a way out into the back of the rotunda. She was in line? Which side?”
We pass offices and warning signs, following the now faint sounds of the chaos outside, shouting and sirens, back toward the rotunda. The building shudders around us and we stop for a tense moment as dust falls on our shoulders.
“You don’t think whoever did this is still here, do you?” I ask suddenly.
“No. It’s too easy to do something like this remotely.”
“Why?” Again, because I didn’t get an answer last time. I don’t know why I expect him to have one.
He doesn’t look at me. He keeps his eyes on the dim corridor ahead of us. “There are plenty of people against what TempCo does. More than you’d think.” His voice grows tighter as he speaks. “I’m sure some of them wouldn’t bat an eye at harming innocent people.”
“What Temporal Communications does hurts people. Why would they—”
“Some of them only care about the timeline—about themselves, really. They think they’re better, but they’re not.”
I’m trying my comm again, tapping my it again and again as we hurry through the cold corridors and willing it to work. Willing Ivory to answer. My arms brush the chilly silver walls and I wonder why is it cold? The blast sites are burning; how can it be cold here?
“How did you know something was going to happen?” I ask. “Did you think it would be something like this?”
“I don’t know what I thought.”
“But how did you know any of it?”
He can’t answer me, because the relative quiet abruptly ends. Double doors at the end of the corridor we’ve turned into smack open, and people from inside come pouring through. Some are injured, some are just dirty, and they’re looking for another way out of the building.
I only catch snatches of things, while British and I try to tell them how to get back to the door we got in through.
“—fire team here, can’t get to us that way—”
I start calling again, pushing through the crowd toward the doors, toward what’s left of the the dome.
Where is she? These people, I gather, were at the back of the dome. Near the ends of their lines or in booths. Most of them are fine, for the most part, but I think they’re saying they can’t get out through the front. Too much has collapsed. But if these people are fine Ivory should be fine. Where is she?
“Ivory!” My voice cracks.
What if she wasn’t far enough back? I stop short of the doors, and the flow of people has slowed. I still haven’t seen her and I’m dizzy and I want to throw up.
I reach for the wall to steady myself, but find a warm shoulder instead. British steadies me, stays at my side. It’s only now that I really see the cuts along the backs of his arms. He protected me.
“She’s still in there,” I gasp.
He’s quiet for a moment. “I can look,” he says finally. “First. For you. If you want me to…”
I’m back to only nodding again. He squeezes my shoulder, maneuvers me against the wall and goes on without me. When he’s gone I sink, bent at the waist and telling myself I won’t go all the way down.
When the door bangs open once more I jerk, pulling up against the wall again and staring wide-eyed. It’s British, beckoning.
“She’s in here! She needs help. Come on.”
I push off from the wall with a foot. My mind is blank until I’m through the doors, around a corner, and through the last doors into the rotunda. Immediately there’s dust again, and heat, and stench, but the glass is gone and the sun shines through to the floor. The jutting metal beams that still hang above break the light into streams.
At the edge of one beam of light, on the floor with one ankle bloody, is Ivory, surrounded by debris and broken stands that used to project the holo-guides for the lines.
“Rora!” Her voice breaks.
I’m running. I land at her side and I don’t particularly care that bits of concrete and glass are biting into my bare knees when I throw my arms around her neck.
“Never do that to me again!” I don’t mean to shout in her ear, but that’s the way it happens.
“Me?” she sobs. I sit back on my heels, and her face is streaked with grime and tears. “I thought you were dead! Everyone was saying no one in the lobby could have survived!”
British comes to a halt above us and makes a face. “That’s...probably not far from the truth, really.”
“What?” Ivory asks. She blinks up at him, swiping hard at her cheeks in quick motions. “Adam?” British has a name then.
“I wasn’t in the lobby,” I explain when Ivory focuses on me again. I glance at British...Adam. “Long story.”
He helps me haul Ivory to her feet, and between the two of us we get her back through the long corridors and out of the call center. We only stop once for a breather, and not for long. Adam doesn’t trust the building. I don’t either, even though I know nothing about the interaction of architecture and explosions.
He leaves us with the teams of paramedics that have arrived on the scene by the time we make it out.
“Thank you,” I tell him. But he only nods and gives me a tight smile. He says something about helping to make sure everyone is out of the building, and he’s gone.
Ivory leans on my shoulders while we wait for someone to see to her leg. Both of us are trying not to look back at the devastated call center; she’s picking grass from my hair while I’m brushing dust from hers and picking away bits of glass from her clothes.
“That’s Adam for you,” she says. “Weird grad student in my lab. There one minute, off who knows where the next. Kind of a know-it-all sometimes…”
“Which lab?” I’m sure she told me when she started the job at the beginning of the summer, but I can’t remember now.
“The new physics lab. You know, the fancy new buildings down on South Campus they just built a few years ago?” I just look at her. “Maybe they weren’t here when you lived here. So what happened?”
Ivory’s ankle is sprained and there’s a nasty gash along it, but nothing more serious. Spray skin seals the gash and does the same for her other minor cuts. I try to tell the paramedics I’m fine, but they insist on checking me over. They clean and seal the few cuts I sustained as well, and then they see my knees. That takes longer.
I’d almost forgotten about them. Ivory spends ten minutes berating me while one of the paramedics picks out concrete and glass bits before sealing the abrasions.
“I seem to recall you didn’t complain then,” I remind her, rolling my eyes.
“Shut up.” It comes out much sharper than usual, but I give her a pass on it. It’s been almost two hours now, I think, maybe more, but her hands are still shaking as she sits beside me in the grass. I try to offer her the water bottle I’m holding, but she ignores it. She didn’t take one when the emergency crews were passing them out.
With the scratches and blood gone, all that’s left is dirt and bruises. I want nothing more than a good shower, but we have no way to leave unless we plan to walk. I can see my car from here and I think it’s all right, but the debris in the parking lot is blocking the drive. No one can get their cars out and we’ve all been told we’ll have to leave them here for a day or two while everything is sorted out. The whole area has already been taped off. A pickup line is forming at the curb at the end of the long drive.
That makes me wonder if our comms are working again, and the familiar beeping in my ear is my answer. I tap mine and it’s Aunt Karan.
“Aurora? I’ve been trying to get through for two hours! Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. It’s all over the news already?”
“Of course it is!” She pauses. “What do you mean?”
Shoot. I make a face, motion to Ivory that I’m moving off to talk to my aunt, and get to my feet. I have to explain that yes, we were there, but we’re fine. I have to tell her that several times before she calms down.
“You haven’t seen the news then?” she asks finally.
I’m rubbing my eyes, trying to wish away the headache behind them. “I was there. Why would I want to see the news?”
“Aurora…” I’ve heard that warning tone before. I cringe. “It’s not just Ruston.”
When I make it back to Ivory she’s swiping away the display in her contacts with a motion across her face. When she looks at me she seems paler than before. “Rora, it’s—”
“I know. Aunt Karan told me.”
Ivory nods and looks away. “I called Matt. He’s coming to pick us up.”
I help her up, and we hobble our way to down to the curb and the lines of people still waiting for their rides.
When the dark blue car makes it through the line and close enough to the curb for us to get to it, I help Ivory into the passenger seat and then slide in the back. By the time I’ve closed the door behind me Ivory and Matthew are bent over the short space between their seats clinging to one another.
“And you’re okay?” Matthew’s saying. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
Ivory nods against his shoulder and squeezes him tighter, just for a moment, before she pulls away into her own seat and stares out the window. Matthew looks back at me.
The car behind us honks, and I wince and tell him we should get going.
He pulls away from the curb, moving slowly. The entire street is still congested. “Where are we going?” he asks.
That’s when I realize he has the holo display up on the dashboard. The news is running, and the first scene I see is just like what we’re leaving behind. But it isn’t Ruston.
“How many?” I ask weakly. “Do they even know yet?”
Matthew follows my gaze to the dash display before focusing on the road again. He can’t set the Autodrive until we know where we’re going. “Places?” he asks. I nod, and he catches it in the rearview mirror. “A dozen or so?”
“They’re all cities,” I say as the images pass. A list of the affected call center sites begins to scroll past in the crawler at the bottom of the display—New York, Chicago, Birmingham, and others—while the footage rolls and an anchor drones on. “We’re not a city. Not a big one. We’re the only one that’s not. How does that make any sense?”
“Just go to the dorm,” Ivory says. “There’s no food at Rora’s house.”
“You’re hungry?” I ask.
“Not really, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
“Which dorm?” Matthew asks.
“Mine. Yours. I don’t care.”
We make a turn and traffic begins to to move more normally, as we make our way back toward campus.
I hold out the water again. “Please drink something now?”
I sigh when Ivory takes it this time, but I’m not at all thrilled when she gargles out a small cry after she swallows a swig of water.
“Ow! Wh—” She drops the bottle into the cup holder and reaches into her mouth. Her finger comes out with spots of watery red, and she checks again, making a face as she brushes the inside of her cheek. When she pulls her finger out again she’s staring at it much more than one should about something like that.
“Ivory?” Matthew asks, probably louder than necessary.
She’s looking from him to the blood on her finger and back again, holding her cheek.
“What?” I ask. I’m beginning to hate being clueless.
She wipes her finger off on her already filthy jeans. “Nothing. It’s nothing. It was an explosion, I mean I probably just bit it when—”
“Were you in a booth?” Matthew asks anxiously. “Before it happened?” And now I know what they’re talking about. I watch Ivory’s face, waiting for an answer. She doesn’t have to say it before I know.
The steering wheel jerks and Matthew has to steady it again. Then he’s pounding on it with the stresses in his words. “How could you not have noticed that before?”
“Everything else hurt!” she shouts over him. “How was I going to notice that!”
“What does it mean?” I’m yelling. If it’s something she did on purpose, because she made it into a booth and heard something before the explosions, then it means something.
The red light ahead of us changes back to green. Matthew had started to slow, but he isn’t paying attention now.
“Matt!” I shout.
He speeds up through the intersection before someone can plow into us, but Ivory tells him to pull over. He swings off the road into the mostly empty parking lot of an intramural field.
Ivory pushes out of the car and stumbles to the grass on the curb. She drops to her hands and knees and heaves. I jump out beside her, to hold her hair. Matthew follows us, but even though he’s only standing there he looks as sick as she does.
“What does it mean?” I ask again.
Cars pass on the road and there is honking, some shouting, people angry—probably at us—but it’s just noise to me right now. All I can think about, for some reason, is the museum trip in the spring of seventh grade. Ivory was there for me, holding my hair, and I don’t want to imagine the last few years without her. I don’t why I think that. Maybe it’s because I can’t see her face this time, like I could in the car before, but I still know what she’s going to say.
Matthew drops to his knees beside us, but he doesn’t answer my question. He doesn’t have to now. Ivory coughs and wipes her lips on her sleeve.
“It’s me,” she says roughly. “Something’s going to happen to me.”