Time is a strange thing. It weaves and wanders, dips and spins, whirls you along until up is down and down is up. Time changes everything, and everything has changed.
When my eyes first opened, all I could feel was the ash in my throat, scratching by every passing breath. I smacked my lips together and blinked several times in rapid succession before I could muster the will to sit up.
The few blissful seconds after I woke up had passed, and now I was painfully aware of every screaming muscle in my body. My skin was rubbed raw and hurt when the thin sheets brushed against the exposed burns.
I looked around, my brain sluggish around the details of... this morning? Yesterday? Centuries ago?
Everything was a haze, from the instant I’d taken that injection. The memories flew by, blurry, past a backdrop of confusion.
The memorial... How long had I been there?
I forced another swallow. My throat hurt and my head hurt and...
“Would you like some water, dear?” She was standing with one hand on the door. She-
“Aspen?” I croaked out. My voice cracked around the name. She stepped closer, a sippy-cup in hand and a sad, small smile on her face. Her hair was down, framing her face in auburn waves. She never used to wear her hair down.
“Sitara.” She replied, smiling with full force. She gave me a quick, tender hug, leaning down to where I was half-propped up in the bed.
“I don’t- I don’t understand.” I stared at her, at every detail of her face I’d thought I’d never see again. But it was... different. Small wrinkles lined her eyes and mouth, and were those streaks of gray in her hair?
“Me neither, sweetie,” she said quietly, “me neither.” Aspen stepped back a bit, and now that I was looking, I could see the slight bulge of her stomach sticking out.
“Aspen! You’re pregnant?” I gaped in disbelief, then gave my surroundings a real look. I saw the scattered toys, the action posters, the bed that barely fit the tips of my toes when I was lying straight. “And- Is this a kids room? Do you have a kid?”
Before, Aspen had only had eight years on me. But even at twenty-five, she had been adamant that she never wanted kids. Ever.
It looked like that had changed.
Aspen smiled, her real smile, a beautiful thing. She had a whole gallery of smiles she wore like shoes, and I probably hadn’t even seen all of them. Most of them were for show, whether intentional or not, but the ones she didn’t plan were always the most beautiful.
“His name is Micah.” I did a double take at the name, and Aspen noticed.
“Like-” I swallowed. “Like our Micah?”
Her face fell. “Oh, sweetie...” I was almost scared to ask.
“What? What happened to him, Aspen?”
“Drink some water.” She passed me the small plastic cup and I took it without complaint. I was parched. “Micah- He didn’t make it. He passed away in the bombing.”
The bombing. The Justix Angel Attack, they were calling it. I’d seen the sign at the memorial, but had never in my haze read all the names.
I’d seen my name, however. I was everywhere. Plaques. They’d even built a statue of me.
“Who else?” She understood the question without me having to really ask it.
“Just... just you.” Aspen rubbed her stomach with a sad smile. “Micah is going to have a little sister soon. I was planning on naming her Sitara.”
My breath caught in my throat at the gesture, but I had to know about the rest of my friends.
“So the others... Tammy? Cade? Vera?” I took a long sip of water before I could bring myself to say the last name. “Elliot?”
“Are you hungry? You should really eat something. Here, let me take a look at your bandages. We can talk about this later.”
I relented, if only because I was famished. I forced myself into a more upright position and pulled my legs from beneath the blankets. I was a mess.
I was still wearing the same tattered clothes I’d been wearing on the day Micah died. The day I should have died. But Aspen had ripped the fabric to wash the gash on my leg from the metal beam, which was now wrapped tightly in pristine white cloth. I thought I could feel the pull of stitches beneath the cloth. She’d also wrapped my ankle, which she now brought me an ice pack for.
“What time is it?” I asked, taking in the slanted rays of yellow light through the blinds. “How long was I asleep? How long-” I laughed without any real humor behind it. “What year is it?”
Aspen’s eyes were still fixed on the ice pack as she fiddled with my bandages. “I thought you’d be unconscious longer. Of course, you’re far too stubborn for that, aren’t you? That boy brought you in around dawn, only a few hours ago, but you really need more rest. I suggest you try to sleep a bit longer after you eat.”
That boy... Hazy memories swam to the surface. I knew who she was talking about. “Where is he? The boy? I never got to thank him.”
“He left just after dropping you off.” Aspen said with a wink. “However, he did ask if it was ok for him to come back to check on you. He was very handsome, wasn’t he? Your knight in shining armor? Isn’t that so romantic, him saving your life like that?”
“Elliot saved my life, not him.” That seemed to kill her buzz a bit, and it made me want to pry her about where he was now. But if I was being honest with myself, I didn’t really want to know.
“It’s been twenty-two years, Ara. A lot has changed.”
My breath caught in my throat. I’d known, in the back of my mind, that it had been a long time. I’d been sitting in that memorial for years, I knew that, but it hadn’t felt like that long. Of course, it hadn’t felt like much of anything.
“So, you’re what, forty-seven now?” I tried to make my voice sound light, but I don’t think it worked. “What happened to focusing on work? Never having kids?”
She laughed, but I think we both knew it was fake. “Our little revolution died in that bombing. The system won. The council won.” Her eyes went glassy with memory. “I married rich. Well, not rich, but richer. I had Micah eight years ago, and now I’ve nearly finalized my divorce. It’s been a hectic decade.”
I followed her gaze around the room as she continued speaking, her voice soft, almost reverent. “This is his room. He’s with his father now.”
“And your dream?” That’s why she’d joined us, mostly. She wanted to save lives, be a doctor. But she was poor, from a poor family, and the system blocked her from getting the education she needed. She’d learned what she could from the internet, but it had never been enough. Not for Aspen.
“Dreams have a tendency to fade when you wake up and face the real world. This is my real world. I love Micah, and I’m happy. I work for a pharmaceutical company now.” She sighed. “It’s better than most get, you know that better than anyone.”
Aspen tried to spoon feed me a bowl of oatmeal for lunch, which I managed to avoid, and she only let me shower alone because of the pull-out seat installed in her shower.
Nearly two hours later, I was fed, cleaned, wearing fresh hand-me-downs from Aspen, and thoroughly annoyed with her smothering. The shirt was baggy and a little too short, but it would work. She gave me a pair of shorts suitable for august in Justix, which hung loose around my knees instead of clinging flattering to my thighs like they did for her.
The clothes were suitable.
Aspen sat beside me on the couch where I lay with my right ankle elevated on a pile of pillow and iced. She’d fought with me when I said I didn’t need to go back to the bed, and the couch had been a compromise.
“So where is everyone?” I asked, staring into Aspen’s chocolate eyes. “Did you guys just split up after the fire? The... bombing?”
Aspen sighed. “Pretty much. I haven’t heard from Vera in years, rumor has it she made it out of the city.”
I nodded slowly. It sounded like Vera to run away and ditch the cause. She’d always been the most fickle of the bunch, and I’d gotten the sense she’d just been looking for a fight. “And Cade? Tammy? Elliot?”
“Tammy and Elliot got married a couple years after we lost you, when things were starting to get back to normal. As normal as they could be. I think they had a kid, but they started to shut people out and I-” She shook her head, offering me a sad smile. “I was ready to move on. But I do know he was a pretty big deal with the scientists.” I didn’t miss her use of the past tense, and I knew what she was going to say before she grabbed my hand in hers. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. I know you two were close.”
Tears welled in my eyes, and I averted my gaze. I couldn’t look at her right now.
Close was an understatement. Elliot had been my everything. My family when I had none, the only person for so long who cared if I lived or died. And he- he was gone now, and he’d died thinking I was dead too.
Or had he? Had he suspected I’d used his injection? Had he known I’d come back some day?
That raised even more questions. What had been in that syringe? He’d cautioned me never to use it unless death was the alternative, but was what I’d been through even better? Spending years in a dream and waking up to find your friends all gone or dead wasn’t my idea of a blazing fun time.
And that strange mist, the bomb hidden in the cell phone. Had it been a coincidence, or was that what had brought me back? Had I ever really been gone? My mind went to the small flat screen tucked beneath the pillow of Aspen’s son’s bed. I’d found it in the grass after the boy had thrown it. The cell phone he’d been carrying, the bomb, had looked like a cell phone I’d remembered from two decades ago. But it had detached into two pieces in the graveyard- a phone like the one I’d seen the boy pull from his pocket and the canister with the mist.
Aspen was watching me with sad eyes, still holding my hand in hers, and with a jolt I realized I was still supposed to be processing the loss of a man who’d been like a brother to me. Maybe this was my way of coping. It’s what Elliot would want, wasn’t it? Me trying to figure the puzzles he’d left from beyond the grave. Right?
There was only one person from our little rebellion of seven that Aspen hadn’t told me about, and I turned over the fates of the six in my mind. There was Aspen and I, Tammy raising a child somewhere in the city, traitorous Vera free somewhere, Elliot and Mica both dead.
Aspen’s voice was soft when she answered. “He’s the only one I’ve kept in contact with, but the last time I talked to him was... well darn. It was probably quite a few years ago, but The Council is really having to work to keep his trouble off the news.”
That lifted my spirits a bit, and I let myself hope just a little. “His trouble? Does that mean he’s still fighting back?” I couldn’t keep the excitement out of my voice. How could I ever doubt Cade?
“Yes, he’s still fighting,” Aspen didn’t particularly sound like she approved, but I was willing to disregard that. “He’s got quite a group together, so I hear. They’re calling themselves the Devout.” She must have seen my surprise in my face because she laughed. “I wasn’t too impressed either with the name when I first heard. But it’s quite the sweet sentiment, actually. Their symbol is an angel. She was watching my face intently, but all I gave her was a slight raise of my eyebrows.
“Isn’t that-” I started, but Aspen interrupted.
“Yes, it’s what the media started calling you after you saved all those people.” Grudging admiration flooded her face. “But Cade made it a symbol to fight for. A symbol of revolution. He took your legacy and he carried it into the fight.”
“He turned me into a martyr.” But I didn’t mind, not really, if that would get people fighting. What I did mind was how little progress Cade seemed to have made. Did I have to do everything myself? “But what exactly has he done? From where I’m standing, those power-hungry thugs in The Council still seem to be running the show.”
“Just little things. Fighting back when he can, raising dissent, spreading rumors both true and false. Whatever he can to pitch the everyday people against our tyrants.” Her expression was far away, lost in memories all too recent for me. “He’s doing it right this time, the way we should have started before. We were never going to make progress like that. He’s laying the foundation for a rebellion. A real one.”
A rebellion we had a chance at winning.
Aspen was watching me again, and she squeezed my hand reassuringly. “Are you ready to talk about it?”
“About what happened. Twenty-two years ago.” Her brow furrowed in that way it did when she thought about something she didn’t like. “About how- how you’re still, what, seventeen? And injured?”
“Oh.” The truth was, I didn’t really know. Now I’d never know, with Elliot gone.
No. I couldn’t focus on that, not now.
“It was Elliot.” I managed with a small smile. “He gave me something... a serum of sorts. He told me to use it only if I knew I was about to die. Kind of ominous, don’t you think? That he gave me that only a week before I...” I couldn’t finish the sentence, but it was something that’d been hovering on the back of my mind. Just another question I didn’t really want answered. Had Elliot known about the bombs? The memorial claimed it had been a terrorist attack, but it hadn’t been us. All we’d wanted that day was information.
“A serum? You were on the... fifteenth floor, correct?”
“Impressive memory.” It was all too vivid for me, like the haze of the night before on the other side of a dream.
“You could have made it out, couldn’t you?” It wasn’t a question, not really, but the hard edge to Aspen’s voice compelled me to answer nonetheless.
“I could,” I whispered, the words floating off my tongue like a death sentence. I could have bolted for the fire escapes the second I figured out what had happened. Leave the herd to fend for themselves. The Council building was one of the few non-residential buildings in that part of the city with fire escapes still installed. After the lower floors started to cave in, they wouldn’t have made much difference. But before... “I could.”
Aspen looked like she wanted to ask me why. To scream at me, shake me by the shoulders and beg me to answer the questions that have been haunting her for over two decades. To her credit, she didn’t.
But it broke my heart all the same. She was a sort of mother for me, a parent of sorts. She definitely had been the most maternal of us all, and the oldest. Still, all she’d wanted was to focus on her career. Too bad the Council had decided that she didn’t qualify because of who raised her. Where she was raised.
Aspen’s voice was soft yet harsh, resigned yet curious when she broke the silence. “So how...” She trailed off, lost. “Where have you been all this time?”
A weak laugh escaped from my clutches. “Why would I know?” But I thought, really thought about it. “I- I was in the memorial, but I wasn’t. I was somewhere else. It all felt like some big dream.”
“The memorial wasn’t there when you...” The confusion rolled across her open face in waves. “When you didn’t die. So how where you there?”
“I guess I made my way there, in this other place.” I shrugged. “Maybe it’s magic.”
“Elliot never quite struck me as the magician type.” Aspen nudged me conspiratorially.
The wound was healed, for her. She could joke. But the knowledge still weighed fresh on my mind, and she seemed to remember that, because all the humor seeped from her face.
“You really should get some rest.”
I made a face at her and started to protest, but she cut me off.
“I’m serious, Ara. You got hurt pretty badly. I’ve stitched you up all right, but rest and water are the best medicines for you now.”
I couldn’t argue with that, and the need for sleep pulled at the edges of my mind. But there was still so much I wanted to know, needed to know, and I told Aspen as much.
“It’s been twenty-two years. I’ve missed so much, and there’s so much more I want to know.” I tried to keep the plaintive tone from my voice, but the curiosity was just too much for me.
“And there will be more time to catch up on everything after you get some sleep. There’s this wonderful thing called the internet-”
“I know what the internet is,” I whined as she helped me to my feet and started to usher me towards her young son’s bedroom. Aspen only raised her eyebrows at me.
“Oh, trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” She tucked me into the bed, and I followed her with my eyes while she left the, closing the door softly behind her.
I felt like a teenager sneaking around behind her mother’s back when I pulled the device from beneath the pillow. It wasn’t that far from the truth. These days, Aspen really was old enough to be my mother, even if we looked nothing alike.
It was time to really find out what I’d missed. I tapped the screen, dubious of the lack of buttons. I’d never owned a cell phone, never had the means or motive to. But I’d seen enough of them back then.
This was a whole different device. At my touch, the screen lit up like a candle, and I blinked at the brightness. Almost automatically, it dimmed itself, adjusting.
It took me a while to find the search engine and type in a few questions. Once you got used to it, the interface was actually quite simple to navigate.
SEARCH: The JUSTIX ANGEL
It’s best to start simple, right?
The search engine was limited to Justix servers, and only showed results from here. Interesting.
I scrolled through a few pages of results, skimming articles. They all seemed to tell the same story, with varying degrees of accuracy. I even saw a few conspiracy theorist pages claiming I was everything from a unicorn to the devil incarnate.
It would probably be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
But I found one search hit that made me freeze in my tracks.
“The Justix Angel: The Story of the Day I Almost Died and the Girl Who Saved My Life, a True First-Person Account by Theodore Bane.”
It was a bit of a lengthy title, but all I saw was the name. Theodore Bane? Could that be- Could it be the Theo I saved? Almost frantically, I jammed my finger on the link to the article. I grew impatient at the slow loading and reloaded the page several times.
Finally, the post opened. I didn’t even bother reading the self-published article, I flew right to the bottom of the page, looking for any information on the author. And there it was.
Right beneath the date of publishing was a picture and name. I did some quick math. If 174 Years After Founding was twenty-two years ago, then it was 196 YAF. Which meant the article was published… fourteen years ago?
I looked at the picture. The dark hair, the bright eyes, the pale skin… he looked like a younger version of Theo’s father. It wasn’t a coincidence after all.
Curious, I entered the name Theodore Bane into the search bar.
I was practically beaming with pride when I saw the results.
“At Only Fifteen Years Old, Aspiring Journalist Theodore Bane Takes the Media By Storm With-”
“Special Interview With Teen Sensation Bane On JustixTV: Who Is the Boy Behind Viral Article-”
“Meet the Newest Journalist at the Justix Journal: Bomb Survivor Theodore Bane Is-”
“Youngest Journalist at Justix Journal to be Promoted On Thursday-”
I let my head flop back on to the pillow with a sigh, trying to process it all. It was like Elliot was here, lecturing me on the Butterfly Effect for a school project.
If I had never met that frantic man in the hall of a burning building, Theodore Bane would never have lived past seven. He never would have been able to realize he wanted to be a journalist, never published an article I couldn’t bring myself to read.
It was all too much. My brain was on overload. I could feel the tears. But they never came.
I just wanted my best friend. I wanted Elliot there to hug me and laugh at my tears. I wanted him to call me a moron and tell me he loved me.
But I’d never see him again.
The last piece of family I had was gone.
It wasn’t until that moment that I truly felt like an orphan, because after my father died, Elliot was there for me.
I was nine years old when I came to that underfunded building on Crescent Street. I was mourning both the loss of my father and the loss of the life I had at our small apartment. All I brought with me was a small duffel bag and a butter knife, and that was what I planned to leave with.
I didn’t even unpack the bag. The woman who ran the orphanage brought me to a room full of bunk beds. She told me all the other girls were still at school, and I should take this time to settle in.
I didn’t listen to her.
But I waited until the sun had set to run away. I ignored the friendly chatter of my roommates as they entered, ignored the questions and the welcomes. I was getting out of that place.
To this day I’m not quite sure where I would have even run to if I’d ever made it past the back door.
Duffel in one hand, butter knife in the other for the dubious protection it provided, I made my way out of the building. Down those horrible creaky stairs, past the sleeping orphans, through doorways until I stood outside in the cool night air. The summer heat had evaporated beneath the crescent moon shining in the sky, and I took a moment to breathe in the sounds and smells of this part of the city.
“Hey kid, where’re you going?”
At the voice from the shadows, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I whirled around to face the stranger, brandishing my mighty saber. Back then, I felt so impressive, but hindsight showed me what a fool I was. Looking back, I wouldn’t be surprised if Elliot laughed in my face.
But to his credit, he didn’t.
I was trying so hard to look brave, to keep my voice from shaking in this unfamiliar world. “Don’t see how ts’ any of your business.” I had a horrible tendency of running my words together back then. My enunciation has gotten better over the years, but I sometimes when I’m upset it comes back. I hate it. I suppose it came from the dialect my father spoke when I was growing up- in Faren the words rolled off the tongue faster.
The boy emerged from the shadow of the building, arms crossed. He was a couple years older than me, thirteen or fourteen maybe. But in the alley, he looked like some big, menacing teenager.
“Where’re you going?” He repeated himself.
“Home.” I couldn’t help it, my voice was shaking as much as the butter knife in my hand.
“Home, eh?” He laughed. “Where is that?”
“C’mon kid, put down the knife, I’m not gonna hurt ya.”
I jutted my chin out, trying to seem taller. “You can’t call me a kid. You’re jussta kid too.”
“That right?” He sighed. “Look, let’s go back inside.”
I stamped my foot. “I told you, I’m going home.”
“If you had a home, you wouldn’t be here.”
I had no answer to that, still don’t.
“It may not be the nicest, may be a bit crowded, but we got food, we got beds, and we got a roof over our heads. That’s better then you’ll find if you leave.” He ran a hand through his hair, the blond catching the light from the cracked door. “Look kid, I’ve been here since I was a little kid. I tried to run away once too, and it didn’t work too well for me…” His sentence trailed off, as if his brain was already far away.
My voice was less than a whisper. “I’m scared. I miss my dad.”
His features softened. “My name’s Elliot, what’s yours?”
“I’m gonna call you Ara. That all right?”
I nodded, and he became my best friend.
He was my best friend until the day he died, even if I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there for him, even though he’d always been there for me. He’d saved my life.
The screen of the cell phone had dimmed, and I tapped it before it shut off. Gritting my teeth, I typed one final phrase into the bar.
SEARCH: Cade Burnan, The Devout