The birds here are the same, pigeons that scratch and bob and weave and scatter in muffled, ruffled explosions of flight. Grass is still green, oaks and elms arc overhead, flowers in window boxes and front lawns familiar shapes. The sky is still blue but the shade is slightly off, an unfamiliar mix of industrial pollutants that alters absorption of light and catches at the back of your throat at unexpected moments. The flowers are familiar shapes but the mixes are different, heavy on tulips and geraniums and daffodils and marigolds. Sprays dominated by yellows and orange and white. You miss the predominance of heavy rosebushes and hyacinths, the fragile toss of bent-necked poppies and frozen perfection of hybrid orchids.
The people here are not happier. Their steps fall no less hurriedly; their shoulders are as tightly drawn. They laugh less frequently, less easily, but without a manic edge or fine thread of panic. The overall crime rate here is equal to that of your own world, where robberies and violence spike with each amber event and swell of desperation. People are careless and open but hold themselves separate; they think as frequently of their stupid, tiny problems, as your people do of the world coming apart around them.
They should be happier. They kill each other for bread and change, love and revenge. There are wars overseas, famine and hunger and disease abroad and at home and such terrible decisions as which of the hundred Starbucks’ confections they should sample today. People are people everywhere, you suppose. (They are savages, the Secretary told you. Monsters.)
You think sometimes that you will never get the stench of hydrocarbons out of your pores, your hair, the stain of ballpoint ink off your hands, rinse the lingering film of over-sweet lattes from the base of your tongue.
It is the little things that are hardest to remember. Oxygen procedures. Changes in Miranda rights. That food in the microwave takes half the time to heat. That even though a can of pop weighs the same in your hands and the tab cracks with the same hiss and release of carbon dioxide ribbons; that though the bubbles that spill across your tongue and tap at the roof of your mouth are familiar the taste is not, cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup.
That this Charlie is not your Charlie is easy to forget, but only because you let yourself. Only because you miss him. Your memories overlap, Gordian knots of homes you never grew up in, elementary school plays with changing names and alternate endings, a horse you never owned that used to snuffle at your ear and chew fondly at the end of your plaited hair, boyfriends you’ve never met and hearts you’ve never broken and lost dreams you’ve never dreamed.
Charlie took you under his wing without ever seeming to do anything of the sort; Charlie was uncertain until you saved his life and he saved yours and you bonded, grimacing, over stitches and bullet wounds. Astrid has shown up silently at your door with Jack Daniels and movies where shit blows up and no one knows how to actually hold a gun; Astrid cannot meet your eye. Broyles did not trust you; Broyles does not trust you.
Walter loves Peter, loves red vines and the heads of animal crackers and bound Cortexiphan to your synapses.
Walter wants to take you to pieces.
The birds here are the same but you are not. You smile less. You wear somber colours, pale shirts with neat collars, keep your hair pulled neatly back. It is the bare nape of your neck that stops you, sometimes, the clean skin without even a shadow of ink. There are late nights with case files spread before you, lips moving with repeated details. It is university again, late or sleepless nights to perform well, to eke out a pass. Your memory is not eidetic. Did she ever fail a test, you wonder?
You kill people.
When you were fourteen, there was a fringe event in New England. It was a family vacation, shopping and sailing and lobster and you thought you were too old to be there, too mature. You'd rather have been with friends in Arizona or Florida or anywhere less stuffy. So you played sick one day, feigning fever and headache and exhaustion, your mother pursed her lips and frowned and knew but she left with your sister. You spent the day window shopping in unsteadily applied eyeliner and giggling at boys from the boardwalk; hurled water balloons at other tourists and tore, laughing, away from cries of protest. In the afternoon, breathing hard, you stumbled into an alley; bummed a smoke from a girl you found there. Your age, maybe, stacked bracelets and careful holes cut her jeans, low cut top showing bony clavicle and not much more. You were wet from the balloons so you stepped from the shadows of the alley into the warmth of the down beating sun, and that’s when the alarms started to sound. You remember running, you remember people screaming, you remember the sickening lurch in your stomach when all you could think was that your last words to your mother may have been lies. When the dust cleared, you were lying on the cobbles, wrist at an impossible angle, left knee cut and blood trailing down a pale, bare calf. The edge of the amber was close enough to touch, the other girl a half stride in. The distance around the corner of the alley. Neither of her feet was in contact with the ground, left heel less than an inch from the road. Her laces were trailing. Your cigarette had somehow managed to partially escape. The filter was encased in amber but the tip free in the air, ember of slowly smoking tobacco only feet from where your blood dripped slowly to the cobbles. You sat there, cradling your arm, waiting for her footstep to fall and for pain that never came, until the paramedics found you and turned your gaze from the girl cast gold by amber and the fading ember. All in all it was a small event, a small quarantine, less than two hundred people killed.
You never knew her name.
So yes, you kill people.
You are good at it. You may not have an eidetic memory but you are an almost preternatural shot. You cannot draw the connections she seems to pick out from the ether, cannot see the lines of probability and intent from interrogations and evidence but she’s never been to the Olympics. You think – everything has always come so easily to her, this other you. She can’t have known the discipline of drill after drill, the exhaustion of repeated lists, the strength that comes from getting back up, again and again and again after repeated failure.
You’ve never been to Jacksonville.
You never had a step-father.
But she never watched a cigarette burn down beneath a girl’s frightened face; tossed feverish and delirious as smallpox wormed through her town and permanently emptied a third of the desks in her classroom.
You grew up in a world defined by what was missing. You grew up in an isolationist, protectionist America where seaboards and cities disappeared with only sirens as warning. Yet here, somehow, you have to smile less. You try. Astrid – who clicks her tongue and shakes her head and laughs – makes it hard. Boston Bruins games in a stadium not under amber make it hard. Peter makes it hard.
You wonder if it is harder for people to reach for joy without imminent threat over their heads. To tell themselves there will be time. That a perfect moment will come.
It looks like people are people, no matter where you find them.
So when you falter, when your hand shakes on the trigger or in Peter’s hair, you think of the girl in amber, the girl whose name you do not know, you wonder what she would have grown up to become. What she would have done with a moment more.
It’s the muscle memory that’s the hardest. You write ‘Manhatan’ for weeks after you get back, combine the Dakotas and the Carolinas. You get half way home before you realize you’re heading to an apartment that’s never been built in this world. The empty space on the skyline where the Twin Towers should stand is again a raw and gaping hole. You find your fingers dialing your mother’s number before you remember again that there is no house in the Hamptons, that she’s gone, that she’s dead.
You bury Colonel Broyles in the military cemetery in D.C. Broyles comes but does not approach the grave, stands still and silent by their car at the top of the hill. Astrid and Peter bow their heads while Walter hums Amazing Grace under his breath, distracted, as if this bears only the slightest of connections to him, and you fist your hands in your coat to stop yourself from doing something Broyles’ memory does not deserve.
The muscle memory is hard. The precision of your shooting, that you aim casually, almost careless, naturally as breathing. Your hands reach instinctively for clothes and files and guns where she would have moved them, so you know your way around your apartment though everything has moved, has been shifted.
The first time you shot a gun, you failed to kill your stepfather. You wonder if that’s why you never learned to love it as she did – because you learned first what it was for, or because the first time you used it, you failed. You still have her tangled up in your head, the satisfaction of developing a skill, the zen-like state of tranquility of perfect sight. Point, aim, shoot. Cause and effect, predictable trajectory. Something almost akin to meditation against a world disappearing around her. Romeo and Juliet, where Juliet does not follow him into that dark night but walks alone and bereft into the desert to mourn him for the rest of her days. Ronald Regan and Humphrey Bogart.
Peter should have known.
There was something he welcomed in her, you think. That she was easier, simpler. Laughed more readily, took things with more levity. You can’t be those things.
That’s a lie.
You could be those things. You could make yourself those things, but you would no longer be you.
Whoever you are, it is not her.
Your world should be the same. The proportion of amber on the quarantine maps has grown, of course. They are still at war. New cults on every corner as they overturn old prophecies and prey on new waves of mourners. The sky, though, is the same colour and the air tastes like home.
Still at war. There is not truly a war, of course, or your world is at war only in the sense that you are fighting for your lives. You brought Walter pastries and ice cream and garage sale records and it is the only time you had to make yourself smile, be pleasant, because he knows that his world is killing yours. He has killed hundreds of thousands of sons and daughters for the sake of one son, and he does not care. We are dying, you wanted to yell at him. Moment by moment, day by day as they die directly or are held fast in amber and their humanity is stripped away one quarantine at a time.
They are subhuman, the Secretary told you. Savages. Monsters.
And what does that say about us you try not to wonder.
Broyles is missing. Astrid meets your eye when she tells you, accidentally. She raises her chin a hair more than usual, and you are out of the practice of looking beyond her so as not to force the issue. Charlie and Lincoln are looking at you like you know something about clues and information trails and there are fingerprints all over your life of someone who is not you. Of course there are.
The hardest thing is the muscle memory, but it’s not the only –
Peter should have known.
Nature versus nurture. You look at the hurt that she’s caused and the damage she’s done and the record of her easy smiles, and you wonder. Nature or nurture, because it could have been either. They are still guinea pigs caught in experiments of purpose and hubris, Cortexiphan bound up in your neurons and her world an experimental maze, identical twin studies with too many variables and Walter, always Walter, the architect and creator of you both, who cared too little to even remember your name.
Even now, Cortexiphan in your veins and echoed memories and muscle memory on the trigger. He is creating you even now.
The Secretary speaks to you in confidence. Your chair is close to his desk. His assistant brings in strong, bitter coffee that sticks at the back of your throat.
She killed Broyles, he explains softly. The other you. He is thinking that if you have doubts, if you have warmed to them over there, this sharp shock will shake you back.
Emotions flicker across your face and you let them because that’s how you carry yourself, but there are some thoughts you have had to learn to mask. There are cracks you can start to see in him, tightness around the mouth that betrays his hooded eyes. Their Walter is mad, and there is no arguing it. You wonder if it is only because you have seen it in him that you can start to see it in the Secretary. If you are looking for it, or if these are fault lines that have been there all along.
She killed Broyles, he explains, and you can see why he would say that. If you had to – if you could find no other way around it, you would do it. Because –
The truth remains this: your world is dying. It is being shaken to pieces and they are losing their humanity in front of the accelerating wave and you will not go quietly into that good night.
This is not the difference.
The hardest thing is not the muscle memory. Of course it’s not.
You’re so close to understanding her but you don’t. You can see the trail of logic and events. Feel every scraped knee and broken wrist and unknown face in amber. You don’t know how these things formed her. You can trace her life and build her whole but she is foreign to you; her reactions are alien, hormones and memories that interact differently with neurons bare of Cortexiphan.
You could make yourself smile and laugh and move more easily, but she’s not someone you want to be. She’s not someone you can be.
The difference, though.
The difference is: You would have done anything to avoid it, but your world is dying, and you would have done it, you would have killed Broyles. She is not you, however, and you hate her for it, like you want to hate everyone over there for not knowing how lucky they are, how complicity in their own misery.
She would have found another way. And you hate her, and you hate her, because maybe, just maybe she would have found a way out of this that you can’t, but your world is dying and you will do what you have to do to save it.
The hardest thing –
The difference is –
She’s someone you could have been.