After what felt like an hour or so, when the power still hadn’t come back on, Rosa was beginning to wonder if it was more than just a citywide blackout. Her phone wouldn’t even power up on battery, for one thing, or her laptop either. When the lights came back up, she’d have to try them both plugged in to a charge, and hope. She didn’t want to even think about what all could be damaged inside either device.
There was the sky, too, though. She’d seen videos of the Northern Lights, and it looked like that, except brighter. Or maybe this was how they were supposed to look, and the video hadn’t done them justice. “A magnetic storm could do it,” she told Leo. “Like, knock out a chunk of the power grid. It could take all night to repair. Or, even, days.”
“Magnetic storm,” Leo scoffed. Since their mother had forbidden them to go out, he’d sat down at the kitchen table, kicking one table leg rhythmically. He’d gotten something plastic, the salt shaker probably, to fall off right away, and Rosa couldn’t help listening for what would come next. “That’s not even a real thing,” he said. “You’re making shit up.”
“Leo,” their mother admonished quietly from the center of the living room couch, where she sat perfectly still, her back straight, head slightly tilted as if attuned to something only she could hear. “Stay away from the windows, baby,” she added.
Rosa looked. Katja was a darker shadow on the living room floor, and Leo was still kicking the table. No one was near a window. “That’s tornados, Ma,” Rosa said, and resumed patting through the dark fridge. “It’s not a tornado.” She was just thinking she’d have to go to bed out of pure boredom, when a heavy knock came. “Leo, quit,” she said.
“That wasn’t me.”
The knock came again, this time clearly from the front door, and a voice announced, “Base security. Hello, is anyone here?”
Rosa froze. Her mother had turned her head toward the door, disengaged but curious, waiting to see what would happen. Leo remained firmly slumped at the table, arms crossed tight over his chest. When the knock came a third time, Rosa went to open the door.
A soldier stood silhouetted against the shimmering sky. He held some kind of a baton that emitted a cold blue light, and Rosa could see a rifle slung over his shoulder. He said he was there to take them somewhere safe, and they should pack some things.
Miraculously, then, as if the soldier possessed some persuasive power that escaped Rosa, Leo and her mother both rose and moved into action. Rosa let them, and went to fill a bag of her own.
Outside the window in her room, the sky flared with colors, green and red and bird-egg-blue now. By this weird light, she scooped a handful of items from her nightstand—paperclips and loose change, two barrettes and a hair tie—and dropped it all in the bottom of a duffel, with her dead laptop and its power cord. Then she started piling in clothes. She laid her favorite hoodie sweatshirt on top, the one with the three-view Blackhawk helicopter schematic diagrams, then picked it back up and pulled it on over her head. It wasn’t cold out, but the heavy fabric felt familiar. For no good reason, she felt safer.
Her mother kept slapping at light switches that didn’t work, going from one room to the next and opening drawers. “I’m packing, Rosa,” she protested, as if Rosa had said she wasn’t. Her voice sounded light but strained, like she couldn’t catch her breath. She was grabbing out handfuls of Leo’s clothes and socks and underwear, and stuffing it into a long bag on the floor.
Back in the living room, by the light of his blue baton, the soldier looked nervous. “Ma’am?” he called. “Get everything you need, but we do have to go.”
And then her mother was there, holding Katja. “Does she need to use the potty?” Rosa asked.
Rosa asked if the soldier if she could borrow his light, and he looked stricken. “It’s dark,” she explained. “In the bathroom.”
He handed it over, and she heard him ask behind her, “Does she have a stroller? Or, a wagon or something you can use?”
Outside, everything was bright, and people’s faces glowed with reflected pastel light, like fireworks but with the sound turned off. Some more soldiers had the blue light sticks, but no one was using any flashlights or speaking loudly. The old lady from next door carried a Pekingese, and her son wore a backpack and pushed a wheelbarrow mounded with possessions. A soldier waved a blue light in a circle, directing pedestrian traffic. “Follow the column, have your IDs ready,” he was saying. “Be safe, but, as quickly as you can.”
Rosa smelled acrid smoke on the air, but everything was orderly, calm even, until they turned the first corner out of the base housing.
Rosa registered the change in the quality of light first, from cool pastels to a hot orange, then realized it was really the soft push of heat she was feeling on her skin, from an overturned car in the center of the street, on fire. The soldier in front of them raised a hand, and Rosa felt her family and the others all pause. “We’ll go another way,” the soldier said. Shouting figures in silhouette surrounded the car, and Rosa wondered what kind of accident had occurred, them immediately felt naive when the sharp snap of gunshots rattled the air.
Around them, several other soldiers swung their rifles out and ran toward the rioting, dispersing around parked cars for cover. Their own boyish leader spun around then, breathless, his eyes wide and darting, settling on Sonja. “Ma’am, just get to the east gate of the base,” he said. “Show your ID cards there.”
A low crumpling roar pushed a wave of heat across the street, followed by the stink of gasoline. Sonja stood transfixed, lips parted, the light of the flames flaring over her features.
“Ma’am?” the soldier shouted, then turned to Rosa. “Kid,” he said, his voice almost breaking. “Can you deal with her? Just, go to the east gate. You know which one that is?”
“No!” Rosa screamed, feeling her chest tighten. She didn’t know where anything was, or what to do when they got there. “I can’t!” she choked.
But the soldier wasn’t listening, instead fumbling with his rifle and raising it to his shoulder. A piece of the fire had detached and was headed straight for them. Then Rosa saw that the fireball had legs, was running, and the person’s shirt and hair were engulfed in flames. “Halt!” the soldier shouted, “Stop right there!” He fired a single warning shot, and Rosa saw an open mouth, screaming with no air, and a face distorted through the sheet of flames. The soldier immediately fired a second shot and the person fell, face first onto the pavement twenty feet from them. Rosa could smell oily fuel smoke and burning meat and hair, and her throat closed up. She wasn’t sure if she was going to cry or throw up.
The soldier barked back to get her family out of there, now, and then, rifle leveled, hurried toward the flames. Rosa heard another wave of shots, and turned. Her mother was still standing, expressionless, and Rosa felt her own face greasy and wet, and thought, tears, and wondered if the whining she heard was her own voice. She dropped her mother’s hand and swung around, looking for Leo, who stood watching it all, arms away from his sides, eyes wide with wonder. She screamed his name.
“No way!” he said back, shaking her off. “I’m watching this!”
And that was it, she had wanted to think she’d be stronger than this but she wasn’t ready for any of this to happen, it wasn’t fair that a few minutes ago, they had been in their apartment not knowing any of this and she still didn’t know anything. As she felt herself lowering to the ground, crouching to a squat and wrapping her arms around her knees, she thought, so this is how it happens: panic. It wasn’t fear so much as just not knowing anything, feeling helpless, not knowing what to do, but her mother wouldn’t move and Leo wasn’t listening, and what was she supposed to do, grab Katie’s stroller and bolt? When she had no clue even what direction to run in?
She was jostled hard then, and almost fell over, but a hand was on her shoulder, and someone she knew as shouting her name. In this dream of hell, though, she placed the voice, but couldn’t make it fit the girl in flannel pajamas and flip-flops, with no makeup and her hair down, but she shouted Rosa’s name again, and yes, it was Hannah. She leaned back to shake Rosa’s shoulder again though her own father was holding her other wrist tight.
Rosa had never met Hannah’s father. He was wild-haired, dressed in shorts and sandals and a mis-buttoned shirt, flashing an iridescent security badge at every uniform that passed.
“Help me get them!” Rosa cried, waving at Leo and her mother. “They won’t—”
After only a moment’s read of the situation, Hannah’s dad wrenched Leo’s arm around, then forcibly turned Sonja by the shoulder, shouting something into her face that actually made her nod, and stumble back into motion.
“God!” her brat of a little brother was protesting. “I’m coming already.”
And Rosa found the bar of the stroller in her hands, and she was pushing it, and a block away everything was quieter, though they still hurried. Hannah was speaking to her, but Rosa couldn’t hear, and couldn’t think of anything but how sudden it had all been, and how unprepared she was, and how she’d ever let everything go so wrong so fast.
The next she was aware, it was quiet, quieter than she’d ever heard in a way, though all around her, people were murmuring, walking and murmuring. They were all crossing a flat, open space, that could only be the airbase, but was hardly recognizable as such, without an electric light visible anywhere. The sky was still bright, though, and when the surface under their feet changed from hard runway to scabby short-mown grass, no one stumbled.
The sky rippled and blazed with green and blue and pink waves. When the waves flared brightest, Rosa heard a crackling sound, and the hair on the back of her neck stood up like when she’d pull a sweater off over her head on a dry winter day. She didn’t ask about it though. No one else was asking.
After a few minutes, a soldier on a bicycle pedaled slowly up beside them.
A woman asked in a panicked voice what was happening, if they were under attack, or it was nuclear war, and the soldier told her to keep her voice down. “And it’s none of that,” he said. “Everyone,” he said. “Can I have your attention. The power grids are down, all across the state. The cause is not yet known, but we are not at war. Until the power’s back on, you’re being relocated inside the base for your own safety. Those of you with security clearance for the hardened site will be allowed to enter if you so choose.”
“Hardened site, what the hell?” one man said. “What’s going on?”
“And what about the rest of us?” the panicky woman asked. “Are you just going to, to, leave us up here, for God knows what?”
The soldier got on his bike and pedaled away, up ahead, where Rosa heard him stop and address the next group of walkers.
“Everyone,” a young man said, stopping suddenly. He held up his hands. “Everyone, listen. What if—I don’t want to sound crazy, but—what if this is it? I mean—the end of days?”
“It’s the Rapture,” a woman said, appearing at his side. “Simon, say it.”
“Ma,” Rosa said. Her mother had stopped, as if offering her attention to Simon and the woman. Rosa nudged her elbow, and Sonja, as if shaking something off, fell back in and kept moving.
The night air was cool on her cheeks, and they kept walking. Leo pulled the wagon, looking all around him at the sky and the others, for once unguarded; Rosa only snuck glances at him. The tick and hollow rumbling of the wagon’s wheels echoed in her ears until she felt almost in a dreamlike state.
The hangar they entered was cavernous, larger than any open structure she really knew there was on the base. And the buildings had all been dark, so without any electric lights she’d had a hard time seeing anything but the silhouettes of them, and wasn’t sure by now what part of the base they were on.
Their group was filed deep inside, and stopped at some kind of processing desk before a gated stairwell. Hannah and her father were ahead of them, and Rosa only heard snippets of conversation, lit by more of the floating blue light wands. “Linc Leary,” he said, “and this is my daughter.” When asked for his rank, he said emphatically, “No, I’m telling you, you’ve got the wrong list. Aren’t you on Prism? I’m with directorate G-one-one-six, that’s Senior Span.” And he flashed the rippling security badge Rosa suddenly felt she’d been seeing everywhere, and only lately. This time, though, it got a flutter of recognition.
An officer leaned over the seated clerk’s shoulder. “Of course,” he said. “Level of access requested?”
“Deep storage,” Hannah’s dad growled. “The deepest.” He looked around, back at the rest of them. “And these are the Calders,” he added. “Same list. I don’t know the rest of these.”
Wand-lit faces swum around them like undersea fish. The clerk looked up and the office told him, “Take them all down. Not by the elevators.”
And after minimal further exchange, their group was herded toward a stairwell. Behind them, the enormous doors though which they’d come in, at least three stories high, began to laboriously slide closed. Rosa heard a great creaking, as of unseen, disused wheels rolling in their tracks.
Had she known then where it would lead, she might have risked separating from the group, just for a minute, running back toward the huge doors for just another glance at the narrowing slice of sky and, below it, already black and powerless and inert, the last skyline of the undamaged world she’d know. But of course, there was no way of guessing that it would be forever; the only question anyone’s mind could form, How long?
Even as they unloaded their wagons and strollers, choosing armloads of most-essentials for the first long trip down the series of corridors and stairs, everything was only a precaution. Overreacting, keeping on the safe side. There was every reason to believe they’d make more trips, come back for the remainder of their belongings.
They descended until the air felt different, making slow progress after a few flights as someone was always stopping to arrange their load, flex stiffening arms. Finally, they entered a long corridor, and a ceiling full of yellow lights popped on in panels, down a long row. Rosa counted two dozen adults, and maybe a dozen kids, the younger ones holding a parent’s hand or blinking up at the bright ceiling lights.
The last room had a thick metal door. A soldier was talking about air and water filtration, and how to work a generator, and sleeping quarters. “Once I seal this door,” he said, even he couldn’t get back in, which Rosa thought sounded overly dramatic. She hadn’t believed it, really. Did anyone want to change their minds, the soldier asked. Rosa felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder, pulling her firmly to her, and she didn’t resist. No one said anything.
“OK,” the soldier said, and nodded. “This could all be over in twenty-four hours.”