No sound of birds.
No sound of life.
There’s not even a whisper of wind and no trace of our tracks. Everything smoothed-over and drifted.
The temperature must be miles below zero, because even in the direct sun, I’m not anywhere close to warm.
Beyond this neighborhood, the skyline of Chicago looms, the towers snow-blown and ice-encrusted and glittering in the sun.
A white city.
A world of ice.
Across the street, I survey the open field where we nearly froze to death yesterday.
There’s no sign of the box.
Back inside, I find Amanda awake, sitting up at the edge of the hearth with the sleeping bags and blankets wrapped around her.
I head into the kitchen, locate some silverware.
Then I open the backpack and dig out a couple of MREs.
They’re cold but rich.
We eat ravenously.
Amanda asks, “Did you see the box?”
“No, I think it’s buried under the snow.”
“Fantastic.” She looks at me, then back into the flames, says, “I don’t know whether to be mad at you or grateful.”
“What are you talking about?”
“While you were upstairs, I had to use the bathroom. I stumbled into the office.”
“So you saw them.”
“They starved, didn’t they? Before they ran out of fuel for the fire.”
“Looks like it.”
As I stare into the flames, I feel something needling the back of my brain.
It started when I was outside a moment ago, looking at the field, thinking about us almost dying in that whiteout.
I say, “Remember what you said about the corridor? How it reminded you of being trapped in a whiteout?”
She stops eating, looks at me.
“The doors in the corridor are the connections to an infinite array of parallel worlds, right? But what if we’re defining these connections?”
“What if it’s like dream-building, where we’re somehow choosing these specific worlds?”
“You’re saying that, out of an infinite number of realities, I intentionally picked this shithole?”
“Not intentionally. Maybe it’s a reflection of what you were feeling at the moment you opened the door.”
She takes the last bite of food and tosses her empty MRE packet into the fire.
I say, “Think about the first world we saw—that ruined Chicago, with the buildings crumbling all around us. What was our emotional state as we walked into that parking garage?”
“Fear. Terror. Despair. Oh my God. Jason.”
“Before we opened the door to the hangar and saw the other versions of you and me getting caught, you had mentioned that very thing happening.”
“You were talking about the idea of the multiverse, and everything that can happen will happen, and you said that somewhere there was a version of you and me that never made it into the box. Moments later, you opened a door and we watched that exact scenario play out.”
I feel the spine-tingling rush of a revelation sweeping over me.
I say, “This whole time, we’ve been wondering where the controls are—”
“But we’re the controls.”
“Yep. And if that’s the case, then we have the ability to go wherever we want. Including home.”
Early the next morning, we stand in the midst of this silent neighborhood, waist-deep in snow and shivering, even though we’re wearing layer upon layer of that poor family’s winter clothes, which we raided from the coat closet.
In the field ahead of us, there’s no sign of our tracks. No sign of the box. Nothing but smooth, unbroken snow.
The field is huge and the box is tiny.
The chances of us stumbling upon it through blind luck are minuscule.
With the sun just creeping above the trees, the cold is unreal.
“What are we supposed to do, Jason? Take a guess? Start digging?”
I glance back at the half-buried house, wondering for a terrifying moment how long we could survive there. How long before the firewood ran out? Before our food ran out? Before we gave up and perished like all the others?
I can feel a dark pressure mounting in my chest—fear pushing in.
I draw a deep breath into my lungs, and the air is so cold it makes me cough.
Panic stalks me from all sides.
Finding the box is impossible.
It’s too cold out here.
There won’t be enough time, and when the next storm comes, and the next, the box is going to be buried so deep we’ll never have a chance of reaching it.
I let the backpack slide off my shoulders into the snow and unzip it with trembling fingers.
“What are you doing?” Amanda asks.
“Throwing a Hail Mary.”
It takes me a moment to find what I’m looking for.
Grasping the compass, I leave Amanda and the pack and wade into the field.
She follows, shouting for me to wait up.
Fifty feet out, I stop to let her catch up to me.
“Look at this,” I say, touching the face of the compass. “We’re in South Chicago, right?” I point toward the distant skyline. “So magnetic north is that way. But this compass says otherwise. See how the needle is pointing east toward the lake?”
Her face lights up. “Of course. It’s the box’s magnetic field, pushing the compass needle away from it.”
We posthole through the deep powder.
In the middle of the field, the needle swings from east to west.
“We’re right on top of it.”
I begin to dig, my bare hands aching from the snow, but I don’t stop.
Four feet down, I hit the edge of the box, and I keep digging, faster now, my sleeves pulled forward to protect my hands, which are passing from a cold-driven agony into numbness.
When my half-frozen fingers finally graze the top of the open door, I let out a shout that echoes through the frozen world.
Ten minutes later, we’re back inside the box, drinking ampoule forty-six and ampoule forty-five.
Amanda starts the timer on her watch, kills the lantern to preserve the batteries, and as we sit beside each other in the frigid dark, waiting for the drug to hit, she says, “Never thought I’d be glad to see our shitty little lifeboat again.”