The phone beeps, shattering the silence. I glance down at it, the figures on the flashing screen searing themselves into my mind.
I look over at Jim. He’s standing with his back against the window, and behind him, I can see nothing but grey. Grey streets, grey buildings, grey sky. Never blue anymore. The only hint of color around me is the blaring red of the button on the box in my hand.
Though I can’t see Jim’s face in this dim room, I know what it looks like: calm, confident. He’s so sure, always has been. Even after everything went wrong— the mistakes, the losses, the betrayals—he believed.
I sigh, and Jim looks at me.
“Yeah,” I say. “Just overthinking things, as usual.”
He chuckles, then asks, “Do you have any regrets?”
“I—” I hesitate. I was going to say yes, about not being more passionate or more daring or more, well, like Jim. But …
“No,” I say. “I don’t regret my mistakes, because I learned from them. And I do not regret being myself.”
He nods, and I know he understands. “You don’t have to be me,” he reminds me, and unexpected tears surface.
“I know,” I whisper. “Because I have to be me.”
“We needed you,” he says. “Still do,” he adds, and I can almost see his lopsided grin.
“Nervous?” Jim asks.
“No,” I reply, a little amazed at my answer. “I thought I’d be, but now I’m just enjoying each moment. When the time comes, I’ll be ready.”
He’s quiet. “You’ve grown,” he says at last.
“Really?” It makes me ridiculously happy, and I find myself grinning like a little kid at a birthday party.
He laughs at my excitement, and I join him, and all of a sudden it hits me that we’re less than ten minutes away from dying, and we’re laughing. It’s so unexpected, so crazy, so … beautiful.
“What’s the matter?” Jim asks, noticing my sudden silence.
“We’re laughing in the face of death,” I choke.
He nods. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be. We don’t have anything to fear.”
That was what had finally convinced me that they were right. The fact that they weren’t afraid, that they didn’t have to be. The others, they were so afraid, all the time. But for Jim and those with him, they were never afraid, and that was proof of the rightness of their cause.
I relish these last few minutes to breathe and feel air in my lungs and see shapes and light and hear voices and wind.
“Wonder how everyone else is doing,” Jim remarks, thinking of others as always.
I think of them now, scattered around the earth, holding the same boxes with the same red buttons, their phones ringing with the same countdown. I wonder if they’re calm, like Jim, or eager, like me. Either way, I know they’re not afraid.
Then I think of the group, and I draw my breath in involuntarily.
“They have him by now,” I say.
Jim exhales. When he speaks, I hear wonder in his voice. “I can’t believe that we finally have him in our grasp.”
“I wonder what he’ll think. When he sees it collapsing, I mean.”
“I know. I almost wish …” Jim hesitates, then continues, because five minutes till death is not a time to hold back. “I almost wish we could have been part of that group. But … this is an honor, too.”
I nod. To be the team in his capital city, that is an honor indeed.
Then the phone beeps again.
I re-grip the box, and somehow I’m able to do it without shaking or sweating. I just hold it loosely, like I’ve learned to hold everything.
Especially my life.
I take a deep breath and just give thanks, because my life was hard and grey and fractured, but it was so beautiful …
I look across the room at Jim, and he’s shifted his position, so I can see his face. I stare at it for a long moment and then close my eyes, my last sight that of the beloved face of a companion who fought with me, for me.
My mind drifts towards the others, and I say a silent prayer for them, that they’ll stay fearless to the end. Thanks for everything, guys. It was so good, wasn’t it?
My thumb hovers over the red button, and it takes my breath away to think about what will happen next.
My thoughts are moving so quickly, a million whispers tumbling through my brain, and through it all, I keep thinking about them. The children we’re saving the world for.
I hope they remember us.
I hope they enjoy the sky—blue, beautiful blue.
I hope that when they see it, they remember how much it cost. How much we sacrificed. How much we loved.
Now it’s counting down each second, beep-beep-beep-beep, and then the triple beep, and I press my … thumb … down …
The earth erupts, the sky rains cement, and smokestacks quiver and buckle and die as an empire is swallowed by dust.
See also The Beginning.