Just like that, the entire world froze, every single person on Earth, all except for Matthew Harris, a brilliant, young software engineer student in enemy occupied Colorado. At first, it's all fun and games as he takes advantage of what appears to be an incredible opportunity to act without consequence, but as the weeks wear on, he begins to wonder if this is going to be his new reality. There's something off about all of this, though...He just has to figure out what it is.
“This feels so wrong.”
“Why? It’s not like they’ll care. They’re frozen.”
“Still, what if they wake up?”
Kim laughs and grabs my hand to help me over the barbed wire fence surrounding the old Panamerican airbase, which has long since been occupied by the E.A. Air Corps. “Right. If it hasn’t happened yet, after all this time, I don’t think it’s going to happen now.”
Even so, I crouch down out of instinct and follow Kim across the tarmac, past the groups of mechanics and airfield managers gathered together in clumps around the fighter aircraft organized neatly into several long rows.
“What are we doing here?” I ask nervously. I don’t know why I’m so anxious; I was at the barracks not too long ago, and I wasn’t bothered then. Maybe it’s because back then I was at a point where I didn't really care about living or dying. Ever since meeting Kim, though…I guess things have changed.
“Jeez, you ask a lot of questions. You’ll see!”
I chuckle nervously and look out across the airfield, as if expecting someone to notice us at any moment. No one does, as far as I know.
Soon, we reach one of the dozens of hangars spread out across the airfield, and Kim leads us through a side entrance, maneuvering us through the facility as if she’s been here a thousand times before. We end up near the back of the hangar at a set of lockers along the wall, and she proceeds to open one of them like it was her own. After pulling out a flight suit and a helmet, she continues to rummage around the other lockers until she finds a suit in my size, which she tosses in my direction and instructs me to put on.
“What, are we doing some sort of role play?”
“Just put the damn thing on,” she chides with a grin.
Once the two of us are dressed, Kim tosses me a helmet like the one she has on, then leads us out of the hangar and over to one of the fighter jets nearby. It’s a magnificent piece of machinery, with sleek, silver sides and a pair of hypersonic engines, both of which are almost entirely hidden by the gracefully angled edges of the wings. There are four bays along its underbelly, each with the potential to carry dozens of missiles or a wide variety of miniature anti-personnel, anti-aircraft, and anti-armor drones. The Europeans may be a savage crew, but they certainly have an eye for quality engineering, a trait that has propelled them to conquer nearly half the world.
Kim pulls over a moveable ladder and hops lightly up the rungs two at a time, gesturing for me to follow her. I fight the instinct to question her again and instead follow her instructions, lifting myself carefully up the ramp into the two-seated cockpit. She takes the pilot’s position, while I move myself over to the Drone System Operator’s seat in the back.
“Alright, it’s a bit of a kick at first, but just make sure to clench your thighs and butt when you feel the G’s, okay?”
“You mean we’re actually going up in this thing?” I ask incredulously as she ignites the main engine. It whines, increasing in volume and pitch until she lowers the canopy above us, effectively blocking out the sound.
I can hear the grin in her tone.
“You know how to fly?”
She can't be serious, can she? This must all be some sort of joke. There’s no way she knows how to fly—a European jet, no less—not at her age. I feel like at any moment she’ll open up the canopy, say “Just kidding!” and then tell me what we’re really doing. But then we jerk forward, and my hands rush to grab ahold of the headrest in front of me as we pull away from the other aircraft lined up beside us, taxiing toward the runway. My fear of pretty much everything has been blown to bits this past week after numerous failed attempts to jump off buildings, leap into fire, drive off cliffs, you know. If anything in this strange reality could kill me, though, a fiery crash at thousand miles per hour would definitely do it. Also, I’ve never been all that fond of flying anyways.
I look out the canopy at the flashing green and red position lights and at the partially illuminated, ghostly-blue insignia of the E.A. falcon on the wings, feeling a strange mix of disgust and awe as I do so. My eyes are drawn to the ailerons and elevators, which wiggle about as Kim tests them one at a time, and to the flaps extending downward in preparation for takeoff. I can hardly hear the engines from the relative serenity inside the cockpit, but I still feel them rumbling underneath my seat, shaking my vision as the entire aircraft vibrates in harmony with them.
I see Kim pull her visor down then clip her mask onto her helmet, so I follow her lead and do the same. Instantly, my vision lights up with a colorful display of information—ground speed, armaments, power levels, targeting—all presented on top of my view of the airbase. I turn my head from side to side, watching as the information follows me around. Green triangles designating friendly units pop up over all the other aircraft and personnel scattered across the tarmac, while vector suggestions and navigation settings line themselves up along the path forward.
Soon, we reach the edge of the runway and flip around so that we’re facing north. Kim wastes no time pushing the throttle all the way down, inciting a strained whine from the engine, and we surge forward, accelerating at a heart-stopping rate. I’m violently pressed against my seat as the whole world seems to rocket backwards, and I have to make a conscious effort to move my lungs in order to breathe.
Despite my initial fears, I have to admit it’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, more exhilarating than when I was falling off that building. I let out an involuntary shout of excitement, my lungs finally finding a proper foothold, and Kim laughs, a rough, invigorated laugh laced with a hint of sadistic satisfaction. She pulls the joystick back, causing our jet to tilt sharply upwards into the sky. Denver quickly falls behind us as we rocket higher and higher, and I feel my ears pop several times in quick succession. With a sharp motion, she then twists the controls to the side, and we spiral clockwise like a firework spinning out of control. The night sky becomes one big blur, a mesh of mountains and inky blackness like some sort of strange kaleidoscope.
We break the line of wispy clouds blanketing the city moments later and Kim levels us off, pointing our nose back towards the north. I take several deep breaths and allow my heartbeat to stabilize, then release my iron grip on the seat and turn to look out the canopy.
The twinkling lights of Denver shine out like a constellation of stars below us, all pressed up against the sharp peaks of the Rocky Mountains. It’s like a giant has shoved the collection of skyscrapers and homes westward, causing them to squash flat against the jagged barrier that separates the west and east parts of the continent. When I first came to Denver for school, I flew in during the daytime, and I've never had the opportunity to see it at night like this before. It’s peaceful, with the serene humming of the engine and the illuminated cityscapes passing by like a meandering river—a strong contrast to the journey up here—and I find myself almost drifting off to sleep. At the speed we’re flying, it only takes a few minutes before we’re flying over the shimmering city of Cheyenne and over the grandiose Superhighway Two that slices through the middle of it.
“Hey, guess what?” Kim says over the on-board communication system.
“You’re going double the speed of sound!”
I laugh silently to myself and watch as she banks us gently to the left. I suddenly feel triple my weight, a strange sensation, as if a gorilla has just decided to sit on my lap. When I look to the side, I see all of Cheyenne stretching out beneath us. It makes me excited, but uneasy, too, as if I’d simply fall out, tumbling to the ground if the canopy weren’t there. A few minutes later and we’ve passed the city by, a humbling experience when I think about it.
“You like it?” Kim asks.
“Are you kidding? This is like nothing else I’ve ever done in my life. This is amazing!”
She laughs. “Good. I thought you would. This is where I always go to take my mind off everything. I figured it might help you, too.”
“Always, huh? How did you learn to fly this thing?” I ask, leaning forward against my harness to peer over Kim’s shoulder. She turns her head and lifts up her visor.
“Trial and error. I crashed a lot of jets. But you get the hang of it after a while, and the simulators help out a lot, too.”
I cock my head to the side, baffled by her offhandedness. “You mean, you didn’t know how to fly a plane before all of, you know, this?”
“Well of course not. I’m just a kid. Did you?”
“No,” I chuckle. “But, how did you get so good in just a week?”
“A week?” she says. “Try months! It took forever. But I’ve been flying almost every day since it all started, so I’m not too shabby anymore.”
My stomach flops inside of me, and not from the aerial acrobatics this time.
“Kim, how long have you been in the pause?”
“The pause? Oh that’s just been, like, a week or so, yeah. But I’ve been in this strange world for more than a year, Matthew. Haven’t you?”