It wasn't until we reached Times Square that I started noticing something. People with low numbers, spattered about the area, looking in shop windows and tugging children along on little kid leashes. All their numbers were similar, within minutes or some seconds, of each other.
I stopped walking short, watching a Indonesian woman carrying a baby in a sling on her back. The pudgy baby had dark skin and even darker eyes and looked at me with curiosity, sucking on his fist and riding along on his mother's back. Even he had short numbers, which made my stomach roll inside of me.
"What?" Brian followed my gaze to the woman. "She doesn't have numbers?" he asked.
"Not very good ones," I answered, frowning.
Brian's brow furrowed, "What do you mean?"
"She's got like eight minutes," I said. I looked around the Square. "Quite a few people around here only have about eight minutes, actually."
Brian looked concerned. "You don't think like a bomb or something--"
"No," I said, quenching Brian's panic before it could really start. "No, 'cos not everyone has low numbers, just some people." I looked at him. "Like you, you're fine."
"What do they have in common?" he asked. Brian squinted around the square, as though squeezing his eyes almost shut would make the numbers become visible to him, too. "Age? Ethnicity?"
I looked around at them all again. "No," I answered. "It's children, adults, Americans, Spanish, African, Indonesian..." I looked again at the smiling baby boy and felt a pang of desire to save him. "C'mon."
Brian followed as I set out at a trot after the Indonesian woman. The baby swayed behind her with every step, sucking his balled fist and glancing around at all the noisy things that filled colorful Times Square. Watching the wonder in his eyes, I remembered the first time I'd ever seen Times Square and how different it looked down -- much more amazing than it had been the first time I'd been there.
Amazing what electricity can do, I thought, looking at the lit up billboards and imagining the horses that had been there the first time I'd visited the City.
The danger didn't strike me until we were already in the tunnel for the subway, and the low numbers started becoming more and more populous. I turned to Brian, losing sight of the Indonesian woman in the sea of people swarming the tube stop, and felt panic rising inside my gut. "Brian... it's a train."
He stared at me, fear in his own eyes now. "What're you gonna do?" he asked.
I gaped at him. "I have no fucking idea."
"Well, let's go," he said bravely and started to charge towards the platform.
I grabbed the back of his shirt and stopped him. "What do you mean 'lets'?" I asked, shaking my head. "You can't come."
Brian frowned, "Nick... I can't let you go stop a train wreck."
"Brian... if you come I'll have to save your neck, too. Plus all theirs."
"Brian, it won't hurt me. It can't. Remember? The numbers over my head are because of the Looping. It's not when I'm going to die because there's only one way to kill a Time Watcher, she said so. Now wait here." I pointed to a locker room.
Brian frowned, "Nick..."
"Brian, I'm serious. Wait here."
He started to try to stare me down, but I rose to my full height and flared my nostrils in a way that indicated I meant business. He shook his head. "Fine." I watched him walk toward the locker room before turning toward the platforms once again, and hurrying to follow a group of businessmen baring the low numbers to their train.
What will do it? I wondered, my mind racing, following after them. What's going to be the way to save them? Do I evacuate the train? Do I try to locate someone with a bomb? What do I do? Panic filled me and my heart pounded in my chest.
The train was sitting patiently by the platform on a double-sided rail. Outbound was boarding and inbound was waiting for their train. I hurried to the doors and stepped inside the car closest to me, the furthest from the engine, where the businessmen had led me.
Looking around, I saw that everyone had the five minute range that the businessmen had, apart from a few who had full-length times, and one woman with thirty minutes, who sat in the corner with a bag of knitting at her feet.
I hurried down the aisle, stepping into the next car heading toward the engine, looking at what every person was doing as I ran, looking for something suspicious - anything.
I don't understand, I thought impatiently, Everything seems normal in here.
It wasn't until I'd gone three cars forward that I noticed the times changing. Suddenly everyone was hovering around the three and four minute marks. I chalked it up to the time it was taking me to run along the train, but as I continued running, checking, waiting for something odd to present itself, I started noticing time getting shorter and shorter for these people the closer to the engine I got.
I hadn't thought the words fully before I heard a loud train's horn blaring, echoing through the tunnel ahead of us.
I reached the engine compartment, the people closest here were sporting two minute times and I knew I had to act extremely fast.
"GET OFF THE TRAIN!" I screamed as loud as I could.
People turned to look at me, stunned.
"GET THE FUCK OFF THE TRAIN!"
The horn of the other train blared again, and my palms began pouring sweat. A woman with a little girl stood up and her time changed immediately as she decided to listen - freaked out by the yelling passenger.
A couple people swore as a swatted at them with my hands, urging them to move. "Get OFF the TRAIN!"
"What's going on, buddy?" a burly guy stood up in front of me, his arms crossed over his chest, like he was ready to stop me from harassing people.
"Get the hell off this train, or you're going to die," I answered, shoving past him. "Everyone! Move!!"
An old woman with a wicker basket stood up and started shuffling toward the door, two teenagers sloped along after her, and even the burley guy, though with hesitation, followed the trail of people now moving toward the exit doors.
I reached for an emergency pull by the door entering into the second car and yanked it. The lights flickered and then a red light by the door began to flash and an alarm went off. The rest of the people in the car behind me stood and started swarming to an exit, mumbling and swearing.
So far, I was no more than an inconvenience.
"What is going on?" cried a girl wearing a Columbia sweatshirt as I entered into the second car, yelling for everyone to get off the train.
"Do you need to question the guy?" retorted her friend, "He's probably got a bomb or something!"
That got people moving.
I could hear the inbound train rumbling closer, feel the tracks beneath us shaking, knew it was coming closer. As they moved to the exits, peoples numbers altered and became normal lengths. It's definitely a crash, I thought, panicking.
I continued moving through the train, my heart slamming. I could tell by the times over people's heads, I only had seconds left before those left in the train would be unable to get off.
I imagined the impact. In my head, I could see how it would go. It would fold, like an accordion. The further back in the train the people were, the safer they were, though not completely safe, because they, too, carried short numbers.
"Get off the train!"
A blue-uniformed officer suddenly stood in my way, his eyes bright and his baton out. The people were flowing from the train behind me, like an exodus. He looked livid. "What in the name of Jesus Christ are you doing boy?" he asked.
"Look, I don't have time to answer questions," I snapped at the cop, "But we need to get every single person the hell off this train or they're all gonna die."
The cop raised an eyebrow at me.
"Please," I begged him, "Help me."
I turned to an elderly gentleman seated beside me. "Get off the train," I told him.
He looked at me, concerned, then nudged the woman next to him and turned to a group of ten to fifteen kids, and called out, "Okay class. Let's go."
The officer glared. "There's no reason to evacuate this tra--"
"There's going to be a collision," I snapped, "In two minutes."
The elderly man was herding the kids out of the train doors waving them along as he stood in the doorway, counting as they went by one-by-one.
I shoved past the cop, but he followed me, shouting at me to stop. I moved faster than he was, though, because desperation was filling me. "Get off the train," I shouted repeatedly to anyone who would listen.
The horn of the approaching train sounded again, echoing outside.
I made my way, car by car, running quickly, shouting as loudly as I could. "We are evacuating the train! We're evacuating the train! Please step onto the platform immediately!" People behind me flowed from their seats like flood water, pouring out of the doors on the platform side. I nudged a couple teens that were listening to music under their earbuds, and helped elderly men and women out of their seats.
The cop followed along behind me, shouting to stop. His voice was nervous.
Somehow, I had reached the second to the last car of the train before it happened.
I had just spotted the Indonesian woman with the baby - the one with the shortest amount of time in the entire car - when there was a sickeningly loud screech of metal scraping metal outside of the train in the tube. The cop stopped shouting and turned to look back, through the long snake of cars.
"Get off the train! QUICK!" I screamed.
A guy in his mid-thirties had leaped to his feet and was at the door just as it scraped the wall of the tunnel, eclipsing the platform from view as the impact piled car upon car. He jumped back from the door only just in time before he'd lost a leg or an arm to the wall. "Oh shit, ohhh shit," he cried, looking frantic. "What's going on?"
The cop cried out in alarm and started to run through the cars, headed toward the engine, as though going in that direction could somehow get him out of the train. "Come back!" I shouted at the cop, but my voice was drowned out by the crunching as the engines collided and the cars began being pushed back into each other one by one, like a multiple vehicle accident on an icy road.
"Shit." I ducked forward and grabbed the baby from where his mother had laid him on the seat beside her. I felt my body instinctively curl around him as he began to wail. The mother screamed and began to hit my arms and back frantically. I skid to my knees and bowed my head around the baby, ignoring her beatings.
Suddenly the ground felt weak beneath my knees, and the car shook, and then began to tip. I held my breath as the train derailed. Through the window I was closest to, I could see the rails of the next line rushing up towards us. People all around me screamed.
"Cover your heads!" I shouted the instruction as loudly as I could. "Brace yourselves! Cover your heads! We're tipping!"
The baby was wailing into my ear as the noise of tearing metal filled the car. I couldn't bear the sound of the metal, could scarcely comprehend the sight of the other passengers falling through the air with me towards the wall that was now becoming the floor.
It's like slow motion, I thought, as we fell gracefully through the air.
The train car landed on the rails below and settled there with a groan. A silence so absolute that it was deafening filled the car. Even the baby was silent for a moment. It was so quiet that I imagined hearing dust particles settling around us.
I wondered how many were dead around me.
The lights in the cars flickered, and then went out.
And it was then, in the plunge of the darkness, that the silence broke.
Sobbing and terrified cries filled the two cars that had been shoved deeper into the tunnel, pitched into utter darkness. It was like laying blind in the bottom of a great pit. Shattered glass stabbed into my back and I could feel drops of blood escaping along my back.
I struggled to sit up, the baby crying loudly again in my arms, and reached in my pocket for my cell phone, which I opened up to cast a minimal bluish light. The baby clung to me, his fists balled around the cloth of my shirt as he screamed. "Is everyone okay?" I shouted, "Is anyone hurt?"
"We're all alive back here," called a man's voice from the next car back.
Relief flooded me.
I turned to look at the baby's mother as people in my own car were staring to stir, many bleeding but all moving. The baby's mother was the only one who was still, tears streaming down her face. She was in an awkward position, obviously she'd broken something. Possibly her back. Blood was pouring from her. My stomach twisted.
"Is anyone in here a doctor?" I called out. But no response came.
I handed the baby to another woman who was sitting up beside me. His numbers reflected over sixty years, I knew he would be okay. But his mother.. she alone, of all the people whose numbers I could now see in the car, was still low.
I knelt beside her, my hand trembling. She was bleeding... a lot. "It's gonna be okay," I told her gently, looking her over. I took her hand and laid my fingers on her pulse point. She was definitely weakening.
"Is he okay?" she asked, her voice thick with the whispered accent.
"He's okay," I answered, nodding, "I saved him... Now I gotta save you, too. What's your name?"
"Lila," she answered faintly. I gotta keep her talking.
"Okay, Lila," I whispered, "I'm gonna get you out of here. Don't worry, we're gonna get you out of here."
"Then what?" snapped an old man in an agitated voice, "We’re stuck here, kid."
"I gotta get her out of here," I replied, looking about the train car, "There's no time to waste." The passengers looked at one another frantically.
I looked at the side of the car that was now acting as the ceiling. The doors were opened. I pointed to the door. "Can someone give us a hand up through that? I can carry Lila to the platform and the ERs can start helping her while the rest of the emergency team comes back to get you guys out of here," I suggested.
"We'll all die before you return!" cried a hysterical woman.
I looked at her numbers. She had quite a few years left. "No one here's gonna die," I answered, "Nobody's even close to it, other than Lila," I answered.
My voice must've carried enough authority that nobody dared to question me. The woman calmed and other people all quieted. "I'll help you up," volunteered the guy who had nearly been stuck between platform and wall moments before.
"Thank you," I said to the guy. I slid my arms underneath Lila's body, and she let out a guttural cry of pain. It's going to be okay," I told Lila, "I'm going to get you out of here. But I gotta move you to do it, and it may hurt."
I hoisted her up gently and held her in my arms. The guy who'd offered to help formed a ten finger step and strained with all his strength to raise me and Lila both up towards the doors. I laid Lila down on the outside of the train car and struggled to pull myself up beside her. "Thanks," I called down to the guy. He nodded and waved. I turned to Lila, "We're gonna get out of here now..." I told her.. then I noticed she was crying, really hard, and shaking. "What's the matter?" I asked, concerned. I kneeled beside her and looked into her eyes.
"I cold," she told me, broken english, though her chattering teeth, "I cold..."
I looked around the tunnel. It was really freezing cold in there. I, too, was cold, but I pulled my shirt off over my head so that I had on only my white undershirt and wrapped it around Lila like a makeshift blanket. When I lifted her up into my arms, I hugged her closer and gently rubbed her skin, trying to warm her better.
Carefully, I inched towards the direction of the platform, watching every step I took to make sure I didn't slide off the side of the train. The metal was shining, reflecting the underground lights, and slippery. Only the hind two cars had been tipped over, then there were three still upright before the wreckage that was the site of impact that'd destroyed completely the first three cars. That whole end of the tunnel was hazy with smoke that was pouring out of the wreck.
I calculated my route, deciding that if I walked carefully on top of the two tipped cars, then got down and walked through the two upright ones, I could probably step onto the platform from the furthest upright car.
I could faintly hear sirens blaring and people talking in rushed voices, The excitement and panic of an emergency sounded like a dull roaring hum at the end of the tunnel. I carefully carried Lila along, ducking from the overhead lamps, which were swinging right at my head it seemed.
We reached the end of the tipped cars and I paused, trying to figure out what to do next. I set her down and examined the edge. "If I put you right on the edge and climbed down," I asked her, "Do you think you could push yourself off, as long as I catch you?" She looked frightened and shook her head. "Could you hold onto me while I climb down there then?" I suggested.
She closed her eyes, gathering strength. "I try," she whispered at last, and that was the most I could ask of her.
I turned and she wrapped her arms around my neck tightly, holding onto her own elbows for support. I leaned down and slipped my foot over the ledge, and slowly lowered myself over the side. She hissed in my ear in pain and I winced as I dangled over the side, my arms stretched from holding the weight of us both, and tried to guess how long of a drop I had to make until my feet hit the metal of the bridge between the two cars. It couldn't be too far... could it?
I dropped, and my ankle twisted sharply on the rail.
"Fuck," I called as the pain shot up my shin and into my thigh. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I had to keep going, regardless, I told myself, even though what I really wanted to do was curl up and begin crying right there on the subway rails. My eyes filled with tears as I stood and began walking, my arms wrapping around my back to hug Lila close to me. She sobbed in my ear.
I shuffled and limped as I walked, taking sharp inhales from the pain each time the ball of my left foot met with the floor of the train car.
The car was empty, and my steps echoed about the room as I walked. It was dark, too, only the faint lights from the tunnel illuminated the car. Everything else was pitch dark. Food was left where it had been being eaten, and personal belongings - bags and brief cases - were left abandoned by their owners on the seats. It was like something out of a weird sci-fi movie, like I Am Legend or something. I was the last human being in the train.
When I reached the end of the second car, I could see the platform faintly through a screen of smoke, running even with the furthest door of the third upright car. I breathed a sigh of relief, "We're almost there," I told Lila, "Almost there..."
I rushed to the door of the third cab to find that it'd been an illusion that the doors were even with the platform. It was actually a good ten feet off, and the next car was smoking, crumpled like a paper model, and far too twisted to attempt walking through. I stood at the door, and looked at the platform, my ankle throbbing dully. I cleared my throat, "Hello?!" I called, "Hello! Somebody! Please!!" I looked in a window reflection for Gloria's number.
"Somebody!!" I yelled again with vigor, seeing time was running out. They'd need time to actually fix whatever was wrong too. Just getting her to the paramedics before her time was out wasn't enough. But nobody was responding. There were fire hoses spraying the engines, trying to drown the smoke and people shouting and talking and panic going on behind them.
I cupped my mouth with my hands, "Help us!!!" I yelled. But still no response of any kind came.
I looked down at the tracks below me, a couple feet under the train's door, and I slowly lowered myself down until I was leaning over the floor of the train, my legs dangling, then slid out of the train car and onto the rail. More pain shot up my leg from my ankle and I almost toppled. I grabbed onto the train at the last possible second before I collapsed from the agony.
How the hell am I gonna do this? I thought to myself. How am I gonna get her over there without falling down? If I fall, I'm going to waste precious time.
I took a deep breath and imagined that baby. His tiny, sad brown eyes, as he sucked on his fist, staring at me, silently begging me to save his mother.
You have to do this, Carter, I urged myself. Let's go. One step at a time.
And, delicately, I started walking along, trying not to hit Lila on the wall or on the train.
I inched along like that until we reached the platform, where I called for help again. "Somebody!"
A fireman in a blue t-shirt and the rubber pants noticed me. "What the hell?" he mumbled, coming closer, "We have more survivors," he shouted, reaching out for Lila. When he pulled her up from my back, I struggled to hoist myself up onto the platform, breathing heavily. Paramedics arrived to assist Lila, pushing me aside.
"Where is my son, my son," she sobbed.
"He's coming," I told her, "In just a minute we'll get him out, too. Don't worry." I looked at her numbers. "You're gonna be okay... we made it."
The fireman came to my side, "Are there any others?" he asked, glancing back at the train, a scared expression on his face.
"Yes," I replied, "About fifteen others, including a baby... her son. They're in the last two cars of the train," I told him how I'd managed to get out, and the condition of the other cars I'd traveled through. Then I paused. "Did... did everyone else... make it out okay?"
"As far as we can tell," he answered, "There's over one thousand people who escaped from this train wreck, all up in the street." He paused a moment, studying me.
"A thousand?" I asked, my eyes widening.
"More like 1,500 is our estimate right now," he replied. Then, "Hey... wait a minute... aren't you..." He scratched his chin, "That one kid from the Backstreet Boys?"
Shit. I can't be recognized, I thought, Especially not as a hero. Not after the article about the plane...
"No," I answered.
The fireman frowned, "Funny. You look a lot like him."
"I get that a lot," I answered.
As the fireman turned and started to get to work with his team to get in there and save the people I'd left behind in the furthest two cars, I turned and started to push my way through the crowded station. I couldn't get spotted. I absolutely couldn't. My palms felt sweaty. My ankle throbbed but I ignored it, hobbling toward the locker rooms where I'd left Brian.
I was about halfway there, the pain from my ankle nearly blinding me, when a strong, steely, vice-like grip stopped me as it closed on my upper arm, by my shoulder. "Nick Carter?"
I paused and looked back. A tall, rugged African-American man, with a perfectly clean-shaven head, stared at me, a deadpan, serious expression on his face.
"Um," I stammered.
"Come with me."
And without waiting for a response, he pulled me toward the stairs that led out into the square, away from the locker rooms, where Brian was waiting for me.