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Put Your Hands Into The Fire

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Rita opened her eyes when she felt the elbow in her ribs.

“Wakey, wakey, V.”

She groaned. “We’re there already?”

“Seconds away.”

Rita scrubbed her palm over her face and sighed. The past two days had been full of so much travelling, she was ready to scream, pass out, or both. She’d tried to snag naps wherever she could, but she’d never been good at sleeping in moving vehicles like Hendricks was. The best she sometimes managed was to just doze off, only to be immediately woken.

“God, this ship is not smooth,” a blonde woman across from Rita complained. She clutched at her seatbelt with white knuckles. “I swear, the transports in Moscow are not nearly this bad.”

“Then go back to Russia,” the man on her left snarled. “Pansy-ass Ruskie.”

The woman rolled her eyes and Rita shook her head. Crasshole.

The transport settled with a roar into the base and the soldiers clambered to their feet to disembark.

Hendricks nudged her again and nodded at the aisle and down the line. “Look at those green beans,” he said, his voice a deep rumble.

Rita smirked. After eight years in the military and a tour in Middle East, it was easy to spot those with no experience. It annoyed her that she was being shipped out with a bunch of fresh recruits like this, but supposed that was the point if these new suits were as phenomenal as they were advertised to be. Mixing vets and newbies was supposed to help the inexperienced ones. Or something. She wasn’t sure she saw the logic. Bodies in the field were bodies in the field, she supposed.

She eyed a brown-haired kid, probably no more than 20, if that. His blue eyes flicked around the bay and his forehead was already glistening with sweat. He grabbed up a pack hanging on the wall and then hastily turned it over to the burly-looking Asian dude who stepped in close.

“S–sorry, I thought it was mine, sorry!” The kid rambled about another half-dozen apologies before carefully selecting the correct bag.

“I give him three days,” Rita murmured, shifting the strap of her pack and sliding into the line of people.

Hendricks grinned, his teeth brilliant set in his dark face. “Generous. We’re not even off the damn boat yet an’ he looks like he’s wet himself.”

Rita chuckled and stole another glance at the kid over her shoulder. He was falling into the line with the rest of them, craning his neck to look everywhere at once and not bump into anyone. Rita rolled her eyes again and fell into step with Hendricks as their feet hit pavement.

 

~

 

The day the Mimics landed, five years ago, Rita Vrataski had been playing poker with Hendricks and the rest of their squad. It’d been any other off day in Catterick Garrison. Pitrolli was schooling Dunn, Mickles was bluffing a nothing hand, Rita had her feet propped on Fischer’s chair, and Hendricks was twirling a cigar he never intended to actually smoke.

Then Veers barrelled into the barracks so hard and fast Rita thought she might take the hinges off the door.

“Aliens,” she said and ran.

Rita never forgot the pure terror and paleness of Veers’s face. Or the way ripples of cold shock stole over Rita’s body, mixed with total confusion and disbelief. There was a moment of frightened, bewildered silence and then they were all on their feet, tearing out of the barracks.

Had Veers not been so clearly, genuinely terrified, Rita knew Mickles would’ve teased her about pulling such a crappy prank. Dunn would’ve leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms and only the crinkle of her eyes would’ve given her amusement away. Fischer’d be on his feet anyways, gullible as he was, and Rita and Hendricks would’ve scoffed and rolled their eyes while Pitrolli mumbled some Italian expletives.

Instead, the six of them blasted into the rec hall, hot on Veers’s tail. They ran for the nearest TV and found most of the company already crowded inside, breathlessly viewing the horror unfolding on the television. Aliens had landed in Hamburg, Germany—and thousands were dead.

Hendricks inhaled a sharp, horrified breath and Rita found his hand, squeezing it tight for support.

 

~

 

Once they’d checked in and been assigned their barracks, Rita and Hendricks walked over to the squat gray building. In their section, Hendricks claimed the top bunk, of course, the punk. Rita threw her stuff on the bottom and ignored his triumphant laugh.

“Too slow, V!” he crowed. “Always too slow.”

“Just polite,” she countered, shucking her jacket.

Hendricks’s eyes sparkled. “You? Polite? I’ll believe it when I see it.”

She casually flipped him the bird, and he laughed again. She smiled in spite of her faux-irritation—his laugh was contagious.

“Smarmy git,” she said.

The rest of their new squad arrived in dribs and drabs. There was a surly guy named Wagner, the Russian blonde woman who complained about the bumpy ride (said her name was Kievs), and a Yank who introduced himself as Cal Farr. Then the skittish green-bean from the transport, whose name was Ben, and an olive-skinned woman named Purdeep came forward. Rita took the time to shake each of their hands, as did Hendricks.

“James… Hendricks…?” said Ben, the brown-haired, blue-eyed kid.

Hendricks rolled his eyes. “Yes, like the famous singer. No, no relation, and whatever comment or joke you’re thinkin’ of makin’, I promise I’ve already heard it, so keep it to yourself. And don’t ever call me by my first name, or I’ll gut you.”

Rita managed to keep a straight face while the kid jumped a step back, nodding vigorously.

“Right, sir, never. Got it, sir.” The kid’s cheeks flushed bright pink as he saluted Hendricks.

Rita turned her laugh into a cough and unpacked her things.

She glanced over her shoulder at Ben, who was nervously talking Purdeep’s ear off. He rambled without stopping to take a breath. “Well, my parents weren’t exactly thrilled but they sort of understood – actually my uncle Griff was pretty supportive, although he’s kinda in jail again – but it’s just that I wanted to do something, you know…”

Rita shook her head. “How the hell do they expect him to survive out there when he’s barely surviving in here?”

Hendricks shrugged. “You’ve heard the ads—one day of training in the new suits and you’re ready to take on the Mimic army.”

Rita snorted. “Yeah, right. Maybe those idiots that are shilling that bloody garbage should get down here and do this themselves before they say that.”

Ben shuffled over to his own bunk and unzipped his bag.

“How long have you been in the army, kid?” Hendricks asked curiously.

Ben’s face colored. “Two days.”

Rita’s eyebrows shot up her forehead. “Are you joking?”

“My birthday was three days ago,” he said. “I wanted to fight—to help. So, I signed up.” He swallowed hard and chanced a defensive look up at Rita and Hendricks. “They said you’re supposed to be able to do this in one day. I’ve been through the training sim. I think they lied.”

Before Rita could decide on how to respond, Taylor strode between the sections shouting for everyone to fall in line.

 

~

 

The showers were nicer here than the ones back at Catterick, Rita was pleased to note. There was better water pressure, cleaner tiling, wider sinks. Of course, the place was also only a couple years old, built specifically for training and deploying against the Mimics. Catterick, on the other hand, had been made a permanent structure in the 1930s or thereabouts, after a few decades as a temporary base. It was old and in need of renovations.

Rita changed into a fresh set of clothes and headed to her locker. Ben was a few lockers away and, whatever he’d been holding in his hand when she approached, he shoved it out of sight into his bag. Probably some photo or memento of home, she figured. He seemed like the type to need that right about now, hours from deployment.

Rita sighed through her nose. She wasn’t one for giving comfort, or even trying to give comfort. But the kid looked so discouraged and alone, she made an attempt.

“Look, it gets better,” she said.

He looked surprised that she was even bothering to talk to him. “What does?”

“Being away from everyone you love. Going into battle, not knowing if you’ll make it back.” She swallowed the lump in her throat. Her family was all long gone, but that didn’t mean she still didn’t miss them. At least she still had Hendricks.

She continued, “I’m not saying it’s easy or that it ever will be, I’m saying… it’ll get easier to deal with than it feels like right now. That’s all.”

Rita turned away from him and gathered her boots. She didn’t know why she was bothering with this kid—there was zero chance he was going to live through the Verdun mission. The jacket tech was not that bloody miraculous.

“Well, at least you have that guy, Hendricks,” Ben said.

Rita slowed her movements. “What do you mean, ‘have’?”

“I mean, you guys—you came here together and I haven’t seen you two apart. Except now, obviously.”

“And?” She scrunched her eyebrows together. Where was the kid going with this?

“I just—I have no one here, and I thought… you two, you know, are you…” He waved his hand in her direction.

“What?” she prompted flatly. Honestly, if she had a dime for every time someone thought she and Hendricks were romantically involved...

The kid scratched his head and his cheeks flushed bright pink.

“My God, just say it,” Rita sniped, shoving her foot into her boot and lacing it up more aggressively than needed. Why did everybody always assume her and Hendricks were an item? Couldn’t they simply be friends? Was that a goddamn crime?

“I was just wondering,” the kid blurted hastily.

Rita laced up her other boot with the same irritated fervor and stood. “Why? You got a thing for me and wondering if he’s competition? Want me to take you under my wing or some shit?”

“What? I—no,  I was—I meant, I was only—”

She couldn’t decide if his sputtering was funny or pathetic. Rita grabbed her jacket and slammed her locker shut, regretting talking to the kid in the first place. She turned on her heel and strode away.

Ben mumbled then, almost too quiet for her to hear, and she kept walking like she hadn’t.

“You scare the shit out of me,” he said.

Rita smiled. Good.

 

~

 

Twelve years ago, Rita’s first few days of training did not go well. She was so determined to prove herself, so determined to make her dad proud. ‘Course, Dad would’ve been proud of her if she’d been a stock girl at the local grocery store, but Rita had always needed more.

After mess at the end of the week, Rita went for a walk. She was angry, overwhelmed. Alone. Regretting her decision to be here, hating that she felt inadequate.

Rita had sat there for a while, knees tucked up to her chin and her arms wrapped protectively around her shins. A tall, muscular man wandered over and she tried to ignore him and make herself invisible, but it didn’t work. He sat down beside her anyways.

She darted her eyes to him when he said nothing for a good thirty seconds.

“Food’s shit,” he said.

She didn’t know him, why he was talking to her, how he’d found her, anything. But she couldn’t stop the grateful smile that spread across her face.

“Did you try the yams?” she asked, feeling very much not alone all of a sudden.

He shook his head.

“God, whatever you do,” she told him. “Don’t try the yams.”

He laughed—a deep, wonderful sound that startled a laugh out of her in return. He held out his hand.

“James Hendricks.”

Rita took it and grinned right back. “Rita Vrataski.”

 

~

 

The drop-ship careened over the battlefield. A number of ships had already arrived, and the soldiers below were in full attack mode against the Mimics. An explosion rocked the boat, making Rita flinch. This was her eighth Mimic mission, but that didn’t mean the drop-ship rides were any more comfortable.

Wagner was stone-faced, Kievs’s mouth twisted in a grim, determined frown. Lowell was spouting off about how many Mimics he was gonna kill, and poor Ben looked ready to puke. Rita closed her eyes for a second and took a breath, ready to drop at Taylor’s command.

When it came, she snapped her eyes open and hit her release button. She plummeted and the wind whistled around her ears as the ground rushed up towards her. The suit absorbed the shock when she landed. With practiced ease, Rita readied her weapons and detached her cable in one smooth motion. Hendricks touched down about ten feet beside her.

“Good?” he shouted over the din of battle at her.

She nodded. “Great.”

He flashed his teeth in a wide grin. “See you on the other side, V.”

She saluted him and took off at a hard run. He stayed close. They knew every time they went into battle, there was a chance the other wasn’t going to come out alive, but Rita refused to think about that too hard. He’d been her closest friend for twelve years and they’d been through dozens of dangerous missions. They’d said their goodbyes long ago.

The jacket tech was fairly intuitive and loaded up with some pretty serious weaponry. They were a far cry better than the ones she’d had to maneuvre when she’d fought in a couple of small-scale battles on the outskirts of France, in Thionville. That’d been before France had been declared lost, like Germany.

The battlefield was a blur. Mimics came swarming across the uneven terrain, silvery arms spiralling out and smashing through her fellow soldiers like they were paper dolls. She spotted Ben up ahead, barrelling forward. A screaming Mimic, glowing orange, smashed into the kid. He went down instantly, his chest smoking.

Rita unloaded on the beast bursting towards her. She ducked and rolled past it as it crumbled with a dying roar. Without a second to breathe or think, Rita was on her feet again. She tore forward and dove into a shallow ditch for cover. Hendricks was right beside her.

A pair of Mimics flew over their heads. Without giving the things the chance to spot them, Rita and Hendricks popped to their feet and clambered out of the ditch. She ran and shot and ducked and ran harder and slashed and ducked and ran, ran, ran and fought and yelled and twisted and dropped and–

She spun and her breath snagged in her chest. The Mimic before her was twice the size of the any other Mimic she’d seen. This one had a strange blue glow to it, while all the others were orange. Terror shivered through her gut for the instant that she took it in and then it attacked.

Its long arms snapped out to the sides, knocking Hendricks to the ground. Rita yelled for him, another spike of fear shooting through her. She ignored it and charged the beast. She unloaded her gun into the massive thing’s face. It let out a hideous noise, twisting and spinning faster than she could keep track. Rita brought her blade up to hit it and missed. It hit her instead, sending her flying off her feet.

She landed hard on her back, smacking the air out of her lungs. The alien darted forward. Black blood was seeping out of the dozens of holes she’d riddled it with. It gave another terrible scream and whipped sideways, one its limbs blown off by Hendricks’s grenade.

Rita was almost on her feet when the thing spun back to her, too close. Pain lanced through her arm, across her face.

She brought her blade up fast, slashed, and connected. The beast screeched, its long arms flailing. Rita swung again, crying out, and drove her blade deep in its chest. Its blue glow surrounded her, its horrible screams clanging through her ears. Distantly, she heard Hendricks calling for her and her hands were painted black with alien blood, sizzling, cracking–

She screamed—flashes of color—the alien’s dying maw streaking towards her face—

Darkness.

 

~

 

She should’ve been dead, but instead, someone elbowed her ribs. Rita sat up with a jolt.

“Wakey—whoa, sorry, V. Didn’t mean to scare you.”

Rita blinked at Hendricks. Her heart slammed against her ribs. But a second ago—he was… she’d been…

“V? You okay? You have a nightmare or somethin’?” Hendricks’s deep brown eyes scanned her face.

“No, I thought…” Rita glanced around the transport.

A blonde woman seated across from Rita had her hands clenched on her seatbelt straps. “God, this ship is not smooth.” She winced when the ship bounced. “I swear the transports in Moscow are not nearly this bad.”

The man on her left scowled at her. “Then go back to Russia. Pansy-ass Ruskie.”

The woman rolled her eyes and Rita stared at her. Well, that’s disturbing. Somehow, she’d dreamed something eerily similar to this moment. Which was impossible, but the feeling of déjà vu was overwhelming.

Rita blinked. She could’ve sworn she’d been in battle—at Verdun—a second ago. But she couldn’t have been, because she was here, in the transport, arriving at the base in Belgium. Verdun hadn’t happened yet. She tried to shake off the freakish dream.

The transport settled with a roar and the soldiers started getting to their feet, ready to disembark.

“V?” Hendricks prompted.

“Sorry, I must’ve actually slept for once…” she trailed off. It’d been so vivid, so real. She took in a shuddering breath. “Just a messed-up dream.” She pictured Hendricks getting thrown by that bizarre blue Mimic and her stomach clenched. Just a dream.

“Shake it off,” her friend said. “We gotta get outta here and go find our shiny new digs.”

Rita offered him a smile. She still felt unsettled, especially when she caught sight of a fearful-looking young guy, apologizing earnestly to a much bigger Asian man. Rita swore she’d watched this moment before, but how could she have?

Hendricks leaned close to her ear. “Kid looks like he’s already wet himself and we’re not even off the boat yet.”

“Yeah,” Rita agreed. She hiked her bag up higher on her shoulder and forced herself to try and forget the intense feeling that she’d done all this before.

 

~

 

The rest of the day didn’t alleviate the feeling. Rita clenched her jaw tight as she unpacked her bag. The whole idea that she’d managed to dream an entire day in detail was completely impossible and she kept telling herself so. Yet here she was, watching the day unfold how she already knew it would.

When Ben stopped gabbing at Purdeep about his uncle Griff long enough to unpack his own pack, Hendricks peered at the boy.

“How long have you been in the army, kid?”

Two days, thought Rita, the answer coming straight to her.

“Two days,” the kid replied.

Rita’s breath hitched and her heart rate spiked. Why the hell do I know that?

Hendricks flicked his eyes to her then back to the kid.

Ben sighed. “My birthday was three days ago.” He shoved his fingers through his hair. “I wanted to fight—I need to help. So I signed up.”

“And you’re supposed to be able to learn the jacket tech in one day,” said Rita slowly.

“Yeah,” the kid agreed.

“I think they lied,” Rita said in unison with Ben. The kid actually cracked a small smile at that. Hendricks chuckled and Rita wanted to throw up. Before she had the chance, though, Taylor was hollering for them to fall in line.

 

~

 

The drop-ship soared over Verdun. Below, smoke and fire dotted the already-scarred battleground. The ship jolted from an explosion outside and Rita tried ignore the feeling that she’d known it was coming.

She moved her gaze across her squadmates and waited for Taylor’s command to release.

She dropped and hit the ground only a second or two ahead of Hendricks.

“Good?” he called to her.

Her heart jumped in her chest and she thought of that damn blue Mimic again. “Great.”

“See you on the other side, V.”

Rita started running.

She caught sight of Ben and inhaled to call out to him. A Mimic tore across the ground and smashed into Ben, cutting off his cry. The kid went down, just as he had before. Rita’s insides squirmed. She didn’t understand how this was happening, and, if everything else was the same so far, then she was certain to meet that blue Mimic again.

Rita shortly had no more time to think on it further. The aliens came at her and Hendricks fast and furious, and she fell back on instinct. She swung her blade and used the suit’s many weapons to her best advantage.

She dove into a shallow ditch, Hendricks at her side. Two Mimics sailed over their heads. They climbed back out and tore across the dirt. The blue Mimic never came, but three orange ones did.

Two came up out of the ground and Rita flew into action. She slashed and shot and spun and kicked and yelled. She was facing Hendricks in the split second it took for the third Mimic to slam it’s arm straight through his gut.

Rita screamed, and the two Mimics she’d stopped fighting overtook her.

 

~

 

And then it happened again.

Hendricks woke her with an elbow to the ribs. She watched Kievs complain. Lowell be an idiot. Ben nervously take the wrong backpack.

Hendricks kept asking her what was wrong:

“You’re so pale, V—are you okay?”

“Hey, talk to me. What’s wrong?”

“Rita, can you hear me?”

“Fine,” she mumbled. “I’m fine.” She stumbled forward in a daze. What the hell, what the hell, what the hell…

Her heart pounded against her ribs and the longer she said nothing, the more worried Hendricks got. He threatened to drag her to the med unit after he set his pack down the top bunk. She croaked out that she was fine, but he shook his head.

“No, something is very wrong, and you’re not telling me what.”

“I can’t…” she said. How could she possibly explain any of this? Not to anyone, not to him, not even to herself.

And when they hit the ground at Verdun, she tried to warn Ben, but he still was sliced by one of the aliens. And when she and Hendricks came out of the ditch, she tried to stop him.

“What?” he stared at her. “You’re catatonic all day and now you want to have a goddamn chat?”

“That way!” She pointed and he furrowed his eyebrows together but followed her anyway. When they successfully avoid the three Mimics meant to kill them, he stared some more.

“How the hell did you do that?” he panted.

“I… I… don’t know.”

Turned out, it didn’t matter much, because another one came wailing at them from behind. Rita caught sight of Hendrick’s blood painting her suit red before the Mimic’s arm connected with her head.

 

~

 

Elbow in the ribs.

“Wakey, wakey, V.”

Rita bolted to her feet. “Okay, what the hell is going on?” she shouted. “What are you—how are you doing this? How is this happening?”

Hendricks held up his hands. “Whoa, Rita, calm down—”

Others were staring, but to hell with them. She stormed off the transport the second it landed and Hendricks hurried to keep up with her. She still couldn’t explain it, didn’t even know where to begin.

“You’re scaring me, V. What the hell is with you?”

“I’m scaring myself,” she said and pulled him aside. “Somehow, I’ve been repeating this day. I don’t know how or why and...”

His eyes narrowed and got that slight crinkle he had when didn’t like what he was hearing.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she told him. “I’m freaking out here, and I don’t know what’s going on.”

He didn’t believe her and she didn’t exactly expect him to. She couldn’t say she’d believe him had their roles been reversed, though she wished he’d given her a little more credit. He knew her well and she wasn’t like this, she wasn’t crazy. So the fact that he suggested she seek out the onsite therapist or medical staff really pissed her off. She went straight to the showers so she didn’t have to listen to his conversation with Ben about joining the army a third time.

On the battlefield that day, she didn’t forgo their routine, no matter how freaked out she was, and neither did he.

“Good?” he bellowed.

“Great,” she saluted.

“See you on the other side, V.”

She called out to Ben, but it didn’t matter. The Mimic still got him.

She followed the same route, killed the same Mimics—did it count as being the same if this was only a repeat for her and not them?—and after she climbed out of that ditch with Hendricks still at her side, this time she hauled him left instead of right.

“What are you doing?”

“We get killed if we stand there—” she pointed as the three deadly Mimics came tearing across the ground— “or there—” she pointed to where they’d died last time—“so I’m trying here.”

His mouth opened in surprise and he glanced between her and the aliens. At least he was finally starting to freak out a little too.

It didn’t last, however. They didn’t make it that much farther across the battlefield before an explosion tore Hendricks to pieces. She stopped and thought her heart had been ripped from her chest, but her suit was intact and she wasn’t dead.

Dead. Somehow, she’d woken up in the transport every time she’d died. Was that all it took to start over? If so, there was no other choice—she wouldn’t let him die. So she turned and watched a massive Mimic screeching towards her. She blinked against the terrified tears and braced herself. It collided and she cried out in pain—

 

~

 

Empty town. Ghost town. Smashed buildings.

Old factory.

Blue glow.

 

~

 

She started awake before Hendricks’s elbow found her ribs.

“Well, wakey –”

“Wakey, V, yes. Listen to me, Hendricks,” Rita said quickly, under her breath, close to his face. “What I’m about to say is going to make no goddamn sense, but you have to believe me.”

He stared. “V…”

Rita pointed at the blonde woman sitting across from her. “God, this ship is not smooth.” The woman spoke the words loudly but Rita whispered them to Hendricks without taking her eyes away from his. “I swear the transports in Moscow are not nearly this bad.”

Hendricks’s eyes widened in surprise.

Rita flicked her finger to the guy beside the blonde.

“Then go back to Russia,” she mouthed at the same time the guy spoke. “Pansy-ass Ruskie.”

“How the hell—” Hendricks began, startled.

“Am I doing this? I’ve been repeating the same day, over and over again. I don’t know how, I don’t why, but I am.”

The ship hit the ground with a rumble and boom. The passengers stood and collected their packs.

“That can’t be true.” Her friend shook his head and grabbed his own bag. “I don’t know how you did that, but—”

Rita kept her eyes locked on Hendricks’s. She pointed through the crowd at Ben. “See that nervous kid? You call him a green bean. He grabs the wrong bag. It belongs to that Asian guy who comes over, right now, and the kid apologizes like crazy and hands him his bag.”

Hendricks was watching the scene unfold, exactly as Rita described. She could see confusion and fear swimming over his features, exactly like the first fifteen times she’d done this with him.

“We’re not even off the boat yet, an’ he looks like he’s wet himself,” she said, stealing his words this time, accent and all.

Hendricks snapped his attention back to her. He opened his mouth to speak.

“How did I know you were going to say that?” Rita said before he could get a word out. “Easy. Because I’m telling you the honest truth.”

Their feet hit the pavement at the same time but he was taking odd, jilted steps, still watching her like maybe she was a Mimic wearing Rita’s skin. She swallowed back a thousand words—rambling at him had only made him think her crazier and she didn’t relish getting locked up again. Getting out to die and reset those last couple of times had been a bitch.

Still, she and Hendricks had been inseparable for years, and it killed her to stay silent and let him work through it on his own. She needed him to believe her, needed him to somehow understand and help her. She couldn’t get through whatever-this-was without him at her side.

He held his tongue and his thoughtfully creased expression through check-in (Rita filled out her form in roughly three seconds flat, not needing to read a single question) and almost all the way to the barracks. Finally, she couldn’t stand it anymore.

“Will you please say something?” she begged, grabbing his arm and hauling him to a stop outside the door.

“What the hell do you expect me to say? Or do you already know?”

Rita rubbed her palm over her forehead. “Look, you have to believe me, okay? I’m not crazy.”

He tilted his head skeptically.

“I can do it again,” she ventured. “Watch.” She gestured for him to follow and opened the door to the barracks.

Hendricks hesitated, a muscle in his jaw twitching, before he reluctantly followed. His expression was so guarded even Rita couldn’t decipher it. Her gut clenched but she strode forward anyways. As they approached their squad’s section, some of the others had already arrived. Rita pointed them out and quietly named them.

“And the kid’s been in the army a whopping two days,” she said. “I’ve been with you the whole time. I couldn’t possibly know that, right?”

He nodded slowly.

“Go introduce yourself.”

She followed him and put her stuff on the bottom bunk. Hendricks shook everyone’s hands and looked a little unsteadier with each passing name. He shot furtive looks at Rita and ignored Wagner’s offer of celebratory liquor. Hendricks threw his bag on the top bunk and snagged Rita’s upper arm. He nearly dragged her out of the barracks, then outside and around the corner, out of sight of the bustling compound.

“Are you fucking serious?” he hissed.

Relief poured through Rita’s limbs and she leaned her back against the barracks’ building for support. “Yeah,” she breathed.

“Geez, Rita.” He shook his head. “Tell me everything.”

 

~

 

After fifty-nine days, she got really good at dying. And even better at getting Hendricks to believe her.

In the end, though, he wasn’t sure what could even be done. He had no idea how to help her, no clue what the vision of the glowing blue pit in the old factory meant. Rita didn’t either, but it was important to her that he knew what was going on and that he believed her.

She conveniently failed to mention that it was so she could make sure he didn’t die out there on the battlefield. Again and again.

 

~

 

“Look, I found this guy—Carter,” Rita said as she climbed into her suit. “And I’ll probably need a few more days to get to the point where I can convince him I’m not crazy, but I think he might be able to help.”

“Who is he?” asked Hendricks. He closed up her suit and climbed into his own.

“An analyst at Whitehorn, studying the Mimics and their physiology,” Rita explained, calibrating her weapons. She didn’t add that three out of the fives visits had ended with her being tased and arrested.

“Think he can do something about the…” Hendricks made a circular gesture.

Rita shrugged, making the jacket clank and bang against the supports on either side of her. “Figure it’s worth a try.”

His expression crinkled with indecision before he looked at her again. “And how many days…”

“Seventy-one.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

 

~

 

Ghost town.

Cement. Old factory. Empty and dark.

Mimics.

A massive pit. Alien arms.

Blue glow.

 

~

 

Rita plopped into the chair in front of Carter’s desk.

“You won’t lock up this time,” she told him. She sighed. Too many days in a row of this bloody garbage and she was ready to make some damn progress, especially since her attempts with the General hadn’t worked whatsoever. “And here’s why.”

She spilled out half of Carter’s life story—everything she’d gleaned through the dozens of iterations of this day. She guessed how many fingers were behind his back, ten times in a row. She called out every move he was about to make—phone his secretary, phone the general, sit down and miss his chair—and finally, finally he believed her.

And then they got to work.

 

~

 

Even one hundred and seventeen tries in battle made no difference. Or one hundred and thirty, or one hundred and forty-eight.

Hendricks still died and Rita still woke, only to convince him of her situation all over again. And still she tried and failed to save him.

 

~

 

Finally, she told him that he kept dying. There didn’t seem to be point in keeping it from him anymore.

Hendricks levelled his gaze at her, searching. “So many days has it been? How many times have… you know, have I...” He scratched his neck uncomfortably.

“One hundred and ninety-four,” she replied, her voice flat and dull.

Shit, Rita.”

“Yeah.” It made her smile that his reaction was always the same.

 

~

 

Hendricks paced back and forth in front of her. He’d believed her even quicker this time, which was a relief. Having to convince him of her situation, and all the complications that went with it, two hundred and three times was wearing on her. It felt more and more like a waste of time. She’d gone past feeling desperate, past frustrated, past exhausted, past bored. She didn’t know what she was now.

“Well, have you tried—”

“Yes.”

“But what if you—”

“Nope.”

“Give me a chance to finish—” Hendricks snapped.

“Whatever you’re going to suggest, I’ve done it, okay? I’ve tried it. God, I’ve tried everything.” She raked her fingers through her hair.

The mental exhaustion of the repetition was starting to seep into her and resetting didn’t banish it. Hadn’t for days and days, now. She leaned back against the wall, tucking her legs up to her chin. Every bone in her body felt heavy. She was so damn weary.

On one hand, she seemed to have unlimited iterations of this day. On the other, that meant unlimited versions of how this day could go—every tiny decision made a ripple. She just had to find the right one to change the outcome and make it to the next day—the real next day. She had to keep fighting, keep looking. Rita shook herself, forcing herself to ignore that tiredness. She had no use for it.

Hendricks exhaled, long and slow. He settled in a heap beside her, making the cheap bed bounce.

“I tried poisoning you a little to make you stay behind once,” Rita said, a smile tugging at her lips. “So you wouldn’t die at Verdun.”

“You poisoned me?”

“Only a little,” she countered and chuckled. “You were extremely unhappy with me.”

“I should think so.” He leaned closer, touching his shoulder to hers. “Then what happened?”

Her smile melted and that hollow ache stole into her chest again. “The base was attacked. You died anyways.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

 

~

 

Buildings pieces. Rocks. Factory. Mimics.

Pit.

A massive, terrifying alien, roaring.

Blue glow.

 

~

 

Carter called it an Omega. Rita shivered.

He rambled on about specifics, science, and theories that Rita was too tired today to properly absorb.

“So,” she said when he was done. “How do I kill it?”

 

~

 

On day two hundred and twenty-nine, she buried her head in her hands.

She could feel Carter eyeing her as he fiddled with that device of his, the transponder that would allow them to track the Omega and destroy it. “You know your focus should be the Omega,” he said carefully.

“I know.” Rita grit her teeth. “It’s just… it’s Hendricks. I don’t know how to find this thing and keep him alive.”

Carter took a breath but decided against saying anything.

Rita’s heart sank and her gut turned over. She knew what he was thinking: maybe she couldn’t do both.

 

~

 

Elbow–

“Don’t,” she snapped before he’d barely touched her.

“Whoa, Rita, w–”

Don’t,” she hissed.

Hendricks blinked at her. “Okay… did I miss something?”

“You’re going to elbow me and say ‘wakey, wakey, V’ and then we’re going to talk about the newbies and she’s going to say the ship isn’t smooth, and I just can’t today—I can’t right now, so just don’t, okay?”

He stared at her, worry and confusion warring on his face. “I’ll be quiet then…”

“Good idea.” Rita pressed the heel of her hands to her eyes.

Cue the transport landing… Kievs thought it was a bumpy ride, Lowell’s a crass idiot. Three, two, one, there’s the doors. Ben grabs Vick’s bag. Sorry, sorry, so very sorry.

How long would she be damned to repeat this day? Why had she been cursed? She stood and instead of grabbing her pack, she shoved forward through the crowd. She needed to change something, she needed it be different or she was going to go completely insane.

She pushed to the front of the line, ignoring the curses and shouts behind her. She burst into a flat out run and bolted past Commander Taylor. She didn’t have a plan or a destination until she spotted a group of soldiers climbing out of a truck. Ignoring the commotion still behind her, she veered right and made for the idling truck. Rita swerved around the men and women carrying crates, yanked open the door, and hopped into the driver’s seat.

“Hey! Hey you can’t do that!” someone yelled.

“So go ahead and shoot me!” Rita bellowed back. But not yet. She cranked the engine and peeled out of the compound.

The truck blazed towards the flimsy gate and smashed right through it. She pressed down the pedal as if she could outrun this curse. Her vision blurred with tears and damn it she was not thinking about Hendricks’s blood on her hands or the way the Mimic punched through him over and over or the way he blew apart in in the explosion or his blank, lifeless eyes—

“Damn it!” Rita took her foot off the gas and hit the brakes. The truck squealed and skidded, leaving smoking black streaks on the road. When the vehicle came to a hissing stop, she pressed her forehead to the steering wheel and slammed the vehicle into park. “Damn it, damn it, damn it!”

It wasn’t fair. Why should she have this ability? Why was she doomed to see her best friend die over and over and be powerless to stop it? Why couldn’t she figure this out? Why couldn’t she find the Omega and stop this whole mess? Why was it her responsibility to stop it?

She pounded her fists against the steering wheel, again and again. Her grunts of anger turned into wordless yells and then she was screaming herself hoarse and hitting the seat and kicking the pedals.

Panting and out of steam, she leaned back in the seat. She looked down at her bruised and aching hands.

“Damn it,” she whispered and swallowed against her raw throat.

In the distance, she heard sirens. A quick glance at the side mirror showed emergency vehicles screaming down the highway after her. She frowned—suppose that’s what she got for bolting from her military assignment and stealing a truck.

Rita sighed. She slipped her knife out of her boot, wishing she’d thought to at least grab a gun before she’d gotten here.

 

~

 

The visions grew stronger, clearer. They became like roadmap to the alien Omega—all she had to do was traverse the entire battlefield of Verdun to the empty town beyond.

It sounded so simple, and yet she failed—again and again and again. It didn’t seem to matter how many times she went over it all with Carter or with Hendricks, together or separately. They couldn’t figure it out, and she couldn’t make it all the way to some endpoint.

And, as the light went out of Hendricks’ eyes over and over, and as Rita took her hands away from her always-fruitless attempts to staunch the blood pouring from his neck, she began to think she never would.

 

~

 

“Because, James!” she yelled and this finally made him look at her, really look. She never used his first name. Knew he hated it, same as she detested her middle name. “Because no matter what I do, no matter how many times I try, I still lose you!”

Rita covered her hand with her mouth, trying to muffle the sob that was struggling to escape. Tears splashed freely down her cheeks, and it was too much, it was too damn much. Two hundred and ninety-two days of this—nearly a year that only she had lived—and she could not do it anymore. She dropped to her knees and covered her face with her hands.

Hendricks knelt beside her and wrapped his arms around her, strong and sure and as wonderful as ever. Her rock, her lifeline.

“Then maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” he whispered into her hair.

She clutched at his shirt and refused to believe it. “It’s not,” she protested. “It can’t be, I won’t let it!”

“Rita…”

“No!” She shoved him and he let go of her. “I don’t care how many times I have to go through it again, I’m going to find a way—I will!”

The thought made her want to vomit—how many times would she watch him die? Another hundred? A thousand? Could she really keep going like this?

“Rita, you said…”

“Don’t you get it? I can’t lose you!”

They didn’t speak for a long, horrible minute. She swiped at her eyes and wished it wasn’t so hard to breathe. Wished she could stop picturing him dead. Wished none of this had ever happened. If she couldn’t save him, then what the hell was the point of all this?

“But maybe you have to.”

“James—”

“No, listen, V.” He curled his fingers around her hands, comfortable and unwavering. Unshaking. Unlike hers. “You have to get to the Omega. That’s the only way to stop them. And stopping them means savin’ millions of lives—saving the planet from these things. And if killin’ that thing means leavin’ me behind, then you do it. No, listen, you do it.”

He released her hands to cup her face instead.

“You are a soldier. You’re strong. You’re stronger than this—than them, than anything.” He stroked his thumb over her cheek to wipe away the tears sliding down her skin.

Rita traced her eyes over his face, over every line, desperate to memorize every piece of it. She couldn’t leave him and do what he was asking—the whole planet be damned. It wouldn’t matter if she didn’t have him in it, he was the other half of her, and she couldn’t leave him behind...

“If anyone can do this,” he said. “It’s you.” Hendricks leaned forward and pressed his lips to her forehead. His own eyes were glistening when he pulled back.

Rita bit her cheek, trying to stop her trembling lips. She sucked in a harsh breath.

“Damn it, James,” she said shakily. “Why do you have to be so goddamn noble?”

One corner of his lips lifted. “It’s my greatest flaw.”

 

~

 

She hit the ground.

“Good?” Hendricks called to her.

She hitched on a smile she could not feel. “Great.”

Rita pounded forward, not waiting for him to finish their mantra. It killed her but she kept going. She unloaded on the Mimic that was supposed to attack Ben. He watched her sail past him in shock.

She ran and slashed and ducked and fought. She hit the ditch and Hendricks stumbled in only a moment behind her. He looked worried and wary, somehow. She hadn’t bothered to convince of her situation today—day three hundred. She locked her eyes with him and prayed this wouldn’t be the last time he looked at her.

He opened his mouth to speak, but she turned away and clambered out of the ditch.

Tears streaking down her face, she left him behind. She kept running.

She lost track of him after that, and it took every shred of strength and willpower she had left in her to keep going. There was a chance, she knew, that he’d make it out of this. A small one, but still. Maybe she was the problem—he was so busy trying to protect her that he wasn’t protecting himself. She clung to that thread of hope as she slashed apart another Mimic.

To her surprise, as she spun and downed another alien, she spotted Ben nearby, shooting down Mimic after Mimic. He still looked as scared as hell, but he wasn’t dead. It seemed crazy that the kid who’d she seen get smoked in the first minute of battle three hundred times was still surviving because she’d stopped that one Mimic.

One ripple…

He ran towards her, shouting out a warning. Rita twisted just in time, slashing the Mimic that came screaming at her face. She nodded her thanks at Ben and took off running again—she had to find the Omega.

She wasn’t aware that the kid was following her until she saw the edge of the battlefield in the distance. The majority of the Mimics were behind them but Rita didn’t look back. She was terrified she’d lose her nerve if she did.

“Where are you going?” Ben shouted.

Rita turned, surprised. “What the hell are you doing here?”

His sweat-soaked face colored red. “I was trying to keep up. I just wanted to stay alive.”

She didn’t know what to do with him. She’d never gotten this far, didn’t know where this day would go, with or without Ben. She didn’t exactly want to order him back into battle after they’d saved each other’s lives, but she really didn’t have the time or energy to explain her mission to him either. Rita glanced at the ghost town up ahead, with buildings and homes reduced to rubble, exactly as she’d seen in her visions. She didn’t have time to dawdle either.

“I have to go,” she said, starting forward. “I can’t explain, so follow or don’t. It doesn’t matter to me. Just don’t get in my way.”

She heard him hesitate before the noise of his jacket hydraulics whirred and he hurried behind her. She felt the absurd urge to smile and didn’t know why.

They ran into half a dozen Mimics in their journey across the ruined town. Rita took on the majority of them and Ben looked completely terrified, but he fought back nonetheless. She couldn’t help wishing the entire time that it was Hendricks beside her, but she felt guilty for wishing it when Ben staggered to his feet, blood coating one side of his face.

“Are we almost… wherever we’re going?” he asked, wobbling forward.

Rita could see the factory up ahead. “Yeah.” Her pulse raced.

They entered the factory and it was silent. Dark. Empty. Rita crept forward, her breathing shallow, grip tight on her gun, ready to blast at the first sign of a Mimic. She forgot about Ben and neared the edge of the hole, the place where she’d seen the Omega. She yanked Carter’s transponder device out. All she had to do was throw it into the Omega and they’d be able to track it, defeat it…

Rita stopped.

There was no glow. No arms. No Omega.

“No,” she murmured.

She did not come all this way—she didn’t leave her best friend behind for this, for nothing. She looked wildly around for any sign of the alien, for some clue, anything. Tears blurred her vision and she wanted to scream or smash something or both. This could not be it.

“Behind you!” Ben shouted, jolting Rita from her panic.

She shoved Carter’s device back into her suit and swung her blade, catching the Mimic that was sailing towards her. It dropped with a shriek and then Mimics were crawling out of the shadows, glowing orange. Cold dread snaked through Rita’s veins.

This was a goddamn trap.

“Run!” she bellowed and took off. There was no way they could actually outrun the aliens, but they had to try.

Distantly, she realized all she had to do was reset the day. Of course! She spun to let the Mimic take her—

Then Ben was there, hauling her out the door, shouting and hollering things she couldn’t hear. The sudden daylight blinded her and she struggled against the idiot kid—he didn’t know what he was doing, what he was keeping her from.

“Let go!” She tried to elbow him off of her.

An explosion sent them sprawling to the ground. She blinked against the heat coming from the factory, heard the dying Mimic wails. She stood to run towards the flames and Ben lashed out to grab her again.

“Are you suicidal?!”

Several Mimics spiralled out across the ruins, through the smoke. And she couldn’t fight him off as well as the Mimics. She kicked him, knocking his jacket’s grip off of hers.

“Stop!” he yelled, but he didn’t understand.

Then there was the sound of choppers above and the Mimics chasing them down were peppered with bullets. With an aggravated shout, Rita turned her gun towards herself, desperate. Another explosion blew her off her feet before she could pull the trigger.

She saw white and woke gasping, flat on her back. Hot liquid seeped around her limbs, her vision blurred, her ears still ringing. She heard Mimics screeching, helicopter blades cutting the air, gunfire and roaring that all mixed into a massive din pounding against her ears. Pain shot through her legs when she tried to move and she heard Ben, nearby, his voice fading in and out as she fought to stay conscious.

“It’s okay, it’s over, help… is… coming…”

Darkness.

 

~

 

She waited for Hendricks to elbow her, but he never did.

Rita furrowed her brow. Slowly, her others senses caught up to her. She was stiff and sore, laying down, but something was making a soft, steady beeping noise. Her throat was scratchy and dry, her chest hurt, and something… something was very, very wrong.

Groggy and hazy, she cracked open her eyes. After a few seconds to clear her vision, she recognized the pale area around her as a hospital room. And then it hit her, what was wrong: this wasn’t where she was supposed to be. If she died, she woke up in the transport. Which meant she hadn’t died. Worse, she could feel something missing—some sort of terrible hollowness and she knew, she knew the ability, that power, curse, whatever it was, was gone.

She couldn’t reset the day anymore. Hendricks was gone and the Mimics had won another battle.

The kid was in the bed beside her; his wristband read TANNEN in large block letters. Rita swallowed. So Ben had survived after all that. Surely Hendricks could have too?

Rita sat up, clutching the bed for support when her head spun. Maybe he was alive, maybe he was okay, he had to be, God, he had to be… She staggered out of the room, got berated by a nurse for trying to walk and talk after losing that much blood, and was marched back to her bed.

“Please,” Rita begged. “I need to know—my friend—is he alive?”

The nurse glanced at Ben. “He’s right there, sweetheart.”

“No,” Rita bit out. “Not him. Hendricks—James Hendricks. Is he here?”

The nurse frowned. “The name isn’t familiar—”

“Is he okay?” She was shouting but couldn’t stop the desperation filling her up. “I have to see him, please—please tell me he’s okay!”

“You need to calm down,” the nurse ordered, pushing Rita back down onto the bed.

The nurse had to call in two others to help her sedate Rita. Nobody had any information on Hendricks. They promised her Commander Taylor would come by soon to debrief her. Rita slipped back into darkness with tears drying on her cheeks.

 

~

 

Somehow, she came out of the thing as some sort of goddamn hero. Her best friend was dead, but everybody thought she was a bloody miracle. They didn’t know the half of it.

The Angel of Verdun, they called her. Called the mission a success—the world’s first real victory against the Mimics. Slapped her face on a million posters and ads, had her pose in her the newest jacket tech.

Ben told everyone stories about how she saved his life, how he saw her kill hundreds of Mimics all on her own. Rita let him—trying to explain she’d only had the ability to do so because she’d done it three hundred times would only land her in a psych ward again. And this time she couldn’t creatively use her bedsheets to get out and start over.

Thank God the kid was transferred to a different unit. She hated him for saving her life and couldn’t stand the pride in his eyes when looked at her. All she tasted was failure and grief and she couldn’t take his respect—she didn’t deserve it.

 

~

 

“They knew I was too close,” she told Carter and he graciously poured her another drink, even though the bar down the street had cut her off an hour ago. “Somehow they knew and they were just fucking with me. It was a trap all along. I sacrificed him for nothing.”

She rubbed at the still-healing cut above her eye. It was deep and itched like crazy. She hated it—it was probably going to scar and forever be a physical reminder of what she’d lost.

“They think I’m some bloody hero and they want me to head up Operation Downfall,” she continued, staring into the brown liquid like it could bring her best friend back.

“Are you going to?” Carter asked.

He leaned back in his chair and Rita glanced up. It was weird to see him in a mechanic’s jumpsuit after so many days of the same cardigan and tie. Guilt tugged at her gut. He’d been fired for trying to help her—spouting theories about time travelling aliens after she came back from Verdun hadn’t been good for his career.

She shook her head and hated how fragile she sounded when she answered him. “What the hell else am I going to do?”

 

~

 

Darkness. A pinprick of light.

A blurry, vague scene—maybe a battlefield. Maybe Verdun.

A figure. A man.

Hope.

 

~

 

Rita’s ship spiralled down. She grit her teeth and held on. Operation Downfall was visibly off to a bad start if the number of bodies and downed ships were any indication. Her ship hit the sand with bone-jarring force and she bit her tongue.

She shook the sparks out of her vision and spat out the blood pooling in her mouth. She was ready to fight as much as she could, but the emptiness was consuming. She was trying to soldier on—Hendricks wouldn’t have let her wallow, so she wouldn’t wallow—but it was damn difficult. Rita got to one knee and took a breath. Selfishly, she hoped she might die out there today, for real, so this nightmare could be finished.

Rita looked up, just in time to see some stranger in a suit tackle her to the ground. She inhaled to ask him what in the hell

“I’m sorry,” he said in rush. “I’m trying to save you. We’re getting slaughtered out there and you need to get us off this beach.”

He threw his arm up and unloaded into a Mimic trying to tear a new hole in the roof. And he didn’t even look to aim. He did the same to another Mimic that came spiralling at them on his left.

Rita’s heart slammed against her ribs. He couldn’t have known those Mimics were there. He couldn’t have, unless…

“We have to go,” he told her gruffly. He grasped her suit and yanked her to her feet. “This drop-ship is about to explode. We have to go, now.”

Her mouth went dry. He knew—he knew. She took a stumbling step after him. He stopped her.

“Wait!” He dove forward, blasting at another Mimic, running and shooting, turning, another, bam, crash. His movements were a practiced dance, muscle memory. Effortless.

For the first time in months, hope sparked in Rita’s chest. She watched this stranger and realized he was the shadow in her dreams. He had it. Whoever he was, however he’d gotten it, he had the ability to start the day over. Like she’d lost. They had another chance to win.

She walked a few more steps after him, halting and hardly daring to breathe.

“C’mon!” he bellowed at her. “This ship is going to explode!”

Rita tossed her blade aside. Relief mingled with hope, filling her up. It snaked into every crevice, overtook the hollowness left behind by Hendricks’s absence. This was it—this was how she could do this again, how they could find a way to the Omega and win. She could make it worth it, make it right. She exhaled.

“What are you doing?” the man barked.

“Find me when you wake up.”

An explosion in the distance made the stranger jump. He shook his head at her. “What?”

Rita lifted her chin. Prepared to die. Ready to start over.

“Come and find me when you wake u–”

 

-end-